100 Pitches

April 7, 2009

            I had a question in the “Hey, Bill” section a few days ago which read:

My father in-law absolutely hates pitch counts.  Every time the announcer mentions the pitch count of a particular pitcher he goes on and on about how pitchers back in the day were more durable, etc. etc.   

What are some good examples of pitchers from the '60's and '70's who had their promising careers ended earlier than expected because of arm injuries?  (All I can come up with is Don Gullett and Mark Fidrych)

--Paul R.


            I hardly know where to start.   There are so many young pitchers who look great but wipe out because of arm injuries that it would be impossible to list ten percent of them.  I made some feeble efforts to respond to the question, but wound up listing a pitcher (Scipio Spinks) whose injury, I am told by a reader, occurred on the basepaths. Let me amend this by simply listing 20 exciting young pitchers from the 1960s and 1970s who had disappointing careers, most of them probably because of arm injuries:  Chuck Estrada, Bill Stafford, Rollie Sheldon, Wally Bunker, Jim Nash, Mel Queen, Rich Nye, Jim Hardin, Gary Gentry, Tom Griffin, Mike Nagy, Wayne Simpson, Bob Johnson, Les Cain, Steve Kline, Bill Parsons, Steve Arlin, Balor Moore, Dennis Blair, Wayne Garland, Dan Warthen, Pat Darcy, Pat Zachry, Dave Rozema, Mike Paxton, John Urrea, Don Aase, Bob Shirley, Steve Comer, Roger Erickson, Rich Gale, John Henry Johnson, Kip Young, David Palmer, John Fulgham, Ross Baumgarten, Craig Chamberlain.    I think that’s actually 37, but who’s counting?   I’m too busy counting pitches to count pitchers. 

            The reality is that the clear majority of young pitchers who look like they are going to be outstanding, aren’t.   Most of them aren’t outstanding because they get hurt.  However, in fairness to Paul R.’s father-in-law, it is not entirely clear that pitch counts have changed this.   

            Whenever there is a paradigm shift in the thinking about any issue, 20 or 30% of the public will be left behind.   Twenty years ago, 99% of the restaurants in this country allowed smoking.   Not everybody is on board with the change.   Fifty years ago fathers disciplined their sons with a belt; this was normal practice.   Thirty years ago joggers were regularly chased by dogs, as very few cities enforced leash laws.   Thirty years ago bosses screamed at their employees, and not infrequently bosses extorted sexual favors from their secretaries.   We look back at these things and scratch our heads. 

            And thirty years ago, young pitchers routinely threw 170 pitches in a game and blew out their arms.    The question is, has this really changed?   We have attempted to fix this, but have we succeeded?

            I have studied this issue almost as many times as Yankee announcers have debased themselves by fawning over Derek Jeter, but periodically I still feel the need.   I decided to give it one more try.  

            How do we define a “good looking rookie pitcher”?    I defined the group by the following parameters:

            a) rookie status,

            b) no more than 27 years old,

            c) minimum of 6 starts (to get rid of the relievers),

            d) minimum season score of 10, and

            e) EITHER a better-than-league ERA or a season score of 100.

            Clarifications.    “Rookie status” cannot be defined by “eligibility for the rookie of the year award,” since

            1) for half of the 20th century there was no rookie of the year award, and

            2) once the award was defined the standards were changed numerous times.

            I defined a rookie pitcher somehow. . ..not sure how; it was sitting in the data file.   The minimum season score of 10 is just to get rid of the long list of pitchers who go 3-5 with ERAs of 4.70.   

            Season Score was outlined in an article on this site sometime last year.


