|Fifteen Pitches per Inning - More or Less?|
By Irv Matus
Edwin Newman, who usually turns a wry eye to the world of words, recently diverted his gaze to the world of numbers in a New York Times article:
"A World Series isn't just a baseball contest. As the Yankee--Dodger series has demonstrated, it's also a cause of statistics."
Among the "stupefying array of facts and figures" never seen or heard on television, but which Mr. Newman conjured up as possibilities, were the player who "spiked six players while he was running out to take his place in the field. . . . Pitcher who went the distance in 9.68324770 of his starts - during the first half of the season. Lost cap chasing fly balls more than any other leftfielder who opposed the reserve clause. . . . Only designated hitter under 36 to trip leaving the dugout. . . . Batted .246 against right-handed pitchers, .173 against left-handed pitchers, and .333 against others."
While the fascination with statistics hasn't gone that far (yet), the barrage of computer data on the telecasts of 1977 series games did obscure a seemingly modest number which is one of the most significant regarding player performance: the total of pitches thrown by the starting hurler during the game, which was given by Tom Seaver.
Seaver is considered by many to be the finest pitcher in the game today - a status he had achieved through a single-minded devotion to the art and science of pitching. His analysis of "a Tom Seaver game" can sound like that of a scientist breaking down a complex compound into its simplest elements.
So, it was interesting that, in explaining the importance of the pitch totals, he repeated the standard yardstick: a pitcher is doing well if he throws "about 15 pitches per inning."
Is he? Can an average of a pitch or two an inning, one way or the other, really make a difference?
An answer may be found in analysis of pitch-by-pitch scorecards of the 1976 Mets - a team for which Seaver pitched brilliantly, if to little effect, with many other outstanding performances by Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack and Mickey Lolich, as the staff just about swept the board in major league leading statistics.
These scorecards also include many excellent games pitched against the Mets - a fact attested to by Seaver's record from June 4th to August 2nd: 12 games started,100-2/3 innings pitched (an average of over 8-1/3 per start), allowing only 68 hits and 19 walks, striking out 94, with an ERA of 1.70. But he won only 5, lost 2 and had 5 no decisions.
In fact, for the months of June and July, none of the Mets starters pitched much poorer or fared much better. They posted a 2.67 ERA in 56 games, but won only 23 while losing 22.
With so many well-pitched games on both sides of the scorecards, these statistics should serve as a sound basis for finding out the average number of pitches for a hurler who "is doing well."
1976 Mets and Opposition Pitching
To establish the average of pitches per inning after which a pitcher's endurance and effectiveness decline two standards were used:
1) How long a pitcher remained in the game after throwing a certain number of pitches during
the first six innings.
2) The pitch total of a pitcher who completed nine innings.
Pitcher Durability After Six Innings
In determining a pitcher's capability of remaining in a game after six innings, the statistics used were of pitchers removed during the 7th, 8th or 9th innings or who completed nine innings. The statistics of a pitcher who was removed after completing the 7th or 8th innings were not used as there are many reasons he may have left the game – more likely for a pinch-hitter in an attempt to tie, go ahead, or get insurance runs, than that he tired - which do not bear on performance.
In the 148 games in this analysis the patterns clearly point to a startling difference between the durability of a pitcher who has averaged 14 pitches per inning or less and one who has averaged above that total.
On the table below, this difference is highlighted by the cumulative statistics of the 95 games which were at or below the 14-pitch average and the 53 games in which the average was above 14 pitches.
The same sharp contrast is evident in the 30 games in which pitchers averaged in the 14-pitch range (79-84 total pitches) and the 25 games in which the average was in the 15-pitch range (85-90). (These figures are in bold type for comparison.)
Numbers in parentheses are total pitches after 6 innings.
Abbreviations: No. Rem - Number of pitchers removed during inning.
Pct. Comp Pct. of pitchers completing inning.
No. Comp - Number of pitchers completing 9th inning.
Pitch Totals After Completing Nine Innings
The likelihood of a pitcher completing nine innings if he throws an average of 14 pitches or less per inning is reinforced by the totals of the 89 games in which pitchers did actually complete nine innings of work.
