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Pitch Counts and Tim Lincecum

I answered some questions for the SBN Reds site here, and for some reason, I actually did a minute's worth research before answering one of the questions. My DiMaggio-like streak of pulling information and opinions from my nether regions is now over, so I might as well use what I found:

Red Reporter: Are you worried about Lincecum's health due to his age, size, and his stupid pitch counts from last year? I thought Dusty Baker managed the Reds in 2008.

Me: I'm not too worried. Lincecum threw the 5th-most pitches in baseball, and everyone freaked out over his 138-pitch outing, but what's crazy is that was the only start by anyone in either league with more than 133 pitches. Ten years ago, a pitcher went over 133 pitches in a start 85 times. Things have changed, for sure. Lincecum's 2009 would have ranked 19th in Pitcher Abuse Points in 1999; his stress score would have ranked 26th. He led the majors in both categories last year.

The funny part about all that is that I'm not sure that pitchers are any healthier now. I worry about Lincecum because he's a pitcher, not because he's short or because Bochy was slagging his arm last year. I would have handled him differently, for sure, but I'm pretty sure that he wasn't abused to a pitchforks-and-torches level.

When the Great Pitch Count Brouhaha of Aught-Eight went down, something didn’t feel right. When I read that Lincecum was leading the NL in pitches thrown at one point, that same funny feeling came up. It just didn’t feel like Lincecum was being abused. Worked differently than I would have preferred, sure, but not outright abused. But if I’ve learned one thing about baseball, it’s that just feeling things is a good way to be wrong. This is why defensive stats make a lot of us twitch. I just doesn’t feel like Ray Durham is an average second baseman, UZR be damned.

So I was pleasantly surprised to find the reason why I wasn’t freaking out about how Bruce Bochy handled Lincecum. The lobe of my brain that is conditioned to freak out about pitch counts is still working with a mental database from 1999. That was when internet-types were raising the biggest stink about overworked pitchers, and the concerns eventually trickled up into front offices. And there were some serious, serious workloads to consider. Randy Johnson averaged over 120 pitches in 1999. Everyone and their mother had 10 starts with close to 120 pitches thrown. Lincecum would have been in the middle of the pack 10 years ago, which is remarkable for a successful pitcher -- more success usually leads to more pitches thrown because managers are reluctant to remove a pitcher who is throwing well. When I think of "abused pitchers," I’m thinking of circa-’99 Livan Hernandez, and that's why I just couldn’t get that worked up over Timmy last year.

Now here’s where I present my research about how many days pitchers are spending on the disabled list now compared with ’99, and…wait, it was here a second ago. Where did I…hey, Snarf, no! No! Bad dog! Bad dog! Ah, dang it. My dog just ate my research. Actually, I have no clue how to look up such a thing. For now, all I can do is mention that it doesn’t feel like pitchers are any healthier now than they were ten years ago. Starters are throwing fewer pitches, especially in the minor leagues, but pitchers are pitchers are pitchers, and they’re still injury prone.

So the next time you read a scary, Lincecum-was-abused point, try not to reach for the sharpened toothbrush handle right away. Think of the context before you get all stabby. It’s not a good thing that Lincecum was one of the hardest worked pitchers in baseball last year, but that designation doesn’t mean as much as it once did. Save the Bochy loathing for when Rich Aurilia pinch hits for Travis Ishikawa in the fourth inning. Now that just feels like appropriate loathing.