Commentary

Shifting wisdom on pitch counts

Training limits based on rehab programs not the best for all arms

Updated: June 5, 2012, 1:24 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

The overuse of pitchers is always a topic during the first week of June. The college postseason bumps up against the big league draft to produce mass pitch-count hysteria. College coaches use their best pitchers as often as possible with the idea of winning a national championship while professional organizations live in fear of drafting a pitcher who throws 123 pitches on Friday and comes in for a high-stress two-inning save on Sunday.

[+] EnlargeSantana
Mike Stobe/Getty ImagesThe Mets skipped a start for Johan Santana after his extended outing against the Cardinals.

It's not just win-hungry college coaches who create worry. Six weeks ago a high school pitcher in Louisiana, a kid signed to pitch in college at Tulane, threw 193 pitches and 15 innings in a single game. His opponent, signed to LSU, threw 10 innings and 154. Even those of us who believe pitch counts are overrated can agree that a high school pitcher with a college career ahead of him shouldn't be throwing 193 pitches and 15 innings in a game. (There were unconfirmed reports of orthopedic surgeons passing out business cards in the dugout.)

And in the big leagues? Same story, pretty much. Johan Santana threw the first no-hitter in Mets history on Friday night, and the 134 pitches it took to complete the task was a concern. Santana, after all, sat out last season after shoulder surgery. Mets manager Terry Collins said, "In five days, if his arm is bothering him, I'm not going to feel very good."

In Washington, the Nationals haven't completely disavowed the notion of limiting Stephen Strasburg to 160 innings this season. Pennant race or not, the Nationals are committing to protecting their investment, and that might mean shutting down Strasburg no matter what Strasburg feels or the National League East standings suggest.

But the emphasis on pitch counts and innings limits obscures a central fact: Pitchers are overpitched and undertrained. The reason everybody goes nutty when the White Sox allow Chris Sale to throw 115 pitches on May 28 and 119 on June 3 isn't because there's some magic number that portends weakness or injury or imminent surgery. Instead, it's because most professional pitchers aren't allowed to train their arms to throw 110-plus pitches in a game and be in a position to be strong five days later.

It's an odd fact that many professional pitchers, from the lowest minors to the big leagues, are restricted in their throwing programs. In fact, many pitchers who were drafted Monday and Tuesday will immediately be placed into regressive throwing programs that historically eat into their velocity and erode their durability.

And most of the time, in another only-in-baseball paradox, the justification for the restrictions will be the desire to protect a hefty investment and keep the arm healthy. Many of the programs currently in use have their roots in injury-rehabilitation programs, which call for a gradual lengthening of distance from 30 feet to 120 feet as the elbow or shoulder recovers from surgery. Long-toss and mental-training guru Alan Jaeger has traced this phenomenon back to the early 1980s, when Tommy John surgery became more common and the medical community gained a louder voice inside organizations. At some point, this idea -- the 120 program -- became de rigueur for many big league teams. The problem, of course, is obvious: They're treating healthy arms as injured arms.

Gradually, almost incrementally, this is changing. The two best minor league pitching prospects right now are Dylan Bundy of the Orioles and Trevor Bauer of the Diamondbacks. Both were drafted last year, and both have superhuman training regimens based on -- get this -- actual throwing. They throw long toss up to 400 feet on the day of their starts and they throw the day after and every day in between. (When Bauer reaches the big leagues, which should be soon, his pregame routine could become the kind of spectacle that brings fans to the park early. Seriously, watching a guy throw the ball from foul pole to foul pole is pretty awesome.) They're throwing to train and training to throw, because they've been taught to rebel against the antiquated baseball adage that too much training -- and by training we mean throwing -- can be detrimental to a pitcher's career.

"The pitch count became necessary to compensate for the lack of training," Jaeger says. "Once the 120 program came into being, guys were undertrained and the pitch count became a necessary evil."

