Is 3,000 the new 200?

Debby Wong-US PRESSWIRE

Should the 200 inning limit be replaced with the 3000 pitch count limit for starting pitchers?

Two weeks ago, I discussed why inning limits were outdated and should be replaced with season pitch counts in my death to inning limits article. At the end, I suggested teams should heed caution if their starter is on pace for more than 3,000 pitches and further research was needed. 3,000 pitches was an arbitrary number on my part, but was still based upon recent trends that 3,000 or more pitches reflects a full season, for the most part. This got me thinking, what are the negative consequences associated for pitchers exceeding 3,000 pitches, if any?

To investigate, I limited my search to pitchers between 2010 and 2013 who threw 3,000 or more pitches in the previous season and compared their results to following season. Finally, I took the aggregate totals of the sample for comparison. The results are as follows:

Year Pitches GS IP K/BB HR/9 FIP vFA (pfx) Sample Size
2010 3302.33 32.38 205.89 2.56 0.85 3.79 91.14 69
2011 2939.54 28.90 183.70 2.69 0.98 3.92 90.63 67
Difference -362.79 -3.48 -22.19 0.12 0.13 0.13 -0.49
2011 3314.06 32.37 208.43 2.91 0.90 3.68 91.09 63
2012 2641.52 26.27 166.81 2.97 1.06 4.00 90.80 62
Difference -672.54 -6.10 -41.62 0.06 0.16 0.32 -0.29
2012 3229.5 32 201.96 3.06 0.95 3.76 91.19 55
2013 2729 27 169 3.01 1.01 3.86 90.99 55
Difference -500.5 -5 -32.96 -0.05 0.06 0.10 -0.20
Average -511.95 -4.86 -32.26 0.04 0.12 0.18 -0.33

To view the individual seasons follow this link. *Note the sample size reduced in 2010 to 2011 and 2011 to 2012 due to pitchers retiring.

The first thing that stands out is that pitchers were unable to duplicate their workloads the following season. In fact, of the 187 individual seasons, 72 of them failed to crack the 3,000 pitches threshold the subsequent season, or about 38.5%. Admittedly, most are within a few hundred pitches, but nonetheless, they come up short as a whole.

With this time being lost, the innings have to come from somewhere, meaning more innings are being allocated to replacement level pitchers. If the average time lost is approximately 4-5 starts, as the data suggests, that's basically equivalent to an entire month. Also not to be forgotten is the likely wear down period prior to an injury and the time needed to return to form prior to an injury. As a whole, a team could be looking at around two months of recovery and or subpar performance.

Not only did the pitchers pitch less, there's also a decline in overall performance seen. Home runs spiked, which, in turn, lead to higher FIP. There's also a small, but noticeable decline in fastball velocity. Part of this could be due to being a year older than the last, but I'm more inclined to believe it's from wear and tear from the previous year. Surprisingly, K/BB ratio did tick up, with the exception of 2012 to 2013. I'm not quite sure why this is, but one thought would be that with more experience, they've become better able to control the zone.

As we can see, there does seem to be a correlation between throwing 3,000 or more pitches and the effects on health and performance the following season. Combine this with the workload, year in and year out, and it's not surprising to see performance decline so quickly. Perhaps these workloads contributed to the hastened deterioration of the likes of Tim Lincecum, Ubaldo Jimenez, Ricky Romero, among others. It's hard to say with certainty because of all the variables that go into individual cases, but there does seem to be plausible evidence of an overload on the body.

If such is the case however, more teams and players need to be aware of the implications these overloads can have. Pushing pitchers limits too far and for too long appear to have an implication on the long term health and performance of the pitcher going forward. Limiting pitchers to around 3,000 pitches may or may not be the answer. However, becoming aware of the issue is more important in the long run because of the financial impact it can have for clubs, and, more importantly, the impact for individual players’ livelihoods.

All statistics and info courtesy of FanGraphs.

Anthony Joshi-Pawlowic is a contributing writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @AJP13237.

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