Obviously, this topic comes from a pair of weekend performances by Phillies pitchers Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay in which both pitchers crushed the imaginary 100 pitch plateau. In fact, Halladay's 130 and Hamels' 126 pitches represent the top two counts of the season by a starter from any club. But what does it all mean? Hamels' response to the media when questioned was that he looked forward to the challenge of seeing how his arm would bounce back for his next start. Halladay, on the other hand, was a little more candid, just saying that "You go as far as you can."
The fact is that as long as a pitcher is being effective, the difference between 90 pitches and 120 is minimal. Between starts, a starting pitcher will throw bullpen sessions, long toss, and warmups before the game. When we see Roy Halladay throw 130 pitches in a game we panic, but we ignore the 300 other balls he throws over the course of a 5 day stretch. Roy had thrown 113 balls prior to coming back out for the 9th inning. But he was throwing an overwhelming amount of strikes, his velocity was still up in the mid 90s, and he had just come through a streak where he retired 8 of 9 batters via strikeout. If you'd rather see Charlie go to the bullpen and "save" Halladay a few pitches, then I'm going to have to say you're out of your mind. If you want to save a few pitches, save them on that 3rd day of rest.
Which reminds me... prior to about 1980, most major league pitching staffs consisted of 4 starting pitchers. A pitcher was expected to go out every 4th day and get the job done. How did that work out? Well, in 1972 Steve Carlton threw 346 innings in 41 starts (31and more than 3/4 of them were on 3 days rest. He marched that stat line to a 27-10 record and a Cy Young Award. Was he the exception to the rule? Not really, considering that of the 300 Game winners in baseball's live ball era, over half of them played during the early 1970s.
But we find ourselves in the era of the babied pitcher. From Little League rules requiring inning limits and days off to the imaginary 100 pitch wall, today's pitcher has been engrained with the notion that once they hit that 3rd digit, their day is over. Which is more the reason why guys like Nolan Ryan, Jack McKeon, and Roy Halladay are such a breath of fresh air. McKeon, WS winning coach for the Marlins a few years back, told his pitchers that they need to be prepared to finish what they started every day. For every Todd Van Poppel, who claims to have had a dead arm by the time he reached the majors, there is a Tim Wakefield who threw 172 pitches in a game in 1990 and still pitches with effectiveness two decades later today. For every Gil Meche, who retired at the age of 32 after a 132 pitch performance derailed the rest of his season, there is a Randy Johnson who regularly reached 140.
The biggest argument is the risk/reward that goes along with pitch counts. High salaries = risk, and limiting the pitcher's work is one of the more effective ways to assure health. Health = value. In 2000, 125+ pitches were thrown by a starter 160 times. Seven years later, that number was down to just 14! More than a 90% drop in lengthy starts and all because management is afraid of losing their investment. But high pitch counts is just one of the literally hundreds of things that can injure a pitcher. A game of pickup basketball (Zach Greinke), kicking a chair (Ryan Madson), holding back a sneeze (Mat Latos)... I'm no expert in sports medicine, but it would seem to me that the biggest reason for injuries to pitchers is poor mechanics, not overuse. Jose Contreras doesn't find himself hitting the disabled list because he's thrown too many pitches, but rather because his delivery puts a strain on his muscles. The straw the breaks the camel's back in that scenario can occur on pitch 1 or 123. Each and every pitch is a calculated risk in and of itself. For a well prepared hurler, those odds never change.
So I say, whenever a pitcher is being effective and has a history of being able to go deep into games, let him stay regardless of how many pitches he's thrown. Should a manager yank a 23 year old rookie in the 8th inning if he's thrown 110 pitches but has still kept the damage to a minimum? Absolutely. Give the kid a chance to earn a track record before rolling the dice. But the give and take between Roy Halladay and Charlie Manuel this season is EXACTLY what I like to see between a pitcher and his manager:
Manuel: "Well, here I am."And a pitcher of Halladay's caliber should continue to "get em" until it's obvious he can't. Sunday night, the magic tailed off at the end of the 9th inning and bringing in Antonio Bastardo for that final 1 pitch out was absolutely the correct move.
Halladay: "I got em!"
Manuel: "Okay, you got em."
One theory I've read suggested that bringing in a 1-2 inning reliever to start the game, then letting your ace starter pitch the more crucial later innings is ideal. It's a bit absurd, but it stems from the disgust old school pitchers have with the way pitch counts are handled these days. More than one Hall of Fame starter is on the record saying that the lack of control a pitcher has over his own destiny is disgusting to them. 100 and done. The amount of pitchers that are groomed to pitch 9 innings is sadly dwindling. And yet guys are getting injured at almost exactly the same rate? Is anyone really being saved by the pitch count concept? Does an owner really save any money protecting his star pitcher if he has to go out and spend tens of millions of dollars on guys to pitch the 8th and 9th innings anyway?
Robin Roberts ended the 1950 Whiz Kids season by pitching in three of the final 5 games of the season (2 complete games). Rather than watching his arm fall off, he came back and threw 300+ innings in the next 5 straight seasons. It's a shame that baseball fans will never be treated to a feat like that ever again. And the pitch count is to blame.