A challenge for starting pitchers MLB-wide: The 100-pitch barrier

It has become a barrier for starting pitchers in Major League Baseball. A pitch count that reaches 100. We don’t see it very often anymore. Commonplace back in the day, so to speak, not so much anymore.

In fact there are just six teams that average even 90 or more pitches per night from their starters among the 30 clubs in the major leagues right now.

94.1 - Chicago White Sox
92.1 - Houston
91.1 - Washington
91.0 - Toronto and St. Louis
90.6 - Los Angeles Angels

That is the list. No other team averages more than 90 pitches a game from their starters.

The team ranking last is a shocker. It’s Tampa Bay at 74.1. I imagine that's due in part to the Rays' frequent use of openers.

The Orioles rank higher than you may think. They average 88.9 pitches per night from a starter, and that is 12th in the majors and seventh in the American League. And second in the AL East. New York ranks 20th in the majors at 84.9, with Boston 23rd at 82.5 and Tampa Bay, as mentioned, at No. 30.

Recently I talked with O’s manager Brandon Hyde and several members of the Baltimore rotation about this 100-pitch barrier. How did we get here and what does it mean for starting pitchers in 2023?

We have seen O’s pitchers this season get to and exceed 100 pitches, but just not a lot. O’s pitchers have hit the century mark 11 times in 89 games (12.4 percent) with a high of 105 for Dean Kremer at Toronto on May 21, when he gave up one run over 5 1/3 innings. That is a lot of pitches for so few outs, and maybe that game they just needed him to get to that mark to put less stress on the bullpen.

The Orioles are 8-3 when their pitcher goes 100 or more. But surprisingly, just four of those games qualify as quality starts – a pitcher going six innings or more allowing three or fewer earned runs.

As we can see by the team stats listed above, this barrier is industry-wide and not just happening with pitchers in Baltimore.

“There are a lot of parts to that,” Hyde said. “I think that pitchers just aren’t trained to throw 100-plus pitches anymore. That’s league-wide. If you look at minor league pitch counts, there are not many guys throwing 100, 100 plus to prepare themselves when they get here. For a lot of reasons, and lot of good reasons behind that also.

“You know, you try to get these guys to go as long as they can as much as they can. Also, hope they stay as healthy as possible. You try to keep your rotation intact for a six-month season, which is difficult. But you’d love to see your starters go deep in the game to help out the bullpen, to help out everybody else. It’s a tricky situation.”

“I think there are a couple of factors for this,” said right-hander Kyle Gibson, a veteran of 280 career big league starts, 19 with Baltimore. “And I can only speak to the time I’ve played. But since even when I came into the league the availability of quality bullpen arms is better and better. The view of analytics and how that tipping point gets to where your first option in the bullpen for that sixth, seventh inning is now better than your starter at that third time through. A fresh bullpen guy is better than a tired starter (is the thinking). I think we are starting to realize where that risk-reward, where that gain-loss is. And each team looks a bit different how you construct your team.”

Added Kyle Bradish, 26, who has made 39 starts in the majors: “I think it’s for the best. Obviously, the game has changed a lot since you had starters going eight innings on 140 pitches. I think they are a little more cautious about our arms and the longevity of our careers. For me personally, I think the 100-pitch mark is right around there like I still have a few more bullets to go out there. In college I was going seven innings with 100 plus pitches. But that was once a week.”

And now, as Hyde referenced, keeping pitchers healthy and able to make starts is always among the strongest considerations.

“I think the big thing is just, health-wise, keeping us out there for the starters and also our bullpen is so good," Bradish said. "If we hand off to them whenever it is, we are in good hands."

The problem of facing hitters a third time through the lineup also has become a big point in the analytics era.

Bradish, for instance, allows an OPS of .537 the first time through the lineup, .716 the second and .807 the third time, and many pitchers have similar results. But not all. Gibson, for instance, allows an .800 OPS the first time but .740 the third. Right-hander Dean Kremer gets better as he goes, allowing an impressive .463 OPS the third time through the lineup.

“I think that, in certain circumstances, yes,” Hyde said, the third time through can dictate a move to the ‘pen. “In general, third time through the order the numbers are usually heavily skewed toward the hitter. But, you also want to train your guys to go three times through the order. That’s important. If you don’t, you are pulling them in the fifth inning, and that is just not sustainable for six months. Could be sustainable for a short series in the postseason, but for a six-month season, to have guys make 30 starts, hopefully, if you are pulling them third time through the order every time, your ‘pen will be in tough shape.”

And as Hyde also pointed out, not all innings are created equal. There is a big difference between a pitcher rolling through a 1-2-3 frame on just 10 pitches and one with 22-28 or more pitches where the pitcher has to work out of a big jam.

“We rely on our pitching guys to go through that. When there are multiple guys on base, lot of traffic and a high-pitch inning, that’s a stressful inning,” Hyde said, explaining the factors that go into his decisions on when to go to the bullpen.

Bradish on the third-time-through factor: “Yes, there are a lot of numbers that go into it. For the majority of pitchers, third time though, batters usually do better. But as a starter your third time through you also know what has been successful against that guy and know how to get him out that third or fourth time. It’s definitely a numbers game. You have to show you still have the stuff to get guys out in the later innings.

“It is definitely something you have to earn. Big league hitters are so good they pick up on every little detail. If you are showing something or lacking something they will take advantage.”

So between pitchers not being trained to go deep in the minors, the bullpen arms being better than previously and throwing with big velocity, and the third-time-through factor, it makes some sense that pitchers are pulled often before 100 pitches. But we don't have to like it.

When talking with Gibson I used the example of Grayson Rodriguez. If he didn't go seven innings on the farm, how can they ask him to do it in the bigs?

“I think it is probably multi-faceted," Gibson said. "Every staff has seven bullpen arms that also have to get better, too, in the minor leagues. If your starter goes five, at least you know half of your relievers can get in the game tonight, and half of them can get better.

“I do think that can be an issue for a starting pitcher. I think it’s a good thing they moved the minor league season back a bit and it ends later into September. Even though we hate innings limits, pitching in September for your first time is really tough as a starting pitcher. Getting past that 150 (innings) mark or 140 mark, making those five extra starts is a big deal. So I think it’s a good thing they have done that. It’s tough to train for 100, 110 pitches if after five in the minors you are at 75 or 80 pitches. I don’t know if there is an answer. Maybe go do another up-down in the bullpen. But it’s something you have to train for, for sure."

Coming tomorrow in this space: what the pitchers say about getting to throw 100 pitches and beyond. Plus, a look at which pitchers and teams have thrown 100 or more the most times in the big leagues this year. 

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