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A Not-So-Brief History of Pitching Injuries, Starring Nolan Ryan and the Texas Rangers

13 September 2010

SURPRISE, Az. — The early-morning sun beamed down on Neftali Feliz as he toed the pitching rubber. A smattering of Texas Rangers coaches and instructors fanned out to watch the Dominican phenom with the 100-mph fastball and power curve, both pitches he can throw for strikes in any count. Feliz stared down the left-handed hitter in the batter’s box, turned, and let the ball fly. His motion looked effortless, like he was gently playing catch with a six-year-old who’d somehow won an invite onto the field. The sound of the ball told a different story – ssssszzzzzzzzz…THWAP!

Again and again, Feliz reared back and fired, mystifying the poor hitter in the box who’d been brought out to give Feliz a batting practice opponent. After a few pitches, Mike Maddux motioned to Feliz with an exaggerated follow-through, indicating to the 21-year-old future of the franchise that he should finish his release. Feliz let his arm dangle by his side, came set, and delivered. The pitch made a heavy thud against the catcher’s mitt, knee-high, outside corner. The feckless hitter winced, making a face that said he’d rather be anywhere else but here. Maddux, the Rangers pitching coach hand-picked by the organization to lead a new era in Arlington, gave a slight nod. You’ve got it.

Across the way, dozens of minor league hopefuls warmed up on the back fields. The routine looked all too familiar to anyone who’d ever played through spring training, coached it or even watched it. The players lined up on the right-field foul line, their partners 60 feet away in fair territory, and began throwing. After a few minutes, they were ordered to back it up 30 feet and resume tossing. A few minutes later, they spread out to 120 feet. In most training camps across the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues, this was usually as far as pitchers were allowed to go. Couldn’t risk hurting anyone’s arm, especially the precious young arms on this field, some of whom had been paid big signing bonuses in the hope that they too could impress the big league staff one day.

Except one pitcher decided to go rogue. As the other throwers maintained their distance, a lone left-hander fanned further out – 150 feet, then 200, then 250. By the time the others were winding down, a solitary figure had backed all the way up to the power alley in left-center. He caught the ball shoulder-high, took a hop, then launched the ball, a high, arcing rainbow that came to rest right on target, in his partner’s glove. The two long-tossers were 300 feet away from each other, maybe more. Alan Jaeger had spent 20 years teaching these long-toss methods, only to see most major league teams continue with their old ways, watching injuries pile up every season and assuming they were powerless to stop their pitchers from breaking down. With each 300-foot toss into the Arizona sky, Jaeger gave a slight nod, then a smile. You’ve got it.

After years of watching their pitchers wear down, break down, and give up unholy amounts of runs, the Rangers have overhauled the way they develop and train pitchers. Gone are many of the customs that many other teams continue to deploy. In their stead, the Rangers have implemented a spate of new techniques. They now throw batting practice between starts (including during the season), run more sprints and less for distance, and in some cases, long-toss up to 300 feet and beyond. It’s all part of an effort to get Texas starters to last longer, give up fewer runs and win more games.

“Over the years I’d observed what had happened with our pitching, that the mindset became, you can’t pitch in the ballpark in Arlington,” said Nolan Ryan, Rangers president and part-owner. “I didn’t believe that. I felt there were things we could do to change that. It starts with believing you can change, and wanting to.”

Ryan has lived through two distinctly different eras for pitchers since throwing his major league debut in 1966. For much of his 27-year playing career, medical technology was crude, training methods primitive. If a pitcher felt pain, the mantra of the time was, rub some dirt on it. Pitch counts weren’t monitored, training regimens weren’t prescribed, and pitching careers were ended. By the time Ryan took over as Rangers president in 2008, the pendulum had swung severely in the other direction. The new way of thinking held that pitchers should do less. Throw fewer warm-up tosses, and don’t throw them as far. Take it easy between starts. Pitching coaches now obsessed over pitch count totals, treating them with reverence and fear.

The new president sought a middle ground for the Rangers. Ryan presided over Maddux’s hiring, huddled with the training staff, and met with key front office personnel, all in an effort to improve the team’s run prevention. After much consultation, the Rangers implemented new, more challenging workout programs. They also ramped up the intensity of throwing routines, aiming to build stronger, more resilient arms. Those changes, combined with a greater emphasis on defense and a new generation of homegrown pitchers, produced an 87-win Rangers club that was one of the biggest surprises in baseball in 2009. Texas allowed 740 runs last season, the team’s lowest total in a non-strike-shortened season in nearly 20 years.

The Rangers have allowed fewer runs per game this season than in any other season in 20 years. They’re about to lock down their first playoff berth in more than a decade, and have a legitimate shot at winning their first World Series title in franchise history.

The team now has a simple, and hopefully sustainable, blueprint for building a better pitching staff: Work harder.

“If you set limits,” said Maddux, “you lower people’s ceilings.”

He wears a suit and tie these days, having long ago hung up his uniform in favor of a corporate life that’s made him a minor league owner, beef distributor, restaurateur, occasional TV pitchman, and now a big league executive. After his promotion from special assistant to general manager Jon Daniels to club president, Ryan added another title to his resume: pitching consigliere. The Hall of Famer knew better than to expect an army of young pitching clones. But Ryan thought his history of on-field success, combined with his own training methods as a player (he lifted weights when almost no one else did, threw batting practice between starts and ran sprints regularly) could motivate Rangers pitchers to go deeper into games, the one factor he saw as vital to a team’s chances of winning the pennant. Five-inning outings be damned, Ryan wanted his new charges to learn from his past, from games like the one that took place June 14, 1974.

