Pitch Counts (Or Do They?)

It will come as no surprise that Cub starters have logged the most innings in the National League this season. I also suspect no one will gasp when informed the Cub starters have the second lowest earned run average in the National League to date. Pitch counts have become a divisive issue league-wide, but especially on the North Side of Chicago, where Dusty Baker is charged with managing one of the most talented starting rotations of all time.

Within the pitch count argument, a distinction has been lost. Should Baker be evaluating a starter's pitch count based on how much the pitcher is laboring through that particular game? In other words, a high pitch count does not necessarily mean a pitcher is struggling. It could just mean there was a bad inning or two skewing the total.

On the other hand, a starter might only be at 75 pitches and look like he is out of gas. In this example, the pitch count is a fluid target based on how the pitcher is faring in that particular game.

Then there is the other classification, which in my opinion sits at the heart of the pitch count controversy. Should there be a more tangible, yet arbitrary pitch count target for each game not based on a pitcher's performance, but rather the hypothetical concept that a consistently high pitch count will eventually wear out a starter's arm and increase the likelihood of injury?

This predicament came into play back on June 10 against the St. Louis Cardinals. Carlos Zambrano, comfortably ahead 12-2 on the scoreboard, was well past the 100-pitch mark after seven innings. With a 10-run lead, it seemed inconceivable to let Zambrano return to the mound in the eight.

Yet, there he was, sent out to log one more inning and 21 more pitches. Zambrano wasn't struggling, so removing him would be a move purely predicated on preserving his arm in the long-term sense. Will an extra 21 pitches really make that big of a difference? The fact is that the bullpen was taxed pretty heavily in the games prior to June 10, and Baker anticipated it would come into play in the upcoming road series in Anaheim.

The entire issue of pitch counts becomes even more clouded when one applies a historical approach to the debate. It is common knowledge that starting pitchers in earlier decades and eras threw more pitches regularly, and many enjoyed long and successful careers. But you don't have to go back twenty years to track the steady decline in pitch counts.

In 1998, there were 21 occasions in which a starter threw at least 140 pitches. Last year, there were two. Also in '98, there were 475 instances when starters threw 120 or more pitches. Last year, that number was cut in half at 228.

How can this decline be explained? Were the arms of yesteryear's pitchers really more durable? Are starting pitchers today coddled too much? Or perhaps the discrepancy relates to modern day pitchers throwing more minor league innings before hitting the big show (either that, or more sessions between starts).

Perhaps the most accurate – and obvious – reason that modern day starting pitchers throw less innings and pitches than their predecessors is the evolution of the offense. Today, hitters are stronger, smarter and more athletic than at any time in the history of the game. Power hitters are now a dime a dozen. Back in the 1960s, there might have been only two guys in a lineup that could hit a mistake 400 feet. Now there can be three times that many. As a result, mistakes today turn into three-run homeruns rather than bloop singles.

The second factor influencing the lower pitch count limits today has less to do with the starting pitcher and more to do with who relieves him. In the '60s and '70s, bullpens were not made up of one-out specialists like they are today. Guys like Mike Remlinger, who are often brought in to face one batter only, did not exist back then. As a result, managers often preferred to leave a Luis Tiant or Nolan Ryan in to face a lefty hitter in the latter innings, rather than call for a lefty to take advantage of the so-called situational advantage.

These specialists, the good ones, don't come cheap, and managers aren't afraid to use them 60 to 70 times during a single season.

The pitch count controversy is sure to continue for Cub fans throughout the rest of the year, especially when it comes to Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. One should not look at pitch counts in a vacuum, however, and rant every time Dusty Baker sends a starter out one inning past logic.

Deciding when the Cub starting pitchers need to be taken out is kind of like determining when Michael Jordan needed a two-minute breather on the bench.

No one likes to tamper with greatness.

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