Rounding the Bases

Why does this happen?

Went to the lake on Wednesday, and I got sunburned and sore from trying to tube and water ski. Got back and did some running around. Good fun. Transformers 2 and Terminator Salvation are pretty good, entertaining but ultimately without any significance to them. Anyway, today’s post was going to go up last weekend, but it was Father’s Day. Tomorrow and Tuesday, be on the look-out for a couple of posts telling you who you should be voting for in the All-Star Game.

Bill James and Joe Posnanski took on pitch counts last week, and while they’re brilliant, I couldn’t help but think they missed the point. Then, Rob Neyer came along and made the point I was going to make.

I think James and Posnanski are right on when they talk about how pitch counts came to be. Money and the consequent fear of getting pitchers hurt did drive the move toward pitch counts. And James nails it on the head when he states, “It is my view that, once conventional wisdom about leaving pitchers in the game stampeded into a full-fledged retreat, it ran right past the point of reason”. People got scared, tried something new, it seemed to work, and everyone made it a rule. But when we make hard and fast rules, there’s usually some wiggle room that needs to be applied.

I don’t know why 100 pitches came to be the standard. It’s a nice round number that’s pretty close what a pitcher would throw in a game. When you try to get scientific, you try for exact numbers, and somehow, people decided 100 was it. Was it misguided? Probably. It’s as misguided as saying someone with 20 wins is better than one with 17. The numbers are there, but you forget take other aspects into account. With the 100 pitch limit, we’ve forgotten how to take things into account.

Take today’s Red Sox-Braves game. It’s hot and humid. Hanson has flu-like (sore throat) symptoms. After 6 innings, he had launched 97 pitches. It was time to take him out, and I knew without knowing his pitch count. 100 pitches is a guideline. Hanson was laboring, doing the best he could against a lineup fouling off good pitches and leaving borderline pitches alone. Everything pointed to taking him out. But what happens if he goes 120 like Ryan wants? Does he get hurt? Probably not. But he probably would have been less effective than usual. 100 pitches worked that time.

But what about a guy cruising who’s gone 7 and has 95 pitches? You could probably get another inning or two out of him without doing much damage. The 7 completed innings tells me that he’s been effective, and if his arm is in that slot, he’s probably going okay. And if he’s got that movement and location, he can take the slight decrease in effectiveness (which is probably heightened from normal) and still win the game. You let him go. In both of these situations, you have to look past the 100 pitches, but that doesn’t mean that 100 pitches is useless. 100 pitches is a signal. When you get to that point, you should start making assessments (actually around 85 you should probably start, but you get my point).

But James and Posnanski are right. No real research went into 100, and it’s not clear that 100 pitches saves arms. However, Neyer’s right — 100 doesn’t necessarily not work. It’s the “Well, you can’t prove God exists, so he doesn’t” argument. The fact is that no one knows why pitchers get hurt. This is just another random trial and error in the natural evolution of baseball. Why do pitchers get hurt? One, pitching is unnatural. Two, they throw a lot of pitches from an unnatural position. Three, they may do it too much, or starts are too spaced out. I don’t know how you’d figure it out, but I’d like to know the average lifespan of a pitcher from the 1900-1920 era, the 1950-1970 era, and the 1990-2010 era. Maybe limits of 4.70 ERA and 500 innings and then average the number of career seasons and/or innings pitched.

The last reason for pitcher injuries is the most frustrating — physical makeup. Some guys, like Nolan Ryan, can handle 140 pitches an outing without hurting themselves too badly. Some guys, like Mark Prior, throw that many and end up out of baseball after 3 or 4 seasons. Explain the difference. Was Prior babied more than Ryan? Ryan threw 200 innings in the minors in 1966, but Prior threw a lot of innings in college as well (Prior didn’t stay long in the minors). Scouts talk about mechanics and how they put stress on certain joints and how someone’s mechanics will hurt them. The problem is that they probably have their reasons why they say that, and I’m sure science backs them up. But they probably still won’t be able to explain why Pedro Martinez and Tim Lincecum (knock on wood) can handle tough workloads.

We can talk about these reasons all day, and we’ll get nowhere. Who knows which of reasons 1, 2, 3, and 4 is the most important, if all of them are equal, or if there is (are) another (other) reason(s) entirely and these reasons are crap. The truth is that we don’t know why pitchers get hurt. Eventually, we might find out. Some brilliant guy will be able to detect ligament strength in joints and know whose shoulder will hold and whose won’t. Until then, we’ll just keep using trial and error and see what we come up with. It’s not a bad plan. It’s just the one we have to work with.

But I admire Nolan Ryan. He’s taking baseball orthodoxy, throwing into a blender, and seeing what sticks, and it may very well help us get closer to the answer. Maybe he’s right. Maybe pitchers can throw 120-130 pitches without flinching or getting hurt. But it’s also likely that he’s wrong and that his new strategy, which seems to be working, is about to bust in the next year or two when a young pitcher’s shoulder is thrashed. The worst part? When that happens, we won’t even know if his theory is what caused the injury or just poor biology or something else entirely.

Maybe God really does exist. Maybe he doesn’t. Honestly, we won’t know until we’re dead. But that doesn’t mean that I hope we stop looking. I’m glad we’re looking and trying things. It’s just that the answers are always frustratingly inconclusive.

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