Ryan isn’t the only one who remembers that game – Luis Tiant does too. The Boston Red Sox starter that night, Tiant recalls being fired up to pitch, which is what happened when you looked at the lineup card and saw Ryan’s name staring back at you. He desperately wanted to beat his hard-throwing opponent and was willing to throw as many pitches as he needed to make that happen, no matter how forcefully his manager, Darrell Johnson, tried to take him out.

“When I pitched you had one mentality,” Tiant said. “When you started the game, you wanted to finish the game, no matter how long it took you.”

Denny Doyle played second base for Ryan’s Angels. He recalls being surprised by the two pitchers’ longevity that night, exceptional even by the far more permissive standards of that era. Despite the length of the game, Doyle was surprised when Angels Manager Bobby Winkles finally pulled Ryan for a relief pitcher. “It would take a gun to get Nolan out of the game when he was going good,” he said.

Barry Raziano threw just 21.1 innings in his career and would make just eight more appearances after this game before tearing his rotator cuff and ending his career. On this night, Raziano came on in relief of Ryan, threw two scoreless innings, and collected the only win of his major league career. It wasn’t quite Moonlight Graham, but the night should have been memorable. The win itself didn’t resonate. Raziano was young, pitched in a lousy bullpen that needed him, and figured there’d be plenty more chances down the road. No, what he remembered most clearly was Cecil Cooper striking out three times against Ryan that night, an outcome he found amusing because Raziano had done the same to Cooper once in Triple-A.

Only Raziano’s memory was faulty. Cooper struck out six times against Ryan. He went 0-for-8 for the game. When contacted for this story, Cooper issued the most understandable “no comment” of all-time.

Ryan recalls having good stuff that night. But he also remembers being wild. Ryan was an overthrower in those days, struggling to find a consistent delivery and relying more on raw power than technique. On this night, he had enough zip on the ball and life in his arm to pitch deep into the game, despite some control problems. He battled through nine innings, then 10, 11, and 12.

After Ryan struck out Cooper for a sixth time to end the 12th, Angels Manager Bobby Winkles told his ace, “That’s it.”

Ryan wasn’t budging. “But I haven’t broken my record yet,” he pleaded with the skipper.

What record, Winkles asked.

“Most pitches in a game,” Ryan replied.

Winkles relented, sending Ryan back out for the 13th inning. The strategy worked, in a way. Ryan got through the 13th unscathed. But he still hadn’t won the game. Over Ryan’s protests, Winkles yanked his frustrated starter. Ryan could only sit and watch as Tiant kept pitching, past the 13th and 14th, before Doyle’s ringing double to left won it for the Angels in the 15th.

No one formally kept track of pitch counts back then, though statisticians now estimate that Tiant threw about 180 pitches that night, facing 56 batters in his 14.1 innings of work. Ryan would have never known how many pitches he’d thrown if not for Angels pitching coach Tom Morgan, who happened to keep track on a hand-held clicker.

How many, Ryan wanted to know.

Two-thirty-five, Morgan told him.

Damn it, thought Ryan. Thirteen innings pitched, 58 batters faced, 19 strikeouts and 10 walks, and he’d still missed his personal record.

Two-forty-two.

The box score from that game might as well be written in Aramaic, for all the similarities it shares with today’s environment for pitchers.

Ryan’s own ironman history would seem to make him the perfect spokesman for pushing pitchers to go deeper into games. His 235-pitch slog back in ’74 marked the third time in three years he’d pitched 12 innings or more in a game. These weren’t what you’d call efficient efforts either. Ryan threw 332.2 innings, struck out 367 batters, and walked 202 in ’74, the season that produced his biggest workload. He threw harder than anyone, trained harder than anyone, struck out more batters than anyone and walked more batters than anyone in the game’s history, started in the big leagues as a teenager, and finished as a 46-year-old.

But Ryan also acknowledges that he was the biggest of outliers. Though he owed much of his success to hard work, he also knows he won a genetic lottery that helped make him one of the most successful and most durable pitchers of all-time. Having Nolan Ryan preach about the value of pitching deep into games is a little like listening to Yao Ming encouraging people to get taller. Easy for you to say, buddy.

Still, there’s no denying the massive changes that have washed over the game in the past 36 years. When a pitcher closes in on 100 pitches today, an alarm goes off in the ballpark, one that alerts managers, pitching coaches, broadcasters and opposing hitters that the guy on the mound is getting tired and won’t last much longer. Pitchers who last into the 7th inning give their team a big edge, allowing their managers to keep their bullpen fresh and use higher-quality relievers to close out the game. Complete games have mostly gone the way of the bullpen cart (despite a slight rebound in the past two years). Catfish Hunter holds the mark for most complete games in a season since 1974, with 30. When CC Sabathia completed one-third that many in 2008, he was celebrated like the reincarnation of Iron Man McGinnity. This shouldn’t be too surprising: Sabathia was the only pitcher to crack double-digit complete games in a season over the last decade.

