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Yu Darvish and freaking out about 130 pitches

Yu Darvish threw 130 pitches in a game that wasn't particularly close. Is this a big deal?

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This is a headline in 2013:

Darvish hits 130-pitch mark in win

Who knows what headline we'll see in 2026 that won't seem weird at the time, but would seem really, really weird to us today? "Mets use six different pitchers in same game." Maybe that'll be a big deal in the future. It certainly isn't now, which is the point. At the turn of the millennium, everyone threw 130 pitches. You know this, but a graph never hurts:

It would be interesting to see that graph overlaid with another showing sales of Baseball Prospectus annuals, but it's not like BP was the only voice in the debate. Teams were hiring analysts to do proprietary research, and perhaps more importantly, teams don't want to be the last one using the ditto machine. Teams are scared of looking outdated. That, and it would take a pretty headstrong organization to see 28 or 29 teams drastically reduce pitch counts and think, "Eh, all those other teams are just guessing."

Right around 2001, just about everyone started playing it safe. Really, really safe. Look at that drop. It's like there was a league-wide memo that went out with secret proof of the correlation between pitch counts and injuries that the public hasn't seen yet.

But Darvish hit the 130-pitch mark Thursday night, even though the Rangers had a substantial lead. This is something of a hot topic, so allow me to present some jumbled thoughts on pitch counts.

1. Injuries aren't down

Here's a look from Jeff Zimmerman at FanGraphs for 2002 through 2011. Steve Treder looked at the workloads of pitchers throughout the '70s and '80s and didn't see a substantial difference in injury days.

There's also this:

Maybe teams and doctors are getting better at spotting something that needs to be fixed. This doesn't prove anything, except that more pitchers are getting Tommy John surgery. But it's still a little surprising that there isn't a stronger correlation between pitch counts and injury prevention.

2. Smart people aren't so sure about a hard and fast pitch-count limit

There's Bill James and some Rob Miller guy, for two. And Glenn Fleisig of the American Sports Medicine Institute spoke to Ben Lindbergh about workloads, pooh-poohing the idea of a strict pitch-count limit.

Yeah. I do say that. If a major-league team or minor-league team has a hard pitch count across their whole organization, they can do better than that. They should be using—because they have professional coaches throughout their major and minor leagues, and a professional medical staff—they should be using pitch counts as a feel, as a guideline for who has pitched a lot, who hasn’t pitched a lot, and then they should individualize it and know each of their pitchers, each of their athletes, and know who is a quick responder, who’s doing well on the physical assessments with the trainers and medical staff, who has good mechanics according to the pitching coach, things like that.

Also from that interview, a quote worth remembering:

‘You have so many bullets, and you don’t shoot all your bullets,’ you shouldn’t always just blow it on one game or season or this or this or that. That analogy works with bullets, because if you had a case of bullets and you shot them all, you would be out. But an arm, or pitches in an arm, is not a proper analogy, because a pitcher doesn’t have a certain number of throws in his arm. That’s true because pitchers are living, breathing, and their arm is repairing. The arm is breaking down and repairing.

I've been guilty of using the bullets line. I'll cut it out.

3. The Rangers used to not care about this stuff

The Rangers' philosophy about pitch counts was (is?) simple:

/slaps stack of pitch counts out of nerd's hands

There are tomes to review if you have the time. Excellent, lengthy reports on what the Rangers were (are?) doing. Here's Jonah Keri on pitch counts and Sports Illustrated giving it the feature treatment. Nolan Ryan and the Rangers have made a point to stand out in this debate.

Except, when it comes to ignoring pitch counts, it's not like the Rangers are breaking new (old) ground. They're not that different from the rest of the league, at least at the major-league level:

That's the most 115-pitch starts since 2008, when Ryan joined the Rangers' front office. Is 115 pitches an arbitrary benchmark? Yeah, but they all would be. We've established that 130 is mostly extinct, so that seemed like the next frontier. The Rangers show up three times, near the bottom.

Other than Colorado and the Wacky Pitch-Count Experiment of 2012, the 2010 Twins and the 2011 and 2012 Pirates were tied for the fewest 115-pitch outings of any team over the last few years. One in each season. They've still had injuries to their pitchers, of course.

So it looks like the Rangers care about pitch counts, just like every other team. And if you want to read too much into this …

And Rangers general manager Jon Daniels met with manager Ron Washington after Thursday's game to discuss Darvish's pitch count.

… it sure sounds like Washington was sent out back to clean the erasers after keeping Darvish in.

4. If you want anecdotal evidence, you've got it

When looking at pitch counts over the last 13 years, two names kept coming up over and over and over: Randy Johnson and Livan Hernandez. Johnson had the highest single-game pitch counts in 1994, 1995, 2001, and 2002. Hernandez took the single-game crown in 1998, 2005, and 2006. Even after pitch-count mania, teams were treating Hernandez like they were those creepy people who insist you can pick a dog up by his ears. "No, no, he likes it! Give it a whirl!"

Since 2000, Hernandez has thrown 130 pitches or more in 24 different games. Johnson did it in 13. Here's the full list. It's not a list that's easy to eyeball and make a lot out of. Mark Prior and Jason Schmidt are there -- pitchers that you can use to prove your point. But the top two rarely spent time on the DL. Hernandez's velocity cratered, but what about Johnson? You can use him to prove your point, too.

Because what applies to a 6'10" left-hander probably applies to everyone else.

Maybe 130 pitches is still a big deal. But the pitchers who did it the most over the last 13 years had nice, long careers. You can attribute whatever meaning you want to that, even if it's not particularly meaningful on its own.

5. Darvish's opinion on this: lol

That's just a guess. But Darvish threw 130 pitches a few times in Japan. He called them "side sessions." It's a different culture in Japan when it comes to pitch counts. I've seen people hop on the anecdotal wagon with this difference, too, listing all of the Japanese pitchers (Hideo Nomo, Daisuke Matsuzaka) who have flamed out early. Maybe. Maybe not. There would need to be a pretty substantial study done on DL trips in the NPB to see if there's really a correlation. I have no idea how one would do that.

Teams do. Because they've probably already done it on their own. I'd bet a stack of nickels that the Rangers have a pretty good idea if Japanese pitchers get hurt more because of the rigorous amateur workloads. They had about a hundred million reasons to work up a report like that.

The big question: Why even bother in a game that isn't really close? Where's the risk/reward? That's probably what Daniels and Washington talked about. The most egregious Mark Prior moments didn't have everything to do with pitch counts; they were about him staying in with a six-run lead.

Still, it's kind of quaint to see a 130-pitch outing generate a little buzz. Times have changed. And after reading (or skimming!) all of that, you tell me if it's for the better. I sincerely have no idea.