Feb 14, 2014; Lakeland, FL, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Rick Porcello (21) throws in front of manager Brad Ausmus (7) during the Tiger
Brad Ausmus seems to understand why pitch counts exist, but he also doesn’t appear to be one to overly fret if one of his horses climbs much past the 100 pitch mark.
Here’s what he had to say in a recent MLB.com piece:
"“Somewhere along the line, people got married to that 100-pitch count, to the point where even Minor League guys, when they were coming out, they were staring at the pitch count on the scoreboard saying, ‘All right, my job is done.’ I don’t think you have that as much here.”Ausmus admitted he could take on a different approach, perhaps a more cautious one, with lefty Drew Smyly, as he’s entering the rotation after spending all of last season in the bullpen. But don’t expect Verlander, Scherzer and Sanchez to start eyeing the scoreboard when they’ve thrown their 100th pitch."
We seem to talk and debate a lot about pitch counts as fans and writers. There’s the “back in my day we used to throw 150!” crowd and the “oh no, injuries!” crowd, but I think the more level-headed approach is the “times through the order” line of thinking.
The leading research shows that starting pitchers get much worse every time they turn the lineup over. In fact, the “times through the order penalty” is roughly .010 wOBA points on average for each time through. That’s enough to turn an average hitter into Dustin Pedroia (or to turn Dustin Pedroia into Robinson Cano) by the time a pitcher is facing him for the fourth time in a game.
Almost no one (Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer probably being exceptions) should face the lineup for a fourth time if the game is even remotely on the line, and only well above average pitchers should be allowed to go through the order three times with regularity.
But let’s bring this back to pitch counts for a moment. The MLB average number of pitches per plate appearance is somewhere just south of four (something like 3.9). This means that, on average, it takes 35 pitches to turn the lineup over. Basically:
- 1st time through: 35 pitches
- 2nd time through: 70 pitches
- 3rd time through: 105 pitches
It turns out that the magical 100 pitch plateau is a pretty good proxy for three times through the order. And really no one except Cy Young candidates should be attempting a fourth time through. Once your starting pitcher has thrown between 100 and 110 pitches, he’s probably well on the downside of his effectiveness. Not only because of fatigue, but also because each batter has had three looks at his repertoire.
This is obviously an average – it differs for pitcher to pitcher and then also from game to game – but the main point still stands: managers should pay attention to pitch counts so none of their pitchers are overworked, but the decision about when to pull them in favor of a reliever should place more focus on how many times they’ve already faced the opposing batting lineup.
It’s fine to let Scherzer and Verlander go until they’re tired, and Sanchez is good enough to go through the lineups three times on most nights, but Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly should be taken out with lower pitch totals. Not only because they’re young, but because they’re not as good and turn into terrible pitchers if they’re conceding an additional .020-.030 points of wOBA. After they’ve gone through the order twice, a manager shouldn’t think twice about pulling a pitcher like Porcello or Smyly out of the game at the first sign of trouble. Because at that point, even Luke Putkonen facing a batter for the first time is likely to yield better results than Porcello facing him for the third or fourth time.