            OK, having established parameters for the group, I then identified all pitchers since 1900 who met these standards.   To give you an idea of the type of pitchers we are talking about here. …in 2001 there were 12 pitchers in the major leagues who qualified as “promising rookie pitchers.”   The two best of them were Roy Oswalt and C. C. Sabathia, both of whom went on to become huge stars.   There were other rookie pitchers in that season, however, who looked very good.    Joel Pineiro, 22 years old, made 11 starts for the Mariners, going 6-2 with a 2.03 ERA.   Mariner fans were penciling in Cy Young Awards.   Brian Lawrence had a 3.45 ERA for San Diego, and Jason Marquis a 3.48 ERA for Atlanta.  Joe Kennedy looked good for Tampa Bay (7-8 for a 100-loss team, with a better-than-league ERA and an excellent strikeout/walk ratio.)   Brandon Lyon was 5-4 for Toronto; Mike Mathews had a 3.24 ERA, making 10 starts and 41 relief appearances for the Cardinals.  Victor Santos had a very similar year for Detroit.  The Phillies had three rookie pitchers who looked promising—Dave Coggin, Brandon Duckworth, and Nelson Figueroa.   24, 25 and 27 years old, they each made 11 to 17 starts and all posted better-than-league ERAs.

            Other than Oswalt and Sabathia, it is probably a fair statement that all of those pitchers have had disappointing careers.   Pineiro, Marquis and Brandon Lyon have kicked around and have had their moments in the sun, but they’re .500 pitchers with 4.50 ERAs (actually 4.46, 4.55 and 4.55.)   The other pitchers in the group—the other seven—have not done as well.

            The 2001 season is a little unique, in that the two pitchers who looked the best as rookies, Oswalt and Sabathia, actually were the best.    That’s unusual.   Other than that, however, the 2001 rookie crop is very typical.  If we look at 2002, we see a similar picture.   There were ten rookie pitchers who looked promising.   Listed in order of 2002 performance, they were Rodrigo Lopez of Baltimore (15-9, 3.57 ERA), Jason Jennings of Colorado (16-8, 4.52), Mark Prior of the Cubs (6-6, 3.32, huge strikeout numbers), Damian Moss of Atlanta (12-6, 3.42), John Lackey of the Angels (9-4, 3.66), Dennis Stark of the Rockies (11-4, 4.00), Josh Beckett of the Marlins (6-7, 4.10), Oliver Perez of the Padres (4-5, 3.50), Runelvys Hernandez of Kansas City (4-4, 4.36) and Carlos Zambrano of the Cubs (4-8, 3.66).  

            As a Royals’ fan, it’s hard to explain how excited we were about Runelvys, and he was near the bottom of the list.   But of those 10 exciting rookie pitchers, only three have panned out.  Carlos Zambrano, Josh Beckett and John Lackey went on to be outstanding major league pitchers.    Oliver Perez is a .500 pitcher with a 4.50 ERA (actually 4.39).   The other guys have either

            a) gotten hurt, or

            b) just not performed up to expectations. 

            So that’s sort of the parameters of expectation for these pitchers—a few guys live up to their promise, a few more hang around the league and earn some money, and most of the group turns out to be very disappointing. 


            I mentioned that I had identified all pitchers since 1900 who met these criteria.   Making this a full-blown digression, I now decided to identify the MOST promising rookie pitcher in each five-year period.    I identified the most promising pitcher by

            a)  Season score, plus

            b)  One point for each strikeout above the league average, plus

            c)  30 points for each year of age younger than 30. 

            These were the most promising rookie pitchers of each five-year period:


            1900-1904 Christy Mathewson, 1901

            1905-1909 Harry Krause, 1909

            1910-1914 Pete Alexander, 1911

            1915-1919 Babe Ruth, 1915

            1920-1924 Hub Pruett, 1921

            1925-1929 Wes Ferrell, 1929

            1930-1934 Paul Dean, 1934

            1935-1939 Bob Feller, 1936

            1940-1944 Johnny Beazley, 1942

            1945-1949 Don Newcombe, 1949

            1950-1954 Billy Loes, 1952

            1955-1959 Herb Score, 1955

            1960-1964 Wally Bunker, 1964

            1965-1969 Don Sutton, 1966

            1970-1974 Bert Blyleven, 1970

            1975-1979 Dennis Eckersley, 1975

            1980-1984 Dwight Gooden, 1984

            1985-1989 Tom Gordon, 1989

            1990-1994 Kevin Appier, 1990

            1995-1999 Kerry Wood, 1998

            2000-2004 C. C. Sabathia, 2001

            2005-2008 Francisco Liriano, 2006


            Really cool list, I think.  A lot of pitchers who may well have been equally exciting entering the league—Vida Blue, Roger Clemens and Jim Palmer—dodge the parameters of the list, and never get measured.  Among those who do get measured, Fernando Valenzuela in 1981 posted the highest “Exciting Rookie Pitcher Score” since Paul Dean in 1934—and then failed to win his five-year group, as Dwight Gooden three years later posted by far the highest score of all time.   Second to Paul Dean in his time period was his brother, Dizzy (1932).  Don’t take any of this stuff too seriously.

