Twins Starters & Pitch Limits
Before pitch counts started to become prominent in the 1980s, ball clubs expected their starting pitcher to pitch a complete game unless he was injured during the game or just could not get anyone out. In days gone by, relievers were often starters who were past their prime and were finishing their careers. Being a reliever was looked upon as a step down from being a starter. In some ways it is not really that different today; hardly anyone comes out of high school or college hoping to be a reliever though there have been some exceptions over the last few years. For the most part, major league relievers are still failed starters, yet managers bring in these guys, who are in many cases not good enough to start, to bail out the starter after the starter gets in trouble or reaches his pitch limit.
Originally posted at TwinsTrivia.com
So what brought on this change? When I first started following baseball in the 1950's, teams usually had four starters and these starters were occasionally called on to pitch a few games in relief each season as needed. Baseball then evolved from four to five starters and the Twins joined that bandwagon in 1963. As baseball payrolls started to escalate and pitching talent became diluted due to expansion, starting pitchers became a more valuable commodity.
I don't have good Twins payroll data prior to 1980 but it appears the Twins highest paid player was always a position player until 1986 when Bert Blyleven became the first Twins pitcher to lay claim to that title and to make over a million dollars a season, pocketing $1,450.000. In the last 28 years the Twins highest paid player has been a position player 16 times, a starting pitcher 11 times and a closer on one occasion. You can see the numbers and the names at http://wp.me/P1YQUj-22.
I am not sure anyone knows for sure but somewhere along the line either the players' agents or team management (I doubt it was a player) decided starting pitchers needed to be protected and that limiting the number of pitches thrown was the best way to accomplish that goal. Counting pitches isn't very scientifically validated but it is easy to do and that might be why pitch counts were chosen as the tool of choice. The stress of the game, runners on base, the weather and many other variables are not taken into consideration when all you do is count pitches to determine how hard a pitcher worked on any given day.
One way to make a case for pitch counts is to argue each pitcher has only so many "bullets" to throw before his arm or elbow gives out. I have always found the concept that pitch counts limit injuries to be a strange notion because when we want to strengthen a muscle what we do what? We exercise it and work it. After knee or arm or elbow surgery we do what? We exercise it to make it stronger and that just seems to go against the grain of limiting pitchers throwing. Have pitch count really limited injuries? I don't think anyone knows for sure but the use of pitch counts is becoming more entrenched than ever.
Let's take a look at this from the Twins historical perspective. From 1994 through 2013 the Twins have played 3,173 games. In that time Tom Kelly/Dick Such and Ron Gardenhire/Rick Anderson have allowed their starting pitcher to throw 100 or more pitches 1,134 times or in 35.74% of the games the Twins have played. Over the last 20 years, Minnesota Twins managers and their pitching coaches have allowed their starters throw 100+ pitches fewer times than any team in the American League and it is not even close. Have Twins starters suffered fewer injuries than all the other teams? I don't think so. Heck, even the Tampa Rays have 1,259 games with 100 or more pitches and they have been in existence in only 16 of the 20 years this data covers.
AL games with starter going 100 or more pitches 1994-2013
(Houston excluded since they have been in AL only one season) [TABLE="class: easy-table-creator tablesorter mceItemTable, width: 100%"]
[TH]Avg games per year[/TH]
So why the huge disparity between the Twins and their peers? The time period covers two different Twins managers along with their choices of pitching coaches. The Twins have not always had bad starting pitchers. With this large a discrepancy it has to be some type of organization philosophy to limit the starters' pitches. For the most part relievers are cheaper and more expendable than starters; would the Twins rather burn out the bullpen staff then their starting pitchers?
It seems the Twins are sending a message and doing a disservice to their starters when they don't allow them to throw more pitches. Who wants to come to pitch in Minnesota for an organization that, relatively, pulls you at the first sign of trouble and does not allow you to work out of your own jams? Pitchers can only get better if they can learn how to extricate themselves from predicaments they find themselves in. For the most part Twins teams have had decent bullpens. It seems logical that they might be even better if not over-worked.
What have the Twins gained by keeping the number of pitches down for their starters? Who knows? In the last 20 years the Twins have had the fewest 100+ pitched games by starters four times. As a matter of fact they have not once in the last 20 years reached even the AL average of starts with 100+ pitches. That is just plain amazing. The chart below shows in graphic form how the Twins starters compare to the AL league high, average and low in games that starters threw 100+ pitches.
In the past 20 years only four Twins starting pitchers have averaged 100+ pitches a game for an entire season: Brad Radke with 103.7 in 2000, Joe Mays with 100.2 in 2001, Johan Santana in 2004 with 100.8, in 2005 with 101.1, in 2006 with 101.5, in 2007 with 101.4 and Carl Pavano in 2011 with 102.5. Among these, their innings pitched was between 219 and 233.2 per season. The Twins leader in average pitches per game in 2013 was Samuel Deduno with 96.8 in 18 starts.
The intent of this piece is not to say that the Twins starting pitching would have been better if Kelly and Gardenhire had allowed them to throw more pitches. It is more for pointing out the peculiarity of how the Twins handle their starters versus how the rest of the AL league does.