Commentary

Are Pitch Counts The Ultimate Answer?

Commentary By Lou Pavlovich

Hand CounterAre pitch counts the ultimate answer for fewer arm and shoulder injuries with pitchers? Not by a long shot.

While it is smart to monitor pitch counts overall in games and especially be vigilant when pitchers throw long innings which really put stress on the upper body of pitchers, common sense should be the biggest factor.

Major League Baseball hemorrhaged more than half a billion dollars for players on the disabled list last season, and the answer to elbow and shoulder injuries is still an elusive mirage on the pro level despite pitch counts being carefully monitored on this level.

On the college, high school and youth baseball levels, elbow and shoulder surgeries to pitchers are costing parents millions of dollars each year. By and large, pitch counts are carefully monitored.

For years, the medical community has recommended that college and professional pitchers throw 120 or fewer pitches a game.

In the last issue of Collegiate Baseball, we tackled the subject of pitch counts and pointed out that in the early 1960s one season, Sandy Koufax averaged 155 pitches per game which was not unusual for that era, according to the Cultural Encyclopedia Of Baseball.

Nolan Ryan was an absolute workhorse. He threw 235 pitches in a 12-inning game against the Red Sox in 1974. He also threw 241 pitches in a game for the Angels in the mid-1970s. Ryan believed he averaged between 160-180 pitches per game in 1974.

Washington Senators’ pitcher Tom Cheney threw 228 pitches in 1963 as he struck out 21 Orioles in a 16-inning game. Luis Tiant threw 163 pitches in a complete game win by the Red Sox over the Reds in Game 4 of the 1975 World Series.

In 1987, there were 106 performances where a pitcher threw at least 140 pitches in a Major League game. Eight years later in 1995, that total was only 36. The protocol by the late 1990s was 120 pitches as the limit to keep pitchers healthy.

If you think these numbers by starting professional pitchers were high years ago in pro baseball, the Japanese really push the envelope when it comes to high pitch counts.

In a story by Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports recently, he discussed Japan’s national high school baseball tournament which recently took place.

A 16-year-old young man named Tomohiro Anraku of Saibi High School threw 772 pitches over 46 innings in five days.

He started the tournament with a 94 mph fastball and threw 232 pitches over 13 innings in his first contest. Then he threw 159, 138, 134 and 109 pitches in succeeding games. In his last game, not surprisingly, he could barely muster enough arm strength to throw fastballs 80 mph as he gave up nine runs during an eventual 17-1 drubbing

Passan also pointed out that 15 years ago at the Japanese national high school tournament that Daisuke Matsuzaka threw 250 pitches over 17 innings during a quarterfinal game. Then he pitched the next day in relief. And a day later, Matsuzaka fired a no-hitter in the finals. These pitching numbers in Japan border on the insane. But it shows what the human body is capable of.

Pitch counts are a part of the complex puzzle to reduce injuries to pitchers. Another important factor is stressful high pitch innings which pitchers endure. Coaches must always have an open dialogue with their pitchers when it comes to pain and potential injuries. Monitoring mechanics and giving plenty of rest to pitchers is also essential so they bounce back for their next outing.

Above all, they must be trained well for a marathon which is the baseball season and not coddled like a fragile tea cup.

4 Comments

  1. Jake
    Feb 10, 2014 @ 18:19:04

    Another stat you can add is that 124 out of the 360 pitchers in the big leagues in 2013 have had Tommy John surgery at some point in their career. I recently saw a product from former big league player, Jeff Salazar, who has had a torn UCL (Ulnar Collateral Ligament, Tommy John). He made a product called FlowWraps that he designed for pitchers to use in between innings instead of wrapping their arms in a towel. It is supposed to keep the muscles, tendons, ligaments in peak state.

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  2. Jim Ross
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 08:10:59

    Like most of life, it is almost always wrong to over simplify human endeavors. But, comparing Hall of Fame pitchers like Koufax and Ryan to modern pitchers ignores not only the obvious problem of comparing genetically gifted individuals to a population which is, by definition, average. As one who pitched as an amateur in the 1960′s and as a minor league professional in the early 1970′s, I can tell you that sore arms were not nearly as common as they are today. It is my view that most good athletes that become pitchers get damaged by travel (“select”) baseball programs while they are still growing and go off to college with the arm of an old worn out pitcher of a previous generation. We limit many activities of children vs. adults and pitching a baseball needs to be limited in duration and closely supervised by coaches who will place his long term arm health above their teams’ won/loss record.

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  3. Brandon
    Sep 20, 2013 @ 18:17:00

    Good stuff, Lou. Baseball Prospectus did an interesting study on pitch counts recently. http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=21700

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  4. Greg Brumley
    May 08, 2013 @ 17:31:54

    Let me say this is a darn thoughtful analysis!

    Lou makes the terribly important point that there is no hard and fast answer in pitch counts. In an age where parents, especially, want charts and data to yield simplistic rules on how everyone else should conduct their affairs, pitch counts continue to be an unsubstantiated boogey man.

    A few years ago in California JuCos, a couple of parents went to the head of the athletic association and complained that their pitcher sons were experiencing sore arms which they blamed on over-pitching by junior college coaches — even though the sore arms showed up more than a year after their junior college careers had ended! The administrator, being a bureaucrat with no understanding of baseball and a poor reputation for supporting his coaches, immediately threatened to impose a pitch count. Fortunately, that foolishness eventually died of its own weight.

    It’s interesting to note that, with all the precision equipment and sophisticated data available today, the most-effective protection is still a 100 year-old technique. Any pitcher (or position player) who does 20 minutes of long toss to about 300 feet — even if he must 1-hop the throw — at least 3 days a week is virtually proof against arm injuries. And his arm strength will substantially increase. Too often, coaches forget this maxim.

    (One note: the Chinese are known to use up arms even more than the Japanese.)

    Very important article, Lou! All coaches should be grateful for your insight.

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