Meanwhile, the Yankees’ treatment of Sabathia’s teammate Joba Chamberlain has spawned howls of protest from New York media and fans. The Joba Rules, the Yankees’ conservative usage plan for their 24-year-old prodigy, was enacted to protect a pitcher the team views as a cornerstone of its future. The team’s pledge to cap Chamberlain’s innings total at 160 last season after limiting him to just over 100 in 2008 further fanned the flames of protest. Facing the Red Sox one night last May, Chamberlain energized Yankee Stadium by following a four-run blow-up to start the game with 5 2/3 dominant innings, including 12 strikeouts. Rather than let his pitcher keep going, though, Joe Girardi popped out of the dugout to take the ball from Chamberlain. The Yankees skipper had actually pushed Chamberlain a little longer then he’d originally intended – all the way to 108 pitches. Still, there was nothing subtle about the crowd’s reaction: a symphony of boos that rang out throughout the ballpark. The Yankees’ kid glove treatment did keep Chamberlain healthy; for their trouble, they got a mediocre pitcher with lousy command, fueling a 4.75 ERA, 76 walks in just 157.1 IP, and a league-leading 12 hit batsmen.

Ryan wants no part of any pitching program with the word “Rules” in it. Led by Maddux, bullpen coach Andy Hawkins and strength and conditioning coach Jose Vazquez at the major league level, and director of player development Scott Servais and pitching coordinator Danny Clark at the minor league level, the Rangers have implemented some system-wide programs. But, says Maddux, they’ve also remained flexible, responding to specific pitchers’ needs. That’s a big departure from the military tendencies of many teams, which treat everyone the same, regardless of ability or body type.

Starting last spring, Vazquez prescribed a rigorous running program, designed to build up pitchers’ stamina. Bucking baseball’s status quo, Vazquez pushed pitchers to run sprints lasting 30 to 200 yards, in lieu of the usual distance running-only program. Baseball is often behind the curve in skill-specific training, Vazquez said, lacking the kind of specially-tailored drills and exercise regimens that help power forwards snatch rebounds and cornerbacks defend fly patterns. By running sprints and doing heavy weightlifting with their legs, Vazquez said pitchers are getting the kind of intensive workout they need to mimic the action of pitching.

“If you break down pitching, it’s really a series of sprints,” Vazquez explained. “You take the ball, throw it as hard as you can, then take a break. Pitching is stop-and-go, not a continuous activity. You want to promote that explosiveness, where you can give your all in this one sprint, or this one pitch.”

Intensive training methods like those Vazquez now recommends can cause greater lactic acid buildup, which can cause more soreness than a pitcher might be used to handling. But pitchers experience the same physical sensations when straining through a 30-pitch inning against a tough lineup in searing August heat. By acclimating themselves to those sensations, Vazquez said, pitchers become better able to handle heavier workloads, increasing their effectiveness and lowering their chance of injury.

Now in his eighth year in the same role with the Rangers, Vazquez said he’d long wanted to implement this kind of program for the team’s pitchers. The sport is steeped in tradition and conventional thinking, he said, making the game’s decision makers reluctant to make big changes and take risks. The order to change the way a team trains usually has to come from the top. That’s what’s made Ryan’s hands-on approach as team president so helpful.

“Because Nolan did that kind of training as a player and was successful with it, he was the perfect person to sell it,” Vazquez said. “He was able to say, ‘Hey guys, I did it this way, there’s nothing to be afraid of.’ Nolan came in and said the pitchers need to be pushed more, they need to work harder and turn up their intensity – and that there’s nothing wrong with that.”

The Rangers’ biggest break from conventional wisdom may be their decision to use big league pitchers to throw batting practice between starts. While most other teams have spare coaches lob lollipop pitches in for hitters to launch into the bleachers, the Rangers use BP as a way for pitchers to test their complete repertoire between starts, facing live hitters.

“It’s important to see how hitters react to your pitches in certain locations,” said Ryan, who credited throwing BP with keeping him sharp between starts throughout his career. “By pitching off a mound to hitters, instead of throwing side sessions on a bullpen mound, you’re also put into a situation that’s a lot closer to being in a game. It’s another good way to help build your stamina.”

The pitchers have bought into the idea of throwing extra BP.

“It gives you a little bit more intensity level, more than what you would get out of a bullpen,” said Colby Lewis, a five-year major league veteran who returned to the Rangers this off-season after spending two years in Japan. “It’s new to me, but I like it.”

Pinpointing the exact causes for a team’s improved pitching can be tricky. Texas’ farm system has ushered in a fresh batch of talented arms that may well have outperformed the team’s previous pitching corps, even if nothing else changed. Feliz dominated in relief, breaking into the big leagues the same way Ryan did, with great success: 39 strikeouts and just eight walks allowed in 31 innings, with a 1.74 ERA. Less heralded youngsters lifted the rotation. Lacking Feliz’s knockout stuff, rookie starter Tommy Hunter fared well in following Maddux’s pitch-to-contact advice, racking up a 9-6 record with a 4.10 ERA and better-than-average fielding-independent numbers. Hunter has long been a long-toss advocate, and a believer in throwing as often as his arm will allow.

“The day after a start I’ll go from the foul line to the fence, about 300ish,” said Hunter. “It’s something I’ve done since college, so it’s not new to me. I’d always throw two bullpens between starts too. It’s just one of those things that keeps me acclimated to baseball and pitching off the mound.”

