Dusty Baker Is Throwing Caution, Pitch Counts to the Wind

Washington left-hander Gio Gonzalez pitched into the seventh inning on Sunday in San Diego. His 120th pitch of the late afternoon was ripped into right field by Manuel Margot for a single. It was his last pitch of the outing, as Nationals manager Dusty Baker strode to the mound, gestured to the bullpen, and took the ball from Gonzalez.

Twenty years ago, this wouldn’t have been a noteworthy event. The sequence would seem rather innocuous, in fact. But we live in an age marked by an unprecedented number of pitching injuries, an age in which teams and players are more often turning to science to better understand performance and injury prevention. We live in an era when pitch counts routinely accompany the game data in the corner of a telecast. No team of which I’m aware has figured out how to significantly reduce pitching injuries, but there is a general sense that it’s better to be safe than sorry.

And this is where Baker stands out from the crowd.

While pitch counts are crude metrics, only 10 teams have allowed a starting pitcher to exceed 120 pitches this season; only two teams have allowed it to occur on multiple occasions.

Baker and the Nationals have accomplished it four times.

Baker is lapping the field.

Starts of 120+ Pitches in 2017, by Team
Team Number
Nationals 4
Padres 2
Red Sox 1
Indians 1
Rockies 1
Tigers 1
Diamondbacks 1
Cardinals 1
Rangers 1
Rays 1
Everyone else 0

The Nationals under Baker also rank second in average pitch count per start (100.5 pitches), one of only two teams averaging more than 100 pitches per start. They also rank second in number of 100-plus pitch outings (76). The Nationals are trailing only the Red Sox (101.1, 81) in each category, according to the Baseball Prospectus data.

It’s not curious just that Baker is leaning on his starters to an unusual degree relative to the league in 2017, but that he’s doing so at a time when the Nationals have a 14-game lead in the NL East and a 100% chance of reaching the NLDS according to FanGraphs playoff projections entering Monday. This would seem like the time to give players more rest when possible.

Here are the full standings of starting-pitcher usage:

Starting-Pitcher Usage in 2017, by Team
Rank Team Avg. Pitch Count 101-Plus Pitches
1 Red Sox 101.1 81
2 Nationals 100.5 76
3 Rays 97.1 70
4 Tigers 96.3 61
5 Indians 94.3 58
6 D-backs 96.6 57
7 Giants 97.3 55
8 Orioles 95.8 54
9 Mets 94.1 43
10 White Sox 93.8 40
11 Cardinals 93.5 38
12 Blue Jays 91.4 37
13 Braves 94.3 36
14 Twins 90.3 34
15 Yankees 91.4 33
16 Athletics 91.5 29
17 Cubs 92.0 29
18 Rockies 92.0 27
19 Pirates 90.5 27
20 Brewers 90.2 26
21 Phillies 91.4 26
22 Padres 89.2 25
23 Royals 91.1 25
24 Mariners 89.1 25
25 Rangers 93.6 24
26 Reds 87.5 23
27 Astros 92.0 23
28 Dodgers 88.5 20
29 Angels 89.7 19
30 Marlins 86.9 18

Said Baker to reporters after the Gonzalez start:

“I think he had [91] pitches his last start, so we took him a little longer this time because I didn’t have four guys in the bullpen.”

Baker has also let Tanner Roark exceed 120 pitches. (He threw 125 pitches in a start on June 2.)

Ace and Cy Young-contender Max Scherzer, meanwhile, has recorded more outings of 120 or more pitches than 28 other major-league teams this season.

Scherzer threw 121 pitches on June 21 at Miami. And for what it’s worth, his 121st pitch was a hanger and Giancarlo Stanton rifled it into left field for the go-ahead run.

Like most pitchers, Scherzer typically loses some effectiveness the deeper he works into a start. For his career, the first time through a lineup, opponents have posted a .622 OPS against him; his second time through, opponents have OPS’d .685; and his third time through, opponents have posted a .712 mark. (The fourth time through, Scherzer has held opponents to a .544 OPS, though that is a relatively small sample of 580 plate appearance throughout his career.)

Scherzer also threw 120 pitches at home against Atlanta on July 7.

It was after his 117th pitch of that July 7 start, an errant full-count offering, that Scherzer expressed disappointment, probably thinking he had just faced his last batter of the evening.

But perhaps even to Scherzer’s own surprise, Baker allowed him to face another batter. He allowed a hit and then left with men on the corners.

His 120th pitch:

One might suppose that, with such a formidable division lead, a manager would take greater caution with an arm owed nine figures by the club, a pitcher whom the club needs to be near 100% to make a push through the postseason.

While Stephen Strasburg — no stranger to the DL — hasn’t reached the 120-pitch mark this season, he did throw 118 pitches on May 5th and 119 on May 21st. And while it’s possible that overuse wasn’t responsible for the injury that led him to the DL last month — he returned on Saturday — Baker has a history of showing little interest in the idea of preventive measures throughout his career.

In 2003, Baker’s Cubs tied for the lead in the sport with 25 games of 120-plus pitches. The Cubs led the majors with an average pitch total of 103.5 per game for starters that season. And we know how the story ended for Mark Prior and Kerry Wood.

Teams don’t seem to have a great understanding of how to prevent injuries. There might not be any firmly established best practices, though perhaps cutting-edge places like Driveline Baseball or new technologies will lead pitchers to a better place. Maybe the stress and velocity in today’s game is simply too much to overcome for pitchers’ elbows. But more teams believe in monitoring fatigue and preventative care. More teams seem to prefer being safe to being sorry. The Nationals are different. Even with a 14-game lead and 100% postseason odds, they are an outlier.

