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White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper thinks you should shut up about pitch counts

May 30, 2012, 10:47 AM EDT

Don Cooper AP

Chris Sale throwing 115 pitches in his dominant, 15-strikeout start Monday has led to some talk about whether the White Sox were smart to let him stay in the game that long considering it was his ninth career start and came just weeks after temporarily shifting him to the bullpen amid elbow problems.

White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper has a message for anyone questioning the wisdom of extending Sale’s pitch count that far, and that message is basically “you’re an idiot”:

Pitch counts are for people who have never been in the game. … We’re in the American League. We’re not in Little League. But nevertheless, people who bring up pitch counts are people who have nothing else to really know. And it just blows me away. They’re doing that to say, “God forbid if someone goes down, I told you so.” And these are people who are not in the arena and never really played, so what kind of validity does any of that hold? … Stick to whatever their hobbies are, these pitch count (guys).

There’s some truth to parts of that, of course, but the notion that only people outside of the game pay attention to pitch counts is silly. For better or worse every pitching coach and manager in the league makes decisions based on pitch counts, Cooper included. His point is that there’s no need to get worked up about one 115-pitch outing, but the thing is that those “pitch count guys” would almost surely agree with that as well.

It’s also worth noting that Cooper has been the White Sox’s pitching coach since way back in 2002 and Sale’s outing Monday was the first time since 2005 that he’s allowed a 23-or-younger starter to throw at least 115 pitches. Brandon McCarthy was the last 23-and-under pitcher to do that under Cooper and … well, coincidence or not his career has been filled with disabled list stints and arm problems since then.

And in the seven seasons between McCarthy doing it and Sale doing it the White Sox got 78 starts from a 23-or-younger pitcher and none of them involved throwing 115-plus pitches. Maybe that’s a coincidence or maybe–you may want to sit down for this–Cooper is paying attention to the pitch counts of young starters and using them to make decisions.

  1. koufaxmitzvah - May 30, 2012 at 10:54 AM

    The Pitch Count is a lot like the idea of a Quality Start. Both “stats” dumb down the profession. There is not much quality in allowing 3 earned runs over 6 innings (4.50 ERA), just like there is very little validity in limiting a major league starting pitcher to 100 pitches (around 11 pitches per inning of a 9 inning game).

    If the pitcher is effective, and if strategy allows my manager to keep him in the ballgame, then as a fan, I want this to happen. I don’t care if it takes 110-120 pitches to get me through a complete game. If my guy is a talented pro, and if strategy to win the game allows it, then he should be able to handle it.

    • The Dangerous Mabry - May 30, 2012 at 11:44 AM

      It’s worth noting that the worst-case Quality Start is not the “average” Quality Start. Back in 2006, Rob Neyer did the legwork on this, and found that if you took all of the Quality Starts for the season, and compared them to the “non-Quality” starts, you got the following results (for the 2005 season):

      QS: 2.04 ERA
      Non-QS: 7.70 ERA

      (You can find that article here behind the paywall: http://insider.espn.go.com/mlb/insider/columns/story?columnist=neyer_rob&id=2407313)

      In 2007, Jay Jaffe took a look at the QS, and found that teams getting a Quality Start win about 68% of their games (http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=6667).

      I’m not saying it’s a brilliant metric, but it’s a nice back-of-the-envelope kind of thing that gives a pretty good idea of which pitchers are getting it done and giving their teams a chance to win, and which pitchers are not.

      Looking only at the worst-case example of any statistic can make it look like a bad metric.

      • paperlions - May 30, 2012 at 11:59 AM

        ….and for all its faults, QS is still a much better measure of performance than the pitcher win.

        RBI and batting average are also worse at measuring what they are trying to measure than QS.

      • koufaxmitzvah - May 30, 2012 at 12:25 PM

        I guess I come from the school that takes a look at a player’s effectiveness by looking at the grand total of statistics. Why reward a player with a shiny stat when overall ERA and Wins tells me, on the face, of just how effective that player is.