The most unlikely success story was Scott Feldman. Almost exclusively a relief pitcher in the minors and early in his big league career, Feldman shifted to the rotation in 2008 with ugly results. Thrust back into the rotation in 2009, he became one of the biggest surprises in baseball, posting a 17-8 record, a 4.08 ERA and more pitching-to-contact results that won a big backer in his pitching coach. At first, Feldman wasn’t sure how the Rangers’ new training methods might work for him. He quickly became a believer.

“Last year was the first year I started doing long toss,” Feldman said. “My arm had been just kind of barking all spring. [Maddux and Hawkins] said, instead of not throwing today, why don’t you try to stretch it out and play long toss? A lot of people, the minute their arm starts hurting they’ll take a day off. But if you think about it, it’s just dead arm. If you throw through it, you can get past it, and you’re stronger after. That really helped a lot.”

Feldman has regressed this year. But Lewis (3.86 ERA, 3:1 strikeout-to-walk rate) and C.J. Wilson (3.28 ERA that’s somewhat hit-lucky, but still an impressive performance in his first year as a starter that includes a strong 7.5 K/9 IP rate) have become rotation mainstays in 2010.

Defense has also played a major role in Texas’ improvement, mirroring the approach that helped push the Tampa Bay Rays from worst to first in 2008 and the Seattle Mariners to one of baseball’s biggest improvements in 2009. One defensive shift alone made a huge difference for the Rangers. In 2008, Michael Young ranked as the fourth-worst defensive shortstop in the majors according to Ultimate Zone Rating, allowing 5.8 runs more than the average player at his position. In 2009, dynamic 20-year-rookie Elvis Andrus pushed Young to third base, with impressive results: Andrus ranked third among major league shortstops, saving 10.7 more runs than average. That swap gave the Rangers MLB’s biggest year-over-year improvement at the most challenging defensive position on the diamond.

“Somewhere in this egocentric game, the perfect inning is nine pitches and three strikeouts,” said Maddux. “For me, the perfect inning is three pitches. We really don’t talk about pitch count limits. We talk about pitch count efficiency. Good defense can make a medium pitcher good. It can make a not-so-good pitcher pretty good. It can make a good pitcher even better.”

Even after considering those other factors, there’s no denying that the Rangers’ vast improvement in run prevention directly coincided with their new training programs. Despite playing in one of the toughest parks in baseball for pitchers, Texas finished a respectable 8th in the AL in team ERA at 4.38 last year – after posting a league-worst 5.37 ERA in 2008. The rate of pitching injuries dropped substantially, especially after discounting freak injuries such as stress fractures that aren’t related to fatigue. In perhaps the clearest sign of progress, the Rangers upped their innings pitched per start to 5.9 (and their pitches per start to 97) in 2009, vs. 5.4 (and 91) in 2008. That was the biggest innings pitched jump by any team’s starters.

For nearly two decades, independent pitching instructor Alan Jaeger worked on a training program that would scare the pants off most pitching coaches, farm directors and general managers. Major league teams long ago established one intractable method for long-toss routines: Players should throw from no further than 120 feet, with little to no arc on the ball, usually for no more than a few minutes. Jaeger Sports proposed a radically different approach: Extend long-toss out to 200, even 300 feet or more, use a high arc as you extend your distance, then a flat trajectory coming back in, and let pitchers take as much time as they wanted to do it.

What made the program so scary to skeptics was how strongly it seemed to contradict the idea of preserving pitchers’ fragile health. Closely monitoring pitch counts from rookie ball to the big leagues, limiting pitching workloads in the off-season, capping the amount of work a pitcher could put in between starts – all of these restrictions were seen by most major league organizations as the best way to protect the massive investments they’d made in first-round draft picks and $100 million free-agent signees alike. Bottling up long-toss time seemed like a natural extension of a supposedly beneficial approach.

Jaeger saw just the opposite. By restricting an athlete’s ability to train and strengthen his muscles and movements, Jaeger believed teams were making their pitchers less likely to increase their strength, less likely to add velocity to their pitches, less likely to handle bigger workloads and more likely to get injured. Using a combination of surgical tubing-based stretching exercises and loading techniques like crow-hopping (taking a jump-step) before each throw, Jaeger began teaching his students, mostly high school- and college-aged pitchers, to learn a free-and-easy throwing motion that would let them long-toss from longer distances.

Ask him to demonstrate and Jaeger points to a YouTube clip of one of his students. Standing on a football field, the pitcher throws with a motion so loose and relaxed his arm looks like a limp noodle. He long-tosses from 100 feet, then 120, 150 and 200. There’s huge arc on every throw, like a schoolyard game of Pop 500, only without a bat. By the time he’s reached his full range of motion, the pitcher’s making rainbow throws that travel from behind one goal line deep into the opposite end zone – well over 300 feet.

“The arm is an organism that wants to grow and evolve,” Jaeger says, the power of his convictions triggering excitement in his voice. “It likes blood flow and range of motion. We’re not talking overstimulation. It’s just letting the arm do what it wants to do.”

Jaeger made some inroads with his approach. Top Arizona Diamondbacks starter Dan Haren, former Cy Young winner Barry Zito and 2009 AL Rookie of the Year Andrew Bailey rank among the big league pitchers that use some version of the Jaeger program as part of their training. Hundreds of amateurs have followed suit. Even a few progressive major league pitching coaches have taken interest. For the most part, though, Jaeger hasn’t had much luck convincing teams to overhaul their old training methods.

