Why Can't Pitchers Throw As Many Innings As They Used To?

Perry ArnoldSenior Analyst IMarch 24, 2009

CHICAGO - APRIL:  Tom Seaver #41 of the Chicago White Sox pitches during a game in April 1984 against the Detroit Tigers at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

A couple of weeks ago I saw an interview of Tom Seaver on MLB network. He was asked if he ever had a pitch count when he was with the Mets. His answer was astonishing. He said "Yes, that his pitch count was probably about 135."

That made me wonder why pitching has changed so much and why there is no an automatic pitch count of 100 on virtually every pitcher in the major leagues and there are innings limits on pitchers.

Seaver made the comment that every pitcher now has a limit of 100 pitches per game and at that point they begin to look for the right time to take him out. Seaver pitched 20 years in the big leagues. I went back and looked at his records, won/loss, innings pitched and complete games.

A representative sample for his career shows that from 1967 through 1979 the fewest innings he ever pitched was in 1979 when he threw 215 innings. He threw as many as 290 innings twice during that period.

And he finished games. He averaged 15 complete games per season during that period.
I decided to look at other pitchers of that era. Bert Blyleven pitched in the bigs for 22 seasons.

Looking at a nine year period from 1971 through 1979 Bert averaged 273 innings per year. Read that again, please. Over nine years he averaged 273 innings per year. He threw as many as 325 innings in a season and he averaged 16 complete games those nine years.

Luis Tiant pitched for 19 years. During his hey-day from 1968-1976 he averaged 271 innings per year and 18 complete games per year.

The Baltimore Orioles of the late '60s and 1970s had three dominant pitchers in Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally. They also had incredible numbers of innings pitched and complete games.

Palmer pitched 19 years in the bigs. In the span from 1969 through 1978 he averaged 19.2 wins per season. He also averaged 18 complete games per year and 272 innings per year. Palmer had four seasons in which he was over 300 innings per season and two other years when he had 296 innings per year.

Cuellar had a six-year period from 1969 through 1974 when he was almost as dominant. During that six years he averaged over 20 wins per year, 277 innings per season and 19 complete games per season.

Dave McNally averaged 19 wins per year from 1968 through 1974. He also pitched an average of 261 innings per season and fourteen complete games per season.

Looking at one more dominant pitcher of that era, Bob Gibson pitched for 17 seasons. From 1963 through 1974 he averaged 18.5 complete games, 263 innings and 19.45 wins per season.

Of course, I have chosen to look at the statistics of seven very dominant pitchers of that era of the '60s and '70s.

But one could look at almost any pitcher of that time and the number of games they started, the number of innings they threw, the number of games they completed would be far, far higher than the average pitcher in today's game.
Many teams used a four man rotation in the '50s, '60s, and '70s.

Starting pitchers were expected to pitch late into games.

Even the role of closer was different. Recent Hall of Fame inductee, Goose Gossage has talked a lot about the fact that when he came into a game it was going to be in the seventh or eighth inning and he was expected to pitch until the game was over.

The idea of a "closer" getting three or four outs was unheard of through the 1970s.
And going back to what Seaver said in the interview. His pitch count was probably 135 per game.

He mentioned Nolan Ryan and other pitchers and everyone of them had pitch counts that were much higher than 100.

Now pitchers are babied. From the lowest minor leagues they are not conditioned to pitch long into games. They are restricted severely on the number of pitches they can pitch in games.

They are also limited in how many innings they can pitch. Even this year, expectations are that Joba Chamberlain will not exceed about 160 innings for the New York Yankees.

There has even been a great deal of discussion about CC Sabathia being limited in the number of innings he will throw and that he has pitched so much in the past couple of years that he cannot be expected to have anything left in the playoffs.

Someone, or some group of strategists has changed baseball. Without question workout regimens, training programs, weight lifting and nutrition are all better now than they were 30 or 40 years ago.

So why can pitchers not throw as much as they used to be able to throw?  Why does anyone think that a young pitcher such as CC Sabathia should be held to under 220 innings?

Should player development experts, pitching coaches and managers not instead be looking at the way things used to be done?

Should not someone be talking to Tom Seaver and Jim Palmer and Luis Tiant and Bob Gibson and try to figure out what they did that allowed them to pitch so much for so long and to be so good?

The only theory that has been advanced that makes any sense to this writer is the idea that so much is invested in the pitchers now, both in time and money, and pitching talent is generally so thin that no one wants to take a chance on ruining a good arm.

That may be the thought but if you look at the picture historically, young men should be able to throw a baseball much more than is expected today.