            OK, enough of that digression.  The issue under scrutiny here was supposed to be “Has the washout rate on exciting young pitchers declined in the era of pitch counts?”   How do we figure that?

            Let’s start by counting the number of exciting rookie pitchers in each decade:


            1900-1909       77

            1910-1919       92

            1920-1929       51

            1930-1939       58

            1940-1949       67

            1950-1959       71

            1960-1969       86

            1970-1979       95

            1980-1989       96

            1990-1999       93

            2000-2007       79


            The number for the 1910s is goosed up by the Federal League, a third major league that operated 1914-1915.   I couldn’t expel the Federal League from the study, as I often do, because many players who started in the Federal League went on to star in the surviving leagues.

            Anyway, next we need to ask the question, “How many of these pitchers went on to successful major league careers?”   Obviously, we won’t be able to get a number yet for the current decade, but for the others, how do we define success?

            I decided to mark a pitcher as “successful” if he

            a) won 100 or more games after his rookie season, or

            b) had three seasons in his career, not including his rookie season, scoring at 100 or more points (season score).

            Obviously, any definition is arbitrary, and any definition we choose will draw an arbitrary line between pitchers of similar qualifications.  

            Of the 865 promising rookie pitchers of the years 1900-2007, 308 have gone on to have successful major league careers, and perhaps a dozen others still active will eventually cross the “successful career line” that we have drawn.   In the years 1900-1909, 32 of 77 promising rookie pitchers went on to successful careers:


            1900-1909       77        32        42%


            Quite a few of these, however, had “successful” careers that consisted of three or four good years quickly, at the start of the career.   Joe Wood (1909) had a successful career, but it basically ended when he was 22 years old, and totally ended (as a pitcher) at age 25.   Still, 42% of them had successful careers before injuries stopped them.


            1910-1919       92        37        40%


            Same thing.  Hod Eller, a promising rookie in 1917, had a successful career based on having had good years in 1918, 1919 and 1920.   He was finished at age 25, but he did enough in a few years to cross the “successful career” line.


            1920-1929       51        15        29%


            In part, the numbers change here because our “Season Score” system discriminates against pitchers from high-run eras, but the reality is also that the game changed profoundly between the teens and the 1920s, and this tends to show up in every study.    In the teens the minor leagues had a kind of remoteness from the majors.    In the 1920s they were much more immediate.   In the 1920s a lot of pitchers came up and had one good rookie year, and then were never heard from again, replaced by the next guy from the PCL or the International League.  


            1930-1939       58        21        36%


            The term “rookie”—probably a corruption of “recruit”--first appeared in a Rudyard Kipling story in 1892.   It became popular during World War I, and is used sporadically in baseball from 1918 to 1935.  It began to emerge as a mainstream concept in the late 1930s. 

            In this era rookie pitchers often went straight into the rotation.   In 1932 Monte Weaver won 22 games as a rookie, 22-10.   In 1937 Cliff Melton went 20-9, Jim Turner went 20-11, and Lou Fette went 20-10—all of them rookies.   None of these pitchers did enough, in the rest of their careers, to be considered “successful” by our standards, although Melton was close.  

            It is my interpretation of this that the gap between the majors and the high minors (then called A leagues) must have been small at that time.    There were 16 major league teams and 24 or more A-League teams.  Minor league players’ careers did not end as soon as they ceased to be prospects.  Good minor league hitters continued to play into their 40s, just as they did in the majors, even if they had failed their major league trials or were players whose defensive limitations had made them non-prospects for the majors.   Some of these veteran minor league hitters were every bit as good, as hitters, as 95% of the players in the majors, so pitchers came out of the minor leagues better prepared to pitch in the majors.

