Our intrepid manager, Bryan Price, had a few things to say about pitch counts and innings limits:
“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this question,” Price said. “I don’t think it’s a problem. I think the problem is that what we’ve done with baseball is we’ve gotten to the point [where] we think we’re solving our arm issues by decreasing innings and pitch workload and there’s nothing in the data that suggests we’ve [done] anything other than to continue to cut open the arms of young pitchers that we are extremely cautious with, extremely cautious, to a fault cautious. And it is not helping.
“My personal opinion is I don’t care, at all, about innings workload as they’re written up right now. We’ve prescribed a very similar philosophy that the rest of Major League Baseball does for the most part in the industry. I don’t agree with it, but we tend to follow it. For me, if we said, ‘Hey, he’s going to be a starter.’ I’m giving [Lorenzen] the ball 30-plus times and letting him pitch. That’s what I would do.”
I think the answer may lie somewhere in the middle, but I don’t think Price is completely off base here. Where’s the evidence that the current scheme is protecting pitchers more than in the past? (Honestly, I haven’t seen it; if that data is out there, let me know.)
There is so much research to be done on the health of pitchers, and how we can better prevent injuries. At some point, someone said, “Don’t let young pitchers throw more than 100 pitches in a game!” Then someone else said, “Don’t let them increase their innings workload more than 20% year over year!”
All that is pretty intuitive, and in general, it’s better to protect young arms (we don’t need to go back to the days of pitchers throwing 300+ innings). But in some ways, these “rules” ignore the realities that every pitcher is different.
The research that I have seen suggests that the number of pitches that a pitcher throws after he is fatigued is a much better indicator of a pitcher that is at risk for injury than total number of pitches. And that will vary with each pitcher, depending on a bunch of different factors: velocity, training methods, max-effort pitches, etc. Plus, each pitcher comes into the professional ranks with different stories, varying levels of overuse at the amateur levels, and all of that contributes to a pitcher’s risk for injury.
At some point we’ll be able to better measure fatigue, in combination with all these other elements, to help each individual pitcher minimize injury risk. We’ll be able to tell when a pitcher is fatigued in an individual game, and when his individual arm has accumulated too much of a workload over the course of a season. For now, however, teams are relying on this shotgun approach of pitch counts and innings limits. It’s just so imprecise.
And since these limits have been implemented:
“It hasn’t decreased the number of injuries, for me, in my 30-plus years in the professional game. They’ve gone this way [signaling upward] in my 30-plus years. I’m not a believer that these innings [limits], pitch limits have done anything at all to preserve pitchers’ arms. Not one thing at all.”
The number of Tommy John surgeries we’ve seen has certainly exploded, and it seems like there are more injuries to pitchers overall. If these measures were working, wouldn’t we be able to see results at some point? (And again, maybe those results are out there; I haven’t looked at all the research. I’m just a dumb guy sitting on my couch, thinking about pitchers while watching my favorite college football team get destroyed.)
I dunno, the sabermetric intelligentsia is likely to mock Price for these statements, and I get that. But to the extent that he’s criticizing the rules on “innings workload as they’re written up right now” for being too simplistic, I agree. Pitch counts and innings limits are just the tip of the iceberg in injury-prevention.
The team that can unlock the secrets of protecting pitchers’ arms — and every single team is actively researching this — will the next Moneyball squad.