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The “let pitchers throw more” folks are full of beans

Aug 28, 2013, 8:57 AM EDT

Nolan Ryan Rangers

Every time a promising young pitcher goes down with a serious injury some old timer comes out of the woodwork and says that the injury proves that guys are being coddled, that pitch counts are the devil’s work and if we went back to four-man rotations, 300+ innings pitched a year and real stirrups and wool uniforms everything would be OK.  They did it with Strasburg. They’re doing it now with Harvey.

The latest is Terrence Moore of MLB.com:

… pitchers used to throw forever. I’m talking about in the Major Leagues, in the Minor Leagues, in Little Leagues and in sandlot leagues. And let’s get that ridiculous example out of the way in Walter Johnson. After he made his Major League debut in 1903, he pitched 200 innings or more 18 times in 21 years. He even went nine straight seasons throwing 300 innings or more. Two-hundred innings once was the standard for starting pitchers during a given season. Now, not so much …  how are these pitch counts working overall these days when it comes to keeping guys in the lineup? Ask Harvey.

All of these things follow the same pattern: they note recently diagnosed injuries, ignore injured pitchers of the past and use massive exceptions to the rule in the form of Hall of Fame-level superstars when it comes to trotting out examples.

Walter Johnson and Nolan Ryan are freaks in the best sense of the word. They were hard throwers who never broke down and pitched forever and ever. That’s why they are, quite literally, exceptional. As in: they are exceptions to the rule which posits that pitchers get hurt. Why does Terrence Moore write garbage when William Shakespeare did not? Why are writers these days not all like Shakespeare? See how that works?

Even more significantly, Moore and his old school brethren fail to recognize that, these days, pitcher injuries are diagnosed whereas, in the past, they rarely were. Guys who pitched all the way up until the 1970s were fine and then they “just lost it” or “their arm gave out.” They continued pitching as junkballers and knuckleballers or they were relegated to one of the hundreds upon hundreds of minor league teams, affiliated or not, and just gutted things out all the while never having a good answer to the question “what happened, Smokey? You used to zip it in there?”  How many of them tore UCLs or rotator cuffs or capsules or what have you? Tons, I’m sure. It’s not like someone invented the UCL in 1978. We just couldn’t diagnose those injuries.

Finally Moore and his ilk fail to recognize that guys throw much harder today with much more violence done to the arm and shoulder. Nasty hard sliders and split-finger pitches and cutters and what have you, with overall velocity — like all measurable athletic acts — improving and increasing as time goes on. How many third and fourth starters in the 1940s hit 93 on the gun? How many threw ungodly breaking stuff? That’s the threshold for even making it to the bigs these days and as such way more guys are doing way more violent things to their arms.

I don’t know if pitchers should throw more between starts. Or if we’re too soft with some guys who are mechanically sound and suffer no ill effects. Or if pitch counts matter less than innings or matter more. Like I said the other day, I don’t think we know much more about how to save a pitcher these days than we ever have and some are gonna get hurt no matter what we do.

But I do know that Moore and the old folks who think like him are just guessing here when they say pitchers should be treated like Mickey Lolich was treated in the 70s, and they’re guessing while being willfully blind to the differences in the game of old vs. the game today.

  1. phillysoulfan - Aug 28, 2013 at 1:01 PM

    Craig, you make an excellent point. However, you are discounting the fact that pitchers throw a lot in Japan and they do not seem to have the arm problems they do here. So there is something to that.

    • raysfan1 - Aug 28, 2013 at 1:17 PM

      Do we know that? In particular, do NPB (and even more so) Japanese minor leagues report injuries the way teams here do? (I don’t follow Japanese baseball and thus do not know the answer to the seceond question.) if not, then selection bias could be at play there–guys who are more likely to get hurt doing so in their minors and not getting to NPB or getting hurt there and quietly having short careers. I do know their season is a bit shorter and would thus mitigate the number of in Inge pitched at least to an extent.

      • raysfan1 - Aug 28, 2013 at 1:45 PM

        “In Inge?!” That was supposed to be “innings.” Foiled by fat thumbs and autocorrect again.

    • Jeremy T - Aug 28, 2013 at 1:23 PM

      They pitch less often, though. I don’t think it’s as simple as just “more”.

