To Hell With Pitch Counts

By Chris Rewers on Thursday, May 20, 2010

Volumes could be written about the mistakes Dusty Baker made during his tenure as Cubs manager (2003 - 2006) and I was very pleased when he finally rode his motorcycle out of town for the last time. But a criticism of Baker that I never agreed with was that he mismanaged his pitching staff so badly that he ruined Mark Prior's career and substantially harmed the productivity of Kerry Wood.

Dusty's old-school belief that pitch counts are overrated flew in the face of the media's conventional wisdom that high pitch counts are bad. So when the careers of Prior and Wood unraveled, Dusty became an easy target for writers like Phil Rogers of the Tribuneand George Castle of The Times of Northwest Indiana.

(Castle, by the way, is now blaming high pitch counts for the decline of Carlos Zambrano).

The pitch count obsession is deep-rooted and has been institutionalized within the sport. Its detrimental effects are felt by pitchers long before they reach the majors. We are raising a generation of pampered pitchers.

The madness has reached such proportions that pitch count limits have been instituted by Little League Baseball. All the while youth coaches continue to teach and encourage the use of breaking pitches like curveballs and sliders, fail to teach proper pitching mechanics, and overlook the importance of proper conditioning.

So it was quite refreshing to read Albert Chen's piece in the May 24 edition of Sports Illustrated, "Nolan Ryan's Crusade." Chen describes the disdain Ryan, the Hall of Fame pitcher and current president of the Texas Rangers, has for the prevailing culture of babying pitchers.

(The Cubs, coincidentally, open a three-game series against the Rangers on Friday.)

Ryan has instructed his minor league organization, pitching coach Mike Maddux, and his major league pitching staff to not emphasize pitch counts, and to embrace old-fashioned conditioning techniques like "long toss" and pitching batting practice. I doubt that the "Mark Prior Towel Drill" is part of the Texas training regimen.

Better yet, Ryan expects his pitchers to think. He has a disdain for managers and coaches (like St. Louis control freak Tony LaRussa) who call pitches from the bench, calling it "robot" baseball.

Chen notes that in 2000, pitchers threw 120 or more pitches 466 times. Last season, it happened just 92 times. He attributes the trend to a 2000 Baseball Prospectus article by Keith Woolner and Rany Jazayerli that theorized that "repeated outings that go beyond 100 pitches can, over time, cause the kind of chronic overuse injury which may render the pitcher incapacitated or ineffective."

Back to Prior and Wood. The high pitch counts of the twin aces down the stretch of the 2003 season have been cited for their later arm troubles, but factors other than Baker's "abuse" may have contributed. To wit:

* Wood's mechanics - and conditioning - were famously awful.

* Wood had experienced arm problems long before the arrival of Baker, missing the entire 1999 season with a torn rotator cuff.

* Prior suffered freak injuries after a baseline collision with Atlanta second baseman Marcus Giles in 2003 and a line drive off the bat of Colorado's Brad Hawpe that struck his pitching elbow in 2005.

* Both pitchers had congenital conditions.

* Bad luck.

* A Cubs organizational flaw that has placed too much emphasis on strikeouts.

It's not necessarily how many pitches are thrown, but how hard your pitchers are bearing down when delivering those pitches. The Cubs staff led the majors in strikeouts from 2001-08. Could the strikeout philosophy be the cause of the arm problems that plagued Prior, Wood, Jon Lieber, Jason Bere, Joe Borowski, Matt Clement, Rich Hill, and Will Ohman?

Maybe it's time for the Cubs to adopt a new way of thinking.

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