With College Pitch Counts, Times Are Changing

Twice in a three-week span this spring, North Carolina State lefthander Carlos Rodon, a candidate to go No. 1 overall in this June's draft, made starts that seemed like relics from an earlier time.

In an era where major league pitchers rarely journey beyond 110 pitches and almost never top 120 in a start, Rodon used 134 pitches in a dominating 7⅔ innings against Duke. Just two starts later, he threw 132 pitches in nine innings against Georgia Tech.

Carlos Rodon

Carlos Rodon (Photo by Brian Westerholt)

This is actually not all that unusual for Rodon. He's thrown more than 120 pitches five times this season, and he's topped 100 in 12 of his 14 starts this year. He threw more than 130 pitches four times last year as well. Overall, he's averaging 113 pitches per start, which is more than any major league pitcher averaged per outing last year.

Some corners have expressed outrage that the N.C. State coaching staff put their desire to win ahead of the long-term health of their ace.

Well, actually, it's not clear at all.

In the years since Rany Jazayerli first developed his Pitcher Abuse Points (PAP) system for Baseball Prospectus in 1998, a general consensus has formed in the majors: Go far beyond 100 pitches and you better have a reliever ready. Go past 130 and you're generally prepping a pitcher for a trip to the disabled list.

Considering the 12 seasons from 1998 to 2009, all but one year featured at least 100 games in which a starter exceeded 130 pitches. Last year, there were four such starts.

Whether by intent or accident, 100 pitches has become the new normalized baseline. Last year, the median value for the 82 ERA qualifiers was 99 pitches per start.

So Rodon throwing 113 pitchers per start obviously raised concerns. His two 130-pitch starts are half as many as big leaguers threw all of last year. And the big leaguers who topped 130 are older, more mature pitchers.

The comparison is not quite a direct one, however. Rodon threw 113 pitches every seven days because he's in a college rotation on a seven-day schedule. He throws more pitches per start, but fewer pitches overall than a pitcher throwing on a five-day schedule.

And when it comes to the differences between five- and seven-day rotations, pitchers themselves say there is a major difference.

"You have a brand new arm every seven days," said former White Sox and UCLA lefty Jim Parque, who would advocate that pro teams go to a six-man rotation to reduce injuries. "You can take one full day off. It rejuvenates you. Pitching every seven days is a country club."

Brewers righthander Jimmy Nelson served as Friday starter at Alabama as a junior. He said it took him a while to get used to the heavier workload of a five-day schedule.

See also: College Coaches Need A Long-Term Approach

See also: For Elbow Injuries, College Pitchers Fare Worst

"It's day and night different," he said. "We talk about it all the time. Those two days extra are huge. You'll see a lot of guys in pro ball who lose 3-4 (mph) because you have those two fewer days (between starts). And you're playing twice as many games."

When the Rockies went to a four-man rotation for a brief time in 2012, they decided to cut their starters back to 75-80 pitches per start, on the premise that because they had one less recovery day, their pitchers shouldn't throw as many pitches. No one really knows if a similar extrapolation can be made in the other direction. In other words, would more rest days equal more pitches per start?

"I think it's like comparing apples and oranges," said Cubs pitching coordinator Derrick Johnson, who previously worked as Vanderbilt's pitching coach. "In pro ball, you have higher frequency and lower volume. It's hard to compare a college guy to a pro guy because the volume and frequency of the two pitchers are different."

Dr. Stan Conte, the Dodgers' senior director of medical services, has been studying injuries for two decades. He said he hasn't come across any study that spells out the difference in risk—or pitch limits—between pitching with six days of rest and pitching with four.

Hard At Work

Here's a look at pitch counts for first-round college starting pitchers from 2010-2013. In many cases, pitch counts for all games are not available, so this is only for games with available pitch counts.
Year Player 120+ 130+ Longest
2010 Drew Pomeranz 2 0 124
2010 Barrett Loux 4 1 134
2010 Matt Harvey 5 3 157
2010 Deck McGuire 2 0 127
2010 Chris Sale 4 1 132
2010 Hayden Simpson 3 1 144
2010 Alex Wimmers 4 1 134
2011 Gerrit Cole 4 1 132
2011 Danny Hultzen 3 0 127
2011 Trevor Bauer 11 8 140
2011 Taylor Jungmann 2 2 130
2011 *Jed Bradley 0 0 101
2011 Sonny Gray 1 0 121
2011 Matt Barnes 0 0 117
2011 &Tyler Anderson NA NA NA
2011 Alex Meyer 3 0 127
2011 Sean Gilmartin 0 0 115
2012 Kevin Gausman 5 0 129
2012 *Kyle Zimmer 1 0 121
2012 Andrew Heaney 3 0 128
2012 Michael Wacha 2 0 121
2012 Chris Stratton 1 1 133
2012 Marcus Stroman 5 0 129
2012 Brian Johnson 0 0 99
2013 Mark Appel 3 0 124
2013 Jonathan Gray 2 0 129
2013 Braden Shipley 5 3 133
2013 *Chris Anderson 1 1 138
2013 Marco Gonzalez 3 1 130
2013 Jonathan Crawford 0 0 113
2013 Alex Gonzalez 3 0 125
2013 Ryne Stanek 2 0 123
2013 Jason Hursh 2 1 134
*Have pitch counts for less than half of starts
&Pitch counts only available for two games
In 2014, prospective first round college pitchers are not throwing as many pitches as they did just a year or two ago.
Year Player 120+ 130+ Longest
2014 Carlos Rodon 5 2 134
2014 Kyle Freeland 0 0 119
2014 Jeff Hoffman 0 0 117
2014 Erick Fedde 1 0 121
2014 Brandon Finnegan 0 0 116
2014 Aaron Nola 0 0 117
2014 Tyler Beede 1 0 122
2014 Sean Newcomb 0 0 114
2014 Luke Weaver 0 0 116