    • schleichen - Aug 28, 2013 at 5:13 PM

      The idea that Japanese pitchers don’t get hurt is as big a myth as the idea that old-timers never got hurt. Chris Jones’ excellent article, When 772 Pitches Isn’t Enough, should be required reading on this topic.

  2. crackersnap - Aug 28, 2013 at 4:53 PM

    I am not so sure that today’s pitchers throw harder than yesterday’s. If there is one thing that has not kept pace with the other advancements in human physical achievement, it’s how fast and how far a person can throw a baseball. Over the past 100 years, we are still within the 100-104mph range.

    It’s true that our ability to measure how fast a baseball is thrown has improved greatly (Bob Feller at 107mph? Using photocells?? Really???), but the differences appear to be rather minor compared to, say, the delta over time in how fast a man can run or how high a man can jump.

    Just because your third and fourth starter can also now throw hard doesn’t mean everyone on your staff throws harder than before. And some of the video we have of earlier pitchers reveal a lot of motions that, by today’s standards, sure seem unorthodox. Does that make today’s motions more violent, or less? Further, I would like to see the data concerning how hard pitchers of other eras threw their alternatives to a fastball. In fact, I would like to see the data on when various pitches came into being in the first place.

    And, of course, without PitchFX we will never know just how “ungodly” the breaking stuff was in the earlier eras.

    Based on this, I cannot (yet) agree that “way more guys are doing way more violent things to their arms” as it applies to pitchers currently on MLB rosters. the rest of the piece? No quibbles at all.

  3. castaluccio - Aug 29, 2013 at 12:08 AM

    Craig, not to say pitchers should pitch more; however, your argument regarding Walter Johnson and Ryan is somewhat misplaced. First of all, it seems every time Ryan pitched one of his later no no’s, he would miss his next start.
    As for Johnson, if he was a out of the ordinary, than one would have to classify Ironman Joe McGinnity, Cy Young, Happy Jack Chesbro and most of the pitchers who pitched at the turn of the century, and before as aliens. These guys typically pitched a full game and then relieved between starts. One does not win 311 game while losing 200+ by pitching every fourth day. If you recall, McGinnity once won both ends of a double header while going the distance in both games.
    Also, what about all those pitchers who pitched prior to expansion and made 37+ starts per year and typically went 9 nine innings? You know, those guys who typically tallied 18 to 25 complete games per year. Where they pitching less?
    Strange thing, these old time pitchers were mostly farmers, tradesmen, and saloon keepers who played baseball during the summer not professional athletes as are the players of today. Grover Alexander used to rub horse lineament on his arm to enable him to warm up faster and, he too, pitched game after game.
    I remember Whitey Ford pitching and 11-hit shutout against the A’s and Stengel let him go the full nine. Today, a guys gives up a run or hit late in a game and the bull pen gets up and ready to go. No Shutout today because a pitcher rarely goes more than 6+ anymore.
    Funny Spahn holds the record for most wins by a left-hander (363) and he pitched something like 42 shutouts which means he pitched at least 42 complete games and he never had arm issues or fatigue issues; he just went out and beat you.
    That said, you are correct, Craig, the old timers know nothing only what they saw growing up in the 1930’s through 1950’s. Take a look at those early 50’s WS between Brooklyn and New York and you’ll see Allie Reynolds start and relieve during a WS played on consecutive days; no travel days for those series. Funny, he’s another one who never had arm trouble.

  4. coloradogolfcoupons - Aug 31, 2013 at 8:34 PM

    How about Irpn Man Mike Marshall, former Dodger (and others) reliever who was into kinesiology and pitched 106 times the year he won the Cy Young?

    He has a PHD in kinesiology, and his theory on wrist and elbow ‘loading’ can be read here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Marshall_%28pitcher%29

    • coloradogolfcoupons - Aug 31, 2013 at 8:37 PM

      “Iron Man”…not “Irpn” man, which phonetically sounds like he is throwing up.

  5. rollingwheelie - Sep 3, 2013 at 5:12 PM

    Funny how you should mention Mickey Lolich, since he is a harsh critic of pitch counts. I’d love to see him tear Jim Leyland’s head off if he tried to take him out of a game where he had a shutout through 7 innings because his pitch count was 110.

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