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The ongoing mystery of Nolan Ryan and Ranger pitch counts

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Gary Thorne has a column in USA Today about Nolan Ryan putting an end to these wimpy pitch counts and teaching pitchers to be real men.

Or at least, that's the tone that suffuses what seems to me to be a rather shallow and ridiculous piece, which we can examine, FJM-style:



Under the leadership of club president Nolan Ryan, the Texas Rangers have embarked on a pitching experiment that could be called "back to the future on the mound."

The experiment may also have a major impact on the use of the dreaded pitch count which has been in vogue for perhaps too long in MLB

It "may" have a major impact on something that has been in vogue "for perhaps too long"?  Awesome use of the weasel words there.  While mixing in a reference to pitch counts as "dreaded"...because goodness knows, making sure guys don't regularly hit 140 or 150 pitches is something to be railed against.

Ryan has banished the use of the pitch count in determining how long a pitcher stays in the game through out the organization.

That's right!  You go to hell, pitch count!  No one in the organization needs to know how many pitches any pitcher has thrown in a game!!!

Of course, every pitching coach will know that count,

What?  Oh.  Nevermind.  Ignore that last thing I wrote.

but that is no longer the criteria for when to pull a pitcher.

So, is the sixth inning, Neftali Feliz is at 135 pitches for Oklahoma, but I'm sure the pitching coach will ignore that and just consider, you know, how Neftali says he feels.  Arm feels good?  Great, Neftali...head back on out there, see if you can hit the sesquicentennial mark.

We are primarily talking starters here,, pitch counts for starters = bad.  I guess pitch counts for relievers is okay, though.

a role Ryan filled to HOF standards, going deep into games.

If a pitch count had been around when Ryan pitched, he would have been out in the third or fourth inning of most games with all the strikeouts and walks.

Ha ha!  Yeah, that's right!  Because Ryan used to throw 200+ pitches per game all the time!

Or...well, maybe not.  If we look at B-R, the first year Ryan's pitch count data is available is 1988, his last season with the Astros..  He averaged a little over 16 pitches per inning.  1989, his first season with Texas?  16.4 pitches per inning.  So unless his pitch limit was 60 pitches, he wouldn't have been out in the third or fourth inning of most games.

As part of the effort, Ryan has also established a year round fitness program for pitchers. He told the Dallas Morning News the idea is to "establish our foundation" for starters.

Speaking from his own experience, Ryan said he "had to develop stamina because my intent was to pitch a lot of innings." That message is being sent loud and clear to the Texas starters.

Okay.  I've questioned a lot of the stuff surrounding Ryan here, but let me be clear...I think this is a good idea.  I am absolutely on board with pitchers having better stamina and being in better shape, and I think that that can only help these guys going forward.

Mike Maddux, the pitching coach for the Rangers, says you don't need a pitch count to know when your day is done. "The hitters will let you know that," he said.

Except Maddux is missing the point.  The issue isn't whether you can keep getting guys out at 130 pitches.  The issue is whether throwing the 131st and 135th and 140th and 150th pitch is going impact you in your next start, and the next month, and next season. 

"The ceiling is off," said Maddux. "This is a mental thing we have to overcome. We have to change the attitude of the starters to want to go deep and believe they can."

I hope this is Maddux just spouting some b.s. to a gullible writer.  I hope Maddux isn't serious when he says there's no ceiling to the amount of pitches that Martin Perez or Michael Main or Kasey Kiker is going to be allowed to throw in a game.  I hope we aren't going to hear that Neil Ramirez threw 183 pitches in some Sally League game because he looked comfortable out there and said his arm felt fine.

I mean, we can all agree that there's some limit beyond which it doesn't make sense for a pitcher to keep pitching, right?  Beyond which one is looking at an undesirable risk of future damage?  200 pitches?  300 pitches?

The Rangers instituted the process of eliminating the pitch count and building stamina in spring training said Maddux. "We had the pitchers throwing live batting practice besides their regular work."

"We want guys who want the ball deep in the game," said Maddux. He believes that the results of this experiment will be seen as early as June.

Okay, again, conceptually, this is fine.  Stamina is good.  Wanting pitchers to work deeper into games is good.

Andy MacPhail, the president of baseball operations for the Orioles finds the Texas effort "a good idea." He smiled and said, "We will let them (Texas) go first, but the other 29 clubs are going to be monitoring the results."

Well, that's really encouraging, isn't it?  The other teams think it is such a good idea, that they aren't going to actually do it themselves, until they figure out whether or not the Rangers are going to destroy the collection of young arms they've accumulating by doing this.

"Having Nolan Ryan and his reputation behind the effort lends tremendous credibility to the concept," said MacPhail.

MacPhail cited a number of changes in the game that brought the pitch count to the fore.

"Pitchers are on for the short term now," he said. "We play the game in high energy, short bursts. It's a give it all you've got for as long as you can and then you come out."

"Specialization also drove the pitch count," said MacPhail. With middle relievers, long men, set up pitchers and closers all part of a team's structure, the need to use them in their roles suggested a pitch count on the starter, then turn the game over to the pen.