        Personally, when I feel the need to go deeper on a pitcher’s dominance, I then look at Strikeouts and Strikeout-to-Walk ratio and Innings Pitched. Again, as per my personal preference, the QS is redundant and has the ability to jumble the conversation.

      • Reflex - May 30, 2012 at 11:57 PM

        Probably because while not perfect, QS gives a far more accurate read on a pitcher than Wins do. No reason to let the perfect be the enemy of the better.

  2. WhenMattStairsIsKing - May 30, 2012 at 11:02 AM

    Depends on the pitcher. CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander don’t need to worry too much about pitch counts. 2003 Mark Prior and Kerry Wood should have.

    • jerryball22 - May 30, 2012 at 11:45 AM

      But what makes 2006 Verlander different from 2003 Prior? Both young, polished college pitchers who threw hard. Saying you should treat one differently than the other is just confirmation bias.

      • WhenMattStairsIsKing - May 30, 2012 at 11:56 AM

        Saying you should treat one differently than the other because every human body is unique is what may save a lot of pitchers, Jerry.

        Every pitcher can’t throw 100+ pitches, or 6+ innings, or certain types of pitches, and so on. Making regimens unique to one’s own limitations is what I’m saying here. That’s key.

      • jerryball22 - May 30, 2012 at 12:10 PM

        Certainly humans are unique – but how do you tell the difference? Giving credit to the Tigers for Verlander while ignoring Bonderman is ignorant. Prior was one of the best pitching prospects of the decade with picture perfect mechanics – why wouldn’t he be able to throw 100 pitches a start and 200 innings?

        My point is it’s easy (and lazy) to look back now and say “Wood and Prior should have been worried,” but how can we look forward and prevent that from happening again? I’m not sure there is a good answer right now. Guys with strict pitch counts get hurt too. It’s a tough question.

      • seeinred87 - May 30, 2012 at 12:48 PM

        @jerryball

        People said Prior’s mechanics were perfect, but they really weren’t. He shows a lot of the same signs as other oft-injured pitchers, including that dreaded inverted w (which isn’t a problem in and of itself, I guess, but usually creates a timing problem that puts more stress on the elbow and shoulder).

        Here’s a breakdown of his mechanics, compared to Maddux and Ryan:
        http://www.chrisoleary.com/projects/PitchingMechanics101/Essays/MarkPriorPitchingMechanics_ADifferentPerspective.html

      • Reflex - May 31, 2012 at 12:00 AM

        Yup, Bonderman was another one with serious mechanical issues. Certainly genetics plays a role in player health, but athletes are not immune to the same repetitive stress injuries that harm people in other professions, in fact they may be more prone due to the max effort they put into any motion.

        Yes Prior was touted as being perfect by some, but a lot of others saw problems, and to a large degree its ridiculous that Dusty Baker was given all the blame for Prior and Wood. Not that Baker is a great manager or anything, but he’s not a pitching coach and shouldn’t be expected to correct poor mechanics.

    • Patrick - May 30, 2012 at 12:00 PM

      Keith Law references these two guys all the time on the Baseball Today podcast when talking about pitching injuries. The point he makes is that both guys were ridden hard when they were visibly tired in low leverage situations. Pitching tired, according to Law, might be the bigger threat to injury as opposed to a specific pitch count.

  3. dorbs345 - May 30, 2012 at 11:03 AM

    Pitch counts are stupid. So is the limiting innings idea. Pitchers used to throw 150-175 pitches in a game, and over 300 innings a season. And that was before improvements in the medical field, and before players made millions. Let em pitch, you can’t prevent injuries, some guys bodies just don’t hold up and they are consistently injured no matter what you try and do to prevent (Kerry Wood), It’s all genetics.

    • paperlions - May 30, 2012 at 3:52 PM

      Pitchers also used to throw to a bunch of 160 lb guys that wouldn’t do anything with it if you grooved it for them. Lineups are a LOT deeper and dangerous now than they used to be.

