Friday, September 17, 2004

Pitch Counts

There's been a fair amount of talk about Melvin letting Bobby Madritsch and Gil Meche throw too many pitches in recent games. Madritsch has thrown over 120 pitches in two of his eight starts (the last two). Since he was called back up, Meche has thrown 120+ pitches in three of eight starts, including 2 of his last 4.

It's tough to justify letting two pitchers with the collective history of shoulder trouble these two have throw that many pitches in a lost season, when both are being counted on to play significant roles in next year's rotation. The "risk vs. reward" analysis weighs heavily in favor of the "risk" side. I went to several of these games (Meche's 8/10, 8/15, and 9/12 starts, and Madritsch's 9/9 gem), and at least at the 9/9 and 9/12 games bent the ear of my seat partners about pulling them before their last inning -- not necessarily because they were no longer effective but because it just doesn't make sense to ride these guys so hard in games that don't matter.

But let me play Devil's Advocate here . . . there is another side to this argument.

Two years ago, Bobby Madritsch was pitching in the Independent Leagues, and came up this July after not much more than a couple of months (12 starts) in AAA -- he spent almost a month and a half on the disabled list with a strained oblique muscle -- and fewer than 40 games pitched above the Independent Leagues/A-ball. Two months ago, Gil Meche was struggling to a 1-3 record and 5.05 ERA over 57 innings (over ten starts) in Tacoma, after being demoted for stumbling out to a 1-5 record with a 9.00 ERA over 43.1 innings (over ten starts) in which he averaged over 20 pitches per inning. In their second-half call-ups, I'm sure it has been important to Bob Melvin -- to the extent their performance would allow him -- to help each guy gain confidence, come to believe they belong in MLB, and learn to pitch through a variety of situations.

For example, take a look at Madritsch's comments after the 9/9 game against Boston (in which Madritsch threw 126 pitches in eight innings). They are telling, both about how he had developed confidence over his previous 6 starts, and how Melvin letting him pitch through the 8th helped build on that.

Madritsch walked the first batter of the 7th inning of that game, and even though he came through it unscathed, he threw 23 pitches to get through the inning -- not a huge number, but more worrisome than it would otherwise be because it came later in the game. After the inning, Madritsch had thrown 100 pitches, and he led 7-0.

I would have been just as easy to let Madritsch take a seat with a win in his pocket and only 100 pitches thrown, but the kid is throwing a shutout, and the confidence gained by working through the top half of the order of the best offensive team in baseball.

This is what happened, as described in the P-I:

"If there was one moment when Madritsch could have wavered, it was in the eighth inning. With one out [the ninth hitter, Gabe Kapler, grounded to third on Madritsch's 104th pitch], he walked Johnny Damon [on 7 pitches] and Mark Bellhorn singled. All that did was bring up MVP candidates Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, who came into the game with 235 RBIs between them. Seattle manager Bob Melvin let Madritsch work out of trouble. 'When he didn't come out to get me, that's a load of confidence for me,' Madritsch said. 'He could have taken me out there. But I had confidence in what I was doing.'"

Ramirez and Ortiz did what they usually do -- they worked the count -- but Madritsch got Ramirez to ground into a fielder's choice (on a nice play by Jolbert Cabrera), and Ortiz chopped one off Madritsch's glove to Jose Lopez, who got the last out.

I don't really have a problem with that. Pitch counts aren't everything, even if they should be part of the equation . . . but so should be instilling confidence in young pitchers. Now, I have a bit more of a problem with sending Madritsch out to pitch the 9th in his next start. Even though he was throwing a shutout, he was at 116 pitches through eight, was beginning to leave "mistake" pitches way up in the strike zone, and threw more pitches in the eighth (19) than any other inning. The "confidence" lesson was learned the game before and didn't need to be repeated, and I do think it is a much bigger deal to throw consecutive games with over 120 pitches than it is to throw a single game of 120+. To Melvin's credit, he had a relatively short leash (6 pitches -- though 2 hits and a stolen base -- into the 9th), and again I think you've got to weigh the value of building confidence in a guy by letting him try to get his first complete game shutout versus the risks associated with high pitch counts in fragile pitchers.

We may disagree with how Melvin conducted that risk/benefit analysis, but I think it is unfair to criticize him for it without even acknowledging the other side of the argument. I don't want to speak for Bad Bob -- whom I've criticized as much as the next guy -- but I think he would say to those who've said he is managing as though he could give a shit less about the future of a team he knows he won't be managing (a fait accompli I am not entirely convinced of) that this is precisely how he is caring for the future of this team.

If you look at pitch counts by inning for these guys, I think it becomes clearer what Melvin is doing.

I've always thought that high pitch counts in individual (or worse, consecutive) innings are much harder on a pitcher than simply high aggregate pitch counts. That's one reason I didn't have a big problem with Meche's complete game -- he never threw as high as 20 pitches in any inning after the first, and he was still throwing hard and effectively in the ninth (12 pitches -- one of which he threw 95 mph). When I see a starter throw 20 or more pitches in a couple of innings between, say, the 2nd and the 6th innings, I would be much more hesitant to let that guy pitch another inning much after 100-105 than if I've got a guy cruising along throwing 10-15 pitches per inning. A poor analogy, but: I would expect fighter who had to go a couple of tough five minute rounds mid-way through a 10-round fight would fight more tired in the rounds after that than the guy who cruises through twelve three-minute rounds. The second guy would probably be fresher in the 12th round than the first guy is in the 7th round -- even if they were the same guy in different fights.

I think Melvin's usage patterns with Madritsch and Meche reflect similar thinking. The games where you can reliably predict that Melvin will remove these guys are games where they labor through a few long innings. The exception is occasionally when the pitcher is close enough that he wants to give them a chance for a win (if they are tied or down by a run or two and the offense looks like it has a chance) or when the pitcher is up but has a chance to achieve something special like a shutout or a complete game, but even then he will rarely if ever let a pitcher go past 130 pitches. I might hope for a bit more caution than that, especially given the history of pitching injuries on this team, but I don't have a big problem with it and I don't think it is as big a deal as it is commonly made out to be in the Mariners Blogoshphere.

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