“Baseball has always been the good old boys sport,” said Zito, whose father Joe was such a big believer in long-toss that he insisted on a clause in Barry’s first contract guaranteeing that the A’s wouldn’t interfere with his son’s regimen. “You’ve got a lot of old-school guys with old-school methods. It seems other sports will adjust and change with technology, whereas baseball has always been slow to adjust to the times, and to new technologies.”

Jaeger wrote an article about his program for a publication called Collegiate Baseball, then sent the story around to a few MLB executives. One of his victims was Jay Robertson, assistant to Daniels and a former scout who’d signed Jaeger’s business partner, former major league outfielder Jim Vatcher, as a 20th-round draft pick. Robertson was intrigued by Jaeger’s long-toss program and invited him to the GM Meetings in Dana Point in November 2008. There, Jaeger pitched his ideas to several members of the Rangers brass, including Daniels, Servais, head of scouting Don Welke and director of player personnel A.J. Preller.

His timing couldn’t have been better. The Rangers had just completed another frustrating season that featured too many injuries, too much lousy pitching, and the worst ERA in baseball. Since their last playoff experience in 1999, Rangers starters had ranked last or nearly last in almost every major pitching category, including ERA and innings pitched. Just three times over that nine-year stretch did the team trot out two 200-inning starters in the same season. Ryan, Daniels and the rest of the front office were angling to make radical changes to the way the team trained and developed pitchers. Here was a chance to affect real change.

“One thing [Jaeger] said that resonated with me: Why stop at 120 feet?” mused Daniels. “I asked everyone – no one could say. Eventually we found out it was because 120 feet was as far as you were allowed to throw in rehab.”

At this, Daniels shook his head.

“We wouldn’t do this with anything else. We wouldn’t tell a healthy player, don’t run that far, or don’t swing that hard. So why were doing this to our pitchers?”

Daniels acknowledged how difficult it can be for teams to change their ways. Traditions are passed down from one generation of baseball men to the next, and rarely questioned. A perennially successful team like the Yankees or Red Sox, he said, might be even less likely to seek change, preferring not to mess with success. But the Rangers hadn’t seen any success for a decade. So, Daniels figured, why not.

A few months later, the Rangers sent Jaeger to the Dominican Republic to work with Dominican Summer League Manager Jayce Tingler and other coaches on teaching young pitchers the new long-toss regime. The plan worked like a charm. The team raced to the best record in the league, with no major pitching injuries all season. But the Rangers didn’t merely challenge the 120-foot long-toss convention at the rookie ball level. Last spring, when Jaeger flew to the team’s spring training complex in Surprise on his own dime to see what else the Rangers had done, he couldn’t believe his eyes.

“They were crow-hopping like we were crow-hopping,” Jaeger beamed. “They were throwing the ball with arc, using our principles. I watched guys pushing 300 feet, which is practically unheard of in other places. I almost cried.”

With that, the Rangers became one of the first teams to actively promote the use of long-toss. The Oakland A’s, St. Louis Cardinals, Minnesota Twins, Washington Nationals, Milwaukee Brewers and New York Yankees also promote the use of long-toss either at the major league level, the minor league level, or both. A few major league clubs recently lifted their restrictions on long-toss use. The gospel is spreading.

Ryan is hardly the first person and the Rangers are hardly the first team that’s tried to squeeze more out of its starters. Plenty of managers have talked about the need to toughen up pitchers, push them harder and make them throw more pitches and more innings in the past. The results have, for the most part, been frightening.

In the past 15 years alone, pitchers like the Royals’ Jose Rosado, the Mets’ highly-touted “Generation K” of Paul Wilson, Bill Pulsipher and Jason Isringhausen, and the supposedly indestructible Cubs duo of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior have all seen their careers severely curtailed, or simply ended, by the strain of heavy workloads at a young age. Before Generation K, Wood and Prior, phenoms like Mark Fidrych also flamed out of baseball after the strain of overuse became too much to bear. These burnout cases have become so common, we remember those who heaped the high pitch counts on their young charges – Tony Muser, Dallas Green, and statheads’ Patron Saint of Pitcher Abuse, Dusty Baker – almost as vividly as the pitchers themselves.

Seeing those burnouts prompted a new generation of baseball analysts to try to quantify pitcher overuse and its effects, seeking to find a connection between high-pitch-count starts and injuries. By the late 90s, Rany Jazayerli of Baseball Prospectus had begun building the framework for a new statistic, Pitcher Abuse Points.

Later joined by colleague Keith Woolner, the pair constructed and refined the stat as a way to measure the degree to which a starting pitcher is overworked. PAP gave every pitcher a safety zone of 100 pitches in each start, with any additional pitches thrown after 100 counted against him. “Pitch 101 counts very little,” Jazayerli said. “Pitch 131 counts a lot.”

Wading through reams of data and studying the many cases of pitcher breakdowns over the years has made Jazayerli highly skeptical of attempts to buck the trend of pitch count limits in baseball.

“I’d love to see Bob Feller or Bob Gibson pitch complete games every time out in today’s environment,” he said. “If they pitched to conserve their strength as they did in their primes, they wouldn’t be the ace hurlers they were. If they tried to throw 97 on every fastball and still throw nine innings every fifth day…well, I guess Dr. Andrews is always looking for new patients.”

Woolner, now manager of baseball research and analytics for the Cleveland Indians, agreed. “No doubt, there are some pitchers who could handle regular 140-pitch outings. The problem is identifying them without burning out a lot of lesser arms along the way.”

