The Twins have had a reputation for protecting their starting pitchers for many years and their method of choice for accomplishing this is to limit the number of pitches that their starters throw in a game. The Twins are not alone in counting pitches, all teams do it these days and a 100 pitch per game seems to be the “gold standard” that most teams follow.
Before pitch counts started to become prominent in the 1980’s ball clubs expected their starting pitcher to pitch a complete game unless he was injured during the game or just could not get anyone out. In days gone by relievers were often starters that were past their prime and were finishing their careers, being a reliever was looked upon as a step down from being a starter. In some ways it is not really that different today, hardly anyone comes out of high school or college hoping to be a reliever but there have been a few exceptions over the last couple of years. For the most part, relievers are still failed starters and yet baseball managers bring in these guys that are not good enough to start for his team to bail out the starter after the starter gets in trouble or reaches his pitch limit.
So what brought on this change? When I first started following baseball in the 1950’s teams usually had four starters and these starters were now and then called upon to pitch in a few games in relief each season as needed. Then baseball evolved from four to five starters, the Twins joined that bandwagon in 1963. As baseball payrolls started to escalate and pitching talent became diluted due to expansion, starting pitchers became a more valuable commodity. I don’t have good Twins payroll data prior to 1980 but it appears that the Twins highest paid player was always a position player until 1986 when Bert Blyleven became the first Twins pitcher to lay claim to that title and to make over a million dollars a season when he pocketed $1,450.000. In the last 28 years the Twins highest paid player has been a position player 16 times, a starting pitcher 11 times and a closer on one occasion. You can see the numbers and the names at http://wp.me/P1YQUj-22 . I am not sure anyone knows for sure but somewhere along the line, either the players agents or team management (I doubt it was a player) decided that starting pitchers needed to be protected and that limiting the number of pitches thrown was the best way to accomplish that goal. Counting pitches isn’t very scientific but it is easy to do and that might by why pitch counts were chosen as the tool of choice. The stress of the game, if there are runners on base, the weather and many other variables are not taken into consideration when all you do is count pitches to determine how hard a pitcher worked on any given day.
One way to make a case for pitch counts is that you can argue that each pitcher has only so many “bullets” to throw before his arm or elbow gives out. I have always found the concept that pitch counts limit injuries to be kind of a strange notion because when we want to strengthen a muscle or ligament we do what? We exercise it and work it. After a knee or arm or elbow surgery we do what? We exercise it to make it stronger and that just seems to go against the grain of limiting pitchers throwing.
Have pitch count really limited injuries? I don’t think anyone knows for sure but the thinking must be that it has because pitch counts are becoming more entrenched than ever before. Let’s take a look at this from the Twins historical perspective. From 1994 through 2013 the Twins have played 3,173 games, during that time frame Tom Kelly/Dick Such and Ron Gardenhire/Rick Anderson have allowed their starting pitcher to throw 100 or more pitches in a game 1,134 times or in 35.74% of the games the Twins have played. Over the last 20 years Minnesota Twins managers and their pitching coaches have allowed their starters throw 100 or more pitches fewer times than any team in the American League and it is not even close. Have Twins starters suffered fewer injuries then all the other teams, I don’t think so. Heck, even the Tampa Rays have 1,259 games with 100 or more pitches and they have been in existence in only the 16 of the 20 years I am looking at here.
AL games with starter going 100 or more pitches 1994-2013(Houston excluded since they have been in AL only one season)
|Team||Total||Avg games per year|
In the past 20 years only four Twins starting pitchers have averaged 100+ pitches a game for the entire season and they were Brad Radke with 103.7 in 2000, Joe Mays with 100.2 in 2001, Johan Santana in 2004 with 100.8, in 2005 with 101.1, in 2006 with 101.5, in 2007 with 101.4 and Carl Pavano in 2011 with 102.5 and their innings pitched fell between 219 and 233.2 per season. The Twin leader in average pitches per game in 2013 was Samuel Deduno with 96.8 in 18 starts.
The intent of this piece is not to say that the Twins pitching would better if Kelly and Gardenhire had allowed them to throw more pitches, it is more for pointing out the peculiarity of how the Twins handle their starters versus how the rest of the AL league does.