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What's Up With...? The Diamondbacks' Pitch Counts

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The 149 pitches didn't hurt Edwin's arm. However, he will require surgery after having to sign ten million autographs the day following his no-hitter.
The 149 pitches didn't hurt Edwin's arm. However, he will require surgery after having to sign ten million autographs the day following his no-hitter.

When Edwin Jackson threw his no-hitter last Friday against the Tampa Bay Rays, almost as much attention was given to his pitch-count as the feat itself. Because it took Jackson 149 pitches to get the 27 outs: the highest number ever recorded for a no-hitter, and also the most thrown by any starter in the major leagues since 2005. The decision by Hinch to leave Jackson in led to some snarky comments, such as Bill Simmons' Tweet, "Edwin Jackson is going to be greeted at the mound by his teammates and Tommy John."

So, what's all the fuss about? After the jump, we'll take a look at why pitch-counts have been increasingly restricted over the past decade or so, the recent rebellion against those, and what impact the outing might have on Jackson down the road.

Firstly, we should put the steadily-declining pitch-count into some kind of historical context. The following chart shows, for each year the Diamondbacks have been in existence, the number of outings where a pitcher went to 120 pitches or beyond, and also to 140 pitches or more. You'll immediately see the 140+ outing was driven to extinction in the mid-2000's, until its rediscovery in Tampa by Edwin Jackson. But even the 120+ outing is only seen at about one-fifth of the rate at which it was present a decade or so ago. The drop is startling - the number basically halved in 2001, then remained steady for a few years, before dropping to about the current level from 2007.

Year 120+ 140+ Highest
1998 475 21 152 (Livan Hernandez)
1999 414 11 153 (Pedro Astacio)
2000 400 6 148 (Ron Villone)
2001 196 2 147 (Randy Johnson)
2002 193 1 150 (Randy Johnson)
2003 228 2 141 (Kerry Wood)
2004 186 3 144 (Jason Schmidt)
2005 135 2 150 (Livan Hernandez)
2006 120 0 138 (Livan Hernandez)
2007 81 0 130 (2 players)
2008 73 0 138 (Tim Lincecum)
2009 92 0 133 (Roy Halladay)
Sources: ESPN.com and Baseball-Reference.com

Pitch counts are a relatively new innovation, to the extent that MLB only began tracking them as an official statistics as recently as 1999 [Stats Inc. has numbers for about another decade prior to that]. However, the late Paul Richards, then GM of the Houston Colt .45s used it as far back as the mid-60's to protect Larry Dierker, who had been signed out of high school, and debuted in the majors on his 18th birthday. However, two important articles appear to have laid the foundation. In 1998, Rany Jazayerli came up with 'Pitcher Abuse Points', and a couple of years later collaborated with Keith Woolner on a study which concluded

Managers who allow pitchers to throw too many pitches in a start may not be only jeopardizing that pitcher's future, but hurting his current team's chances at success as well. For the benefit of another half inning of work from a tired starter, a manager may be gambling with that pitcher's next 4 or 5 starts at the very least. The evidence shown here shows that a season-long strategy to maximize the effectiveness of a pitching staff through managed workloads makes sense, even under an urgent "we need to win now, the future will take care of itself" philosophy.

Another tipping-point may have been Kerry Wood blowing out his elbow, after a 1998 rookie season in which he threw over 120 pitches eight times, at age 20-21. That's a workload reached by only two pitchers in the past five full seasons: Livan Hernandez (15, 2005) and Justin Verlander (11, 2009) - both considerably older than Wood, at 30 and 26 respectively. It's generally thought that young pitchers are particularly vulnerable to damage from excessive use, and Wood was never quite the same again. As Dr. Louis Keppler, who has worked with the Indians since 1991, said:  "There are only so many bullets in the gun. If you throw a ball long enough, you will hurt yourself."

Now, let's look at the top five teams in 2010 through last night, for the various levels of pitching stamina.