      • dorbs345 - Jun 1, 2012 at 12:53 PM

        True, but some guys could throw way more. I bet Verlander could pitch 300 innings no problem!

  4. vansloot - May 30, 2012 at 11:06 AM

    I vaguely remember reading some research (BP maybe?) saying that the number of pitches in one game is less important than the number of days of rest between games. (e.g. pitching every day like a closer is harder on the arm than pitching every five like a starter.)

    That said, I’ve never played the game so my opinion is meaningless and I should just stick to whatever my hobbies are.

    Does anyone ever get the feeling that some of these managers would be happier if people didn’t watch baseball at all?

  5. jimbo1949 - May 30, 2012 at 11:13 AM

    Limiting pitch counts to 100+- pitches is an overreaction to leaving a pitcher out on the mound for 150 pitches(Old School)and blowing out his arm. The game has adjusted to a 5 man rotation and an 7-8 man bullpen. No need to overwork your staff out of necessity. Less pitches per man are the result.

  6. j0ey15 - May 30, 2012 at 11:13 AM

    I think all you guys have great points… From playing a long time I think as the game goes on its more about how effective the pitcher is late in the game and everyone looks at the pitch count more or less as an excuses as to why the pitcher is coming out of the game… I think as the game goes on and pitch count increases pitching coaches are more focuses on the mechanics and the movement on the pitches more so then the magic number of 100 pitches to take a pitcher out of the game… But I think all you guys have great points even the article was written great

  7. digitaldonnie - May 30, 2012 at 11:13 AM

    Ask Kerry Wood if pitch counts are stupid.

  8. paperlions - May 30, 2012 at 11:46 AM

    Obviously, the number of pitches a guy throws is important and worth tracking. The points Cooper needed to make was that 1) pitch counts are not the most important criterion on which to base in-game decisions, and 2) that pitch counts are worth tracking, but they are only one variable (and a secondary one at that) you need to pay attention to when managing a guys workload.

    Of course pitch counts are important, but the number of pitches that can be thrown safely in an outing or during a season is not the same for all pitchers….so obsessing about the number 100 is counter productive.

  9. Patrick - May 30, 2012 at 11:58 AM

    Aren’t there questions about Sale’s ability to stay healthy? I thought people like Law question the mechanics. If true, then why not get as much out of the guy while they can? Again, if true, sounds like Sale is gonna hit the DL regardless of the extra 15 pitches he threw.

    • paperlions - May 30, 2012 at 12:00 PM

      The idea is to keep the guy healthy and contributing…..not to send him to the DL ASAP.

      • Patrick - May 30, 2012 at 12:23 PM

        Just what does healthy mean for a guy with (I assume) questionable mechanics? 3-year career? Reliever? If you are going to start Sale, then start him knowing that he will be DL bound at some point. If you want to prolong his time on the active roster, then move him to the pen. I think “healthy” in this case is a relative term.

      • paperlions - May 30, 2012 at 12:44 PM

        What does healthy mean? That the guy can play.

        …and yes, if the guy has mechanics that preclude him from starting, they he should be a reliever. It doesn’t benefit anyone to wear a guy out in a year or 2 and end his career or shelve him for a year at a time.

      • Patrick - May 30, 2012 at 1:06 PM

        It looks like we are the same page with regards to Sale: he looks to have a shorter career, and that his best bet to stay healthy over the longest period of time would be to throw out of the pen. However, is this how the White Sox look at the situation? Do they want to get the most out of Sale before he gets injured/leaves as a FA? Perhaps the White Sox feel that Sale has more value as a starter. Moreover, Sale could have the most value as a starter free from arbitrary pitch counts. I guess the point of my original post which started this whole conversation is that the White Sox could view this situation through the lens of generating the most value right now, so the White Sox aren’t going to worry too much over his final pitch count.

  10. mallethead329 - May 30, 2012 at 12:18 PM

    White Sox. 2005. Post Season. Look at the stats. Best post season pitching since 1966 Orioles and one of the best of all time. Pitching coach: Don Cooper. Let it go.