61 of the 65 pitchers who were below the 14 pitch average after six innings, and 20 of the 24 pitchers who were above it, finished the 9th inning in the same group.
Of the four who ended nine innings having gone over the 14 pitch average, only Don Sutton showed an unusual increase, from 81 to 143 pitches. Of the four who fell below the mark, Jerry Koosman had the greatest decrease, going from 86 pitches to 117 after nine.
It's noteworthy that, while pitcher durability after six innings peaks at the 14 pitch range (79-84 total pitches), pitchers who completed nine innings peaked at the 13 pitch range (107-117).
Runs are considered to be total runs allowed unless unearned runs scored without affecting total pitches (such as, due to a passed ball or an error allowing runner to score or to reach position from which he scored).
The Rule - And Some Exceptions
Therefore, it appears that a pitcher who is throwing an average of "about 15 pitches an inning" is most often not, in fact, doing well.
But it should be noted that some pitchers do average that many and more, completing games with apparent effectiveness. As always, the exceptions are interesting.
There's Jerry Koosman, who twice cruised through six innings averaging less than 11 pitches arid wasn't able to complete the 7th. There were only two other instances of this.
The same Jerry Koosman struggled through six innings three times, throwing over the 16-pitch average, and went on to pitch nine innings - which was to occur only six other times. Of course,
Koosman's is an unusual case.
Sometimes a high pitch total at mid-game is the result of early inning troubles. The Cubs' Bill Bonham and, yes, Koosman again, had 6th inning pitch totals of 109. In fact, both had also thrown 63 pitches after three innings. And both handled the last three innings with little trouble, pitching complete game victories.
In the American League, the designated hitter will keep a pitcher in the game who may have surrendered an insurmountable number of runs while logging a large number of pitches in early innings, but settles down to pitch well thereafter. Since he doesn't occupy a spot in the batting order, there is no compelling reason to remove him.
However, big leads and overused or unstable bullpens are the usual reasons that a starter may be kept in the game despite a high pitch total and faltering effectiveness. On occasion the high pitch total may not be reflected in a pitcher's effort.
Seaver, whose strikeouts and ability to work into the late innings consistently, usually requires a lower pitch total if he is to remain effective, threw 150 pitches upon completing nine innings in a scoreless duel with Doc Medich (then with the Pirates). Seaver added five more pitches to that total in the 10th before leaving the game for a pinchhitter. (The game ended as one of three 1-0 Mets losses in the month of July, two in extra innings.)
But allowing a pitcher to run up a large pitch total in a game can affect his future starts. In this case, Seaver compounded the problem by throwing 115 pitches in his next start before being removed for a pinch-hitter in the 7th, having allowed only two runs (one unearned) on four hits and four walks. It caught up with him in his next start, against the Pirates, who batted around in the 5th, scoring five runs.
Finally there are the workhorses - the pitchers who seem virtually immune to the physical limitations of most others. Foremost among such pitchers today is, unquestionably, Nolan Ryan.
Unlike most power pitchers, Ryan prefers to work on only three days rest, while consistently throwing a large number of pitches, as his lifetime totals of strikeouts (9.77 per 9 innings) and walks (5.58) indicate.
Explaining arm troubles that curtailed his work at the end of the 1977 season, Ryan said that he had thrown around 7,000 pitches in 299 innings spread over 37 starting assignments. If accurate, that would mean an average of about 23 pitches per inning and nearly 190 per game. (And it may not be too far from the mark - he threw over 160 pitches in his 1975 no-hitter versus Baltimore, although there were only five baserunners.)
There are many levels of endurance on the scale between Nolan Ryan and a pitcher who regularly has a low pitch total, such as Randy Jones. It is necessary to study the characteristic performance of each pitcher to determine at which point he may "suddenly" lose his effectiveness.
However, the evidence clearly indicates that, for endurance and effectiveness in any given game, 14 pitches or less per inning as an average is preferable for most pitchers.