            Once the minor leagues became more “organized”—once they were completely controlled by the major league teams—the major league teams didn’t want to pay veterans who were no longer prospects to hang around and play out their careers.    They wanted to clear them out and make room for the next set of prospects.   But this flushed most of the good veteran hitters out of the minor leagues, which significantly widened the talent gap between major league baseball and the high minors, which (ironically) meant that the minor leagues were less able to prepare players for the majors.   Each team was doing what was in the interest of their own minor league prospects, but what was in the interest of each team was not in the interest of the league as a whole.   The process of the highest minor leagues being controlled by the major leagues began about 1925 and was completed by about 1955, after which it became very rare for rookie pitchers to come out of the minors and win 20 games. 



            1940-1949       67        24        36%


            What is interesting here is that World War II doesn’t seem to have significantly changed the odds for young pitchers.   Johnny Beazley, the most exciting young pitcher of the decade, did lose his career to the war, and there are others who did as well.   But the percentage for the decade is the same as for the 1930s.   36% of promising rookie pitchers went on to have successful careers; 64% didn’t. 


            1950-1959       71        25        35%


            The same as the previous two decades, essentially.


            1960-1969       86        42        49%


            The 1960s were a decade in which a lot of pitchers had good careers.   A wide strike zone and high mounds made it a pitcher-dominated decade.   Commissioner Ford Frick, who had been close to Babe Ruth, was horrified that Roger Maris had broken Ruth’s single-season home run record, and wanted to do something to put a stop to all of this damned home-run-hitting nonsense.     In one of the most ill-considered moves in baseball history, the powers that be expanded the strike zone, beginning in 1963, which allowed pitchers to dominate.

            In 1960 there were 16 major league teams.   In 1969 there were 24.   This also increased the percentage of young pitchers who went on to successful careers, because it meant that there were more people looking for pitching, which meant more chances.   

            Pete Richert, for example, came out of the Dodger system in 1962 as a prized prospect.   Stepping into the Dodger rotation when Koufax was hurt, Richert struck out 75 men in 81 innings, and appeared to be on track for a fine career.   In 1963 and 1964, however, the same things happened to him that happen to most young pitchers:  he had some injuries, and he didn’t get enough people out.   By the end of 1964 his career was in jeopardy.

            He was traded to Washington, however (an American League expansion team), and went into the Senators rotation.   He had one good year (15-12, 2.60 ERA), and then a second year that wasn’t as good (14-14, 3.37) and then he started to struggle again.

After that he went to the bullpen, and had a couple more pretty good years as a reliever.

            He wasn’t great, but by our standards he was “successful”.   I would predict that, absent expansion, he would have been driven out of the league before he reached the marks that we associate with a successful career.   There are other pitchers like that from the 1960s—Woodie Fryman and Joe Niekro—who had successful careers based on second chances that might not have been there without expansion.  

            In the 1970s the data went in the other direction:


            1970-1979       95        29        31%


            It is this era that is critical to our study.  My father used to talk a lot about the pendulum of public opinion.   We swing too far one way; we swing too far back the other.   We have trouble finding the middle ground.

            In the early 1970s pitchers threw more innings than they had since the teens.   This is a chart of the number of pitchers pitching 280 innings in a season:


            1900-1909       224

            1910-1919       151

            1920-1929         80

            1930-1939         48

            1940-1949         40

            1950-1959         27

            1960-1969         56

            1970-1979         99      1970-1974       65        1975-1979       34

            1980-1989         14


            The last pitchers to pitch 280 innings in a season were Roger Clemens and Charlie Hough in 1987.   Since then there have been none.

            The very heavy workloads of the early 1970s probably did lead to a decrease in the percentage of promising rookie pitchers who were able to sustain success.    It is reasonable to think that this would happen, and it probably did.   We can point to players—like Busby, Fidrych, and Wayne Simpson—who are consistent with this thesis.

            By the mid-1970s the pendulum was swinging back the other way.   First, baseball switched from four-man to five-man rotations, which probably accomplished nothing.  Second, pitch counts began in the early- to mid-1980s.

            All of this is premise.   We are now ready to answer the question:  Did the number of rookie pitchers following through on their promise increase?


