Jonah Keri has a very lengthy blog post up that talks about the Rangers' efforts at pushing the envelope in regards to pitcher throwin regimens and workloads, Nolan Ryan as a freak of nature in terms of durability, and the differences between the game of the 1960s and 1970s and the game nowadays, in regards to pitch counts, innings, and complete games. It is well worth a read, offering (among much else) details of a legendary battle between Ryan and Luis Tiant from three decades ago, comments from Rany Jazayerli and Keith Woolner (developers of the Pitcher Abuse Point stat that BP tracks) on the differences in the game, and historical information on the evolution of pitch counts.
I struggle with the issue of pitch counts and protecting pitchers, and I there's not only no easy solution, there may not really be a hard solution, either. There are so many moving pieces, so many differences between the game of today and the game of 30 or 40 years ago, so many differences in terms of genetics and training and so much we don't know...
Part of me thinks that you might as well ride pitchers hard, because, really, what do you have to lose? Nowadays, you get six years of a pitcher in the majors before they are eligible for free agency, so if a pitcher is done by the time he's 30, what difference does it make? Why save him so that the Yankees or Red Sox or Angels can scoop him up and win with him?
And if you apply a cost/benefit analysis, how many guys that you lose because of overwork would you lose anyway because they wouldn't be able to stand up to even a lighter workload? How much is there to gain by getting an extra 50-60 innings per year from a pitcher who can handle the workload, and is that additional benefit worth the risk of burning out a pitcher who can't stand up to the strain?
It is a tough, tough issue, one that has implications well into the tens of millions of dollars, and one that is so variable and has so many contributing factors that we may never be able to do much more than make educated guesses and hope for the best.