“If a major-league team or minor-league team has a hard pitch count across their whole organization, they can do better than that”

That’s Glenn Fleisig talking to Baseball Prospectus on pitch counts, innings limits, and how organizations maximize the health of their pitchers. The interview is republished on Deadspin. 

The relevant question-and-answer:

BL: So without commenting on any specific team or pitcher, would you say that a team that puts hard innings limits in place is just sort of going overboard with risk aversion or covering their own ass? I mean, I’m sure they must base it on some sort of research, but maybe they’re not looking at the right research.

GF: Yeah. I do say that. If a major-league team or minor-league team has a hard pitch count across their whole organization, they can do better than that. They should be using—because they have professional coaches throughout their major and minor leagues, and a professional medical staff—they should be using pitch counts as a feel, as a guideline for who has pitched a lot, who hasn’t pitched a lot, and then they should individualize it and know each of their pitchers, each of their athletes, and know who is a quick responder, who’s doing well on the physical assessments with the trainers and medical staff, who has good mechanics according to the pitching coach, things like that. And they should individualize it and they should say, ‘Oh, Rodriguez, he recovers quickly, but Johnson, he’s always in pain, so let’s keep Johnson lower than Rodriguez,’ and individualize it.

Plus, even within a person—even if they say, ‘Rodriguez, he seems to be healthy and doing well and good mechanics and very fluid and in good shape, all those things,’ they shouldn’t set a pitch count number for him; they should set a soft pitch count number—‘He can go to this level, 100 pitches or whatever”—but then game by game, they should monitor and take him out when he’s giving signs of being fatigued or if there’s a history of he’s been pitching a lot recently, or he’s stinking tonight, other things where you individualize it. But a hard pitch count is really for youth baseball and perhaps high school baseball, when you can’t assume the coaches are all experts.”

This is really a question about the Nationals and Strasburg (and Jordan Zimmermann). This isn’t just any yahoo they’re talking to, either–this is Glenn Fleisig, the leading scientific authority on pitching mechanics. And I don’t mean “scientific” in the 19th-century quack medical sense–I mean peer-reviewed. I have quoted his work debunking “inverted W” scaremongering before. So at first glance this looks like an indictment of the Strasburg limit. In 2012, the Nats had Strasburg on a hard innings limit, just as they had Jordan Zimmermann on a hard innings limit in 2011.

But before you grab your pitchfork and light your torch to storm Mike Rizzo’s office, stop and think for a minute. Rizzo refused to commit to a hard innings limit until Strasburg was finally shut down. At all times, Rizzo said that he was going to monitor Strasburg for signs of fatigue.

Here’s what Strasburg was doing in his last few starts of 2012:

  • August 21, 2012, vs. Brewers: 6 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 10 SO, 0 HR; 94 pitches.
  • August 28, 2012, at Marlins: 5 IP, 9 H, 7 R, 5 ER, 1 BB, 3 SO, 1 HR; 84 pitches
  • September 2, 2012 vs. Cubs: 6 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 9 SO; 97 pitches.
  • September 7, 2012 (“Shutdown Day”) vs. Marlins: 3 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 3 SO; 81 pitches.

What do we make of this?

I’m not really sure. Strasburg himself insisted and continued to insist that he was ready and able to pitch after Shutdown Day. On the other hand, his final appearance showed him laboring against the lowly Marlins.

What you make of this as a Nats fan is really a reflection of what you think of the Nationals and their management. If you tend to trust GM Mike Rizzo, then you will have to assume that the organization had been observing Strasburg’s rest and recovery cycles all season, and decided that those observations, plus the disastrous outing against the Marlins, led them to believe that the time was right to shut down Strasburg.

If you are disinclined to trust the organization, then you’re going to have to assume that there was a hard innings limit from the outset, and that the club refused to deviate from that limit even to the last. One disaster against the Marlins probably shouldn’t have been enough to convince the organization to shut Stras down.

Honestly, I don’t know what else to say about this.

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