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COOPER: For Draftable Pitchers, 120 Pitches Isn’t As Scary As You Think

Image credit: Paul Skenes (Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Paul Skenes threw 124 pitches on his way to a complete game win in Louisiana State’s NCAA Regional opener. If you surveyed social media during the game, you may have been mistaken into thinking that LSU coach Jay Johnson and pitching coach Wes Johnson had taken a hacksaw to Skenes’ elbow sometime during the ninth inning.

Skenes is universally viewed as the top pitching prospect in the 2023 draft class. So what were Johnson and Johnson doing taking such a massive risk by letting him work so deep into a game?

No MLB pitcher has thrown 124 pitches in any game this year. Only one (Miles Mikolas) did so all of last year.

Case closed. The evidence is clear: LSU is playing with fire. MLB teams have learned to never let a pitcher throw so many pitches, so why haven’t colleges followed suit?

Actually, let’s slow down and take a deeper look.

I asked a biomechanist, a pro pitching coordinator and an MLB front office official how concerned they were about Skenes’ outing. None of them were particularly worried. They noted that he’s clearly stretched out, having worked 115-plus pitch outings multiple times in the weeks leading up to his 124-pitch outing. And they pointed out he was working on extra rest. Skenes hadn’t pitched in eight days when he took the mound in the regional. He also was going to have eight days before he pitched again in the super regional.

And the in-game markers of pitching fatigue, at least from what we have publicly, do not appear to be there. In the first three innings of his regional start, Skenes’ fastball averaged 99.2 mph. In his final three innings of the start, Skenes’ fastball averaged 99.1 mph. His velocity was unchanged.

LSU had additional information we in the public do not. Teams now look at extension and release points as more granular details to indicate when to pull a tiring pitcher. We don’t have that info publicly, but Wes Johnson, who served as the Twins pitching coach before arriving at LSU, did.

The amount of academic research on the workload differences between a pitcher working every five days versus a pitcher working weekly is unfortunately quite scant. Multiple pitchers who have pitched both have said that the difference is dramatic, as the additional time to rest and recover ensures that they take the mound feeling fully rested and refreshed, something that is not nearly as easy to do in a five-man rotation. But all we have is anecdotal evidence.

“When I reflect back on the template of my college career, it was exactly what I needed to be a successful major leaguer,” Max Scherzer told Baseball America’s Kyle Glaser in 2019. “The fact I got to throw 120 pitches regularly on a seven-day rotation, that was the biggest thing.

“You have to pitch deep into games. You have to be exposed to that. Pitching 120 pitches is fine on an arm, on a shoulder, but in order to do that you need rest, and you can’t be pitching on the pro schedule of pitching once every five days. It’s just too much. Pitching on the seven-day (schedule) I think is actually the right amount of rest you need to be able to recover and do that consistently.”

Please note, there’s a massive difference between 120 or so pitches and 150-plus, as we saw Stanford’s Quinn Mathews throw in Sunday’s super regional.

But probably many of you shivered at the thought of a pitcher throwing 120 pitches. Because of the way the pro game has gone, asking a pitcher to work 120 pitches feels like asking a skydiver to jump out of a plane without a parachute.

But as we noted, the research on whether 120 pitches on six days rest is better or worse than 100 pitches on four days rest is lacking. And the experts actually don’t view 120 pitches as severely as you may think.

Pitch Smart, an MLB-sponsored initiative to help improve pitcher health, recommends that 19-22-year-olds throw 120 pitchers or fewer in any outing. Nowadays, many are shocked to hear that the limit is so high. If MLB has drawn a red line below 120 pitches, why would top doctors recommend that it’s OK for college-age pitchers to work that hard?

What’s missing here is a realization. MLB teams didn’t stop letting pitchers throw 120 pitches in games because of fear of injury. They stopped because of fear of ineffectiveness.


The elimination of 130-150-pitch outings in the majors came about because of vital and necessary research about pitchers’ health. The elimination of the 110-125-pitch MLB outing has come because of the fear of the third time through the order penalty.

MLB teams have decided that even their best pitchers are not the best option when facing hitters late in games. Bullpens are deep. There are always relievers who can provide a better matchup than even a team’s ace facing a hitter a fourth time, or often before they face the best hitters a third time.

The number of plate appearances in which MLB pitchers face hitters for a fourth time through the order is now one-tenth of what it was in 2000, and the number of plate appearances where a batter sees a starter a third time through the order has dropped by one-third.

And with that, 120-pitch outings have largely disappeared. In 2010, there were 25 outings of 125 or more pitches in the majors. In 2022, there was one. As of June 10, there had only been 23 110-plus-pitch outings in the majors this season. Justin Verlander himself averaged 24 110-plus-pitch outings per season from 2009-2013.

If you want to see this in action, we can look at the World Series. The World Series is where fear of injury gets shelved by teams trying to win a ring. We have countless examples of pitchers coming back on short rest or relievers being flogged.

In every game of the 2010 World Series at least one of the starters faced 27 or more batters. In the past three World Series, no starting pitcher has faced 27 batters in any game. That’s not because of a fear of injury, it’s because of a fear of losing.

At the college level, this same revolution isn’t happening as much because the difference in talent between the best players and everyone else is much more dramatic. Skenes facing batters a third or fourth time is a more effective option than any reliever in the LSU bullpen. And, as we noted above, he’s working on much more rest.

Baseball America gathered game-by-game pitch data for the draft year of every first-round college pitcher drafted from 2009 to 2014. There were 41 pitchers in the study for which there was enough game-by-game data to study.

Of that group, the pitchers averaged eight starts of 100-plus pitches, five of 110-plus pitches, two of 120-plus pitches and 0.5 starts of 130-plus pitches.

What was notable is if you look at how those pitchers fared post-draft, it was the pitchers who worked deeper in college games that have had more MLB success. The pitchers who had 10-plus 100-pitch outings have averaged 684 MLB innings pitched. Those who had between 7-9 100-pitch outings have averaged 465 MLB innings and those with six or fewer 100-pitch outings have averaged 452 MLB innings.

The nine pitchers who had four or more 120-pitch outings averaged 838 MLB innings. That group includes Gerrit Cole, Carlos Rodon, Kevin Gausman, Matt Harvey, Marcus Stroman and Trevor Bauer. Those who had three or fewer 120-pitch outings have averaged 455 MLB innings since being drafted. The 11 pitchers who never topped 120 pitches in a start in their draft year have averaged 363 MLB innings since being drafted.

So while it may seem counterintuitive to many weaned on MLB’s modern workloads, Scherzer’s theory has some data to support it. Pitching deep in games in college helps develop a starting pitcher’s ability to get hitters out in a variety of ways. And pitchers who can handle that kind of workload in college have also passed a survivor’s bias test of sorts—by handling that in college, they are also more likely to be able to handle a starter’s workload in pro baseball.

So Skenes working 124 pitches in a dominating complete game NCAA regional outing? That’s a good sign for his pro prospects, not a giant red flag to be feared. 

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