In yesterday afternoon's 4-3 Tiger victory over the formerly hot Texas Rangers, Edwin Jackson pitched eight full innings and left after his 132nd pitch of the game. Jackson had begun the eighth with a 3-1 lead and after a walk to David Murphy on his 110th pitch, Jim Leyland strode to the mound, chatted with his starter, and then headed back to the dugout without making a pitching change. It would be another 22 pitches from Jackson before the eighth inning came to a close, with the game now tied at 3-3, thanks to a two-run double from Nelson Cruz.
There was some serious second guessing during the game in the live game thread at BYB, and several posts written about Leyland's decision since. Billfer gave his take, so did Ian. I, however, will choose to respectfully disagree with both gentlemen.
I'm not trying to be one of those who will tell you that pitch counts don't mean anything, but I don't think they mean as much as most people seem to think. People seem to get caught up in a pitcher throwing 100 pitches and then having to come out. Why? Because 100 is a nice round number? Isn't that the same reason the Cubs were supposed to have won the world series last season? I guess someone forgot to tell the Dodgers that it had been 100 years, and it was now time for the Cubs to win.
The emphasis on pitch counts has been put into effect for many reasons; the evolution of the closer (don't get me started on what the save has done to managers), the expansion of the bullpen, and the fact that those middle relievers get paid too, so you might as well pitch them, but most will cite the possible injury to the guy doing all that pitching.
Dusty Baker has long been blamed for "abusing" young starters and driving their careers into the abyss. Mark Prior and Kerry Wood have seen their share of injuries since their early years pitching for Baker, but you won't hear either of them doing the blaming. The simple fact is that some pitchers are going to get hurt every year, throwing a baseball overhanded is not a natural motion and does put considerable strain on the shoulder and elbow.
Some pitchers get hurt, some seemingly don't. Jack Morris, Nolan Ryan, Greg Maddux, Curt Schilling, Dwight Gooden, Jaime Moyer, Randy Johnson, and Al Leiter all pitched very long careers, much of their careers before pitch counts "mattered," and never had serious arm injuries. I do agree with Billfer when he said that an individual pitcher must be looked at case by case, and previous injuries should be considered.
I'm not here telling you that Rick Porcello should be throwing 140 pitches tonight, his arm has not been stretched out yet to accommodate that type of work load. And I'm not arguing that Jackson was still effective in the eighth, but I will tell you that a successful team must have starting pitchers that can pitch deep into games. The mentality of the starting pitch used to be that if he got the ball it was his game to finish, it is that mentality that Leyland is trying to instill in Jackson and Justin Verlander.
Recently, that mentality has eroded across the majors. Now if a starter goes six innings and gives up three runs, it's called a "quality start." I would call that a No. 5 starter with an ERA of 4.50. Nolan Ryan would call that a poor performance. In a recent article for ESPN.com, Rick Sutcliffe noted the success of the Rangers staff this season and credits Ryan, along with the philosophies of Mike Maddux, for de-emphasising pitch counts as part of the improvement.
I applaud Leyland for not always adhering to conventional wisdom and pushing some of his starters deeper. Jackson and Verlander will need to be counted on as guys that can work deep into games. They will need to do what they have been doing in order to protect the workload of the young Porcello. If Dontrelle Willis continues to make strides with his performances, I would bet you'll see him pitching deep as well. And the Tigers will be a better team because of it. Injuries can happen to any pitcher at any time, but if Jackson comes up with a bad shoulder sometime soon, you won't hear me blaming Leyland, or the 132 pitches that Jackson threw yesterday.