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  • Twins Starters & Pitch Limits

    For many years the Minnesota Twins have had a reputation for protecting their starting pitchers and their method of choice for accomplishing this has been to limit the number of pitches their starters throw in a game. The Twins are not alone in counting pitches; all teams do it these days and 100 pitches per game seems to be the "gold standard" that most teams follow.

    Before pitch counts started to become prominent in the 1980s, ball clubs expected their starting pitcher to pitch a complete game unless he was injured during the game or just could not get anyone out. In days gone by, relievers were often starters who were past their prime and were finishing their careers. Being a reliever was looked upon as a step down from being a starter. In some ways it is not really that different today; hardly anyone comes out of high school or college hoping to be a reliever though there have been some exceptions over the last few years. For the most part, major league relievers are still failed starters, yet managers bring in these guys, who are in many cases not good enough to start, to bail out the starter after the starter gets in trouble or reaches his pitch limit.

    Originally posted at TwinsTrivia.com

    So what brought on this change? When I first started following baseball in the 1950's, teams usually had four starters and these starters were occasionally called on to pitch a few games in relief each season as needed. Baseball then evolved from four to five starters and the Twins joined that bandwagon in 1963. As baseball payrolls started to escalate and pitching talent became diluted due to expansion, starting pitchers became a more valuable commodity.

    I don't have good Twins payroll data prior to 1980 but it appears the Twins highest paid player was always a position player until 1986 when Bert Blyleven became the first Twins pitcher to lay claim to that title and to make over a million dollars a season, pocketing $1,450.000. In the last 28 years the Twins highest paid player has been a position player 16 times, a starting pitcher 11 times and a closer on one occasion. You can see the numbers and the names at http://wp.me/P1YQUj-22.

    I am not sure anyone knows for sure but somewhere along the line either the players' agents or team management (I doubt it was a player) decided starting pitchers needed to be protected and that limiting the number of pitches thrown was the best way to accomplish that goal. Counting pitches isn't very scientifically validated but it is easy to do and that might be why pitch counts were chosen as the tool of choice. The stress of the game, runners on base, the weather and many other variables are not taken into consideration when all you do is count pitches to determine how hard a pitcher worked on any given day.

    One way to make a case for pitch counts is to argue each pitcher has only so many "bullets" to throw before his arm or elbow gives out. I have always found the concept that pitch counts limit injuries to be a strange notion because when we want to strengthen a muscle what we do what? We exercise it and work it. After knee or arm or elbow surgery we do what? We exercise it to make it stronger and that just seems to go against the grain of limiting pitchers throwing. Have pitch count really limited injuries? I don't think anyone knows for sure but the use of pitch counts is becoming more entrenched than ever.

    Let's take a look at this from the Twins historical perspective. From 1994 through 2013 the Twins have played 3,173 games. In that time Tom Kelly/Dick Such and Ron Gardenhire/Rick Anderson have allowed their starting pitcher to throw 100 or more pitches 1,134 times or in 35.74% of the games the Twins have played. Over the last 20 years, Minnesota Twins managers and their pitching coaches have allowed their starters throw 100+ pitches fewer times than any team in the American League and it is not even close. Have Twins starters suffered fewer injuries than all the other teams? I don't think so. Heck, even the Tampa Rays have 1,259 games with 100 or more pitches and they have been in existence in only 16 of the 20 years this data covers.

    AL games with starter going 100 or more pitches 1994-2013

    (Houston excluded since they have been in AL only one season)
    Team Total Avg games per year
    1 WSox 1711 85.55
    2 Angels 1668 83.4
    3 Yankees 1621 81.05
    4 Mariners 1597 79.85
    5 Rays 1259 78.69
    6 BJays 1548 77.4
    7 Orioles 1482 74.1
    7 Indians 1482 74.1
    9 Rangers 1476 73.8
    10 RSox 1470 73.5
    11 Tigers 1458 72.9
    12 A's 1434 71.7
    13 Royals 1403 70.15
    14 Twins 1134 56.7

    So why the huge disparity between the Twins and their peers? The time period covers two different Twins managers along with their choices of pitching coaches. The Twins have not always had bad starting pitchers. With this large a discrepancy it has to be some type of organization philosophy to limit the starters' pitches. For the most part relievers are cheaper and more expendable than starters; would the Twins rather burn out the bullpen staff then their starting pitchers?

    It seems the Twins are sending a message and doing a disservice to their starters when they don't allow them to throw more pitches. Who wants to come to pitch in Minnesota for an organization that, relatively, pulls you at the first sign of trouble and does not allow you to work out of your own jams? Pitchers can only get better if they can learn how to extricate themselves from predicaments they find themselves in. For the most part Twins teams have had decent bullpens. It seems logical that they might be even better if not over-worked.

