“And that was (FILL IN ANY MET STARTER’S NAME HERE) 100th pitch, and here comes Terry Collins; he’s made the signal to the bullpen, his day is over.”
100 pitches. The magic number for a starter nowadays in baseball. And the pitchers, for the most part, have accepted this. Oh, maybe once in a great while you’ll hear a pitcher grumble, especially if the reliever coughed up the lead. “I could have stayed in longer,” he’ll say. “I still had something left in the tank.” But nowadays, no matter who you are, the ace of the staff or the number five starter, 100 pitches is usually the limit.
But oh, it wasn’t always this way! In 1963, a then 42-year-old Warren Spahn of the Milwaukee Braves battled 25-year-old Juan Marichal of the San Francisco Giants in a 0-0 pitcher’s duel for 16 innings. Marichal’s manager went to the mound in the 9th, 10th, 11th, 13th and 14th innings and each time Marichal talked him into letting him stay. In the 14th inning Marichal told the manager, “Do you see that man pitching for the other side? Do you know that man is 42 years old? I’m only 25. If that man is on the mound, nobody is going to take me out of here.” (Willie Mays eventually won the game for the Giants in the bottom of the 16th, hitting a homerun off of Warren Spahn—who was still in the game after four hours.) Stan Musial once said of Spahn, “He will never get into the Hall of Fame. He won’t stop pitching.”
In 1969, Tom Seaver pitched 18 complete games. He was 24 years old. Lest you say, well, he was young, he could handle a high pitch count; keep in mind that Seaver pitched 10 complete games in 1984. He was 39 years old.
Nolan Ryan, he of the seven no-hitters, pitched 26 complete games in 1974, at the age of 27. In 1982, at the age of 35 he pitched 10 complete games.
So nowadays, we have middle relief pitchers and “closers.” Is it really better to “coddle” our starters and yank them at 100 pitchers no matter what? No shocker here, Nolan Ryan doesn’t think so.
In 1989 at age 42, Nolan Ryan averaged 127 pitches a game with a high of 164—which came five days after he threw 150! Official pitch counts date back only to 1988, and no pitcher has matched Ryan’s 127 average, and I think it’s pretty safe to say no one ever will.
In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Ryan said that our expectations of today’s pitchers have been lowered. “There’s no reason why kids today can’t pitch as many innings as people did in my era. Today a quality start is six innings. What’s quality about that?”
In the same interview, pitching coach Mike Maddux agreed with Ryan that not all 100 pitch games are created equal. Maddux believes if a pitcher is cruising late in a game, there’s no reason to give him the hook. “What we’re trying to get rid of is that thing in pitchers’ heads of how many pitches they have,” said Maddux. “I’d be out there asking how they feel, and they’d say, ‘Well, how many pitches do I have?’ And I’d say, ‘Doesn’t matter—how do you feel?’”
Ryan believes in conditioning, not pitch counts. While team president of the Texas Rangers, he ordered his pitchers throw live batting practice to hitters from day one of spring training, a routine almost unheard of major league camps. The Rangers conditioning coach added more sprints and lower leg work to the team’s training regimen. “Baseball got into allowing these kids to not do the work,” Ryan says. “Money is the reason and the excuse you get from organizations; that we’re protecting our investments. Well, protect the investment [too much] and you may not get the return.”
So what’s the answer? Do we still protect the arms our major league teams have paid dearly for? Or do we try making them work—just a little harder—for that money?
I know I don’t have the answer. But I do know one thing: if an eight-time MLB All-Star, with 5,714 career strikeouts and seven no-hitters says pitchers can work a little harder—I’d tend to agree with him.