Performance count or Pitch Count

I was going to wait until the day or days off between the LCS’s and the World Series to vent and/or rant about pitch counts but a stimulating conversation with my friend, former teammate and analyst for Fox, Timmy McCarver, has motivated me to write something now while it’s fresh in my mind and on the heels of Justin Verlander’s performance a couple nights ago. Forgive me for throwing a lot of numbers at you because I try my best to tell baseball stories without confusing numbers. I hope you’ll find these numbers meaningful and appropriate.

This blog is about the ‘trap’ good baseball people have fallen into and it is a trap..I have been guilty of referring to pitch counts on TV and I cringe after I do it because I say to myself, “You know better”, “It should be about the performance not the pitch count”  Justin Verlander was the winning pitcher in game 5 and kept the Tigers alive in the ALCS. But for his last pitch to Nelson Cruz, it would have been spectacular. It was still very good but he seemed to get more publicity, even from his manager, for the number of pitches he threw and not his performance.

I have great respect for Jim Leyland, anyone who wears a big league uniform, players, coaches, and managers. But, it continues to puzzle me that good baseball minds that have never ‘toed the rubber’ in a major league game can tell how a pitcher’s arm feels after a certain number of pitches. How do they know? Is there a data base somewhere that measures fatigue, injury, heart, crispness of pitches that we don’t know about or have never seen??

So, here are some numbers to digest and the I’ll give you my take after 25 seasons and over 4500 innings of pitching in the majors on the ..excuse my bluntness..stupidity…of pitch counts as they are used today.

July 2, 1963 Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal hooked up in a classic pitcher’s duel. Many of you that are avid fans or baseball history buffs are familiar with that game. Willie Mays hit a home run off Spahnie in the 16th inning and the Giants won, 1-0. Marichal also went the distance. Quick side story. I confirmed this while visiting with Juan at this year’s Hall of Fame induction weekend. Alvin Dark, the Giants manager, asked Juan after 12 or 13 innings if he had enough and wanted to come out of the game….Marichal’s response was something like..”The other pitcher is 42 years old. If he’s not coming out, I’m not. Marichal was 25 at the time.. A few more numbers. After that game Spahn’s record was 11 wins 4 losses, Marichal’s 13-3. 5 days later, Wow! they gave them each an extra day of rest. Normal would have been to pitch on the 4th day. Marichal went 7 innings, gave up 2 runs. lost to Bob Gibson and the Cardinals. Tim McCarver caught Gibby’s shutout and went 1 for 4 . Spahn pitched a 5 hit complete game shutout. Spahn ended the season with a record of 23-7, 22 complete games, 259 innings pitched. Marichal went 25-8, 18 complete games and 321 innings pitched. I did not see any record of how many pitches they threw in any of their games. 

Yes, I am being a touch cynical here but the pitch count craze is pretty frustrating for some of us who have been a part of this game and actually experienced what  your pitching arm felt like after games and seasons. Now, here are some really astounding numbers compiled right in Detroit where Justin Verlander pitches. I wonder if any Tiger  personnel have ever asked this pitcher how his arm felt after a certain number of pitches. I’d love to hear his comments. His name is Mickey Lolich. Ask many left handed hitters in the AL during the 60’s and 70’s and they will probably say he was the toughest lefty in the league to bat against. He was the 1968 World series hero. He pitched 3 complete game wins in a 7 game series. Outdueled Bob Gibson in game 7. From 1971-74 Mickey Lolich pitched on average…on average! 330 innings, won 19 games, 23 complete games. Those were his AVERAGE numbers over 4 seasons ! You can go to baseballreference.com and see the individual season numbers. 373 innings pitched one season.

My most memorable personal experience in an extra inning game was when I hooked up with one of my boyhood hero’s, the late Robin Roberts, in the early 60’s. Robby was toward the end of his hall of fame career. I was in my 2nd full season. We each went 11 innings. My arm felt light and loose. My delivery was effortless. I felt like I could have pitched all night. I was fortunate to have won that game. Just a little gloating here about hitting as a pitcher. I actually hit a triple to drive in the lead run. we won 3-1. In several starts during the 60’s I had to face the Detroit Tigers when they had Al Kaline, Willie Hoton, Mickey Stanley, Bill Freehan. All tough right hand batters. Kaline, along with hall of famer Brooks Robinson ranks as ‘my personal toughest out’. After 4 or 5 innings of working through that batting order my arm felt heavy and drained in a lot of those start. The point being, you can throw a high number of pitches in a game where your pitching effectively and efficiently and your arm feels better than in a start like the ones I had against those Tigers where my pitch count was low, [no one knew what the number was, we didn’t care]  but I didn’t have the same rhythm or fluid motion.

