Counting pitches

On Friday night, Wes Wrenn started a key Southern Conference baseball game for The Citadel, at home against Georgia Southern.  Getting off to a good start in a conference series is important, and Wrenn delivered for the Bulldogs, hurling 8 innings of 2-run ball.  The Citadel won the game 6-2 and went on to win the series, two games to one.

In those eight innings, Wes Wrenn threw 143 pitches.

That is a lot of pitches, so many that a longtime poster on a message board for devotees of Bulldogs sports took notice.  I didn’t watch the game, so I have no real idea what kind of stuff Wes Wrenn had late, whether he was tiring, or showed signs of tiring (apparently not).  Sometimes a pitcher has had enough after about 70 pitches, and sometimes a pitcher is in a groove and can go a lot longer without significant risk.

I will say that the tone of the game story published by the school seemed to me to be a touch defensive when reporting the subject:

“Wrenn, who was strong from start to finish, threw 143 pitches in the game as he fanned the last two batters he faced.”

Somebody wanted to make a point of getting ahead of the argument, didn’t they?

It’s the second time this season a Bulldog pitcher has thrown more than 130 pitches in a game.  T.J. Clarkson threw 134 at South Carolina.  I was at that game.  He looked better late than he did early (at the time I wondered if he had trouble getting loose for that game; after the fifth inning he looked really good).  I still thought it was a lot to ask of a freshman with little starting experience (at least in college).  As it turns out, it was a very unusual performance.  Clarkson threw more pitches in a midweek in-season game for The Citadel than any pitcher has since at least 2002.  Other pitchers have thrown more pitches in a game, but all those games came in Southern Conference regular season or tournament play, or in an NCAA regional.

I don’t pretend to know it all when it comes to this subject.  I was never a pitcher on any level, and I’m not a doctor or a physical therapist.  I’m not a pitching coach or a scout.  I just watch games like everybody else.  What I do know, though, is there is a lot of evidence that overuse of pitchers usually leads to injuries in the long run.  Of course, it’s also true that pitchers get hurt all the time no matter how they are used (or abused).

One thing I am hesitant to do, honestly, is compare college hurlers’ workloads to those of major leaguers, if only because college pitchers get seven days off between starts (usually) as opposed to the four or five days off a major league pitcher gets.  This might make a difference.  (Another potential difference is the variance in competition.)  The starts that always worry me are the 120+ pitching performances on short rest during tournaments/regionals, not to mention the “drag the starter from two days ago/yesterday into the game in relief in an elimination game” situation.

I can’t be an expert on the subject from a medical or “baseball man” point of view, but what I can do is look at numbers.  What I decided to do was take a look back as far as I could at the recent history of pitcher usage at The Citadel and see where Wrenn’s outing on Friday night compared.

First, here is a list of game-by-game pitch counts for The Citadel’s starting pitchers this season…

Wes Wrenn — 99, 99, 95, 80, 107, 110, 103, 123, 129, 143
Asher Wojciechowski –103, 31, 125, 124,  115, 91, 121, 98, 111, 124
Matt Crim — 95, 97, 99, 81, 48, 116, 106, 102, 85, 107
Matt Talley — 110,66, 63*, 112,  69, 93, 66
T.J. Clarkson — 67, 90,94, 134
Matt Reifsnider — 98

[I put a “*” by Matt Talley’s start against Charleston Southern on March 25 (in which he pitched well), because I wanted to note that he also appeared in relief three days before, on March 22, against Western Carolina, throwing 59 pitches in 2 2/3 innings.  I believe this is the only “short rest” start for a Bulldog pitcher this season.  He followed up his victory over CSU with a solid effort against South Carolina six days later, also getting the win in that game.]

After compiling that list, I then went to Boyd Nation‘s invaluable site to check out his PAP logs over the past few seasons.  PAP stands for “Pitcher Abuse Points” and is a system Nation uses to see how overworked certain pitchers/staffs are.  A few years ago Nation got into a bit of a controversy with Ray Tanner that spilled onto local Columbia, S.C. radio and a few other media outlets (here is a reprint of an article originally published in The State, the local newspaper in Columbia).  It’s a delicate subject.  Tanner appears to have adjusted his thinking on pitch counts, after issues arose over his handling of pitcher Arik Hempy (as noted in an article reprinted here).

What is interesting (and perhaps reassuring) is that over the past three seasons, The Citadel has less PAP than about 90% of the schools in Division I baseball.  It’s a very good record over the 2006-2008 time period.  Only six times in those three years did a Bulldog pitcher throw 121 or more pitches in a game, and in none of those games did a pitcher throw more than 132 pitches.  Last season only one pitcher threw 120+ pitches in a game for The Citadel.

However, in 2004 and 2005 there were more sizable pitch-count starts.  In 2005, there were five starts in the 121-132 pitch range, and two over 132.  In 2004 there was only one start in the 121-132 pitch range, but six over 132.

If you go back a little further, though (as far back as online statistics are available), the trend is reversed again.  Only one Bulldog pitcher threw more than 121 pitches in 2002 and 2003 combined.

