Debunking the 100-Pitch Wall for MLB Pitchers
For Major League Baseball pitchers, the 100-pitch threshold is a scary thing. Once they enter the land beyond 100 pitches, all bets are off.
That's the general perception, anyway. But as far as performance is concerned, the land beyond 100 pitches really isn't so scary.
There's a conclusion, but what got me going were questions: How do pitchers perform immediately after 100 pitches compared to immediately before 100 pitches? Is there any sort of fluctuation in performance between the 76-100 pitch territory and the 101-plus territory?
It turns out that there is, but not the bad kind of fluctuation. All I needed to do to find that out was go to Baseball-Reference.com and take a look at:
- League pitch count splits from the five most recent full seasons: 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012.
- A collection of pitchers who surpassed the 100-pitch threshold most often between 2008 and 2012.
If you'll follow me this way, we'll have a discussion that involves me throwing some words and numbers at the wall and you hopefully nodding your head in fascination.
What the League Splits Say
Why start the search for information in 2008?
A couple reasons.
Provided you've been paying attention, you'll know that the whole pitch count fuss is a relatively recent phenomenon. ESPN's Tim Kurkjian crunched the numbers a couple years ago and found that 96-105 pitch starts saw a huge increase in regularity starting in 2000. It wasn't until 2004 that the numbers started to level out.
So, by focusing on the 2008-2012 window, we're focusing on a period of time that's safely beyond the adjustment period. This five-year window should consist of pitchers who knew how to handle pitch counts, which would surely involve them knowing how to handle themselves after 100 pitches.
In addition, the 2008-2012 window is safely removed from the Steroid Era. Pitchers were fighting a fair fight, meaning the likelihood of them being successful deeper into games should have increased.
With the league splits we're about to look at, we can't define "successful" using everyone's favorite pitching stats: ERA and WHIP. Baseball-Reference.com doesn't include them in its pitch count splits. That's not surprising, seeing as how those are innings-based stats.
The best we can do is look at some key performance indicators: strikeout rate, walk rate, strikeout-to-walk ratio, opponent OPS and, just for good measure even though it's largely a luck-based statistic, BABIP.
The first three can give us a general idea of how sharp pitchers were, and the latter two can give us a general idea of how successful or unsuccessful the hitters were.
Here are the gory details:
You can see a couple trends here. One is that pitchers didn't do a better job with walks after 100 pitches than they did in the 76-100 range, which doesn't look so good.
However, walks are certainly more easily overcome when pitchers are striking batters out and the balls in play are finding their way to fielders' gloves. Thanks to those two trends, it's no wonder the opponent OPS after 100 pitches is lower than the opponent OPS in the 76-100 range.
As fascinating as this data is, it's obviously not perfect.
Outings that require more than 100 pitches are going to be good pitching performances more often than not. When a guy goes over 100 pitches and keeps going, it's usually because he's throwing the ball really well.
Pitchers who make it to the 76-100 range don't always make it to the land beyond 100 pitches. A pitcher could be facing a lineup for the second or third time around once he gets to the 76-100 range, and that's when said lineup could figure him out and hang some crooked numbers.
Thus, the 101-plus data is presumably skewed by good performances, and the 76-100 data is presumably skewed by poor performances. On top of that, there were plenty of long relievers who found their way into the 76-100 range between 2008 and 2012.
These are the reasons I wanted to take a deeper dive. Instead of looking at the league as a whole, I wanted to narrow things down a bit to a select few starting pitchers.
What the 100-Pitch Regulars Say
Between 2008 and 2012, there were 73 starting pitchers who logged at least 50 starts that saw them throw 101 or more pitches.
These are the guys I wanted to zoom in on, with the idea to see whether their splits differed from the league splits in any significant way.
To do that, I had to see how they performed after 100 pitches in the starts they made that lasted that long. Then I had to compare those numbers to how they performed in the 76-100 range between 2008 and 2012.
The word of warning here is that not every start these guys made saw them tackle both the 76-100 range and the 101-plus range. The 76-100 data includes starts in which the pitcher in question made it there and no further.
Beyond that, not every "101-plus" effort sees a pitcher throw 115 or 120 pitches. Starts that consisted of 102 or 103 pitches are in the mix.
