PxP: This Time It’s Count

It was June, and things weren’t looking good for the Diamondbacks. Already 15 games behind the surprise Padres, they just dropped an inter-divisional series at home. Against their natural geographical nemesis – the Yankees. And they had only one day to regroup as they took their 28-45 record on the road to face yet another regional foe – the Tampa Bay Rays. “I’ll take ‘The states that host spring training games’ for $200, Alex”.

Their hitters weren’t hitting and their pitchers were getting hit. Haren, the staff ace, had an ERA of 4.67, which was on the right side of five compared to the one sported by Edwin Jackson, who would get the ball on that Friday to take on the suddenly mighty Rays and their more than 2,000 very rabid fans.

So, of course, Edwin Jackson went out and hurled a complete game shutout, in what was possibly the most non-dominant dominating performance in baseball. He faced 36 batters and ran the count to three balls on more than the third of them. He walked eight. Yet, both Jackson and his manager kept stubbornly moving along until the last one of the Rays found his way to the bench and the scoreboard was still showing 0 hits for the home team. In a meaningless game for his team, Edwin Jackson wrote history and became only a second Diamondback to throw a no-hitter. He also threw 149 pitches that night.

Edwin Jackson’s 149 pitches is the most thrown by any pitcher in last 4 years and it is safe to say that such a number occurred only because he was fighting for an important personal achievement. Starters simply do not throw that many pitches anymore, as both increased precaution and specialized bullpens limit the length of their appearances.

Have a look at the leaders in last four years:

Not a bad group right there. Of course, to average over 100 pitches a game, a pitcher has to be both good and durable. There is no question that Tim Wakefield could easily go over 120 every time out, yet he manages “only” 94 pitches per start.

Often, the decision to leave a starter in a game has more to do with his (perceived) effectiveness than with protecting him from an injury. There is hardly a game where the century mark for a starter is not discussed, and him approaching the 100 pitches is an almost automatic trigger to start talking about replacement. Do starters fall off the cliff, as soon as they reach triple digits on the pitch counter?

Here is an overview of OPS against, broken down by starters’ pitch count:

First three bars show the expected – as pitchers repeatedly go through the opposing lineups, their effectiveness diminishes. But, then, suddenly – Bam! Once they get that magical 100th pitch behind them, they really turn it on! Or, do they?

Of course, there is a catch to this. Basically every starter is represented in the first two bars, and even some Pirates appear in the third one. Yet, to even have the chance to pitch in the fourth bar, a starter must first survive the first 100 pitches. This occurs in only about 43% of starts and it is safe to say that quality starters are overrepresented in that group. Still, when managers decided to stick with their starters past the century mark, the decision paid off. Or did it?

The horizontal line on the chart represents the success the hitters have when facing a freshly brought in reliever. This line is lower than any of the bars, indicating that bringing a reliever at any point in a game is a good move. Now, you know better than that. The relievers may be more effective than starters, but they are so only if handled with care. The marginal benefit of replacing a starter well in control and not struggling much with a reliever is probably offset with the marginal loss of quality of the named reliever over next few days and with the overall ineffectiveness due to long term abuse.

About 30 days before his no-hitter, Edwin Jackson pitched a game in San Francisco. It was a standard game for him – 4 hits, 5 walks, 7 strikeouts. His opponent was Matt Cain, who also did what he always does, except that this time he got a win for it. He allowed only a Mark Reynolds’ double, hasn’t walked anybody and reached a three-ball count mere three times all night. He threw 20 pitches more than Jackson did, but did he really work harder that night?

Cain did throw more pitches that night and using the conventional math and even more conventional wisdom he labored harder. But he didn’t have any long innings (only 11 of his pitches were pitches 15 or higher in an inning) and he hardly ever went to stretch. Meanwhile Jackson had longer innings and threw almost half of his pitches (48) from the stretch. Even in twenty pitches less, Jackson worked harder.

To identify the hard laborers, the guys who pitch a lot when people are on, let’s look at the leaderboard of pitchers who throw most pitches from the stretch. It reads a bit different than the first one:

Edwin Jackson just missed the cut with 44, where he is tied with Barry FITZ Zito and Dana Eveland.

There is very little difference in how teams treat their starters:

Some variation can be noticed from month to month, though:

Obviously, managers go about gradually building up the arm strength and increasing the workload of their starters in the early months. Towards the end, especially in October, pitch counts go down as about a quarter of the teams are headed to the playoffs and their starters perform tune-up starts.

There are, of course exception to this rule. Dusty Baker took over Cincinnati in 2008, and he’s been know for leaving his starters to float in there like wood prior to leaving Chicago. Faced with the chance to start a new approach with another young promising staff he promptly – didn’t take it. He left the 24-year old Edinson Volquez on the mound for over 100 pitches in three consecutive games in April, including a brutal 112 pitch outing that included 60 pitches from the stretch and a 32 pitch inning in what was just his third start of the season. He applied the same approach to Volquez in the beginning of 2009. In unrelated news, Volquez then missed most of 2009 and 2010 recovering from a Tommy John surgery.

However, Dusty can be at least credited for not managing the longest innings by a starting pitcher. The dubious distinction to have pitched a 50+ pitch inning belongs to these gentlemen:

Pitchers in general prefer short at bats, to have an early contact and be able to move on. In a most dominant perfect game that thanks to a blown call never was, Gil Gamesh recorded 27 straight outs on 27 straight strikeouts on 81 straight strikes. Yes, I know he never existed, yet he is still my favorite dominant pitcher of all times. Greg Maddux had a completely different idea of what an ultimate perfect game should look like – 27 pitches, 27 strikes put in play and 27 outs. Sounds more efficient, doesn’t it? Yet it is perhaps even more unlikely than the mythical performance of a lovable communist spy.

Here is why. Look at how opponents perform, when ending the plate appearance after different number of pitches:

While having the batters put the first pitch in play might be good for the pitch count, it’s anything but for the result. Collectively, the league metamorphoses into an elite slugger when connecting on the first pitch, OPS-ing almost .900.

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