We hoped you liked reading Dusty Baker Is Throwing Caution, Pitch Counts to the Wind by Travis Sawchik!

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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mikejunt
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mikejunt

What do you know, 15 years later and Dusty Baker is still a dumbass.

Dave Stewart
Member

Its 2 words = dumb + ass. Other wise folks might think your saying Dusty is a stupid fish

Psychic... Powerless...
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Psychic... Powerless...

Wonder if he likes fish sticks?

Pig.Pen
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Pig.Pen

I like fish sticks!

Cartulo
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Cartulo

What are you, a gay fish?

(It doesn’t work in written form)

mikejunt
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Member
mikejunt

And for all the ridiculous comments in this thread about how we don’t know that throwing more pitches in a game is an indicator of injury risk: It is THE leading indicator of injury risk and we have known this for almost 20 years. Below you will find a series of links to Baseball Prospectus articles on Pitcher Abuse Points, which they debuted in 1998 and refined in 2001 and which were probably the seminal research that lead to pitch counts being instituted at all levels of organized baseball.

The main research was done by Keith Woolner, now long of the Indians front office. This was probably THE original contribution of sabermetricians outside baseball front offices to better baseball analysis.

The greatest predictor of arm injury is pitch count due to degrading mechanics as muscle fatigue sets in, and this is especially true for younger pitchers.

A summary:

http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=2633

The relevant portion of Keith Woolner’s original research, which includes links to the rest:

http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=1480

The first of a two-part FAQ about the improvement to PAP that resulted from Woolner’s research (and which made it an expotential equation, so it really takes off above 115-120 pitch outings, where risk is the highest).

http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=1499

Travis doesn’t relitigate this issue because it doesn’t require relitigation and has been an accepted reality for literally over a decade (the last time pitch counts were controversial, it was the Joba Rules .. Joba is now retired, I had a brief Joba sighting last week here in his hometown of Lincoln, NE).

If you think this is controversial, you’re just as stupid as Dusty Baker was then, and Dusty Baker still is now. Risking a fragile and extremely important part of your team (Gio Gonzales) when you have a 10-15 game fucking lead is the definition of stupid.

I’m a Dodger fan, so I really don’t care if the Nationals show up for the NLCS without half their pitching staff, but probably the rest of you should.

regfairfield
Member
regfairfield

Hahahaha you’re citing research from 2001. Every pitcher can take the exact same workload. Throwing 70 pitches in three innings is the same as throwing 70 pitches in six innings. Exactly 100 pitches is where fatigue sets in which is just one of those miracles of life like the golden ratio I guess.

mikejunt
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Member
mikejunt

PAP only penalizes outings of fairly substantial pitch counts. That it starts tracking at 100 is fairly irrelevant; like one of those very pieces notes, someone with an average of 10 points per start is more likely to get injured in his or her bathroom.

What is generally of concern are starts in excess of 115, 125-135-150 pitches, which have been literally completely eliminated from baseball, and which were not eliminated when that was written. Last year in all MLB there was one start of more than 130 pitches.

People didn’t stop tracking PAP because they found it was inaccurate. It stopped getting used because pitchers stopped accumulating, well, any.

You get more for a single 140 pitch start than any starter in MLB accumulated last year.

Its certainly true that all the things you mention increase the risk at lower pitch counts than they might be assumed to be. There isn’t any research, well, anywhere, that suggests that those long-lost, very-high pitch counts are anything but bad.

The reason no one went back to this well is that the main thrust of the battle was won and generally accepted everywhere.

mikejunt
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Member
mikejunt

Its also worth discussing that while we have tons of pitcher injuries, we have different kinds of pitcher injuries than we did 20 or 10 years ago.

Elbow injuries are a lot more common, whereas we’ve seen a decline in rotator cuff surgeries, which used to be very common. As those started to evaporate, we saw a rise in labrum injuries and now those are also not as common as they were then.

The elbow remains, probably in large part due to the fact that the easiest way to damage the elbow is a traumatic injury: if a pitcher has a forearm muscle strain (pronator in particular), they can ruin their UCL in as few as 1-5 pitches, before they even notice through the adrenaline that they’re experiencing pain.

There are also long-term overuse UCL injuries, of course.

You don’t see nearly as many shoulder-related problems as as proportion of pitcher injuries as you did in the days before pitch counts.

LMOTFOTE
Member
LMOTFOTE

Its just not that simple. 119 is OK but 120 is suddenly too much? To be honest the worst pitcher abuse I saw in recent years was Ausmus letting Daniel Norris throw 54 pitches in 1 inning (OK it was first inning, but by about #40 he was already done). If it was simply a pitch count issue then I guess no relievers should ever have arm problems? MAYBE pitch count is the highest risk factor but its a lot more complicated than that. Whoever can figure this out will have a big competitive advantage. Maybe the Chisox have a clue.

mikejunt
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Member
mikejunt

Correct, it’s not a whole answer but to ignore it is moving backwards.

There are surely many other steps in mechanical analysis and such that will contribute.

David
Member
David

pretty sure THE highest risk factor for pitcher injury is a previous injury. One might wonder why it is that in the age of strict pitch counts, pitchers are getting so many elbow injuries. “But we live in an age marked by an unprecedented number of pitching injuries, an age in which teams and players are more often turning to science to better understand performance and injury prevention.” If the science is right why do we have an unprecedented number of injuries? I am not at all suggesting that pitch counts should be ignored or Dusty knows something that has eluded the rest of baseball, just noting that pitch counts quite clearly are not the be all and end all of pitching injuries.

Pig.Pen
Member
Pig.Pen

Dusty thought this article was so awesome, he let Roark throw 115 pitches last night in Houston…following an off day….with a fully rested bullpen.