Younger fans might not remember a time when there wasn't a pitch count. The starting pitcher was often the finishing pitcher in games and he threw as many pitches as he needed to throw to complete the game. The starter was always counted on for pitching deep into the game, and deep in those days didn't mean six innings. It meant seven or eight.
Now, the pitch count is everything. Just how valid it is can be debated over and over. One thing is sure though. In nobody's book does it say that 67 pitches is too many for a starting pitcher. That's the point where Pete Mackanin pulled starter Jeremy Hellickson in Monday's game. Granted, Hellickson had allowed the Reds to load the bases twice, he ran out a triple in the top of the sixth inning - which probably was ill-advised on the part of third base coach Juan Samuel - and he gave up a leadoff double in the bottom of the sixth inning. All of those things are true.
Still, 67 pitches?
Hellickson was throwing more than that in Spring Training games. He's a veteran pitcher who threw 189 innings last season and believes that he can reach that magical 200 inning mark this season. Please tell me that we aren't coming into an age where managers are now not just going to look at the number of pitches thrown, but in what circumstances. Yes, a pitcher can have a tougher outing one day than he does the next and throw the same number of pitches. Working out of jams, having to focus on holding runners, dealing with errors behind him, all of those things can affect a pitcher's outing. Please though, let's not make this a world where starters have a couple of tough innings and wind up throwing just 67 pitches, having allowed one run.
Through his five-plus innings of work, Hellickson allowed six hits and walked just one, and had hit a batter. Of his 67 pitches, 45 were strikes. Keep in mind, that while the Phillies bullpen figures to be better, it's not necessarily great. Joaquin Benoit, Edubray Ramos and Hector Neris all did their jobs, giving the Phillies a shutout inning of work each, then came closer Jeanmar Gomez. After a late-season meltdown last season, Gomez was given the closer's job again this year and nearly blew his first save opportunity on Opening Day. Scooter Gennett took Gomez deep for a two-run shot that made it a 4-3 game, albeit with two outs. Gomez got the final out and locked down the win, but it didn't look easy.
Some of the problem with the bullpen last season was that late in the year, they were worn down. With a staff full of young pitchers who didn't pitch deep into a lot of games, the bullpen was overused and exposed. Gomez in particular, had nothing left when September rolled around.
Mackanin is going to have to depend on his starters to be tougher than he is looking for them to be right now. Hellickson very well might have given up a run in that sixth inning, and maybe even more, but 67 pitches is not a way to judge a starting pitcher. A veteran like Hellickson deserves the chance to at least get through six innings, especially when his pitch count isn't that high.
One theory might have been that Mackanin didn't want to tax his bullpen by having them come in to a tighter game in a tighter situation. Benoit is a veteran and has faced any number of tough situations, so he is certainly used to it by now. Ramos and Neris have been very good at the back end of the bullpen and if one of them is going to step in for Gomez at some point, they have to be tested. The bullpen is suspect, but you have to rely on them to be able to work out of jams until they show that they can't.
Mackanin is the right manager for this team and is great with young players, but he has to allow his pitchers to do their assigned jobs. For starters, that's to give him at least six innings of work, and for relievers, it's to work out of tough spots and close down a ballgame.