MacPhail thinks it will take years to know if the experiment works. "We need to see if the pitchers under the Texas system remain durable and how many more innings they pitch over an extended time. That's how we will gauge the results."

The bolded part is mine, and I think it is an important differentiation to make, between the way the game is played now, and the way it was up until 25-30 years ago.

Watch when the MLB Network shows a game from the 50s or 60s, or even the 70s.  You'll see sequences involving 160 pound hitters choking up on the bat and presenting no real power threat, and the pitcher backing off and saving his good stuff for the real threats.

MacPhail's point is why you don't have guys pitching on two or three days rest anymore, why you don't have guys pitching up the huge inning counts they did back in the day.  Pitchers nowadays are giving everything they have to every batter in order to succeed, particularly in the A.L., where there is no pitcher's spot coming up.  You can't coast against a third of the lineup the way you used to be able to do.

And yet, for whatever reason, the fact that pitchers are going harder now seems to get glossed over when people ask why guys aren't throwing 140 pitches and logging complete games and pitching 270 innings per year

Maddux noted that the system is in place with the Rangers big league staff now. Starters understand that not only does their pitching coach and manager expect efforts deep in to the game, but the president of the club wants the same.

Ryan summed up for the Dallas Morning News at the start of the season what he wants to see from starters: "The dedication and work ethic that it takes to pitch an entire season as a starting pitcher and the discipline to continue to maintain his routine all year. And he wants the ball every fifth day, and he's going to go out there with the intent of pitching late into games and not complaining."

The rest of baseball is intently watching.

Watching.  But not following.

Okay.  Taken literally, what Thorne is suggesting is madness.  But at the end of the day, I don't think that this is what is happening, or is going to happen.

We've already heard a lot of talk about guys like Wilmer Font and Martin Perez and Fabio Castillo pitching out of the pen in order to manage their innings.  The season is underway, and I'm not seeing any reports of prospects racking up crazy pitch counts.

Yes, the president of the team is watching.  But is what is being expressed in this article really what he expects?

Or asked another way...What Did Nolan Do?

Let's look back at the B-R 1988, the first season the info is available, how many times did he crack 125 pitches?

4 times. 

And why is that?  Well, we can look and see that, early in the year, Ryan threw 141 pitches in a complete game win against the Phillies.  And his next time out, he only threw 82 pitches...because he was knocked after 4 innings, having allowed 6 runs.

Then in June, Nolan threw 139 pitches in 7 innings.  He was yanked after 3 1/3 innings his next outing. 

Those were his two highest pitch totals of the season.  And the games immediately after those two games were (with the exception of his final game of the season, when he was lifted after 2 shutout innings) his two shortest stints of the year, and the games with 2 of his 4 lowest game scores of the season.

You think maybe Astro manager Hal Lanier figured that Nolan didn't bounce back too well after those high-pitch games, and just quit leaving him out there so long?

Now, 1989 was a little different -- in 1989, Nolan was with the Rangers, and Bobby Valentine didn't worry about pitch counts.  Just ask Eddie Correa.  Or Jose Guzman.  Or Bobby Witt.

In 1989, Ryan had 19 games of at least 125 pitches, including 7 games of 140 pitches or more.  Ryan went 150 and 162 pitches -- his two highest pitch totals of the season -- on consecutive starts in September of that year.  He averaged 126 pitches per game.

1990, however, saw the pitch counts drop again.  7 games above 125 pitches.  Four starts in July where he ranged from 137 to 149 pitches, and otherwise, no games of more than 130 pitches.  He averaged 109 pitches per game.

And by 1991, Ryan was almost human.  Only two games of more than 130 pitches, with a peak of 131.  Only three games of more than 125 pitches.  In only 6 of his 27 starts did he throw as many as 120 pitches.  An average of 104 pitches per game.

Now, were his pitch counts higher in his younger days?  I'm sure so.  But the idea that Nolan was a mythical pitching beast, regularly putting up 150+ pitch outings into his 40s, is...well, is a myth.

And here's one other thing to keep in mind.  Ryan did not, relative to his peers, rack up a ton of innings.  He led the league in innings once.  He finished third two teams.  Those were the only times, in his 27 year career, he finished in the top 5 in innings pitched.

Which is probably for the best.  Because when you look at the league leaders in innings pitched in that era, you see a lot of guys like Andy Messersmith (last good season at age 30), Catfish Hunter (last good season at age 30), and Randy Jones (last good season at age 29).

Anyway...I'd still like to know what exactly is going on as far as this goes in the Ranger minor league system.  My gut tells me that this isn't as dramatic and radical as it is being portrayed...that some of this talk is just psychological, to try to help mentally toughen up these pitchers so that they'll take a more rugged mindset into games.

If this is simply about getting guys to try to push to 120 pitches once they get to the major league level rather than shut it down at 100, then okay.  I don't think 19 year old pitchers should be regularly going 120-130 pitches...but then, it doesn't appear that that is what the team is doing.

But if this is about trying to create a legion of Nolans, a collection of guys who are expected to throw 300 innings at age 24 and rack up 150+ pitch games, then I'm really worried about what the future holds for Derek Holland, Neftali Feliz, et al.