Pitch Count: Good Or Bad?
by Glenn Dickey
Jul 05, 2006

FEW THINGS seem to rile long-time baseball fans more than the pitch count fetish in baseball. Many of us recall episodes from the past, such as Juan Marichal throwing in excess of 200 pitches in the epic 16-inning, 1-0 win over Warren Spahn. So, what’s happened since then? I see a couple of things:

1) Expectations have changed. In Marichal’s day, good pitchers were expected to throw complete games. Marichal actually had one more complete game than victories in his career, throwing as many as 30 in a season. That was because he knew how to pitch, conserving his energy as he went through the lineup, going for ground ball outs rather than strikeouts, saving his best fastball for the times when he needed it most.

Marichal, of course, was an exception even at that time with his mastery of the game and his ability to throw so many different pitches. But except for the real flame-throwers – Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Jim Maloney – pitchers did pace themselves, so they could complete the game or come close.

Now, the standard is much lower. Managers tell their pitchers to go out there and throw as hard as they can for as long as they can. They hope to get seven innings, or at least six, out of their starters.

So, pitchers don’t expect to go nine. They’re conditioned even more by their minor league experience because teams will put an even stricter limit on how many pitches their young prospects can throw in a game, usually about 60-70 at levels below Triple A. That protects arms, but it also hampers the emotional development of young pitchers because they never have a chance to pitch with the game on the line in the late innings.

2) Relief pitching has become much more specialized. Relief pitching first became important in the 1920s, when the dead ball era had passed, but the top relievers were expected to go as long as it took to win the game. Even in the early ‘70s, Rollie Fingers pitched as many as three innings of relief in a World Series game.

Tony La Russa was probably the agent of change with relief pitching when he was managing the A’s in the ‘80s. La Russa had a specific plan: A closer, who came in the game only when the A’s had a lead in the ninth inning and always with nobody on base, and specific setup men for the seventh and eighth innings.

There is an ironic twist to that. Dennis Eckersley, who had been an excellent starter in his youth, was made into a great closer. Eckersley could no longer pitch effectively as a starter, but pitching coach Dave Duncan reasoned that his experience in pitching in the ninth inning as a starter would serve him well as a closer. But of course, the change that that precipitated – starters seldom even pitching into the ninth – makes it unlikely you’ll see more Eckersleys.

Now, the A’s closer is Huston Street, who was cast in that role in college. Street, the AL Rookie of the Year in 2005, is very effective when he’s used as La Russa used Eckersley, pitching the ninth inning and shutting the other team down. It doesn’t work well if he has to work more than that inning. Twice last week, he came into the game in the eighth inning and closed it out but then, after sitting down and then having to get warm again, blew the lead in the ninth. In recognition of that pattern, A’s manager Ken Macha used Street for just one inning, the ninth, in yesterday’s game, and then went to Ron Flores and Chad Gaudin in the 10th.

Has all this specialization helped or hurt the game? Well, though I have warm, fuzzy feelings about watching Marichal with his mastery, I’d have to say on balance that today’s specialized game is superior.

There’s a parallel with football. Going way back, football was a one-platoon game. Changing the rules to permit unlimited substitution made if possible to have offensive and defensive platoons. Now, it’s much more specialized even, with defensive coordinators having pass rush specialists, linebackers who play on passing downs and five- or six-man defensive backfield formations to defend against the pass. Offensive coordinators have “third down backs” who specialize in catching passes and formations with four or even five receivers. And, the game is much better.

Realistically, in the ‘60s, for every Marichal there were probably 10 starting pitchers who lost effectiveness = and ball games -–when they tired in the late innings. Now, those pitchers are out of the game and teams usually have a very hard thrower in the bullpen. Yesterday’s game was an extreme example. Detroit starter Justin Verlander, a young pitcher who should be a star for a long time, was throwing a fast ball that occasionally hit 100 mph on the ball park radar. He was succeeded by Joel Zumaya, who seldom threw below that mark, topping out at 103. Whew!

So, for all you old-timers who long for what used to be, I say, relax and enjoy what you’re seeing now. It’s still a great game.

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You can also get tickets to NFL and NCAA football games, as well as any sports or cultural event, in the Bay Area or nationally.

LETTERS: I’ll be updating this section later today.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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