Whiff counts and pitch counts

I was a guest of my buddies Scott and Ted on last night’s Rockiescast to forward my longstanding and mostly baseless theory that the Marlins are baseball’s most hilarious bro squad.

You can listen, but the funny part about the Marlins mostly focuses on their efforts against Dodgers’ knuckleballer Charlie Haeger a couple weeks ago. Though the Fish ultimately won the game, Haeger struck out 12 Marlins in six innings. And while Haeger is obviously his own unique snowflake and all, you rarely see knuckeballers whiff batters at that rate.

In fact, Tim Wakefield has fanned 12 batters — his career high — in precisely one of his 424 starts, and it took him eight innings to do it. He’s only cracked double digits five times. Charlie Hough whiffed a career-high 13 in a complete-game win over the Royals in 1987, but he only thrice managed to strike out 10 or more batters in 440 starts.

So it seems at least mildly notable that the knuckleballing Haeger managed to whiff so many in only his fifth career start, especially considering his 6.3 career K/9 rate in the Minors. And it makes me laugh to consider that fact in light of my supbrosition about the Marlins.

“BRO! WHAT THE F@#$ WAS THAT?”

“I dunno, bro… we better swing harder.”

Anyway, before we even got to that point we meandered onto a tangent about pitch counts, specifically in regards to Ubaldo Jimenez throwing 121 yesterday coming off his 128-pitch no-hitter on Saturday. I questioned Jim Tracy’s logic bringing Jimenez back out for the eighth inning after he was already up well over 100 pitches, then went off on my standard Nolan Ryan spiel (though I got some of the details of his ridiculous 1974 start wrong).

I expressed my skepticism that 100 pitches should be the magic number for every pitcher, since it almost seems too perfect, and since, presumably, all arms are different.

Then today I stumbled onto this massively interesting graph from Sabernomics charting the median and range of pitch counts for starting pitchers since 1988, when STATS first started tracking pitch counts. Turns out 100 has pretty much been the median MLB pitch count for the past 22 years, it’s just that the range has gotten significantly narrower.

And according to The Book Blog, Dodgers starters were averaging right around 100 pitches per start back in the late 50s and early 60s.

Clearly there are a ton of elements to the whole pitch-count conversation I haven’t touched on, but my point is this:

Maybe the next time I run on about how no team will ever find the next Nolan Ryan if everyone keeps limiting pitchers, I will consider just how special Ryan was, in his time or any. Obviously.

And while I can lament that we may never see another pitcher throw a 13-inning, 19-strikeout, 10-walk outing, I should recognize that pitchers are limited for the sake of prolonging their careers.

So maybe we won’t ever find out if Ubaldo Jimenez has the capacity to do what Ryan used to do, but we should remember that we’re sacrificing that knowledge for a better chance of seeing Jimenez pitch every fifth day for the next 10 seasons. That seems like a tradeoff worth making.

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