This is a continuation of my last article, Handling Young Pitchers. Both pieces focus on a recent article written by Craig Wright for the Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2011.
In part one, I analyzed Wright’s belief that pitchers in their formative years need to be handled with care, and discussed the difficulties teams face when trying to limit their young pitchers. For established pitchers, however, Wright carries a different viewpoint. Throughout the article, Wright argues against the current limitations of pitch counts, and suggests that some pitchers can handle larger workloads than others. While it may be a controversial stance, it could be time to revise our views on pitch counts.
Before we go any further, it’s important to define the current thinking regarding pitch counts. While much research has been done on the subject, Rany Jazayerli introduced Pitcher Abuse Points (PAP) in 1998. This research has been analyzed and updated over the years, but the conclusions remain similar: it is unwise to to allow pitchers to consistently accumulate high pitch counts.
Wright, however, argues that certain pitchers might be able to withstand higher workloads. Wright argues that pitchers who are able to withstand acceptable workload increases in their formative years, without succumbing to injuries or fatigue, could be pushed harder than most pitchers. On the surface, this argument seems logical: if a pitcher can handle a workload of 125-130 pitches per game, why limit him to 110-120?
Looking over the PAP leaders from the past three seasons yields some interesting findings. Since 2008, Justin Verlander has ranked 4th, 1st, and 1st in PAP. It is important to note that Verlander turned 25 in 2008, meaning the Detroit Tigers didn’t start pushing him hard until he had exited his formative seasons. Despite the increased workload, Verlander has accumulated 20.0 WAR in those three seasons without showing signs of decline or injury. It may only be three seasons of data, but it seems plausible that Verlander could withstand a higher workload than other pitchers.
CC Sabathia could be the poster boy for abandoning current pitch count limitations. While Sabathia threw a lot of innings during his formative years, he never appeared near the top of the PAP leader boards, and he stayed remarkably healthy. With the Milwaukee Brewers desperate to make the playoffs in 2008, Sabathia shouldered a heavy load. In Sabathia’s seventeen starts with the team, he threw 110+ pitches eight times. In his starts following those games, Sabathia remained effective and showed no signs of fatigue. As the 2008 season came to a close, Sabathia ranked 2nd on the PAP chart.
Though his heavy workload could have scared off most teams, the New York Yankees looked at Sabathia’s previous track record and determined he was a solid investment despite the workload increase. Sabathia has not succumbed to injuries or ineffectiveness like we would expect from other pitchers with such an aggressive workload. In his two seasons with the Yankees, Sabathia has started 76 games (including the playoffs) while posting solid peripherals.
I will admit, looking at eight starts over a small period is not the best way to convince anyone that Sabathia can handle a higher workload than most pitchers. But Sabathia passes each of Wright’s qualifications with flying colors. Sabathia was not misused in his formative years (he has remained incredibly healthy), and he has handled increased workloads relatively well thus far in his career. From that standpoint, Sabathia might an ideal candidate for an increased workload.
Talking about eschewing current pitch count restrictions is a risky proposition. The research has been around for quite some time, and has been adjusted and altered as we learn more about pitchers. But it seems foolish that the same restrictions should apply to all pitchers. Pitchers like Sabathia, and perhaps Verlander, might be able to withstand higher workloads, and if teams can get more innings out of those players, it would greatly benefit the team’s performance. Scary as it may seem, it might be time to start thinking about the effectiveness of current pitch counts.
Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.