Taking a closer look at pitch counts

In discussing Orioles pitching injuries in my blog yesterday the topic of pitch counts was raised by a few readers in the comments section. A pitcher passing 100 pitches may be getting close to reaching what some consider a high pitch count and his time left in that game may be limited.

The use of pitch counts drives some people in the sport and some fans crazy. They see some managers as prisoners of the pitch count and think many outings could and should go well past the 100-pitch mark with no problems. They contend that how the pitcher is throwing is much more important than how many pitches he has thrown.

I decided to take a look at one of the game’s best starting rotations in 2011, that of the Texas Rangers. The club had four pitchers make 30 starts or more (the fifth missed by one start) and four hurlers work 185 innings or more, with two going past 200 innings on their way to the World Series.

Jeremy Guthrie led the Orioles’ starters with 208 innings last season and Zach Britton was second with 154. Britton would have finished sixth in innings on that Rangers staff.

The Rangers’ starting five stayed amazingly healthy and durable and made a combined 157 starts, leaving just five for the rest of the staff all year. That is an amazing number to me.

Here is a look at the Rangers’ starting five from last year along with some pitch count statistics:

* C.J. Wilson: 16-7, 2.94 ERA with 34 starts/223 innings pitched. Had 100 pitches 28 times, 110 pitches 17 times, season high of 129.

* Colby Lewis: 14-10, 4.40 ERA with 32 starts/200 innings pitched. Had 100 pitches 21 times, 110 pitches 8 times, season high of 121.

* Derek Holland: 16-5, 3.95 ERA with 32 starts/198 innings pitched. Had 100 pitches 22 times, 110 pitches 12 times, season high of 119.

* Matt Harrison: 14-9, 3.39 ERA with 30 starts/186 innings pitched. Had 100 pitches 20 times, 110 pitches seven times, season high of 119.

* Alexi Ogando: 13-8, 3.51 ERA with 29 starts/169 innings pitched. Had 100 pitches 15 times, 110 pitches five times, season high of 116.

Here is how the top two Orioles starters fared in 2011:

* Guthrie: 9-17, 4.33 ERA with 32 starts/208 innings pitched. Had 100 pitches 19 times, 110 pitches 10 times, season high of 117.

* Britton: 11-11, 4.61 ERA with 28 starts/154 innings pitched. Had 100 pitches seven times, 110 pitches one time, season high of 120.

Some readers yesterday had praise for Rangers team president Nolan Ryan and his lack of dependance on pitch counts. I wondered if that was truly the case with Ryan and asked Gerry Fraley of the Dallas Morning News to pass along some thoughts as a writer that regularly covers the Rangers.

Here are some of Fraley’s emailed comments on Ryan and pitch counts:

“Best way to summarize is that Nolan believes pitchers need to throw to develop. The Rangers added more long-tossing programs, at more than 200 feet, and also removed pitch-count limits in the minors. The manager and the pitching coach make the call based on how the pitcher is performing.

“For example, at Double-A Frisco last year, Joe Wieland had a season-high 98 pitches through eight innings. He also had a no-hitter going. Pitching coach Jeff Andrews thought Wieland was throwing easily and had him go back out for the ninth. Wieland completed the no-hitter with an 11-pitch inning. (Wieland went to San Diego in the Mike Adams trade.)

“The idea is to get pitchers thinking about going the distance rather than looking over their shoulder for help after five innings. Nolan likes to use the term``accountability.’’ If you’re the pitcher, it’s your game.”

I asked Fraley what he thought was the key in having those Rangers starters make so many of their starts and pitch so many innings last year.

“I realize this is harder to quantify, but they place a higher premium on tougher-minded pitchers. They’ll sacrifice a bit on talent to get a kid who is tough enough not to be bothered by heat, wind, etc.,” he wrote.

Thanks to Fraley for providing those insights.

Of course, you also have to pitch efficiently and with good command to get deep in games. You have to pitch to contact at times and try to avoid a lot of deep counts, which has become an issue in Baltimore, especially for some of the Orioles’ younger pitchers.

If you notice, the most pitches thrown in a game by a Rangers starter last year was 129, so it’s not like they were cranking out 130- or 140-pitch outings on their way to getting deep into games and piling up the innings.

It is always a tough call for a big league manager. Is your starter that is pitching a strong game maybe starting to weaken in the seventh or eighth inning? Is a fresh reliever more likely to get those last key outs? How far should you push the starters, especially your younger arms?

For more reading on this topic of the Rangers and Ryan’s approach with young pitchers, check out this Baseball America story from April 2009.

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