Statheads aren’t the only ones who fret over more aggressive training methods and pitch count totals for pitchers. Rick Peterson, a former pitching coach with the A’s and New York Mets known for his forward-thinking approach to pitcher instruction and his support for biomechanical studies of pitchers, has produced positive results prescribing strict regimens for former All-Stars such as Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Zito. He’s also seen plenty of pitchers break down in his 30 years as a pitching coach and instructor.

“You have teams saying we have to get back to where we were before, where starters have to have a mindset of finishing games,” Peterson said. “Organizations have tried to go back in that direction before. But when you get those kinds of outcomes – injuries, breakdowns – you have to take a second look and ask yourself if it’s worth the risk.”

The Rangers’ more aggressive approach does have some backers in the medical community. Dr. Glenn Fleisig, Smith & Nephew Chair of Research at the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Ala. (the same clinic that houses top sports surgeon Dr. James Andrews), sees the benefits of pushing pitchers to their physical limits – so long as they don’t push past those limits. When a pitcher pitches or trains to the point of fatigue, Fleisig said, that’s his body telling him he’s developed micro-tears in his ligaments, tendons and muscles. If the pitcher calls it a day at that point, then gets the proper blend of rest and activity between starts, those micro-tears recover and he gets stronger – fostering more endurance for the future. On the other hand, if he keeps working past the point of fatigue, the tears get bigger. Without the proper rest and monitoring, those tears can get too big to repair themselves, resulting in major injuries down the road.

The Rangers do have the right idea about pushing pitchers as far as their bodies will allow, Fleisig said. If a pitcher doesn’t work hard enough, he said, “You can’t develop. You won’t get hurt, but you won’t get stronger or better either.”

Zito, who visited ASMI early in his career with Peterson, Hudson and Mulder to help further the lab’s biomechanics research, agreed.

“Teams are under the false belief that you have a finite number of throws in your shoulder before it blows out, that it has nothing to do with how you condition your shoulder over the years,” he said. “They feel like you’re destined to blow your arm out no matter what you do. I believe you can condition it and prevent injury, by making it stronger.”

Ryan allows a slight smile when he reminisces about 235-pitch games battling against the likes of Luis Tiant. He does the same when he talks about the Rangers’ new approach, and the strides his team has made in preventing runs and staying healthy.

Then suddenly, the smile disappears. Ryan knows that any number of factors could spoil the party. Bullpen struggles could tempt Manager Ron Washington to stretch his starters out too far and risk going beyond the sweet spot the team seems to have found. Any kind of setback for the team’s Gold Glove-caliber shortstop could have a cascading effect, leading to more balls scooting through the infield, more high-stress innings for Rangers pitchers and more potential for injury. Ryan also knows he’s leaving himself open to criticism if his pitchers simply wither in the Texas heat and break down under the strain of tougher workloads.

“Any time you do anything out of the norm, you subject yourself to criticism,” he conceded. “You get a lot of resistance from people when there’s change. I think if you’re going to do that, you have to feel like what you’re doing is the right thing.”

The most intimidating pitcher in baseball history paused, then looked his questioner straight in the eyes.

“You have to be confident.”

-30-

Because 5000-plus words weren’t enough to get the point across, here are three more (mini-)stories for your reading enjoyment.

WHAT’S CHANGED IN 35 YEARS?

What the pitchers of Ryan’s day lacked in pitch count monitoring, medicine, training and nutrition they made up for in Ray Oylers. Oyler was a wisp of a shortstop who lasted six seasons in the big leagues, thanks entirely to his glove. When he hung ‘em up after the 1970 season, Oyler left with a career hitting mark of .175/.258/.251 and the distinction of being the worst hitter in the illustrious one-year history of the Seattle Pilots.

Though Oyler was an extreme example of the era’s lower offensive production, he was hardly the only pop-gun hitter of the time. Baseball in the late 60s and through much of the 70s was a game focused on pitching, defense and one-run strategies. Players like Oyler and Mark Belanger were valued for their defense – a couple of homers counted as a breakout year. Teams weren’t afraid to play two or three all-glove, no-hit players at a time, creating a black hole at the bottom of many lineups. Sixty years after Christy Mathewson’s Pitching in a Pinch informed readers that he’d coast throughout the bottom of lineups with little effort in the Dead Ball era, pitchers could still blow through multiple hitters every game with ease, saving their best bullets for later in the game, when they’d need them.

Denny Doyle was a rich man’s Ray Oyler. Known for his glovework, Doyle’s eight-year career netted him a career mark of .250/.295/.315, with just 16 home runs. But he had a few dramatic moments with the bat too, including some big performances in the 1975 playoffs. Doyle was also baseball’s answer to Zelig in the early-to-mid-1970s. He played behind Steve Carlton with the Phillies, then Ryan with the Angels, and finally Luis Tiant with the Red Sox – three of the most prolific pitch count collectors of that time. He was also the slap-hitting second baseman who knocked in the winning run during that marathon Ryan-Tiant clash in 1974.

It wasn’t just greater acceptance of Oylers, Belangers and Doyles that made pitching deep into games easier 35 years ago. Though stadiums finally lowered pitching mounds from the Mount Olympus heights of the late 60s, most ballparks’ configurations still made home runs a much tougher task than they are today. The proliferation of fire-breathing closers and crafty set-up men lowered the need for complete games (and vice versa). The explosion of player salaries made teams more reluctant to risk harming their pricey investments. And while performance-enhancing drugs may benefit hitters and pitchers alike, it’s tough to dispute the surging and dovetailing home run and PED-use trends that peaked earlier this decade. All of these factors have conspired to make pitchers expend more energy per pitch today than they did a generation ago.

