Down in the count

To some coaches, fans, pitch count is more than a number, but to others it just doesn't add up

September 04, 2007|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,Sun reporter

Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer remembers one of the first times he charted a game for Orioles manager Earl Weaver in 1969.

Starter Mike Cuellar was beating Minnesota in the ninth inning of a close game, but he allowed a leadoff single on his 135th pitch, and the Twins had a few future Hall of Famers due up.

So Palmer let his manager know how many pitches Cuellar had thrown.

"I said, `Mr. Weaver, that was his 135th pitch,' and he said, `Get your [butt] down to the other end of the dugout and I'll let you know when he is tired,' " Palmer recalled. "So from that time on, I knew the pitch count didn't mean anything to Earl."

Weaver's philosophy was simple: If the guy on the mound is your best option, you stick with him. It didn't matter if he had thrown 100 or 150 pitches.

Forty - even 20 - years ago, pitch counts could be shouted down. Now, they are not only vital pieces of information for managers, pitching coaches and fans, but, at times, they can become the sole foundation behind damning criticism.

They also are ubiquitous today, with many ballparks keeping track on scoreboards, Internet sites updating them continuously and newspapers printing the numbers each morning.

But is it a good thing? In today's game, are pitch counts friend or foe?

"I say foe. I am not a friend, that's for sure," said Orioles pitching coach Leo Mazzone, a tobacco-spitting, nervously rocking advertisement for Old School Baseball. "A pitch count shouldn't be the determining factor as to whether a guy stays in a game or comes out of one."

Yet it's an easy number to point to, something tangible that fans, managers and front-office people can use to explain or criticize a move.

In fact, an argument can be made that the public fascination with pitch counts was at least partially responsible for getting Mazzone's buddy, Sam Perlozzo, fired as Orioles manager in June.

Three times from May 13 to June 3, Perlozzo's pitching moves were heavily scrutinized - and pitch counts were used as Exhibit A. Each time, the Orioles were winning in the late innings when Perlozzo pulled his starter with 101 or fewer pitches thrown. Each time, the bullpen faltered and the Orioles lost the game.

There were different reasons for each decision: Once, ace Erik Bedard said he was gassed; another time Perlozzo was trying to protect rookie Jeremy Guthrie, and the last was a traditional spot to bring in a closer.

But because his moves kept backfiring, and because the pitch counts were reasonably low, Perlozzo's handling of his staff - fair or not - became a major component in his downfall.

Perlozzo's replacement, Dave Trembley, is from the same school as guys like Mazzone.

"I think pitch counts tend to be construed sometimes as a decision maker," Trembley said, "when in fact that shouldn't be the sole criteria."

Mazzone said he'll compare pitch counts throughout the season to see if there are obvious trends with individual pitchers. But on a daily basis, he would rather use his eyes and instincts to determine whether a pitcher is tiring.

Too much of a crutch?

There are too many variables involved for Mazzone - who wonders why half-energy pitchouts and intentional walks are included (the eight warm-up tosses before innings and the dozens pre-game in the bullpen, however, aren't) in the overall total.

"I like to go on body language and what their mound presence is out there," Mazzone said. "It's a coach thing, it's a feel thing, it's a see thing, an instinct thing, and I don't think you need a number to tell you that."

Trembley, too, says the tool can become a crutch for managers and coaches.

"I think a lot of people use pitch counts to cover their butt - instead of taking the time, effort and energy to have a feel for the situation of the game at that point in time and also to know your personnel," he said.

Each pitcher on a staff is different and therefore should be handled individually.

For instance, there's Bedard, the Orioles' slender left-hander who seemingly throws each pitch with maximum effort and intensity. He said it's pointless for him to keep count, because an 85-pitch outing sometimes can be more taxing than a 100-plus-pitch one.

"I pay more attention to my body," said Bedard, who said pitch counts are much more important in the minors. "If I am tired, that's it. I am done. There is no point going out there if you are tired."

Bedard's is a cautionary tale within the Orioles organization. As the club's top pitching prospect in 2002, he had a low and strict pitch limit in his first few minor league starts.

Inexplicably, he was rushed to the majors that April, faced just four batters in a week and was sent back down. Later, his pitch count at Double-A Bowie increased to 100, though he hadn't been throwing much up to that point. In a June start, he blew out his elbow on his 101st pitch and had to have Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery.

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