Pitch Counts are here to Stay
Steve Nesius / AP
A lot of times during the Tampa Bay Rays 2009 season we have seen a Rays starter get into a dominating groove against an opponent and he begins to take complete control of the game only to be taken out after a mystery number of pitches, or because the current pitching match-up philosophy dictates he has run his course in a game. But the common question still on our minds is why is there a mystery pitch count number,and why do some of the Rays starters seem to get more of a leash than others before getting yanked out of a contest?
We have all witnessed the unusual pitching formulas in person where the Rays Coaching Staff will let a starter come out in the top of an inning to face maybe only one batter before being yanked for a reliever. But why it the system doesn’t let this starter finish the inning? Why is the match-ups more important than the flow of the game at that point. Would letting a starter throw an additional 10 pitches to try and finish the inning endanger him more towards an injury, or a possible loss?
The Rays current pitching situation is apparently based on computer-based match-ups and not pitch count, but sometimes it just seems like misused mathematics gone wrong when the Bullpen ruins the outing for the starter..
Because we have all seen starters who are in total control on the mound get taken out late in the 7th or 8th inning with a definite shutout possibility and a still possessing a manageable pitch count, usually under 100 pitches. And then the Rays reliever comes in and gives up either a few base hits or a home run and the shutout and quality start have been flushed down the toilet. With good intentions by the starter, but a loss in the process. Could the system need a bit more instinct than Sabermetrics at times. And do the Rays have any flexibility in the system at all?
Sure there have been pitching moments this season where we all collectively felt Rays Manager Joe Maddon might have left a guy in too long, or maybe might have taken someone out a bit early and he could have fought through the problems and collected a “W”. But the physical side of the game of baseball along with the fans has been slow to accept this new found set of pitching principles. But it seems to me that the Rays Coaching Staff is now totally committed to this new style of pitching, and we are the one who must learn the system before we pull all of our hairs out of our skulls.
And the argument for or against a set number of pitches for a starter or even a reliever has been a winded and highly emotional debate that will go on until we can get some critical answers to our overflowing bowl of questions. What we as a fans need to do now, for our own sanity, is to try and understand the new pitching system before we can make an clear and educated judgment or even begin to condemn the operation as a waste of our pitching talent base. And it is hard to accept what some people have coined as the “wussification of pitching” because of the adaptation of this process by many teams in the Major Leagues.
Has the games parameters changed that much in the last 10 years where we are now considering a formally common thing like a Complete Game or even a quality start as a thing of beauty and rarity instead of a by-product of the game? Have we whittled down the pitching system so much that if a starting pitcher hits a 130+ pitch mark in a game it is a time to get really excited, or maybe even concerned?
In a recent series against the Rays on September 4, 2009, Detroit starter Justin Verlander threw 126 pitches and the Rays let starter Jeff Niemann throw 115 pitches before he was pulled from the home game. I mean this newly anointed system points oddly towards the century mark( 100 pitches) as a precursor to the thought process of removing someone from the game. But is that number set in stone if a guy is struggling on the mound, or is that just set as a barometer mark for guys throwing with authority and control? Right now this pitching system is beyond the infant stage, but is just now being accepted by some people in the stands.
We see the actual game pitch count now displayed everywhere from the Internet In-Game boxscores to the stadium scoreboards or special displays, to the constant verbal barrage by the Television and Radio announcers to this 100+ marks level of mortality in pitching. This designated mark in the game now seems to be the key determination factor more than actual game performance now. I mean will we some day just look up at the scoreboard and see 100 pitches flashing on the screen and know that our pitcher’s personal time bomb is ticking and will soon be taken out of the game?
I mean this must have a wild effect on the pitching staff as a whole knowing that even if they are cruising along, that at that century mark they could get pulled from the game and see their work trashed within a 1/3 of an inning by an unstable Bullpen. But in recent Rays games we have seen a glint of pitch count flexibility in this system. Maybe it is because we are no longer playing for the post season, or maybe it is just the fact that right now the Rays Bullpen is fighting a uphill confidence battle amongst themselves.
Either way, it is encouraging to see Rookie Wade Davis take the mound in front of the Tropicana Field crowd for his Major League Debut and get to throw 105 pitches, and leave with the lead and a possible 1st MLB victory. But then we quickly saw it evaporate as the Rays Bullpen threw a cookie down the middle to Tigers slugger Brandon Inge who hit a Grand Slam in the top of the 9th inning to boost Detroit to a victory 5-3. But the aspect of letting Davis even get to that 105 pitch mark might have been dashed if the Rays were still hot in the fight for a playoff berth.
But could there be other determining factor like adjusted work load and the fact that some of the staff might be fighting arm fatigue or shoulder soreness that we do not know about. But so far the Rays have not announced any shutdowns or reflected minimal outings for their starters in 2009, which hopefully means that people like Davis, Niemann and David Price will get to throw deeper into games for the rest of the season. But that again becomes a double-edged sword for the Rays.
For if one of those three were to come down with an injury before the October 4th Season Finale against the New York Yankees, the fans would be wondering out loud of the system hurt or helped the pitcher this year. That is why yesterday I brought up the idea of shutting down maybe two of the guys who have put in maximum innings the past two seasons. But in reality, the Rays usually employ a 75-pitch count in
the minor league for some of their starters, and for that reason, even Davis has thrown a total of 158.2 innings in the minors before his current 9.2 innings so far for the Rays.
Both Davis and Price were held to strict pitch counts in the minors in 2009 with an eye towards the end of this season. The minor league system of limiting pitches might have actually helped the Rays in their decision to maybe shut some people down this year. But considering Price only threw a total of 34.1 innings before coming up to the Rays, and only has a total of 144 innings right now, both Price and Davis should be able to complete the rest of their starts this season without a shutdown.
But can the same be said for fellow rookie Jeff Niemann? He put in a total of 133 innings at Triple-A last season before finally coming back up to the Rays and throwing 16 extra innings in the Major Leagues in 2008. Combine that with his 2009 total of 165.2 innings with the big club this season, and he also might be about ready to cross into the new systems red danger line for yearly pitching totals. But with each pitcher maybe getting three more total starts each, the possibility of adding 15+ innings to those totals seems to be garnishing no concerns from the Rays.
This new system is as curious to me as a new girlfriend. You know you like it, and you know it is right for you, but you are afraid of the consequences if it falls apart and you are left in the ruins. There will be a huge bit of discussion in the off season by both the fans, media and the Rays themselves as to the merits and demerits of this new found system. But in the end, if it can reduce injuries and keep guys playing longer in their careers and with more explosive stuff, then it might just be the savior of the pitching game.
But the system will have to be flexible to adjust to each teams needs and wants and not be written into stone tablets for all to follow with a strict code of obedience. The system will show its flaws soon, and it is how we adjust to those waves of ups and down as to the future of this system with the Rays. “Going with the flow” might be the term for the rest of 2009 and 2010. For if we do transfer a bit of the workload onto a competent Bullpen with guys secure and ready for anything, then this system and the Rays fan can again see glory coming their way.