Do Young Pitchers Need To Watch Pitch Counts?

Pitch counts. You hear about them all the time, but just how important are they? Pitching coaches track them, managers ask pitching coaches about them and some pitchers pride themselves on being able to throw a bunch of pitches every time out. Years ago – in the good old days – pitch counts weren't talked about the way they are now, but suddenly, everybody wants to make them the most important part of a pitcher's stats.

The Florida Marlins have lost pitcher A.J. Burnett to the dreaded "Tommy John" surgery. Basically, that means that Burnett likely won't pitch again until 2005. Even the best of optimists say it will be late in 2004 until he can return to the mound. When he does return, nothing is guaranteed. For a 26 year old, losing nearly two full seasons, at this point in his career is major. Burnett should be truly starting to come into his own. He should be looking at huge contract numbers while the Marlins would worry about being able to sign him or losing him to the highest bidder in free agency. Instead, Burnett is worrying about the rest of his career and whether he'll be able to pitch effectively again, let alone get a big contract.

In Montreal, Javier Vazquez has admitted to keeping a close watch on his pitch count. In three of his last four starts, Vazquez has thrown 120 or more pitches. Vazquez is also 26 – he turns 27 in July – and has paid particular attention to Burnett's situation with the Marlins. "I know if I'm not feeling good or I think I've had enough, I'm going to tell them (the coaches)," said Vazquez.

Pitches thrown by age 26
Javier Vazquez18,730
Greg Maddux16,601
Brett Myers (projected)15,447
Kerry Wood14,960
Randy Wolf14,672
Kevin Millwood12,040
A.J. Burnett8,416
Randy Johnson7,358
Vicente Padilla6,106
Curt Schilling5,607

Actually, there's more of a connection between Vazquez and Burnett than you might see at first glance. Vazquez was a 24 year old who averaged 128 pitches per start in September of 2000 for an Expos team that was on its way to losing 95 games. He didn't miss a start all season and the Expos pointed with pride to their new-found workhorse. The connection? Owner Jeffrey Loria and pitching coach Brad Arnsberg. Loria and Arnsberg are now plying their trade with the Marlins and Burnett believes that his injuries stem from the abuse that he has endured on the mound at the hands of – you guessed it – Loria and Arnsberg.

Jeffrey Loria is not exactly the most respected man in baseball. Fans in Montreal believe that he bought their team with distinct plans of moving them to the U.S. as soon as possible. When those plans fell through, Loria allegedly accepted somewhat of a parachute from major league baseball and bought the Marlins. That deal has been scrutinized since MLB ended up purchasing the Expos and loaned Loria the rest of the money that he needed to buy the Marlins. Now, the Marlins ace of the future, who Loria and Marlins management counted on to put fans in the seats, is on the shelf with a major injury.

So what of pitch counts? Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson have been known to throw 120 or 130 pitches in a game. The only real injuries they've faced in the latter parts of their careers aren't related to pitch counts – Johnson is out with a leg injury and Schilling was on the DL after having his appendix removed – unless you count a stiff back that Johnson has pitched his way through in recent seasons.

There are differences between the game now and the game years ago when pitch counts weren't highly publicized. For one, pitchers become "pitchers" younger. It's not unusual for little league coaches to teach curveballs and sliders to young kids. High school teams let their star pitcher throw as much as possible and college teams continue to push even more. Most young kids don't fight the idea, since more and more scouts are at college and high school games. Parents push to get publicity for their kids, hoping that they'll get noticed.

When I played little league, there was a rule that pitchers could only pitch a certain amount of innings in a week. It said nothing about how many pitches they would throw. Now, some little leagues actually have started to chart the number of pitches and are moving toward limiting the number of pitches and not innings. High schools and colleges chart the number of pitches, but many times coaches – often at the urging of the pitcher or his parents – push counts past where they should probably be.

Pitching coaches will tell you that you can't rely strictly on the pitch count. You need to factor in how many pick-off throws a pitcher has made and how many warm-up tosses he threw or in the case of relievers, how many times they've warmed up in the bullpen. Phillies manager Larry Bowa pays particular attention to how many times he has warmed up a pitcher, whether the guy gets into the game or not. "Whether it's in the pen or in a game situation, if a guy is throwing all out, he's throwing a pitch. An arm doesn't know the difference between a pitch off a bullpen mound and a pitch in front of 20,000 people," explained Bowa.

Warming up brings up another question. How many times can a pitcher warm up and not have it damage his arm? Is a reliever who warms up two separate times during a game doing more damage to his arm than the guy who warms up once and then enters the game?

Last season, Johnson led all pitchers with a staggering 3,995 pitches thrown. Burnett threw 3,265 and Vazquez fell in the middle at 3,544 pitches. "Every arm only has so many pitches and you don't know when that limit is up," believes Expos manager Frank Robinson.

Some pitchers are more durable than others, but in this age of specialization, throwing too many pitches doesn't seem to be a smart way to handle a young pitcher. For Steve Carlton and Tom Seaver, they would have laughed if you showed concern over their pitch counts. In the "old days" pitchers worked with a four-man rotation and sometimes less. Bullpens were expected to be used only very late in the game or in those cases where a pitcher just didn't have it on a particular day. Maybe training techniques were better back then, maybe pitchers didn't truly throw competitively as early back then or maybe, it's something else that can't fully be explained. One thing is for certain. With the higher paydays for star pitchers, young pitchers, their coaches, managers and team owners would all be wise to watch the numbers. As Robinson says, "you don't know when that limit is up."

Average number of pitches per start
Kevin Millwood87.495.691.9
Randy Wolf99.5103.2100.7
Vicente Padillareliever94.995.9
Brandon Duckworth100.897.880.7
Brett MyersDNP89.299.2
A.J. Burnett102.6109.5103.3
Randy Johnson116.6114.296.3
Greg Maddux86.777.982.6
Curt Schilling106.0105.9105.6
Javier Vazquez105.4104.2107.4
Kerry Wood107.8102.5111.4

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