            1980-1989       96        36        37.5%


            The percentage of young pitchers following through on their promise was higher in the 1980s than in the 1970s, and higher than in any of the previous six decades except the 1960s.   However, it was not so dramatically higher as to make it entirely clear whether the protections were meaningful or were not.    The 1990s:


            1990-1999       93        35       


            However, there are three pitchers who were rookies in the late 1990s who have not yet crossed the “successful career” threshold, but who may still do so.   (Jarrod Washburn, Brett Tomko and Carl Pavano.)    Let us assume that one of those three will make it across.  That would make it:


            1990-1999       93        36        39%


            So the percentage of young pitchers who avoid career-ending injuries does appear, at least based on this very flawed study, to be slightly higher than it was before pitch counts. 

            It is possible.  ..it is a theory. . .that much of the gain in pitcher health that might have been derived from pitch counts was used up or deflected by increased pressure to throw hard while in the game.   If you’re expecting to throw 150 pitches in a game, maybe you pace yourself.   If you’re expecting to come out after 100 pitches, maybe you try to throw hard on every pitch.   You wind up doing as much damage to your arm in 100 pitches as you used to do in 150.

            There are still a great many young pitchers who flame out after a brilliant beginning.   Dontrelle Willis.   Rich Hill.   Mark Prior.   Jason Jennings.  Adam Eaton.  Anibal Sanchez.   The failure of young pitchers to live up to their promise is still much more the rule than it is the exception.

            However, it does appear that the odds facing a young pitcher may be slightly better now than they were before pitch counts were a part of the game.  


COMMENTS (11 Comments, most recent shown first)

Bill, does this sound like a possible hypothesis from these limited data?

The mere avoidance of the ludicrous high pitch outings (150+) has prevented a few young pitcher injuries. Fretting when a pitcher has hit 100 pitches has not.
9:06 PM Apr 19th
Do pitch counts and limited innings only prolong inevitable injuries, thereby allowing a few more pitchers to reach the "successful" threshold before the genetics kick in? Also, what is the impact of new surgical procedures on the number of successful pitchers? Maybe increasing the pitch count and innings (in order to speed up the injuries and subsequent repairs while the pitchers are still young and have time to recover their careers) would ultimately lead to a higher percentage of success!
7:16 PM Apr 17th
2) Responding to Dave (deberly), I think that's essentially correct. People have been doing pitch counts for a long time. John McGraw in the early 1920s had his pitchers charting the other pitchers on the team, now a standard practice. But the PUBLICATION and circulation of this information profoundly re-shaped the discussion--and, to an extent, changed the game of baseball.
5:34 PM Apr 17th
1) Responding to "77Royals", I also did a study that compared pitchers side-by-side based on pitch counts. It was published in the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, and actually, it is consistent with what you had to say. The study shows convincingly (to me, that's who) that pitchers who were categorized as "abused" by high pitch counts actually performed BETTER in subsequent seasons than pitchers who were not abused.
5:31 PM Apr 17th
Thanks for the article. I have no data for this, but, Bill, do you think the RECORDING of pitch counts has caused pitchers to become more patient?

I am a 37 year old Cincinnatian. I just missed the height of the Big Red Machine, but do get to watch a lot of games from that era on various special replays/dvds, etc. I am amazed by how infrequently even the Reds (who had good/great walk rates) went deep into pitch counts.

I know it is anecdotal, but I think there is a conscious effort to take pitches (late '90s Yanks, today's Sox come to mind) as an offensive weapon. Get the starter out, get to the middle reliever, etc.

My two points, I suppose, are 1) that this tactic may be a FUNCTION of keeping track of pitch counts, and, 2) (as evidenced by higher strikeout numbers and higher walk numbers)that in reality we should be comparing estimated pitch counts (and actual pitch counts) rather than innings pitched when doing a study like this.

Thanks, Bill

-- Dave E.
4:00 PM Apr 16th
77royals--the side by side study has been done and it is basically called the Verducci Effect (Google it or here is a link: http://www.rotoauthority.com/2009/01/the-verducci-ef.html) named after Tom Verducci who discovered it. He found it is not the number of innings the pitchers throws that is important, it is the increase from the previous year.
11:09 AM Apr 11th
How come no one ever does a side-by-side comparison? You always see charts of pitcher who suffered arm injuries and the pitches thrown, (still no proof that there is a correlation), but you never see the charts of young pitchers who do throw a lot of pitches don't get hurt.