Here are a few examples of what I learned in my early days as a professional pitcher from some good, knowledgeable, caring teachers. Jack McKeon at age 27 in 1958 was my playing manager. He was our catcher. Our team was the Missoula Timberjacks. Bob Uecker was catching for the Boise Braves!  When I had a few men on base to deal with in the 6th or 7th inning Jack would jog to the mound, spit a little tobacco juice on my spikes and say, “Well kid, let’s see if you can  figure out a way to get out of this mess.”.Some times I did. Some times I didn’t. But I learned how to pitch out of jams and minimize damage. We didn’t have to come out of those games because we were at a certain number of pitches. Unfortunately, today’s pitchers don’t get to do that in the minor leagues.  In spring training, Johnny Sain, my favorite pitching coach, would say. “If you want to be in condition to pitch 9 innings you have to train by pitching more than that. So, after a 6 or 7 inning outing in spring training I would go down to the bullpen and pitch 4 or 5 innings of a ‘simulated’ game to get 11 or 12 innings of work. Eddie Lopat, crafty soft tossing lefty who was a big part of the Yankees success in the late 40’s and early 50’s, taught me to ‘become my own relief pitcher’. His theory was, You may have to pitch Mickey Mantle differently in the 8th inning of a close game so don’t show him everything the 1st at bat or 2. those little tips helped me survive for 25 seasons in the major leagues.

So, I don’t know where the executives, coaches, agents, managers, stat freaks have based their thinking on how a pitcher’s arm feels after a certain number of pitches or innings and I hope, because they are supposed to be intelligent, capable, caring people, they are consulting with the Lolichs and Marichals and Gibsons and many more who have actually experienced what it feels like. I know Nolan Ryan is trying to go in that direction with the Texas Rangers.

I’m almost 73 years old. I love baseball. I love to watch the art of pitching. not the science, the art. I hope in my lifetime I see the elimination of the little box on my TV screen that tells me how many pitches and what % of balls and strikes a pitcher has thrown. Her’s a suggestion. Take all the radar guns that are used to clock pitch speed, the little metal gadgets that coaches click in the dugout to count pitches, melt them all down and have a sculptor create a statue of Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal with a plaque showing their pitching lines from July2, 1963, stand it in front of the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown with a line at the bottom of the plaque that says. “We don’t know how many pitches they threw!”

3 Comments

I, like you, am a “traditionalist”. I enjoyed baseball when, after a 160+ game season, the best team in the National League played the best team in the American League for the Title. It made the Series meaningful back then. Divisional League play, Wild-Cards and, worse yet, Inter-League play have diluted the results of the World Series. This year, the two best teams in baseball never made it out of the first round and we were all deprived of a tremendous World Series. Right now there are 16 teams in the National League and 14 teams in the American League??? I say take one away from the National and give it to the American, then have them play 154 games each. That means 11 games against every other club in your league, with no season series ties, and the one left standing goes to the World Series. If more than one team finishes with the same number of wins, then a playoff to decide the winner. If it’s more money they want, then have the second place teams in each league have a seven game play-off for third place. Gold, Silver and Bronze is the Olympic way and it’s worked well for centuries. Put the meaning back in the World Series!!!

I agree with you 100%. What happened to the purity of the game of baseball. I would rather see a pitcher complete a game and possibly get a win, versus having pitches counted just so that a couch can monitor a pitcher’s arm strength. Who cares if a pitcher pitches 100 times in a game before the manager would decide to take him out or not. Arm strength is more important than pitch count any day. .

I like 100% purity of baseball. Strong arms means pitching longer. Not pitch count. A pitcher wants to throw more pitches for longer times during games. I like warm ups after nine inning games to be ready for 15 inning games, or longer.

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