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.

Blame Chad for creating this mess.

Chad launched Redleg Nation in February 2005, and has been writing about the Reds ever since. His first book, “The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds” is now available in bookstores and online, at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and wherever fine books are sold. You can also find Chad’s musings about the Cincinnati Reds in the pages of Cincinnati Magazine.

You can email Chad at chaddotson@redlegnation.com.

Join the conversation! 21 Comments

  1. Per a feature run in the Ohio State football coverage on BTN last week, the Buckeyes are putting wireless sensors on selected players during weight training and (if I understood correctly) some actual on field practice scenarios to monitor muscle stress. They apparently have identified factors and levels they believe are indicative of a player being at imminent risk of injury and are beginning to use the data interactively to intervene when they see danger level readings.

    I wonder if anyone at any level is doing this yet with pitchers. Given that they have to pitch from a mound whether in practice or a game, it would seem an ideal situation for setting up the data capture.

    • Beat me to it, but…..yes. The second I read this, I immediately thought of having each pitcher wear a fitbit like device to monitor stress/fatigue loadings. I suspect that the item of politically correct color in the woodpile will lie with (a) MLB management (competitiveness) and (b) MLBPA. For the good of the game, it would be good to see the Commissioner’s office sanction use of monitoring equipment and -shared- data collection across all of MLB for, say, 3-5 years to generate a sufficient field of data points. Failing that, at least do it on a league wide basis somewhere in the minors while everyone gets used to the idea……

      • Duvall is permitted to have his insulin pump hooked on the field during a game, at the least that seems like a foot in the door to letting pitchers and other players wear muscle monitors. If there was a concern about real time monitoring from the bench, the players could also wear a small storage device, i.e. “fitbit” which could be read out when they came to the bench so it could be determined if they red lined or near red lined during the inning just ended.

    • Yes, this technology is already being developed and yes teams are already beginning to test it out


  2. I’m with Bryan Price and Chad on this. Innings limits are a crude and possibly ineffective solution to arm injuries. For a further analysis of the research in this area, you can read our post from a few weeks ago.


    • I thought I linked this piece! That’s what I get for writing late at night when I’m distracted by the glorious UVa football team.

  3. I agree with all of this except the idea that the “sabremetric intelligentsia” will mock Price. The sabremetric community has long been discussing the ineffectiveness of pitch counts and innings limits.

    The reason managers and GM’s still follow these pitch counts and innings limits is simple. Just ask Dusty Baker what happens if you let a pitcher go past them and he gets hurt. Until his dying day, Dusty will hear about how he destroyed the careers of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. Maybe even Aaron Harang too.

    I think the first rule should be pretty simple. Never let a pitcher pitch when he is so fatigued that his mechanics are breaking down.

    • You hit the nail on the head. Its pitching when fatigued. There will always be pitchers who throw with max effort, high velocity, poor mechanics and too much elbow torque that makes them injury prone regardless of pitch counts. Strasburg seems to be that guy. The bullpen guys who are tired and pitch 4x in a week and constantly up and down throwing are prone, as are the starters who are clearly fatigued at pitch 98 and labor through a 28 pitch 7th inning. I would add just like a marathon runner needs to methodically build mileage for the race in training, a pitcher can’t go from 50 innings one year to 180 innings the next year. They will get fatigued and it will catch up. Its important to build endurance and innings early in your career to be able to make 30 starts and throw 200 innings -ala Johnny Cueto and Arroyo. Desclafani/Finnegan/and Straily have all done that. Stephenson and Garret are doing the same.

      • Agree that pitch limits are not saber-metrics based, but geez isn’t it common sense that people need to not push arms too much. I definitely think over 120 pitches in a game needs to be avoided, but why risk it by pitching guys in meaningless games?

        I think Price is dumb to say this as he is confirming his disassociation from reality (a continuing theme) and he ignores the issue is that pitchers nowadays throw 100& on every pitch, so remote historical comparisons are worthless. He also ignores the huge risk of injury to the future of this team. Let’s focus on player development not performance in a lost year.

    • Aaron Harang blames Dusty Baker for overuse and I think he has a good case. In 2008, he threw 103 pitches in a start at San Diego. Baker brought him back on 2 days rest and he threw 63 more in an 18 inning game. He then pitched again in his next scheduled start throwing 73 pitches and was awful the rest of the year. He is on record saying his arm was fatigued and that San Diego series did it. Throwing 240 pitches in 3 appearances in 6 days obviously needs to be limited.

      • And we lost that game in a season we were nowhere near making the postseason. Edison Volquez also threw 3 innings that same game and was terrible the next month.

    • Your last sentence is as important as anything said by anyone, anywhere on the subject. It starts with that simple, old-school idea. “Never let a pitcher pitch when he is so fatigued that his mechanics are breaking down.” It isn’t always obvious when the mechanics are just starting to break down but it sometimes is and when it is, it’s time to pull the guy.

  4. Injury prevention is not the only reason to implement pitch counts and innings limits. Those steps not only reduce injury they also increase velocity and improve effectiveness.

    Elbow injuries are caused by pitching. You don’t blow out your elbow by not pitching. Therefore it stands to reason that throwing fewer pitches will reduce your chances of being injured.

    Throwing fewer pitches and allowing more time for the arm to recover and heal between outings has the effect of increasing velocity. Unfortunately, increasing velocity increases the torque on the elbow and leads to more injuries. So there is a self-braking mechanism acting on the system. Reducing pitch counts to reduce injuries also leads to higher velocity which leads to more injuries.

