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Who is Afraid of Pitch Counts?

The argument is over, y’all

Syndication: The Daily Advertiser
Our pitching hero

It is that time of year again. No, I don’t men the College World Series, I mean the almost annual freakout by pro baseball writers over college pitch counts.

This year’s entry is Barry Svrluga of The Washington Post, who tries to camouflage what is actually a fan’s histrionic freak out over their potential #1 pick not getting wrapped up in bubble wrap with the headline A college ace threw 124 pitches — and MLB teams grimaced.

The subheading is far more honest, “ If you root for the Washington Nationals, you should root against the LSU Tigers,” because there really isn’t much to the complaint. But hey, if you’re a fan, you’re a fan. I get that.

I want to get into some specific claims Svrluga makes, but let’s start with the broad claim here: LSU is recklessly jeopardizing the pro career of Skenes in the blind pursuit of a title.

The broad strokes of the complaint is that Paul Skenes threw 124 pitches against Tulane, and is poised to throw “hundreds more pitches” in pursuit of the title. Someone fetch me my fainting couch! This kind of overuse makes Skenes a more likely injury risk and won’t anyone think of the children?* Or the Nationals?

*Poseur’s Note: Stanford’s Quinn Matthews threw 156 against Texas this weekend, but he’s only a top 100 prospect, so who cares?

In 1998, in the wake of, among other things, the reckless overuse of young pitchers like Livian Hernandez and Kerry Wood, Baseball Prospectus unleashed the concept of Pitcher Abuse Points on the world. The formula has since change, and I’m not sure anyone even uses it anymore, but its influence is undeniable.

That same year, 133 starts exceeded 130 pitches and 498 exceeded 120 pitches. As Svluga points out in his article, this kind of usage is now literally unheard of. Not a single pitcher in all of the Majors exceeded 120 pitches even once this season. The most anyone has thrown this year is 117.

But here’s the thing, has limited workloads worked? Like, is there any evidence this has preserved arms? From 1995-1999, there were 22 Tommy John surgeries on MLB players. That’s an average season. In 2014 alone, there were 11 by the first week of the season.

The study is a bit outdated (2013), but a sample of pitchers from 2000-2011 who were under 25 and made at least 25 starts, averaging under 99 pitches per start, turned up 150 pitchers. Of those, 26 went on the 60-day DL. Of the same sample, but averaging over 100 pitchers, we get 146 pitches. 13 went on the 60-day DL.

By the spring of 2014, one-third of all Major League pitchers will have had Tommy John surgery. So let’s be entirely clear, limiting pitch counts as a means of reducing severe pitching injuries has not worked. At all.

Now, that doesn’t mean I advocate going back to the bad old days and throwing guys out there until they drop, but let’s also not pretend one 124 pitch outing is going to hurt the guy. There is literally no evidence to support the notion he is no more or less likely to suffer a severe arm injury in the wake of throwing 124 pitches in a game. Pitchers are all injury risks, and anyone who says otherwise is lying.

But I do think its good practice to go back to those central tenets: avoiding huge workloads, give pitchers time to recover, and it is the volume of these workloads which cause damage. There is an accumulating effect.

With that in mind, let’s deal with the specific claims in the article.

Extenuating circumstances. That must have been the case for Skenes against Tulane, right? A tightly contested, advance-or-go-home game in the tourney?

Except it was the first game of the Tigers’ regional, and they led 6-0 after five innings and 7-2 after eight.

Hey, Barry. I know you don’t follow LSU or anything, but… do a little bit of research. Of course there was good reason for it. LSU’s bullpen is a horrorshow. LSU’s best chance of winning the regional was not having to use its bullpen at all in Game 1. That was the whole point of using Skenes.

Due to injuries to its #2 starter and top two bullpen arms (not due to overuse), LSU only has three relievers on the staff with an ERA below five. One is true freshman (Guidry) and another has allowed 12 runs in his last 7 outings (Herring). Our most used reliever is Riley Cooper, who has an ERA north of five.

LSU has a decent #2 starter in Ty Floyd (4.50 ERA) who is addicted to getting into trouble and finding a way to work out of jams, but the #3 starter is still a bit of a tossup between Thatcher Hurd (6.49 ERA) and Christian Little (7.09 ERA).

