In the spring of 2009, when Nolan Ryan sent a directive to the entire Texas Rangers organization banning pitch counts as a means of regulating a starting pitcher's length of time in a game, it sent shockwaves throughout baseball -- and criticism toward Ryan.
After Texas reached the World Series for the first time in its history -- with some of the success attributed to its suddenly formidable, unlimited moundsmen -- Ryan got the last laugh, and one has to wonder if the 100-pitch boundary is on the way out.
Ironically, it was Ryan's first manager in baseball -- Gil Hodges -- who brought the idea of counting pitches from his days with the Dodgers to the Mets. Though Hodges counted, he did not necessarily limit -- the purpose was to "condition" arms to handle specific workloads, via a measured training progression, and to get a finite understanding of each individual's point of fatigue.
Which brings us to the irony: The counting helped Hodges ascertain unique limits (everyone is different, after all); yet for the rest of baseball, the counting evolved into a general demarcation line applied universally. Specifically, into a nice, round, arbitrary number that satisfied physicians and statisticians, and gave managers an easy, cover-your-butt reason to pull a starter from the mound: the 100-pitch limit.
There are some statistical studies suggesting that pitchers tire after pitch No. 100, but that's not the point to argue today. Rather, it's the theory that developed suggesting pitchers' careers ended because their workload was too heavy. Mark Fidrych was often referenced as an example, since he completed 24 games in his phenomenal 1976 rookie season, but never pitched well again. However, Fidrych's arm injuries began only after he suffered a serious knee injury while goofing around in spring training shagging flies. "The Bird" missed the first month and a half of 1977, returned too soon with altered mechanics that took stress (and pain) off the knee but put more on the shoulder, resulting in a rotator-cuff tear that eventually ended his career.
And that's the crux of the matter when it comes to protecting pitchers: Generally speaking, it is poor mechanics, rather than the workload, that ultimately injures a pitcher. Too many young pitchers with potentially harmful pitching motions go uncorrected due to disagreement over what constitutes "correct" form, the financial ramifications and the dearth of talent.
"Fixing" a mechanical issue can be a long-term process that becomes more difficult as a pitcher ages (and bad habits become more ingrained). With the six- and seven-figure bonuses paid to young hurlers these days, there's an economical urgency to get that talent to the big leagues as soon as possible. There's also the thought that "if it ain't broke (yet), don't fix it." In other words, if a teenage fireballer is touching triple digits on the radar gun, why change what he's doing, even if it looks awkward? The coach/organization would look bad if the change caused a drop in velocity, after all. Real life example: Joel Zumaya.
Zumaya's mechanics -- like many hard-throwing youngsters today -- are inefficient and fight, rather than embrace, the principles outlined in Newton's Laws of Motion (straight lines, momentum, etc.). Zumaya has been seriously injured twice, despite the "protection" of pitch counts. He heads a long list that includes Matt Anderson, Chien-Ming Wang, Ben Sheets, Rich Harden, Angel Guzman and countless others who have suffered career-threatening injuries despite limited pitch counts.
The number of seriously injured pitchers -- i.e., those who require surgery -- that we see today is more voluminous than the career-ending stories of 25-30 years ago, when pitchers routinely completed games and hurled in 220-250-plus innings in a season -- in four-man rotations, no less. For every Steve Busby of yesterday there are five Erik Bedards today, so how has the coddling and pitch counts helped avoid injury? If it weren't for modern medicine there would be just as many, if not more, career-ending stories resembling those of Busby, Fidrych, Wayne Garland, etc.
Throwing a baseball is an unnatural act for the human body to perform -- I get that. Doing it 150-175-plus times a day could be harmful, I'll admit -- particularly if the action used is inefficient and/or the person is not properly conditioned to handle such a workload. But the idea that limiting a pitcher to 100 pitches in and of itself is "protection" is nonsense. Nolan Ryan knows that, and began proving it with the 2010 Rangers. Hopefully, more organizations will follow his lead and begin instilling more logical methods of developing and "protecting" young arms.
Joe Janish writes the Mets Today blog and is a part of the SweetSpot blog network.