Rodon's junior-year workload is high, but it's not out of line with what we've seen from first-round picks in recent years. Looking at the 29 first-round college pitchers from 2010-13, 22 of them went 120 pitches or more at least twice as juniors and 10 topped 130 pitches at least once that year. (Because pitch-count records for every outing are unavailable, the preceding numbers may be underrepresenting outings over 120 pitches.)

Rodon's numbers do stand out when compared with his closest contemporaries in this year's draft, however.

Go back five years, and many potential first-round picks carried similar workloads to Rodon. Chris Sale, Taylor Jungmann, Gerrit Cole and Kevin Gausman all shouldered similar usage patterns and have stayed relatively healthy. Thanks to a 157-pitch outing in 2010, Matt Harvey's workload significantly exceeded Rodon's this year. As did Trevor Bauer, who is in a class by himself.

Bauer handled a workload that no pro pitcher has seen this century. He averaged 129 pitches per start his junior year at UCLA, with 11 outings of 120-plus pitches, eight where he topped 130 pitches and one where he threw 140. So far, so good. He has yet to miss a start as a pro.

As with anything, one can find cautionary tales. Hayden Simpson topped 130 pitches twice and threw 144 in one outing. His stuff backed up as a pro and he was soon released by the Cubs. Alex Wimmers threw 120 or more pitches in four out of five starts, including a 134-pitch outing. He's had Tommy John surgery and has struggled as a Twins farmhand. Danny Hultzen worked a relatively restrained workload, never throwing more than 130 pitches and topping 120 pitches three times, but he's seen his Mariners career derailed by shoulder problems.

But among this year's potential first-rounders, few are working more than 120 pitches in any start. Evansville lefty Kyle Freeland has yet to throw 120 pitches in any outing. East Carolina righthander Jeff Hoffman didn't in any start before he went down with an elbow injury that required Tommy John.

Nevada-Las Vegas righty Erick Fedde, another T.J. victim this year, topped 120 only once, with a 121-pitch outing. Lefthanders Brandon Finnegan (Texas Christian) and  Sean Newcomb (Hartford) and righthanders Aaron Nola (Louisiana State) and Luke Weaver (Florida State) have also stayed below 120 in all outings for which we have pitch counts. Vanderbilt righty Tyler Beede has topped 120 pitches once, while generally staying just below 100 in most of his starts.

So by the standards of college first-rounders this decade, Rodon's workload is not particularly unusual. By the standards of 2014's projected first-rounders, it stands alone, at least for now.

With Rodon's season over, many of his college peers will be pitching in conference tournaments and the NCAA tournament, where there will be incentives for them to pitch deeper into games or come back on short rest.

As is true with any debate about pitcher health, it's worth noting that while pitch counts are a tool, they are only one tool. Some scouts say they are worried about Rodon's workload. Others say they are not, but worry more about the large numbers of sliders he throws. N.C. State's decision to bring Rodon back after a 90-minute rain delay in his final regular-season home start also raised concerns, especially when he showed reduced velocity in his following outing.

Like college baseball in the U.S., Japanese pitchers pitch on a seven-day schedule. In their case it's a six-man rotation with one off day a week. And like Rodon, Japanese pitchers generally throw more pitches per outing than any U.S. starter. Thanks to data compiled by NPBTracker.com, we know that Yu Darvish's median pitch count in Japan from 2009-11 was 123. That same number for Masahiro Tanaka from 2009-12 was 116. Hisashi Iwakuma's median was 110. C.J. Wilson was the only U.S. pitcher whose median pitchers per start last year topped 110 (110.6).

As a 21-year-old, Tanaka topped 120 pitches 10 different times in 2009. His longest outing was 142 pitches against Orix, which came a week after he threw 137 pitches against Rakuten. Later in the season, he topped 120 pitches five times in six starts, but again, those starts came on longer rest.

Did those high-pitch-count games put Tanaka at an increased risk of injury? Or did the longer rest between starts and the lower total of pitches thrown mitigate the higher pitch counts? We simply don't know. As mentioned, accurate pitch count totals for every college start is nearly impossible to assemble. Meanwhile, compiling a record of injuries for Japanese pitchers is just as daunting.

We don't know now, but in the future we might be able to answer the question: Is a 130-pitch start on six days of rest justifiable or foolhardy?