This piece begins with a short history lesson.
Way back in 1987, Craig Wright and Tom House wrote a book titled, The Diamond Appraised. House was the pitching coach for the Rangers at the time; Wright was a former Rangers statistician and an early devotee of the analytic approach known as "sabermetrics." In their book, Wright argued that in order to avoid damaging young, developing hurlers, clubs should avoid asking such pitchers to average more than 100-110 pitches per start.
About a dozen years later, dermatologist, Royals fan, and Baseball Prospectus co-founder Rany Jazayerli extended Wright's work, developing a metric known as Pitcher Abuse Points (PAP). A few years after that, BP's Keith Woolner built on Jazayerli's system; he presented evidence that (simplified somewhat) throwing more than 120 pitches per start was significantly correlated with pitchers' future injury risks (not to mention ineffectiveness in their next several starts), and adjusted PAP accordingly.
What does this have to do with anything Rangers-related in 2010? Just a bit more history. Shortly after Nolan Ryan joined Texas as its president in February 2008, USA Today's Bob Nightengale reported:
Ryan is determined to change the pitching philosophy in Texas. He would love to confiscate every pitch counter used by coaches. It drives him batty when he watches pitchers being pulled from games because their pitch count hits 110 or 120.
"We have to change this mindset," says Ryan. "Some of the guys have been on a pitch count since Little League. It should be tailored to the individual.
"These pitchers have to realize what their capabilities are, and build up their stamina. I remember it used to be that 300 innings was the benchmark for an ace. If you were a starter, you were expected to pitch at least 250 innings. Now, you may have one guy go 200 innings on your whole staff.
"That's why you see 12, 13 pitchers on every team.."
Ryan expressed these sentiments to the Rangers front office and coaching staff. He may be a softy at heart and always a gentleman, but when the boss talks, you better listen.
"He made suggestions along those lines about pitch counts," Rangers manager Ron Washington says. "So we're trying to keep them out there as long as they can. We have to be smart monitoring what they're doing, but if you got the horses, you can let them go a bit."
Baseball media types around the country picked up the refrain: Nolan Ryan thinks pitch counts are useless. This was overhyped, of course: Ryan never said he didn't think pitch counts were useful – just that they should be flexible, depending on the pitcher. And he had a good point. Pitchers differ, and so do specific game environments and in-game situations. Pitching coaches and managers should certainly take those factors into account when determining how long a starter remains on the mound.
At the same time, Ryan's comments were a source of concern to some. Sure, there were aces who pitched 300 innings in a season, and there was a time when a 250-inning season was expected from top starters. What goes unnoted in this sort of nostalgic narrative, however, is the inherent survival bias.
What sort of attrition resulted from the sort of workload Ryan cited? It's impossible to say with any certainty. But for those apt to bring up Bob Gibson as an exemplar of the good old days, consider this: would his contemporary Sandy Koufax have registered more than 6 extraordinary seasons if he hadn't thrown so many pitches each year? Now ask yourself how many other talented pitchers burned out along the way before ever making their names? And how much have MLB's efforts to increase offensive output weighed against starting pitchers' capabilities to log the sort of inning totals they were racking up when Ryan (or Gibson, or Koufax) was in his prime?
OK. History lesson over. Fast forward to May 1, 2010. Matt Harrison is on the mound for the Rangers, facing the Mariners in Seattle. The Rangers stake him to an early 3-0 lead, cashing in on a subpar performance from Seattle ace Felix Hernandez. But after a 1-2-3 first, Harrison begins to struggle; he gives up two singles and a walk in the second, and then three singles and a walk in a 2-run third. At this point, he has thrown 68 pitches. The Rangers score two in the next frame to maintain their lead, but the Mariners get another one back in the fifth, and by the time Harrison finishes an error-marred sixth, he's thrown 127 pitches.