    Therefore, reducing pitch counts leads to both more and fewer injuries. Fewer pitches leads to less stress on the arm and more time to heal and therefore fewer injuries. But fresher arms also lead to higher velocity, which contributes to more injuries.

    So the net effect is an equal amount of injuries but higher velocity, which leads to better effectiveness and reduced scoring around the league.

  5. I agree with you Chad, and with Price in general. I will also reiterate what TCT said above about the sabermetrics community, I am a big believer and user of advance stats and I don’t think innings limits and pitch counts are great measures or do anything to prevent injury.

    I believe I read a study in the past that said something about there being little difference in pitcher’s arm wear and tear between 100-120 pitches. It’s only after about 120 pitches that there was a noticeable difference for most pitchers. (Obviously should only applies to pitchers stretched out for starting). For innings, I’ve never understood why there was a strict adherence as all innings aren’t the same. Some guys get through innings with 10-15 pitches. Some take closer to 25-30. Obviously that could drastically effect the amount of innings a pitcher throws.

    I think Price is pretty close to the mark on this one.

  6. This is purely my theory with no studies to back it up just a lifetime of observation. I am 56 years old and as kids we played baseball somewhere everyday all day from mid April till mid September and we weren’t pitching except in our league games we were throwing but the point is we were building arm strength. I have coached youth baseball and this was some years ago but I was stunned by how weak the kids arms were overall. Then the baseball players get into playing high school ball and some play college ball where a coach puts job security before the players health and way over use their arms and then those who are good enough to play pro ball are often already damaged. The inning count is an arbitrary number at best I know teams try to fit it to the pitcher but that is just a guess an educated guess but a guess. I am a proponent of a heavier workload between starts and a lot of long toss to stretch them out and build strength. I may be biased because of my history but when I started watching and listening to baseball 50 plus years ago a starter would get 35 or more starts a season and most of them pitched until the game was over at least 9 and 11 or 12 innings from a starter wasn’t unheard of. Pitchers of that era pitched through sore arms, did it cut some careers short more than likely. I don’t remember anywhere near as many injured pitchers of that era.

    • This is the thing I’m most curious about. You look at pitchers from the bygone eras, and they were racking up innings at a rate that are completely unheard of in this day and age. How did so many pitchers pitch so many innings and still manage to be effective and not injure themselves? What was different in that era that we don’t have now?

      I thought athletes today were supposed to be bigger, faster, and stronger than ever, but they sure don’t seem as durable.

      • I have wondered about this, as well. One possible answer is that kids are throwing breaking pitches at an earlier age. They have to stand out at the “premiere” or “select” level from an early age. With the exercise regimens and medical technology there is today, you would think that would put young players in an optimal position.

        It is my impression that players in the late 1800s and early 1900s just threw hard when they were kids, because there weren’t a lot of coaches around who could or would teach breaking pitches. Players weren’t exposed to those coaches until they got to higher levels, such as the minors or majors.

      • I think that a lot of pitchers are throwing a lot harder now than they did years ago, and that may be a factor. 20 years ago a guy who threw 93 or 94 was a dominant power pitcher, as I remember it. And Carl’s point about kids playing ball for long hours every day all summer makes sense, as well.

      • I’ve given my thoughts on this before but what I think it comes down to is that athletes today, train to the point that they are getting about all they can get out of the human body. They are right on the edge of maximum performance. Pitchers throw harder than ever before, as has been pointed out. This is a product of building the arm muscles and other muscle groups in such a way that they maximize the ability to deliver a baseball. You can train the muscles like this but you can’t train the ligaments and tendons as much as you can the muscles. So, you create more stress on these and they just can’t handle it, so they fail. I’m not a medical professional but that’s what I think is going on, or at least part of what is going on.

  7. I’ve never been a big believer in innings limits or pitch counts taken in a vacuum. In context they are an easy proxy for what everyone seems to agree is a problem – fatigue – but they don’t really go straight to the issue. But whether Price is spot on here, or only partly right isn’t what I’m excited about with these quotes. I love that Price is questioning the conventional wisdom, the “by the book” thinking. If managers manage to avoid criticism because they always do what everyone else does and never take a risk or try something new, especially on a team that is clearly not playoff bound, that’s a huge mistake and missed opportunity IMHO. The more Price, or any potential Reds manager, is willing to be creative, look for different and better solutions and options, consider real data instead of following group think, the more I want that man (or woman – holy outside the box Batman) running the Reds. And on those grounds alone, I’m very happy to read these statements.

  8. Pitching when fatigued is one of the keys.
    This is one area where I think the monitoring of the Spin Rates will help with injuries. Once MLB has the technology to have spin rate information to be immediately available to the managers in the dugout, like the radar gun’s mph readings, the managers will have better information on when a pitcher is tiring.
    Another injury prevention pre-caution that could be implemented would either be a 26 man roster, or a 27 or 28 man roster where the manager has to keep a 25 man roster activated for any one game. MLB could mandate that all 25 man rosters have to be in to MLB or the head umpire 3 hours prior to every game.

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About Chad Dotson

Blame Chad for creating this mess. Chad launched Redleg Nation in February 2005, and has been writing about the Reds ever since. His first book, "The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds" is now available in bookstores and online, at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and wherever fine books are sold. You can also find Chad's musings about the Cincinnati Reds in the pages of Cincinnati Magazine. You can email Chad at chaddotson@redlegnation.com.


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