    • deepstblu - May 30, 2012 at 3:29 PM

      Ah, the ’66 Orioles. An excellent, extremely young rotation that included Jim Palmer, who was on the DL for most of the next 2 1/2 seasons, and Wally Bunker, who soon got hurt and was never much good again. Were their pitch counts too high? Who can say?

  11. chitownmatt - May 30, 2012 at 12:34 PM

    I think Don was trying to make the point that there are a whole lot more things to think about than just “pitch count” eg, how many days rest has he had? how much did he throw last time out? how much did he throw in practice the other day? what is the temperature and ambient humidity? ext. ext.. ext…

    Pulling a guy who is having a good start just because he has reached a specific number or inning is stupid.

  12. sabathiawouldbegoodattheeighthtoo - May 30, 2012 at 12:46 PM

    While we can use small samples of anecdotal evidence to support either side of this argument, (Leiter thew 250 pitches in a game and had a long career, Strasburg was monitored as closely as can be and had TJ surgery, Sabathia and Verlander don’t even start counting until 120 pitches), is there any evidence that pitchers are hurt less frequently in the pitch count era?

    I’m sure there have been studies done about the rate of pitching injuries. It is not apples to apples though, since we don’t have the same medical info from past seasons, surgery and rehab techniques have improved, bullpen use has changed drastically, and teams have moved from 4 man to 5 man rotations. Do we have any clear evidence that lower pitch counts are better for pitchers in general?

  13. tmohr - May 30, 2012 at 12:52 PM

    Citing Brandon McCarthy’s two 2005 starts where he threw more than 115 pitches seems specious for a couple reasons.

    First, after those two starts, he had a 2.57 ERA for the rest of the 2005 season, so he was hardly ineffective. He was in 59 games as a reliever in 2006, so there doesn’t appear to have been any short-term impact.

    Furthermore, his injury problems did not begin until he left the Sox, so a more logical conclusion is that their handling of him may be suspect.

    • tmohr - May 30, 2012 at 12:54 PM

      “Their” being the Rangers, that is.

  14. RickyB - May 30, 2012 at 1:31 PM

    How about 296 pitches over three days? Is that too much for a college pitcher? Kid at Manhattan did that last weekend — complete-game shutout on Friday, two more scoreless innings on Saturday in relief for a win, then 11 (!) innings out of the bullpen without allowing a run on Sunday. I think the kid is a sidewinder, but still …

  15. shawndc04 - May 30, 2012 at 2:18 PM

    I heard another pitching coach who agrees with Cooper and seemed knowledgeable say that what leads to injury is not the pitch count per se, but knowing when a guy is starting to labor. That is when he presses too much and the injury results.

  16. ezthinking - May 30, 2012 at 2:39 PM

    God Bless Don Cooper. In March he gave us this http://hardballtalk.nbcsports.com/2012/03/23/quote-of-the-day-don-cooper-dont-need-to-think-about-no-stinkin-biomechanics/.

    I think Don does instinctively what many are trying to do with stats.

  17. dadawg77 - May 30, 2012 at 2:49 PM

    I always thought that pitch counts in general where a good proxy of how tired a pitcher will be. Tired pitchers mechanics break down which leads to injuries and bad performance. So one game, unless very high amount of pitches, will have a limited impact but high pitch counts over the course of a season will have a major impact.

    When it comes to a pitching performance from the comments of pitching coaches and old school fans, they ride pitchers to the point of fatigue, ie mechanics breaking down or speed reduction. That is question which clubs must answer, is it better to have pitchers going to that point of fatigue, which may or may not hurt long term, or is it better to sacrifice some pitching for the current game if it produces a long term benefit.

    • seeinred87 - May 30, 2012 at 3:31 PM

      Exactly, pitch counts aren’t useless, but they’re different for every pitcher. Some guys probably get tired after 80 pitches, some guys don’t get tired until 120. And that’s the key. When a player starts to get fatigued, his mechanics break down. Pitching a lot isn’t what leads to injury (assuming good mechanics), pitching tired is.

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