Ever since the Texas Rangers hired Nolan Ryan to serve as team President back in February 2008, the former Hall of Famer has made numerous headlines speaking out against pitch counts (here, here and here, for example). Ryan’s disdain for such limitations is only natural. After all, the ageless right handed fire baller threw over 5,300 innings in 27 seasons, and is believed to have regularly thrown over 150 pitches in a game.
I don’t blame the pitchers for not pitching longer, I blame baseball and management for that because we produced that. I mean that’s the course we set and so that’s what we have to deal with. And so we’re going to change that course, and we have to start it and it won’t be a process that comes overnight.” –Rangers’ part owner and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, ESPN.com, October 4, 2010
Although Ryan has stated that stemming the pitch count tide would be a gradual process focused primarily on strength and conditioning, that hasn’t stopped many from trumpeting the success of the 2010 Texas Rangers as evidence of the early fruits of a revolutionary approach. On the surface, it does seem as if Ryan’s approach has had a dramatic effect. In 2008, when Ryan was hired, the Rangers ranked dead last in the American League with a 5.37 ERA, but over the last two seasons, the team has ranked fourth. The improvement has been substantial, but is pitching longer into games the main reason?
Rangers’ Starters, 2008 to 2010
Over the last two seasons, Rangers’ starters have on average increased their innings per game by about two outs, while reducing runs allowed by approximately one and a quarter. A closer look, however, reveals that the Rangers have had much more stability in 2009 and 2010, allowing Ron Washington to use five fewer starters than in 2008. In other words, the quality of pitchers used is likely more responsible for the increase in workload than the simple act of pushing each starter a little longer. Furthermore, a good deal of the Rangers’ improvement in run prevention can be attributed to an increase in defensive efficiency, as illustrated by the rotation’s fielding independent statistics (which, although murky, point to a large improvement that can not be ignored).
He doesn’t want us to go out there and be satisfied with 95, 100 pitches, 105 pitches and feel like we’ve done our job. He wants us to go out there and feel like I can throw another 20 pitches and I can throw 130 pitches. That’s his type of background, his motivation for pitchers.” – Rangers’ starter Colby Lewis, ESPN.com, October 4, 2010
Even though Rangers’ starters have increased the number of innings thrown per game, the real focus has been on pitch counts. Once again, since 2008, Rangers’ starters have been successful in throwing more pitches per game. But, what about the 130 pitches per game mentioned by Lewis? As it turns out, the Rangers not only didn’t have a starter throw over 130 pitches this season, but they haven’t had one top that count since 2004. What’s more, the team only had five pitchers throw 120 or more pitches in each of the last two seasons. Where the team has seen a big increase is in games surpassing the 110 pitch threshold. In 2008, the Rangers had only 13 such games, but in 2009 and 2010 increased that total to 30 and 38, respectively. Once again, much of that increase likely stems from an overall improvement in the quality of pitchers, but considering the dramatic rise, at least some credit might be due Ryan’s new approach.
Rangers’ Pitch Counts (110 or greater), 1988 to 2010
Although the Rangers have seen their starters throw more pitches this year than in the past, the league as a whole has also experienced the same increase. As a result, the Rangers only ranked tenth and ninth in 110-plus pitch games over the last two seasons, which seems to indicate that the teams’ increase is more of a normalization from extreme lows than the implementation of a new strategy. The two trends also seem to suggest that pitch counts may be more a product of the offensive environment than the toughness of pitchers, but that’s a study for another day (even though it does seem to be an obvious conclusion).
MLB Pitch Counts (110 or greater) vs. NL/AL Runs Per Game, 1988 to 2010
For whatever reason, pitch counts decreased significantly after the 2000 season and then steadily declined before reversing course over the past two seasons. What happened to cause this sudden drop is hard to determine, but in 1998, Rany Jazayerli unveiled his Pitcher Abuse Points metric, so perhaps there was a trickle down as front offices started to pay closer attention to the details. High profile injuries like the one suffered by Kerry Wood probably also greased the skids (in his introduction to PAP, Jazayerli wrote about Wood, “At 21, he’s the youngest name on this list, and he’s in the middle of the pack as far as abuse goes. He hasn’t thrown more than 128 pitches in a game this year, but he has a number of outings in the 120+ range. I don’t think he’s in grave danger of injury – he’s a big guy with good mechanics, relies on his fastball, and doesn’t throw a splitter. But I do think that Jim Riggleman should take a little more care of the most prized arm of the decade.”).
Regardless of the reason why pitch counts declined at the beginning of the last decade, it seems as if the trend has now reversed, and the Rangers have definitely taken part. It’s hard to say whether Rangers’ starters have been throwing more pitches because of relative quality, a general decline in league wide offense, Ryan’s new philosophy, or some combination of the three, but you can bet as long as the team stays alive in the playoffs the legend of Ryan “toughening up” his pitchers will likely grow. Although it may not be true, is that really so bad? Ryan has long had the image of an old Texas gunslinger, so when the legend becomes fact, the media might as well print the legend