Maybe LSU wanted to not use any pitchers it didn’t have to in a Paul Skenes start. Nah, that couldn’t be it. Jay Johnson is just a sadist.

“Pretty concerned,” one exec wrote Thursday. “Not ideal.”

“All of those types of outings are concerning,” texted another.

“Anytime you get over 110 it’s a concern for me,” one more said.

You can tell a story is bullshit when no one will put their name to it. Wow, three anonymous quotes, it’s a landslide of opinion.

And look, MLB has been declining in popularity for years. More people are plugged into the NFL Draft than the MLB regular season, and its not just because the NFL is lord of all that it surveys. College football does its part to make these guys stars, or at least on the way to becoming one, before they ever play pro ball.

Maybe, and I know I’m being crazy here, MLB could hype up the college product as a way of investing in its own future. Instead of clutching the pearls that Paul Skenes actually cares about winning a national title, maybe embrace that. Build him up. Get people excited about him eventually playing for your team.

But this is the part that made my blood boil….

From LSU’s perspective, Johnson’s job is to win it all. From Johnson’s perspective, winning it all would line his pockets with an extra $290,000 — and maybe put him in line for a raise. From Skenes’s perspective, winning it all would … make everyone around him, not to mention the team that is considering selecting him, quite nervous.

Blow it all the way out of your ass.

What Skenes gets in that scenario is a national title. Which is not nothing.* Our team matters, too, In fact, LSU baseball has been around longer than the Washington Nationals, and its put a consistent winner on the field longer than almost anyone in the pros.

*Also, have you heard of NIL? It’s not like Skenes cannot monetize this accomplishment.

If you don’t think winning matters, then take your loser attitude and your loser franchise and pass on Skenes so you can continue being a bunch of losers. You’re concerned that he wanted to win? Isn’t that a good thing?

Oh, but he threw 124 pitches once which means… what? As we showed above, it means nothing.

Svrluga tries to make hay out of the fact Skenes has “has reached or exceeded 110 pitches five times” in his 16, now 17 starts. Oh no. This is a bit misleading because two of those starts, Skenes pitched 110 and then 111 pitches, barely over the threshold.

But here’s the thing. We’re not really talking about Skenes. What we’re really talking about is another LSU pitcher who went first overall to a team in the DC area. This is really about Ben McDonald. And frankly, what you know about the ultimate cautionary tale is probably wrong and demonstrates how little you should worry about one outing like this.

Ben McDonald absolutely was overused during the 1989 postseason. There’s no two ways about it. LSU played 10 postseason games, he started four of them, and pitched in two more. In Omaha, LSU went 2-2, and Big Ben started two of those games, and pitched in relief in one of the games in between those starts.

That’s what pitcher abuse looks like. Not throwing 124 pitches on 7 days after a shorter start the week prior. Skenes is nowhere near this kind of insane workload.

Here’s the thing, though, It didn’t work. Big Ben was terrible on short rest, and he famously gave up 12 runs in three innings to Texas in an elimination game. Skip would have done better to save him. The incentive was not to overuse your ace pitcher because his effectiveness declines (to say nothing of recruiting… you slag pitcher’s arm these days, you think that won’t come up on the recruiting trail?).

The postscript to the story is this: the 1989 postseason didn’t ruin Ben McDonald’s arm. Yeah, he would go on the DL for tendinitis… in 1995. If the Orioles were so concerned about his usage, perhaps they shouldn’t have promoted him to the big league club in 1989, just a few months after his Omaha debacle.

And when Ben McDonald finally made the rotation in 1990, he threw over 100 pitches in 10 of his 15 starts, over 110 6 times, and he topped out with a 140-pitch outing. Maybe the Orioles should stop blaming LSU and look in a mirror.

We’ll close on this... there’s probably been no pitcher who has had his workload more carefully monitored than Stephen Strasburg by the Nationals. He was carefully used in college, and then averaged 71 pitches per start in the minors, and 82 pitches per start in his first season in the Show. He never had a single start over 100 pitches.

He had Tommy John surgery in his second year.

Let these guys play. 124 pitches in pursuit of a title is a worthwhile risk. But just to be on the safe side, LSU fans should be rooting that the Nationals don’t draft Skenes given their track record of ruining ace college pitchers.