All the same, we're talking a big sample size of pitchers and an even bigger sample size (i.e. thousands) of starts. This would be a "close enough for government work" situation.
There were 19 guys who logged over 100 starts that saw them throw 101 or more pitches between 2008 and 2012. This group—which includes Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia and other noteworthy aces—I labeled "elites."
The "non-elites" are the guys who logged between 50 and 94 starts (nobody landed in the 95-99 range) of at least 101 pitches in our five-year span.
I wanted to make sure I separated the two groups, but you'll see that doing so wasn't really necessary in the end:
Just because they were available and easily plugged in, you can see that I included ERA and WHIP here. Feel free to shout "Huzzah!" at the sight of them.
But it's the other stats we need to stay focused on. They yield some trends that should look familiar.
The elites posted the same BABIP after 100 pitches that they did in the 76-100 range, but they posted better strikeout rates and better opponent OPS after 100 pitches than they did in the 76-100 range. That's reminiscent of the league splits.
It's the same thing with the non-elites. They also posted better strikeout rates, opponent OPS and BABIPs after 100 pitches than they did immediately before.
Lump everyone together, and we see a better ERA, a better WHIP, a better strikeout rate, a better opponent OPS and a better BABIP in the 101-plus range than we do in the 76-100 range.
In all, these numbers suggest the same thing the league numbers suggest: The land beyond 100 pitches isn't inherently scarier than the land immediately before 100 pitches.
Put It All Together...
And in a nutshell, what you get is a pretty strong indication that it's not a given that pitchers in this day and age totally fall apart once they're across the 100-pitch threshold.
I'll reiterate that the data has its flaws, especially in the 76-100-pitch range. If we could take all the bad starts that went into and out of the mix, the data would look drastically different.
In an ideal world, we'd be looking 76-100 data and 101-plus data from only starts that lasted over 100 pitches. To my knowledge, there's no way to isolate those starts without picking them apart one-by-one, which would take roughly a million-and-a-half years.
But if you need further convincing that going beyond 100 pitches doesn't drain the talent out of pitchers, consider this next table. It shows how the 101-plus data for both the league and the individuals we looked at from the 2008-2012 window compare to the overall league averages.
With the exception of walk rates and the league-average K/BB ratio after 100 pitches, the numbers compare pretty favorably here. The strikeout rates and opponent OPS figures, in particular, show that hitters have a tough time with pitchers who are over the 100-pitch threshold.
Considering all of this, why is the land beyond 100 pitches thought to be such wild and dangerous territory?
Why Are Pitch Counts Such a Big Deal, Then?
Let's go ahead and acknowledge the elephant in the room among all the numbers we just looked at. They suggest that pitchers are capable of being effective after having thrown 100 pitches, but they also show that efficiency is an issue.
Pitchers rack up more strikeouts and more walks after crossing over into 100-pitch territory. The two help offset each other, but more strikeouts and more walks translates to more pitches.
And there's another elephant in the room. Pitchers may be able to be effective after 100 pitches, but effective pitches are just as taxing on a pitcher's arm as ineffective pitches. And in this day and age, anything that requires pitchers to throw more pitches is not good.
That's what teams believe, anyway, hence the reason every pitcher under the sun has to abide by some sort of pitch count.
Some pitchers have the go-ahead to cross the 100-pitch threshold with regularity as long as they don't go too far over it. Others don't get to stray far beyond the 100-pitch threshold. The idea either way is to be safe rather than sorry. These guys are making a lot of money, after all.
Has the emphasis on pitch counts actually helped prevent pitcher injuries?
Are teams too cautious with their starting pitchers?
The answer would appear to be no, as we're still seeing pitchers get injured, and hurt badly in some cases. It's worth noting that Reuters reported a study back in October that MLB's obsession with pitch counts may be misplaced.
Pitcher injuries are unpredictable. Always have been, still are and always will be.
However, now's not a very good time to question the status quo when it comes to pitching in MLB. Pitch counts may be overrated, but the art of pitching itself is alive and well.
In the late 1990s and much of the 2000s, the league ERA was consistently in the mid-4.00s. In 2010, it dropped to 4.08. In 2011, it dropped below 4.00 for the first time since 1992. So far this year, the league ERA is 3.89.
As the saying goes: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.
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