Before last year's draft, Bauer and Bundy made it clear they weren't interested in changing their throwing programs to adapt to the team that drafted them. This ruled out the rigid "120" teams such as the Royals and the Pirates. It sounds crazy, I know, but for many years teams have drafted pitchers, laid out huge signing bonuses and then taken away the very thing that made them successful in the first place.

Professional baseball has some arcane ideas. One of them is that there are only so many bullets in the gun, which is another way of saying there is a finite number of throws in each person's arm. Under this theory, every time you throw a ball you're taking one throw off your career. Whether it's a curve off the bullpen mound or a long, effortless throw in the outfield, the result is the same: It's one fewer throw you'll have down the line. It's a strange thought process, akin to an NFL coach believing his wide receivers shouldn't run in practice because every step they take is one less they're going to be able to take down the road.

In the words of one longtime college pitching coach, "If Michael Phelps trained his body the way pro baseball people train arms, he'd drown."

[+] EnlargeTrevor Bauer
Chris Pondy/Icon SMITrevor Bauer is 9-1 with 91 strikeouts in 73 1/3 minor-league innings this year.

But there is a counterrevolution at work, and it started with Nolan Ryan and the Rangers. Since Ryan is a guy who once threw 245 pitches in a game and pitched until he was 46, baseball people did a double-take when he said he wasn't about to have his pitchers tied to a pitch count. As an old scout once told me, "The hitters will tell you when a guy's finished, not a number on a scorebook." Ryan hired Mike Maddux as his pitching coach and put this into practice. The hitters told the manager when the pitcher was done. And if a starter felt he operated best by extending his arm to 350 feet between starts, that's what he did. If a reliever felt fresher if he limited his throws, that was fine, too.

Kyle Zimmer figures to be a good test case on the elasticity of baseball's old guard. Drafted by the Royals with the fifth pick of the first round, Zimmer is a long-toss devotee who has utilized Jaeger's throwing program under the tutelage of pitching coach Greg Moore at the University of San Francisco. The throwing program is a big reason why Zimmer went from being a lightly recruited third baseman three years ago to the fifth pick in the draft, so why would he want to change? More importantly, why would the Royals want him to?

Jaeger interviewed 32 of the top 50 pitchers in Baseball America's top 100 for this year's draft, and he found that 28 routinely throw at least 300 feet during training sessions. For better or worse, baseball -- especially college baseball -- has become an upper-middle-class to upper-class suburban sport, and the young men playing it are educated about the most up-to-date training techniques. Through conversations at high-level tournaments and on the Internet, there aren't many secrets. These guys come armed with knowledge.

Tim Alderson was a first-round pick of the Giants in 2007. He was traded to the Pirates for Freddy Sanchez midway through the 2009 season after his velocity -- a consistent 91-93 mph in high school -- dropped to 84-85. Once considered one of the Giants' two untouchables (Madison Bumgarner was the other), Alderson was demoted to Class A by the Pirates and was as close to being out of baseball as a 22-year-old, uninjured former first-rounder could be.

Before the 2011 season, I visited Alderson in spring training for an ESPN The Magazine story on vanishing velocity. As a result of the story, Alderson made contact with Jaeger. Alderson was on a long-toss program in high school but was forced to adapt to the 120-foot throwing programs employed by the Giants and Pirates. With Jaeger's help and the Pirates' blessing, Alderson returned to the throwing regimen that had turned him into a first-round pick.

And this year, after being converted back to a starter, he's 3-1 with a 2.33 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP in 38 2/3 innings in Double-A. Alderson is once again being talked about as a legitimate big league prospect, which raises a question: Shouldn't the best arms in the world be getting better with exposure to the best coaching and most advanced techniques?

Slowly, it could be happening. More teams are starting to believe that less isn't more. Change is out there, and it's coming from within. And it's the players who are taking matters into their own hands, calling on some old-school techniques to push the sport forward.

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com