I'm willing to bet if they showed the charts side-by-side, the pitch count cry-babies might be forced to admit they don't have an arguement. It's easy to show a chart that proves a particular point. Show both charts and their might not be an point to make.

If there is, I'll call the pitch count my daddy, and swear by it until the day I die. But not until then.

I'm willing to bet that will never happen, because the people who are crybabies
10:36 AM Apr 9th
Nor did I argue that it could. No one has suggested that this data PROVES that the pitch counts have improved the odds for young pitchers. Quite obviously the changes in the data COULD occur at random. But that's not the relevant question. The relevant question is, is the data CONSISTENT with the theory that there has been an advantage gained--not is this PROVEN, but is the data consistent with the theory. Which it is, and will be, no matter what other kind of analysis you do.
6:34 PM Apr 8th
I am not sure that these differences in the last few decades are statistically significant. They look like they could be chance fluctuations. This could be settled through use of statistical procedures which I don't have time to do at the moment, although it would be instructive when comparing such percentages to do statistical significance testing.

An important change in recent decades which may also be responsible for the small increase in promising young pitchers having long and successful careers is the advancement in medicine. Many pitchers who washed out with injury before the 1980s would now have much longer careers with modern techniques of elbow and shoulder surgery as well as advances in physical therapy. So even if there is a significant increase in promising young pitchers having long and successful careers, I am not certain this change can be explained by lower pitch counts.
1:43 PM Apr 8th

I know this study is flawed, but it does have value. The data from the 70s is instructive. I have read studies of this issue written by the researchers in Basball Prospectus, The Book, and other sources including your previous articles. Each of the studies has concluded that either (1) overuse of young pitchers is a factor that contributes to their demise or (2) there is not enough evidence to determine the issue one way or the other. I think it is noteworthy that no one has been able to dismiss overuse of young pitchers as a causal factor in their arm injuries.

I believe that, with so many people studying the issue in the fields of both baseball statistical analysis and in sports medicine, that a breakthrough in our level of understanding of how to minimize pitchers' arm injuries will occur in the next five years or so. As this new knowledge is put to use, pitcher injuries should decline.
10:19 PM Apr 7th
Bill, Bill,

Do you knoow that you moan about Yankee announcers fawning over Jeter just about the way those announcers do? If you had the same forum, say, daily broadcasts, you might even match them.

I'm a Yankee fan, I know Jeter is declining, I know that at his best he was overrated as a shortstop, I know he doesn't produce the clutch hit as often as Michael Kay et al claim. See, I know those things, but it's only recently that you lay the blame for Jeter's canonization where it belongs--with the announcers. Before that you simply raked Jeter but you were driven to it by the sycophants in the booth. You've said as much.. And I agree. But the baby in this bathwater is Jeter, innocently and professionally doing his job. He didn't sulk a couple of years ago when he was 0 for about a month, he plays hard, and he doesn't owe the fans any money. I usually think intangibles are overrated, but not in his case. You know, he's a pretty good player. My only gripe is about him staying at SS when A-Rod came. He should have been moved to the OF. But that's on Torre, not Jeter. And I'll bet you your Mike Kingery baseball card that you agree with me, and I think Jeter would have done it with good grace. Jeter's inability to live up to perceptions of him is irrelevant. Those beliefs enabled a lot of Yankees to get there from '98 to 2001. If perceptions get the job done, then perceive away. But let up Bill, Remy and Don O. are far more objective than Kay and gang, but, and he's shown it to be so many times, I think it's safe, despite his deficiencies, to put Jeter out there. I think he's been a hell of a captain and he's done so with professionalism (although I think he's getting a bit wordy with the umps on called thirds). '03 and '04 were as good as it gets; let's hope for more, and you know Francona will have truckloads of respect for Jeter in a rubber-match playoff. And if the rest of the country is bored with Yanks-Sox, there are always adult ed courses to attend.
Kevin McCarthy
(mccarthykj@tx.rr.com) if you wish to lodge a rebuttal. I'm still a great fan of yours, always have been; we just get a little silly sometimes--both of us.
7:03 PM Apr 7th
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