Pitches 100+ 110+ 120+
#1 Red Sox, 60 Rangers, 26 Cubs, 8
#2 Angels, 59 Angels, 25 Giants, 5
Brewers, 5
D-backs, 5
#3 Rangers, 55 Giants, 24
D-backs, 24

#4 Reds, 51
D-backs, 51
#5 Astros, 23
Red Sox, 23
Four teams, 4

I'm not surprised by Texas ranking highly. Their team president is Nolan Ryan, who has made no secret of his disdain for the dogma of fixed pitch counts, abandoning their use in the Rangers organization at the start of last season, instead planning to improve starter conditioning. He told one paper, he wants starters "to go out there with the intent of pitching late into games and not complaining." Thus far, the results seem to have been mixed: while the team's overall ERA is among the best in the AL, in terms of innings per start, the Texas rotation is ranked ahead only of Baltimore,

All told, about half of National League starts reach a hundred pitches, but for Arizona overall, the number is 50 of 77 game. Thus far, Ian Kennedy and Dan Haren have each had 14 outings of 100 pitches or more, in 16 and 17 starts respectively. That's one off the National League lead (Yovani Gallardo). All told, in terms of total pitch-count, three Diamondbacks are ranked in the top ten of the NL: Haren is #1, with Edwin Jackson at #8 and Kennedy #10.

However, things are different when you look at Pitcher Abuse Points, which are based on the principle that additional pitches increase damage exponentially - a 130-pitch outing is 8x more damaging than a 115-pitch start, and 216x worse than 105 pitches]. There, Jackson is the clear leader in the entire majors, with over twice as many PAP as the #2. Admittedly, more than 78% of Edwin's PAP for the entire year were the result of his no-hitter. Dan Haren is ranked 8th there, the only Diamondbacks pitcher in the top thirty. So what's the team's official position on pitch-counts?

It's something that already cropped up earlier in the year, and was covered by Nick Piecoro. At that point (May 15), the team had thrown 23 hundred-pitch games in 36 contests - that's a 64% rate, which has remained almost unchanged to the present-day number (65%). At that point, manager AJ Hinch said, "In an ideal world you don’t have to extend and tax your starters that way. We’ve been riding these guys pretty hard. I think on a start-to-start basis, it’s not wearing them out, but over a six-month, extended-view period, it can weigh on guys."

Almost prophetically, he added "We track them inning-by-inning. Edwin, for example, one night had a ton of pitches early and cruised through the middle innings and was throwing 96 mph at the end. It’s always balancing the here and now with long-term health, and knowing your pitchers is key." Hinch said the rough figure aimed for by the club was 320 pitches over three starts, so let's take a look and see how close that rule of thumb has been followed for our four front-line starters. The chart below shows the pitches thrown by each, and the next column the total for that start and the preceding two. The number is in bold if it's over the 320-pitch guideline.


Haren 3-total Jackson 3-total Kennedy 3-total Lopez 3-total
1 92
94
94
90
2 108
98
100
101
3 121 321 109 301 102 296 109 300
4 104 333 106 313 111 313 89 299
5 115 340 55 270 110 323 89 287
6 112 331 88 249 110 331 100 278
7 111 338 103 246 100 320 102 291
8 114 337 121 312 109 319 106 308
9 98 323 114 338 116 325 80 288
10 110 322 115 350 103 328 90 276
11 99 307 102 331 94 313 115 285
12 126 335 123 340 108 305 92 297
13 114 339 109 334 114 316 97 304
14 114 354 115 347 103 325 109 298
15 114 342 107 331 109 326 103 309
16 109 337 149 371 115 327 99 311
17 112 335





These are four radically-different sets of results. Dan Haren has been above the 320-pitch line for almost every game this season. Edwin Jackson started below the mark, but has been over it for the best part of two months straight - and, for obvious reasons, probably won't be going anywhere for the next couple of starts. Ian Kennedy has been up and down, but never far over it, with his seasonal high only 331. And Rodrigo Lopez hasn't even come within fifteen of the suggested three-game total. Is it coincidence that the two perhaps most likely to be here in 2011 - Kennedy and Lopez - have been ridden less hard than those we might be showcasing for trades?

I don't blame AJ Hinch in the slightest for leaving Jackson in, especially once he got to the later stages, and the no-hitter was still intact. Only three players in the majors has been pulled, after pitching even seven innings without allowing a hit, since Don Wilson of Houston in September 1974 - Wilson was the last to be relieved after getting any outs in the eighth. [As an aside, you want tragic? Try Steve Barber, pulled after 8.2 no-hit innings in April 1967. And that was just two weeks after he took a no-hit bid into the ninth, losing it to a double with one out.]

However, whether he wants to or not, Edwin Jackson has now become a lab rat for the pitch count argument, with his next few starts undoubtedly being closely scrutinized to see if he has suffered any ill-effects. If he fails, the pitch-count crew will mutter, "Told you so!" and continue wrapping pitchers' arms in cotton-wool; if he appears unaffected, the old-school brigade will snort derisively in their turn, and keep on demanding every pitcher should throw 35 complete games a year. As in most things, the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle, but for now, Jackson's performance will remain a throwback to a bygone era.