Pitch Count

Of all the stats that came out of the sabermetric revolution of the 2000’s, it’s a bit surprising that the one that shows up in nearly every broadcast is one that really has nothing to do with advanced analytics. Instead, it’s pitch count that is ubiquitous, ticking up with an on-screen counter, right there by the score.

Every fan knows the pitch count, but so does every manager and many of them manage their starters “by the book.” The problem is, very few of them seem to really understand the book. One of the most known tenets is that the entire system is based on the number 100. But few, if any know why it’s set at 100.

In fact, this goes back to the 1950’s when baseball legend Paul Richard was setting up a guide for his minor league managers. He was worried by the problem of pitchers wearing out and making sure that all his pitchers got work. (This was the day of the complete game.) He had scouts monitor pitchers at all levels and eventually they set at a number near 100. Richard was quoted with that “near”, but he set the number at 100 for ease. He found a click-counter that went to 99 and when it turned over, the pitcher was supposed to come out.

It’s a dead simple system, but “one size fits all” doesn’t work for pitching. Some pitchers can go 120 or more, some 80 or less. There’s no consideration for anything aside from in-game work. A tough outing the time before? 100. A short outing due to rain? 100. Richard’s pitch count system was simple, but there’s no evidence that it’s ever been effective.

Fast forward to the early 2000’s and Dr. Rany Jazayerli and Keith Woolner (now the head of research for the Cleveland Indians) did research that led to a new system called Pitcher Abuse Points. This was a system that weighted pitches cumulatively, putting a cost on higher count outings. Guess where the sweet spot they found to limit damage was? If you guessed 100, you’re right.

The downside is that just a few years after Jazayerli and Woolner published their work, the high-count outings were all but gone. 130 is almost unheard of for a modern starter, now protected by pitch count orthodoxy as well as deep, hard-throwing bullpens.

Despite this, injuries continued to mount. Elbow and shoulder injuries for pitchers trended up as pitch counts continued to slide down. There are confounding factors, mostly velocity increases, but it’s clear that pitch counts alone are insufficient for protecting pitchers from injury.

Remember, this is all at the major league level. At lower levels, where there aren’t pitching coaches and athletic trainers monitoring the pitchers, a pitch count regulation is certainly better than nothing. That said, there’s a lot better out there. That’s the next chapter, when broadcasters stop showing a pitch count and start showing a measure of fatigue or the stress on a pitcher’s elbow.

That’s coming soon, but until then? Ignore the little box on the broadcast. It’s not helping.