During one stretch from 1961-1980, major league baseball had a 20-game winner in both leagues every year.
Starting Sunday’s games Minnesota Twins ace Johan Santana is 18-5, Chicago White Sox Jon Garland (17-6), Detroit Tigers’ Kenny Rogers (17-6) and New York Yankees starters Randy Johnson (17-11) and Chien Ming Wang (18-6). The only NL pitchers with 16 or more wins are Los Angeles Dodger Brad Penny (16-9) and Arizona Diamondback Brandon Webb (16-7).
Will we have a 20-game winner in 2006?
With one full week left in the regular season, chances are fading. So, what gives? Why hasn’t a single pitcher won 20 games yet? And, does the absence of the 20-game winner have any affect? The answer is really no mystery.
Pitch counts. The emphasis put on the oft-debated theory of ‘pitch counts’ is directly related to a pitchers won-loss record. Depending on your audience, the feelings on pitch count will vary to the extreme.
We pay attention to pitch counts … ” Leo Mazzone confessed during a 2004 interview with Baseball Digest. … and common sense. What if a guys out there, hes got a hundred pitches and he isn’t tired? There might be a time when a guy has less than 90 pitches and is shot. A guys face, his mound presence, his mechanics are going to tell me much more than any pitch count.
The ‘pitch count’ statistic has become a staple in modern-day player development. Organizations are less concerned about wins and losses and more focused on developing pitchers arm strength.
San Diego Padres GM Kevin Towers admitted, In the minor leagues, depending on their age and their level, we make sure theyre not overworked, he said. We even have policies for the way relievers are used. If they warm up three times in a game they automatically go into the game regardless.
Younger pitchers are very susceptible to arm injures, Towers says. The more pitches they throw, the more of a workload — youre looking for problems.”
For the Padres, that philosophy trickles up to the major league level. According to Towers, no Padres major league pitcher throws more than 130 pitches.
That thinking is not universally accepted.
Sam McDowell, a 15-year major league veteran (1961-1975), pitched 305 innings, including 19 complete games, in 39 starts in 1970, laughs at the use of pitch counts. I used to have that many by the second inning, he said.
When discussing pitch counts, Seattle Mariners manager Mike Hargrove puts the old school perspective in context, saying, They never used to lift weights or use the stop watch to time runners going to first either, he said.
Baseball has undergone a number of adjustments since McDowell pitched. Today’s parks are smaller, the strike zone has shrunk, the designated hitter was born and, as of 1969, the pitchers mound was lowered. All are indirect factors.
Hargrove believes – and uses – pitch counts on a case-by-case basis. When it comes to the magic number, 100 pitches, Hargrove said, Thats fine early in the season, coming out of spring training, but by midseason through the end of the year, it should be 120 to 125 pitches for a guy with a healthy arm.
But you cant generalize. If a guy has a history of injuries, youre opening him up to more injury by throwing that much.
In a recent interview, St. Louis Cardinals pitching coach and former major league catcher Dave Duncan said pitch counts are a factor, but not the only criteria in measuring a pitchers performance. You have to take a lot of things into consideration,” he said, “ … how much experience a young pitcher has had in the minor leagues, whether he was a college pitcher, whether a high school kid who had limited experience, his physical stature, his delivery.”
Sonny Siebert, who won 140 major league games over his 12-year career, is not a fan of pitch counts. In a interview with Baseball Digest, Seibert said he once threw more than 200 pitches in a single game. I don’t believe in taking a pitcher out unless hes in trouble, said Siebert. If a guy is young and in shape, the number of pitches shouldn’t be a problem.
The origins of the pitch count are traced back to circa 1965 and implemented by Paul Richards.
Richards, a former major league catcher, has been referred to as an “innovator,” the Biographical Encyclopedia of Baseball described him as, “one of the smartest men in baseball history,” and Hall of Fame Oriole third baseman Brooks Robinson added, In all my years in baseball, I never knew anyone who knew more about the game, referring to Richards.
Richards went on to manage the Chicago White Sox and the Baltimore Orioles (1955-1961) and Chicago White Sox (1951-1954, 1976) and later the general manager of the original Houston Colt .45s and later the Atlanta Braves and Orioles, is credited with being the first to use the pitch count.
It started in 1964 when Richards promoted Astros prospect Larry Dierker to make his major league debut on his 18th birthday. Dierker was three months removed from high school and Richards decision was scrutinized by the media. Richards had a strategy for Dierker. The following season, 1965, Dierker made the major league team out of spring training but Richards kept him on a strict 110 pitch-count limit per start. In 26 games, 19 of them starts, Dierker had one complete game and a 7-8 record.
And, so it began. The pitch count was deliberately charted, mostly by hand on paper. By 2006, the pitch count has graduated.
Now it’s tracked digitally, alongside balls and strikes on scoreboards across the country and analyzed in newspapers and on websites.
Recalibrating the value system
“Now, let’s take the 20-game winner. He’s always given accolades … let’s say he wins 20 and losses 18. He’s two over par … How about the pitcher who wins 14 and losses five? Do you ever hear about him? Maybe. Casually. But since he didn’t reach the magic number of twenty – though his record is far more helpful to his team – he’s passed over. This is stupid. This is the result of thinking without using your brain. Baseball is full of it, and sportswriting is made up largely of it. Let’s call it the superstition of the 20-game winner.” – “The Older Timer” in W.R. Burnett’s The Roar of the Crowd (1964)
Twenty wins is always something you shoot for, because you want your name to be associated with all the great pitchers who have done it, said Tampa Bay Rays ace Scott Kazmir. “But its also something you cant worry too much about. What you have to focus on is pitching as many innings as you can and keeping your team in the game as long as you can.”
The 20-game winner statistic has always been a barometer of pitching success – for fans, media and players. “If you had a pill that would guarantee a pitcher 20 wins, but might take five years off his life, hed take it, wrote Jim Bouton, former major league pitcher and author of Ball Four.
The changes in today’s game are forcing analysts to recalibrate the value system used to measure a pitchers success. The pitch count has suppressed win totals and wins, both career and single-season, has been, at least in part of the scale of measuring success.
History confirms the previous statement. Take one look at the roster of pitchers inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. All of the 57 starting pitchers had at least one 20-win season.
Pitch counts are here to stay, 20-game winners are not. The more organizations use the pitch count as a foundation for developing arms, the fewer innings, complete games ands wins a starter will register.
Today’s pitchers can no longer be measured against past statistical norms. The changes in the game force analysts to put statistics in context. Winning 20 games, pitching 200 or more innings, pitching five or more complete games in a single season is a greater accomplishment in 2006 than it was in 1966.