Jump ahead five more days, to May 6. Harrison is now on the mound in Arlington, versus the Royals. He feels tightness in his biceps in the third inning, but completes five frames, throwing 95 pitches. Two days later, the Rangers announce that the 24-year old lefty will go on the disabled list with biceps tendinitis.
Did Harrison's six-inning, 127-pitch (and subsequent five-inning, 95-pitch) outing contribute to his injury? Again, nobody can state that definitively. But it's worth noting that, heading into Sunday's games, Harrison was fourth in MLB in Pitcher Abuse Points, and the Rangers were the only team in the majors with four starters (minimum of 20 IP) in the top 40 of PAP. (Rich Harden was down the list at 89. The Angels were the only other team with four of its starters in the top 50 in PA, though the Giants had four in the top 51; the Red Sox had five in the top 58; and the Yankees had four in the top 75.)
There's potential selection bias here, of course: successful starters tend to throw more pitches than their less effective colleagues, since the former tend to go deeper into ballgames. And at least some front offices and coaching staffs are no doubt aware that they have pitchers who are able to throw more pitches, and use them appropriately.
But for Colby Lewis, C.J. Wilson, and especially Matt Harrison to be in the top 40 in PAP raises some disconcerting questions. Scott Feldman's performance this year also gives pause for thought. The righty's workload increased dramatically in 2008 and 2009, and while his decreased velocity and lack of movement this year may be due to mechanical flaw, the possibilities of arm fatigue and/or injury also rear their ugly heads.
Looking at Harrison, specifically: the young southpaw is coming back from surgery from Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. He threw only 72 innings in 2009. So it's not immediately obvious why Texas decided to push him to 127 pitches over six innings in an early 2010 outing, and then 95 more over five innings in his next start. At least two competing hypotheses have been raised:
1. Harrison's a workhorse; he can take it.
2. Harrison's an expendable arm, and the Rangers wanted Holland up anyhow, so they were willing to slag Harrison.
Neither of these makes a ton of sense. At 24 years of age, there's relatively scant evidence that Harrison is a workhorse – especially coming off a major surgery. He's never thrown more than 170 professional innings in one season. Give that, it seems somewhat reckless to have asked him to throw 127 pitches in one six-inning start. Yes, the Rangers had played a 12-inning game the day before, and yes, the team was facing the 12th of 20 consecutive days of games. But there were relievers who'd been spared pitching on both April 28 and 29, and of those used on the 30th – namely Oliver, O'Day, Francisco, and Feliz – none threw more than 15 pitches.
As for the idea that it's acceptable to toast a 24-year old arm, no matter how certain it is that he's not destined for a starring (or even starting) role – or how ready a greater talent is to join the starting rotation? That just doesn't seem like a legitimate big-league strategy.
And before this all gets blamed on Ron Washington (or even Nolan Ryan): in Sunday's in-game Dallas Morning News chat, Evan Grant told Adam Morris (of Lone Star Ball) that Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux is primarily responsible for decisions on when to pull a starter.
I'm not quite sure what to make of all of this. Like many others, I had been ready for the whole Ryan/Rangers/pitch count story to fade into the Ethernet. But while Pitcher Abuse Points may not be gospel, neither are they (sorry) a load of pap. I know the Rangers are second in the majors in starters' PAP (trailing the Rockies), thanks in part to Harrison's total, which exceeds that of some teams' entire rotations. I know Harrison, Lewis, and Wilson are one of only four starting trios in the major leagues that have averaged at least 104 pitches per start in 2010, and that the other three all have at least one guy with a history of shouldering that sort of load. I also know that the Rangers have heavily emphasized the conditioning and durability of their starters, and that they may well believe their pitchers are a match for some elevated pitch counts. Maybe they're right.
But with Matt Harrison on the DL so soon after a six-inning, 127-pitch performance, and with open questions about all four remaining Opening Day starters, and with Derek Holland now in the rotation? Color me a bit worried about the way that Texas is taxing its starting pitchers in 2010.