But the biggest and toughest change for today’s pitchers, say both moundsmen and statheads, may be the incredible shrinking strike zone. Watch a game from the 70s with any fastball pitcher on the hill. You’ll see strike after strike called on pitches at the navel, at the letters, even up to the armpits. That bigger strike zone made hitters swing more often and produce outs more frequently, which in turn brought down pitch counts. Now, facing better hitters with better equipment in parks more conducive to hitting, pitchers need to gun 95-mph fastballs, darting cutters and knee-buckling curves into a strike zone the size of a postage stamp. Nope, no effort required there.

“I wouldn’t say it all comes down to [the smaller strike zone], but that would seem to be the primary reason” for starting pitchers coming out of games earlier, said Tom Tango, an analyst and co-author of The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball. “With a much smaller margin for error, and with relievers in abundance, starters have less reason to pace themselves. So, that leads into a perfect storm of smaller strike zones and backup support forcing all-out pitches.”

Tango takes his defense of today’s pitchers one step further. Top starters in both the 1960s and the heart of the 90s offensive explosion both averaged about 110 pitches per start, he says. In other words, it’s not the sheer number of pitches thrown by starters that’s changed much – it’s the effort expended per pitch and the number of innings pitched per start. Managers today have the luxury of removing their gassed starters and bringing in a battalion of rested, ready relief pitchers every game.

So if the data suggest that pitch counts for starting pitchers haven’t changed much in 35-40 years, why does it seem that they have? Lower innings totals for starters are one big reason. But analysts argue that it’s more than that. It’s a survivor effect, and also selection bias, at work. Human beings remember extraordinary events and extraordinary people, and a few pitchers have survived some remarkable workloads over the years. Thus we recall games like the one played June 14, 1974, and pitchers who could, on occasion, top 200 or even 250 pitches.

We remember Nolan Ryan. We forget that other guy.

THE MAN WHO STARTED THE PITCH COUNT CRAZE

So when did we first start paying attention to pitch counts anyway?

Gabriel Schechter, a research associate for the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum, offers this excerpt from a Dodgers game report in the New York World Telegram, dated April 25, 1945.

“Normally a pitcher delivers about 100 to 120 pitches per game,” the article read. “They say Christy Mathewson often pitched no more than 80.”

Pitch counts were being monitored in the 1960s too, even if the masses rarely heard about it. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract notes that the 1967 Birmingham club was one of the best minor league teams of the 60s, its best pitchers flirting with no-hitters several times that year. But 35 years before Moneyball, the parent A’s club had a strict 100-pitch count limit for minor leaguers. The manager would yank his starter at 100 pitches, potential no-hitter or not.

Despite those early efforts, number crunchers needed a steady flow of data before the pitch count obsession could begin in earnest. Henry Freeman was the man who made it happen.

A long-time newspaperman who’d already racked up nearly 20 years in the business, Freeman took over as sports editor at USA Today in 1981, before the paper published its first issue. Given the clean slate he had to build the section, Freeman huddled with other staffers, challenging them to come up with ideas to make the paper’s sports section a must-read. The group quickly found a magic bullet: expanded box scores. To that point, baseball box scores simply followed the old format of showing the game’s score by inning, the winning and losing pitchers, plus a few more details. Freeman wanted to offer more – much more.

That was a tough task, given no one else had tried anything as ambitious as what he had in mind. When Freeman put out his first prototype sports section on May 15, 1981, it took his staff five days to collect all the numbers for it. This wouldn’t work on a daily paper’s schedule. Through persistent nudging, Freeman got the Elias sports bureau to kick in some data. But for game stats, his only hope was the Associated Press. After more cajoling, Freeman got AP to have its stringers call USA Today with box score results after every game. The price? Fifteen bucks per game. By the time the 1983 baseball season was done, the rest of the newspaper world caught on, and AP introduced an agate service to meet booming demand. But USA Today had emerged as the clear leader in the burgeoning statistical revolution that was gripping baseball fans. Triple Crown stats led to stolen bases. Stolen bases led to negative stats like caught stealing. And by 1984, pitch count totals could be found for every pitcher in every game.

Freeman says rising reader demand helped drive the paper to provide new and copious numbers in box scores and expanded standings. But an equally big driver was an all-too-predictable ulterior motive.

“We’d started a fantasy baseball league,” recalled Freeman, now editor at the Journal-News in White Plains, NY. “Fantasy baseball wasn’t a big deal at that point. But we had a league, the GOPPL, that we’d first started when I was at the Oakland Tribune and then brought to the copydesk at USA Today. Out of the daily discussion of that league, we started adding all those [stats]. That’s how pitch counts got into USA Today.”

CASUALTIES

Cal Eldred was a strapping right-hander drafted in the first round by the Brewers in 1989. He was a star pitcher through high school and college in Iowa, where by his own admission his coaches didn’t overuse him. But Milwaukee saw a big, strong kid who could be a future ace, someone who could pitch deep into games and soak up stacks of innings. At 6-foot-4, 235 pounds, he was big enough to make the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Ryan look small by comparison. The Brewers had their horse, and they were going to ride him.

