Ah, pitch counts. I meant to do a post next week on Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain leading the league in pitches thrown, but Bruce Jenkins's series on pitch counts made the topic current. Jenkins and I can agree on a couple of things, such as...
I agree. The difference between 110 and 120 pitches? Who knows? There isn't conclusive evidence that 120 is measurably worse than 110 or 100, so passing either of those arbitrary benchmarks shouldn't make anyone froth at the mouth. Jenkins doesn't want managers to be seduced by 100 pitches simply because it's a nice round number. Again, I completely agree. How tired is a pitcher? You can't tell that from a single number. Context, context, context.
But even though Jenkins wants to base his entire argument around context, the entire article breaks down because context isn't taken into account. Jenkins rails against some shadowy cabal of bespectacled nerds for daring to question the decision to leave C.C. Sabathia in for 130 pitches, but the raw number isn't what caused the most dissent. No one made a peep when Sabathia threw 122 pitches in a one-run victory against the Reds.
The loudest moaning was reserved for the fact that the Brewers were up by six runs going into the eighth inning. Jenkins brings up Mark Prior, noting that it was alright for Prior to throw 120+ pitches every night because the Cubs were going for it. But that wouldn't explain what Prior was still doing in this game. No, there's a much better reason why teams should let young pitchers like Sabathia and Prior rack up huge pitch counts when outcome of the game isn't in question:
Teeth-gritting gumption points.
Didn't you hear? They award a special trophy for teeth-gritting gumption points. Pitchers who accrue the most teeth-gritting gumption points can look their grandkids in the eyes. That's why Jenkins's entire argument revolves around "finish what you start" and blaming people who "have no idea how it feels to actually compete."* His argument doesn't revolve around research, like that of The Hardball Times, who noted that pitchers are still getting hurt in a pitch-conscious era. Jenkins doesn't draw our attention to the Reliever's Paradox -- if pitch counts are the last word, then why do 20-pitch-per game lefty specialists also fall to injury? Jenkins doesn't ask how 100 pitches -- a number that's significant only because it has one more digit than 99 -- became an arbitrary-yet-magical number.
Nope. Teeth-gritting gumption points. Gutting it out. Making sure you out-platitude the other guy. Don't be a sissy, sissy. Learn how to win. Kids these days, I'll tell you. Spoiled divas, the lot of them. That's what's wrong with the cautious mindset of the modern baseball man.
The argument goes something like this: Pitchers should throw as many pitches as they used to because a) that's how they used to do it, and b) remember when that was how they used to do it? Jenkins invokes the Ozzy Osbourne Defense. Hey, Ozzy used to snort piles of cocaine the size of Marvin Benard. But Ozzy's still alive, right? Ergo, nuts to moderation with that stuff. Jenkins lists pitchers like Mike Krukow (who went from 10 complete games to five wins the next year), Fernando Valenzuela (who went from 12 complete games to five wins the next year), and Dave Stewart (who went from 10 complete games to an ERA above 5.00) as examples of a purer era gone by.
Did the complete games cause the eventual ineffectiveness of those pitchers? Maybe, maybe not. And that's the point. The great pitch-count debate is stagnant for now. Every pitcher has a limit, but we don't know what that limit is. It probably shifts from game to game, from inning to inning. But there's a $50M difference between a healthy Matt Cain and a free agent like Carlos Silva, and that doesn't even take performance into account. Even if you want to go to the store and buy a new, full-price young ace if the one you have breaks down, there might not be a comparable pitcher to buy. Every arm probably has a finite number of pitches in it, so maybe discretion is the better part of valor when it comes to a prized investment. If your bullpen isn't good enough to trust with a two-run lead in the eighth, it probably isn't part of a championship team, so don't let your starter throw 120 pitches every...single...game if you can avoid it.
Even with that general guideline, there should be a few reasons to ignore pitch counts. If the playoffs are on the line, your bullpen is a hydrant filled with kerosene, and the starter in question doesn't seem tired, then, yeah, toss out the book. Go for the win. There isn't conclusive evidence that x number of pitches thrown is automatically tantamount to rotator cuff pudding. Use common sense. Sabathia heading toward 130 pitches in a one-run game? I'm not wild about the idea, but if Sabathia feels fine, heads shouldn't roll for the decision.
But here are some poor reasons for tossing out pitch counts: outdated notions of duty, toughness, or cowardice. Doing it because you can, because there's something oh-so-special about the complete game that transcends any notion of prudence. Sabathia heading toward 130 pitches with a seven-run lead? Now you're just gunning for teeth-gritting gumption points.
So, you, with the flashing siren of panic that goes off every time a pitcher goes over 100 pitches: go away. You, with the appeal to the good ol' days and meaningless notions of toughness: go away. Both extremes of the debate need to go away. The rest of us will watch baseball and understand that there's a balance of risk versus reward. It's a balance that will have to do until some compelling evidence comes along and settles the debate.
* The "but you don't play the game!"-argument is always lame, but it's especially lame coming from a sportswriter. I could strike Jenkins out on three pitches. That doesn't mean I have the better argument. You don't need to be an aardvark to major in zoology.