    What have the Twins gained by keeping the number of pitches down for their starters? Who knows? In the last 20 years the Twins have had the fewest 100+ pitched games by starters four times. As a matter of fact they have not once in the last 20 years reached even the AL average of starts with 100+ pitches. That is just plain amazing. The chart below shows in graphic form how the Twins starters compare to the AL league high, average and low in games that starters threw 100+ pitches.
    In the past 20 years only four Twins starting pitchers have averaged 100+ pitches a game for an entire season: Brad Radke with 103.7 in 2000, Joe Mays with 100.2 in 2001, Johan Santana in 2004 with 100.8, in 2005 with 101.1, in 2006 with 101.5, in 2007 with 101.4 and Carl Pavano in 2011 with 102.5. Among these, their innings pitched was between 219 and 233.2 per season. The Twins leader in average pitches per game in 2013 was Samuel Deduno with 96.8 in 18 starts.

    The intent of this piece is not to say that the Twins starting pitching would have been better if Kelly and Gardenhire had allowed them to throw more pitches. It is more for pointing out the peculiarity of how the Twins handle their starters versus how the rest of the AL league does.
    This article was originally published in blog: Twins starters and pitch limits started by jjswol
    Comments 7 Comments
    1. DuluthFan's Avatar
      DuluthFan -
      As with all stats, this doesn't tell the whole story by itself. How are starts where the pitcher is pulled after 2-3 innings after getting shelled counted within this article. There is a high probability that they didn't hit the 100 pitch mark. You might need to do more research and take into count how many pitchers made it to the 5th inning. Perhaps including innnings pitched as a confirmation stat to verify your research. The Twins have not exactly had a pitching staff that compares to other major league teams as far ability to pitch 5 innings goes.
    1. jay's Avatar
      jay -
      Another factor at play here has been the Twins' focus on pitchers who throw strikes and don't walk batters. I'm sure you'd see walk rate along very similar trend lines. That is probably the biggest factor at play in limiting the number of pitches thrown.
    1. Cris E's Avatar
      Cris E -
      1994-2013 includes a lot of bad Twins teams with a graveyard full of bad starters. 56 pitches is injured or blown out, not tired or time for the pen. As mentioned above, count awful starts (<3 IP?) and either show the number or exclude it from the study.
    1. Badsmerf's Avatar
      Badsmerf -
      From 2002 to 2010 the Twins rotation was not bad. Still, they didn't even manage to be league average? I have a hard time agreeing with this philosophy. Something to think about.
    1. notoriousgod71's Avatar
      notoriousgod71 -
      Quote Originally Posted by jay View Post
      Another factor at play here has been the Twins' focus on pitchers who throw strikes and don't walk batters. I'm sure you'd see walk rate along very similar trend lines. That is probably the biggest factor at play in limiting the number of pitches thrown.
      I don't believe this at all. It takes less pitches to strike someone out than it does to give up a single and then get a ground out. More often than not our pitchers are not guys that don't walk anyone AND don't give up hits.
    1. Jim H's Avatar
      Jim H -
      I think you may have missed the biggest reason the Twins limit pitchers to around 100 pitches. I remember Tom Kelly saying (when he was still manager-probably on his Sunday show) that the Twins believed that when a pitcher went over significantly over 100 pitches, his next start was usually short and poor. He implied that the Twins had studied this, and it was more than just the Twins pitchers but applied to most major league starting pitchers. Apparently the correlation between the 2 was very strong. Obviously, there were outliers, Verlander being a current one who often throws well over 100 pitches and does not follow up with bad starts.

      Now, a couple of qualifiers. I believe I heard this from Kelly more than once, but I cannot remember other Twins officals stating this. Even if it was once one of the reasons the Twins tended to limit pitchers to around 100 pitches, it doesn't mean it is a current reason. Given how often Bert knocks pitch limits and how often the Twins officals get asked about, this reason doesn't seem to come out in the discussions.

      Still, the Twins tend to be close mouthed about many of their policies. This could be an important reason why the Twins tend to limit their starters to around 100 pitches.

      I do agree with some of your points about pitch limits. 100 pitches is certainly an abritrary limit and there are many factors that should factor into how many pitches a pitcher should throw in a particular game. I suspect that sometimes major league organizations don't want to leave the judgement of when to pull pitchers entirely up to their managers. Certainly in the minors there reasons to have limits and to avoid giving too much leeway to the managers. It is also true that certain managers had bad reputations for the way they handled their pitchers. Billy Martin was often given credit for ruining a whole staff of young starting pitchers in Oakland, by overusing them.

      One thing that I think it possibly true, if you limit your young pitchers in the minors to 100 pitches per start(I suspect there are often good reason to do this) it has to be rather hard to stretch them out to say 120 in the majors. They have been conditioned to that 100 pitch limit and it is likely to affect them in some way to throw more pitches.

      By the way, interesting article.
    1. Thegrin's Avatar
      Thegrin -
      Usually, when a pitcher is nearing 100 pitches and he only uses around 15 or less pitches to finish his last inning, the Twins leave him in the game for another inning. If he breezes through that inning, they will leave him in for another. I watch or listen to almost all Twins games and I rarely disagree with timing of when they bring in a reliever. That is one of the reasons I support Gardy/Andy is that the pitchers have earned the right to pitch another inning.

      I remember, about 20 years ago, or so, there was a study out that said exactly that pitchers tend to pitch the next game more poorly after pitching around 115+ innings in the previous game. Somewhere between 100 & 110 pitches was ideal. I have looked for this study online, but I haven't found it.
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