After spending nearly three years in the minors, the Brewers sent Eldred back to Triple-A to start the 1992 season. He pitched well that year. So well, in fact, that the Triple-A club ran him out for 141 innings – by the All-Star break, under mile high conditions in Denver. The Brewers were so impressed with their pitching prospect that they promoted him to the big club, where he made 14 more starts. Eldred’s final tally between Triple-A and the majors that year: 21-8, 2.50 ERA…and 241 1/3 innings pitched.

Sensing they had a young ace on their hands, the Brewers leaned heavily on Eldred in 1993. At age 25, Eldred led the league in starts (36) and innings pitched (258). He faced 1,087 batters, also tops in the league. He often struggled with his command, which combined with his team’s willingness to pitch him deep into games, created a perfect storm for high pitch counts. In ’93, Eldred averaged 117 pitches per start and topped 130 pitches 10 times. During one stretch that season, he ran up sequential pitch counts of 144, 149, 120, 154, 106, 130 and 127. In the strike-shortened 1994 season, Eldred again led the league in starts, averaging 125 pitches a game during one stretch in May and June.

“When you’re in your first full season in the big leagues, throwing more pitches than Randy Johnson, that’s probably not the smartest thing to do,” Eldred said. “Later on, I was taught by veteran guys that you have to know when to say, ‘I’ve had enough.’ But when you’re young, you feel like you can do it. When you’re a kid who’s 24, 25, 26, or much younger than that it in the minor leagues, you have to be protected.”

The reckoning came quickly. Eldred made just four starts in 1995, before the pain in his arm became too much to bear. Like thousands of overused pitchers before and after him, Eldred went in for Tommy John surgery. He’d pitch in fits and starts for nine more seasons, but could never regain his old form.

“Dr. (Lewis) Yocum did my surgery,” Eldred said wistfully. “Just before he did it, he said something that’s stuck with me: ‘I can’t put you back together like God put you together.’”

Balor Moore’s story is similar, though Moore also had more in common with Ryan than most. A first-round draft pick by the Montreal Expos in their first year of existence, Moore grew up in a small Texas town 127 miles away from Ryan’s. The two men were in the Army Reserve together in the early 70s and played together with the Angels in ’77. Like Ryan, Moore cracked the big leagues at age 19, though he wouldn’t stick for a couple more years. He threw lefty, but Moore also shared the Ryan pedigree of a hard thrower with command problems early in his career. Legendary scout Red Murff must have liked that type – he signed both pitchers.

Moore refuses to blame his long string of injuries and the flameout of a promising career solely on overuse. Other factors conspired to turn a fireballer who struck out 161 batters in 147.2 innings as a 21-year-old Expo into a rehab case who for a long time couldn’t crack 80 on a radar gun. There was an ankle injury in ’73 that wasn’t given time to heal, and a change in the balk rule that hurt the timing and mechanics of Moore’s delivery. At first glance, those would seem to be the major reasons for Moore’s decline, not the reasonable total of 176.1 innings he threw for the Expos that season.

But dig a little deeper, and it’s clear that 1973 was a nearly prehistoric time when it came to handling pitchers.

“It wasn’t uncommon for a starting pitcher to throw 30 innings in spring training,” Moore recalled. “Then you’ve got your workload for the regular season. Then it’s off to winter ball in Puerto Rico for a 60-game schedule, where you’ll start another 12 to 15 games. Then back to spring training to start all over again. If you were lucky, you’d get three weeks of rest all year.”

Like Eldred, Moore was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery and endure a long, painful rehab. A two-pitch pitcher with a blazing fastball when healthy, Moore started throwing more off-speed stuff after his surgery, hoping to reinvent himself. He lasted four more seasons, but never approached his early brush with success.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. 13 September 2010 7:34 pm

    epic

  2. 14 September 2010 1:29 am

    Christmas comes early!! Thanks Jonah for an awesome piece of writing, one I’ve been looking forward to since you mentioned it on the BS Report earlier this summer.

    I did have a question about pitching-to-contact. I presume Maddux is encouraging the pitcher to “allow” the batter to put the ball in play. But don’t we know from Moneyball and Voros McCracken that the fraction of in play balls that go for hits is constant among all pitchers? Or is Maddux presuming that there’s an excellent defense behind him? More generally, can’t a team BABIP be a measure of defense?

    Rays inched ahead of the Yanks after tonight’s gem by Price.

    http://www.thepowerrank.com/

    The two teams are dead equal. Can’t wait for the AL Championship Series.

    Ed

    • Jonah permalink*
      14 September 2010 2:15 pm

      Grounders might yield a higher BABIP, but they’re also less damaging overall than line drives or flyballs, given SLG, etc. Even with only a so-so defense behind you, you live with a 12-hopper that sneaks through the infield. What you don’t want are Rich Harden starts, where every at-bat takes 9 pitches.

  3. mrokjazztokyo permalink
    15 September 2010 11:36 pm

    Fascinating, well done! I suppose only time will tell with the Rangers..

    The Joba Rules were a joke. Not because they wanted to protect his arm, but the way the team carried it out. It’s not a coincidence that the Yankees have failed to produce any quality starting ptichers in years..

  4. 9 September 2011 12:41 pm

    Followed a link from Grantland a year later, and, wow, glad I did. The best piece I’ve ever read on pitching, and one of the best I can recall in reading about baseball for over 40 years.

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