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.
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:
|Rank||Team||Avg. Pitch Count||101-Plus Pitches|
Said Baker to reporters after the Gonzalez start:
“I think he had  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.