I was a bit puzzled at first when I looked at the PAP stats.  What was the deal in 2004 and 2005?  I looked at the box scores for every game over those two seasons.  I came to the conclusion that the numbers in 2005 were a little bit of an outlier.  2004 is a completely different story, and I’m going to get to that.  The 2005 games of 120+ pitches were as follows:

3/11 Ryan Owens 135 pitches (lost 2-1 to UNCG; complete game)
4/2  Ryan Owens 120 pitches (7 innings in 21-5 victory over Wofford) [estimated pitch count]
4/3  Ken Egleton 127 pitches (complete game victory over Wofford)
4/23 Justin Smith 133 pitches (7 1/3 innings in 10-6 victory over Charleston Southern)
4/29 Ryan Owens 122 pitches (6 innings in a 9-7 loss to Davidson)
4/30 Justin Smith 126 pitches (7 innings in a 4-3 victory over Davidson)
5/13 Ryan Owens 120 pitches (7 2/3 innings in a 9-3 victory over Furman) [estimated pitch count]

[The boxscores of most games these days list the number of pitches thrown by each pitcher, but sometimes that information is left out, and for whatever reason it happened more often in 2005 than in any other year since 2002.  For games lacking pitch counts, a “pitch count calculator” is used.]

All seven of those games were started by veteran pitchers.  The 4/3 game would mark the only time in Ken Egleton’s career at The Citadel where he would throw more than 121 pitches in a game.  This surprised me, because Egleton pitched a lot of innings while a Bulldog, but as it happens he regularly threw 100-120 pitches per game while never exceeding that general pitch count (with the exception of that Wofford game).

Owens and Smith were dependable workhorses for the most part (Smith in particular was noted for having a “rubber arm”, I seem to recall).  Owens’ 135-pitch effort against UNCG was a dominant performance in a loss; he pitched well the following week in a six-inning performance against Elon in which he threw 100 pitches.  After his 133-pitch outing against CSU, Smith took the hill a week later and pitched very well against Davidson, getting a no-decision (the Bulldogs would win the game with a run in the ninth).  After that two-game stretch, Smith would have an indifferent 6-inning effort against East Tennessee State and a decent 5-inning start versus Furman.

2004?  Well, 2004 was all about Jonathan Ellis.

Ellis threw 136 1/3 innings that season, by some distance the most innings ever pitched in one season by a Bulldog pitcher.  He threw nine complete games in eighteen starts.  As mentioned above, there were six 133+ pitching performances that season by Bulldog starters.  Five of those were by Ellis (Chip Cannon had the other).  Look at those five games:

4/9 142 pitches (complete game victory over the College of Charleston)
5/20 136 pitches (complete game victory over UNC-Greensboro)
5/26 134 pitches (complete game victory over East Tennessee State)
5/29 136 pitches (complete game victory over Western Carolina)
6/5 153 pitches (complete game victory over Coastal Carolina)

That’s right.  On five days rest after a 136-pitch effort against UNCG, Ellis threw 134 pitches in The Citadel’s opening-round game in the Southern Conference tournament.  The Bulldogs would later have to fight through the loser’s bracket of the tournament, and eventually faced Western Carolina, needing two wins over the Catamounts.  Fred Jordan started Ellis on just two days’ rest, and Ellis responded with an outstanding 136-pitch effort, with The Citadel winning the game.  (Justin Smith would start and win the next day’s game, as the Bulldogs won the tournament; Ellis would be the tourney MVP.)

Then Ellis would pitch one week later in yet another elimination game, in the NCAA regional, against Coastal Carolina.  I sat in the stands that day in Columbia (and let me tell you, it was hot) and watched him throw 153 pitches to send the Chanticleers home.  It would be the last game of Ellis’ college career.

So in terms of “pitcher abuse” over the last eight seasons at The Citadel, Jonathan Ellis would stand to be the poster boy.  Yet, he is now in AAA ball in the San Diego Padres’ organization, with what seems like a reasonable chance at making the major leagues, and his pro career seems mostly unaffected by his large workload in college.

Incidentally, I think you can make a good argument that Ellis’ 2004 season was the most valuable pitching performance in the history of Bulldog baseball.  Not the most dominant, necessarily, or the “greatest”, but the most valuable.  He pitched a ton of quality innings, obviously, and also won the had-to-win game in the SoCon tourney, as well as the regional eliminator against Coastal Carolina.

What does it all mean?  I don’t know, other than I hope Wes Wrenn can beat Samford on Friday night without having to increase his pitch count total for a fifth consecutive game.  You wonder at what point Wrenn might run out of gas (disregarding injury potential for a moment).  However, two years ago Wrenn threw 104 2/3 innings (he threw 87 last season).  He is probably capable of handling that workload.

Asher Wojciechowski needs to avoid those innings where he loses control and starts walking people.  If he does that, he won’t have to throw 125 pitches per outing.

Most importantly, the guys in the bullpen need to demonstrate to Fred Jordan that he can count on them in big games, and doesn’t have to leave the starters in as long as possible to secure a victory.  I think that’s the real  issue for this year’s team.  The high pitch totals by the starters, in my opinion, can be attributed in part to the problems in middle relief.  Not committing errors that prolong innings is also a factor.

We’ll be watching (and, I suppose, counting).

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