Listening to the radio last Saturday morning, listening to the live broadcast of one of NC State’s games in the Atlantic Coast Conference baseball tournament, I heard the announcer, Tony Haynes, mention pitch count, telling and anyone else listening that the pitcher on the mound for the Wolfpack was soon to be done for the day. “He’s nearing 100 pitches and that’s just about his limit,” Haynes said, or something close to that.
He was right. After the next batter bounced out or walked or struck out or hit a fly ball to center, after the batter was retired, or after the batter reached base with a hit or by being hit by the limit in pitch count or by a base on balls, a change was made and the pitcher, doing a pretty good job at the time, was lifted for a relief pitcher. I was so focused on the term "pitch count." I couldn't tell you about the pitcher's last pitch.
Actually, the pitcher on the mound was a relief pitcher as well, taking the place Saturday morning for a pitcher who tossed through two outs the night before prior to the game being delayed because of rain, lightning, sleet, snow, hail and gloom of night, all impending reasons that the game Friday should never have been started in the first place. Are you following me?
Anyway, while cutting my grass Saturday morning (it may have been just after high noon), as I listened to the game being broadcast on WKNC-FM, 88.1, NC State’s student radio station that, many years ago, broadcasted the Wolfpack baseball games with actual student announcers but for some reason, maybe monetary, has given the airtime to Wolfpack Sports Marketing, a division of Capitol Broadcasting (can you say WRAL-TV and WRAL-FM and other television and radio stations, when "pitch count" was mentioned, I thought of an article in the May 24, 2010 edition of Sports Illustrated.
The article—Nolan Ryan’s Crusade—was about his transformation of the Texas Rangers’ pitching staff from a bunch of prima donna baseball pitchers being baby-sat to a group of tough guys who can actually approach, if not get to, pitching a complete game instead of being taken out when the pitch count became a road block and said to the manager and coaches it was time to stop throwing for the day.
In that article, speaking about pitchers, Ryan, maybe, just maybe the greatest, if not just one of the greatest, fast-ballers ever, was quoted in the article: “For one thing, they (pitchers) don’t learn to think for themselves anymore. Coaches started calling all the pitches in high schools and colleges. How do they know, sitting on the bench, what the guy on the mound has confidence in? That’s like going out there and telling the pitcher, ‘Don’t hang this curve ball.’ I call it robot baseball, and it drives me crazy.”
Ryan, president of the Rangers and probably soon to be an owner of the team, continued in the article of which there is no prior permission to reprint here but it fits today’s need: “Pitchers have been pampered. I’d go to spring training, and all they’d do is throw on the side. Now how in the world do you learn how a hitter’s going to react to your pitchers without a hitter in there? I always thought that was crazy. Our expectations of them have been lowered. There’s no reason why kids today can’t pitch as many innings as people did in my era. Today a quality start is six innings. What’s quality about that?”
He pointed out that, in 1987, he was the victim of the idea that pitchers can only throw a limited time, a determined number of tosses toward home plate when a batter is standing in the batter’s box. “I was put on a pitch count with the Astros when I had an arm problem…and hated it. I’d get to that pitch count, and they’d take me out with guys on base, but in my mind I knew I could get this out.”
As president of the organization, Ryan has made sure the coaching staff is of like mind, and one of those is pitching coach Mike Maddux. Here’s some of what he had to say for the article written by Albert Chen: “This generation of players has become a creature of the pitch count. Their ceiling has been lowered. It’s up to us to jack it back up." When hired by Ryan, Maddux told his pitchers: "Pitch counts are limits. You have no limits." And he says in general: "What we’re trying to get rid of is that thing in pitchers’ heads of how many pitches they have. I’d be out there asking how they feel, and they’d say, ‘Well, how many pitches do I have?’ And, I’d say, ‘Doesn’t matter. How do you feel?’ ”
In all of this, if you are a baseball fan, you understand from whence Ryan comes. He’s both a throw back to when pitchers wanted to throw complete games, all nine innings and a victim of the current protect-the-arm procedure. Arms were tough in his former life; bodies took a beating; rest came after the World Series. But, there’s a point in baseball, just as with anything other sport, it seems, where that changed. Again, listen to Ryan:
“Baseball got into allowing these kids to not do the work. Money is the reason and the excuse you get from organizations: that we’re protecting our investments. Well, protect the investment [too much], and you may not get the return.” My guess is that many of the pitchers also want to protect their arm from early dismissal (retirement) from the game, protecting their potential income for years to come.
I like Ryan’s approach to baseball. I’m not advocating Wolfpack baseball coach Elliott Avent or his pitching coach or any coach of any college team at this point in the season—the NCAA Tournament starts later this week—go from pitch counts to complete games. My guess is college staffs are not in shape to handle the extra tosses. What I’d like to see, though, is a conditioning program—also outlined in that Sports Illustrated article, if anyone is listening—that pushes starting college pitchers to go more innings which means fewer relief pitchers, probably just closers instead of long, middle and short relievers.
At this point, with young, out-of-shape-tender-arms, pitch counts might be necessary evils, but then while pulling a hurler at a pre-determined pitch count in a game might work in a team’s favor, it might also backfire. For instance, if a pitcher is good for 100 pitches, I wonder how many coaches leave a pitcher in the game, prior to 100, even if the opponent is getting hits or reaching base on four balls. Remember, over on the bench, the science goes deeper. Starter gets 100 pitches; reliever gets 30; next reliever 25; and so on and so forth. Taking a pitcher out before the limit could cause problems with who relieves when.
It’s all about trying to win games and less about the game. I hope for baseball’s sake that Ryan’s movement at Texas spreads to the rest of Major League Baseball, into the minors, at the college level and into the high schools. It’ll make for a better game. And a better radio broadcast. Please, please, please, Tony Haynes, give us a better reason to pull the pitcher than the pitch count.