Woe the Dreaded Pitch Counts

by John Furgele

A decade ago, when balls were flying out of parks and men were getting bigger by the day, the lament was that the pitching was so bad it would ruin the game.  Well, they were right, pitching is ruining the game, but it is not totally the fault of the pitchers.

Watching baseball today has become a painful experience.  Today’s game is managed by those who overmanage.  The Joe Torres, Joe Giradis and Tony LaRussa’s of the world love to put their stamp on the game by making pitching changes, and they are far from alone.  It seems as if everybody in baseball is married to the “pitch count.”

Even broadcasters can’t resist referring to pitch counts.  They other day Yankee radiocasters John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman brought up Rays pitcher Andy Sonnanstine’s pitch count in the fourth inning.  Waldman, far from the best analyst in the game, talks pitch counts all the time.  And, her partner, the full-of-himself John Sterling does the same. 

Pitch counts are ruining the game.  Today, once a starter gets past the fifth inning, pitch counts and panic usually sets in.  Here is an example I have seen way too many times this season.  The starter gives up two runs over five innings, but has pitched well the previous two innings.  In the sixth, the first batter hits a 66 hopper (or, a bounding ball as the classic broadcasters used to say) up the middle for a base hit.  The next batter drops a bloop into right field.  Automatically, the manager, feeling that the pitcher is spent, and with 87 pitches, figures it is time to remove the starter and let the bullpen try to get the remaining 12 outs of the game.  No longer does the manager say, “let’s see if Johnson can wiggle out of this,” even though the two hits were far from scorchers. 

As a result, pitchers are conditioned to think that getting through six innings is a sufficient day’s work.  After six, most feel that their day is done, and rarely, will they beg their manager to stay in the game.  Mets pitcher Johan Santana is perhaps the best lefty around, but he after seven innings, he is usually done.  Therefore, the seven inning pitcher can’t be angry at the bullpen if they fail to protect his win. 

Another obstacle that has to be overcome is the roles of the pitchers.  Recently, the Yankees decided to put Chien Ming Wang back in the starting rotation and placed Phil Hughes in the bullpen.  The experts call this a demotion for Hughes, but this used to be the way it was.  If you were good enough to be in the majors, but were the sixth best pitcher on the team; you went to the bullpen.  If you did well there, you earned starts.  But, because of pitch counts, many think Hughes would be better off starting at Triple A Scranton-Wilkes Barre, so he won’t lose his endurance.  How laughable is that?  Being a great starter against the Toledo Mud Hens is better than pitching the seventh inning against the Boston Red Sox? 

As for Wang, he calls himself a starting pitcher and says he doesn’t want to work out of the bullpen, but he has been so awful as a starter, the bullpen is where he needs to be.  Phillies pitcher Chan Ho Park is another starter who feels like being in the bullpen is the equivalent of unfair labor, but thus far Park has done well in the ‘pen, and manager Charlie Manuel is a smart man, he will keep him there.

The bullpen seems like the place to be.  As a reliever, you know you’re going to get work, not because the starter is awful, but because the manager won’t let the starter go past the fifth and sixth inning or past 105 pitches.  Somewhere, Jerry Koosman, Nolan Ryan and Mickey Lolich are crying in their beers with the shame that is modern day pitching.

The exception may be Toronto manager Cito Gaston.  Gaston has always been a “feel manager,” one who will leave his pitcher in the game after a couple of bloops in the sixth inning.  Last week, he let Roy Halladay throw a 133 pitch complete game, something Torre and Girardi would never do.  And, Halladay gave up four runs that game and still stayed in the game.   In his next start, Halladay went the distance on 97 pitches and shutout the Kansas City Royals, with no ill effects from the “pitch count,” of the previous start. 

I hope against hope and pray that someday, the pitch count thing will end and baseball will go back to letting pitchers be pitchers.  There is hope with the Texas Rangers.  Their Vice President, Nolan Ryan, has declared that pitch counts no longer be kept from the minors through the majors; that whether a pitcher stays in or comes out of the game be determined by strength, not by some artficial number.

Hopefully, this makes Jim Kaat happy.

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