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Talkin' pitch counts and Nolan Ryan's crusade, with Bill James

The following is the continuing evolution of an experiment that we tried a few weeks ago -- and the latest installment of a new weekly column on SI.com. It's a combination column with Boston Red Sox senior advisor and baseball writer extraordinaire Bill James. For a few years now, Bill and I have exchanged e-mails about everything from sports to politics to religion to crime to the qualities of Marlon Brando as an actor (Bill thinks he's overrated). So we have talked about bringing those e-mails to the stage. This is not a pure e-mail exchange ... it is rewritten to come out as a column. Anyway, we hope so ...

The topic this week is pitch counts, and it's mostly fair to say that we don't like them. That's oversimplifying, of course. We both like the idea of team officials doing what they can to protect their young starting pitchers ... nobody wants to go back to those days when a 21-year-old Mark Fidrych throws a preposterous 198 innings in the 13 weeks between May 15 and Aug. 29.

But the current 100-pitch limit that has overtaken baseball doesn't make much sense, either. Why 100 pitches? Is it because it's a nice round number? Does it have any basis at all? Has it proven to prevent pitcher injuries -- does anyone believe pitchers are getting hurt less often these days? With teams spending more money now than ever on starting pitchers, doesn't it make sense to get MORE for the money rather than less?

Questions. Down in Texas, Rangers president and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan is taking on convention. He is trying, slowly, to get his pitchers to train harder and go a little bit deeper into games. Already, he is taking abuse for it -- "It won't work, we're a soft society today," a baseball man told Randy Galloway of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram -- but we're watching closely. We think it can work.

More to the point, we hope it does work. We both would love to get back to the days when starting pitchers had a bigger impact on games. As Bill says: "Baseball is a better game for the fans when you have two starting pitchers engaged in a duel, rather than each pitching five innings and turning it over to a long series of interchangeable relievers. Joe Wood vs. Walter Johnson, man. Nobody reminisces about Clint Brown vs. Al Benton."

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Bill James: I think that what Ryan is doing CAN succeed, because he is doing battle with an empty suit. There's really no basis to the belief that a mature starting pitcher can't throw 150 or 160 pitches in a game -- when he's feeling good, when he's throwing freely and not fighting anything -- without negative consequences.

Joe Posnanski: The thing that fascinates me: How did we get here? Let's think about this for a moment. Baseball, as an industry, spends billions of dollars on starting pitchers. Billions. Look: CC Sabathia signed a $161 million contract. Johan Santana signed a $137 million deal. Barry Zito cost $126 million, Carlos Zambrano $91 million. That's a half billion dollars RIGHT THERE, four pitchers. Throw in Roy Oswalt ($73 million), Josh Beckett ($42 million), A.J. Burnett ($82 million), Zack Greinke ($38 million), Roy Halladay ($40 million), Jason Schmidt ($47 million), Kelvim Escobar ($28.5 million), on and on ... yes, everybody knows that teams spend a lot of money on pitching, but I really want to highlight the point.

And the point? Teams spend all this money on starting pitchers, and then they decide that the round number, 100 pitches, is ideal. Exactly 100 pitches. Not 110. Not 123. Not 97. No, 100 pitches, ideal, no matter how old the pitcher, no matter what kind of stuff he throws, no matter if he's left-handed or right-handed, no matter what. One hundred pitches.

And make no mistake: 100 pitches is the magic number. This year, going into Sunday, there were 1,543 starters who went at least five innings in a game. Their average pitch count: 99.2. Can you believe that? Teams are spending all this money on pitching, and they sure seem to be trying to protect their investment based on a decision my 7-year-old daughter could make ("Um, let them throw, uh, 100 pitches. Is 100 a lot?").

Bill: The movement toward harder and lower pitch counts, which began about 1980 and matured about 2000, was driven by the desire to avoid injuring pitchers, which is laudable. None of us wants to see starting pitchers get hurt. It was -- is -- an excellent idea to do anything you can to avoid starting pitchers getting hurt.

In the 1970s there was a lot of criticism directed at managers who allowed pitchers to burn out. There was criticism of Larry Shepard, the pitching coach for the Big Red Machine, after the early career arm problems of Wayne Simpson, Don Gullett and Gary Nolan.

Joe: Not to interrupt, but since the Big Red Machine came up: Sparky Anderson, in many ways, invented the modern bullpen in the early-to-mid 1970s. In 1975 the Reds set what was then a record by going 45 consecutive games without a starter throwing a complete game. Funny to think that was a record once: In 2007 the Florida Marlins went THE ENTIRE SEASON without throwing a complete game.

Anyway, Anderson took a terrible beating. The Reds were running away with the division, but Anderson would get booed at home when he went to the mound. His pitchers -- well, some of them still despise him for it. It was a whole other mindset in 1975 -- by managers, fans, pitchers, everyone.

Bill: On June 25, 1975, Kansas City's Steve Busby pitched 12 innings in a game at California, winning the game 6-2 when the Royals scored four in the 12th. Busby was 25 years old at the time. His career record before that game was 52-35, and he had thrown two no-hitters. His career record after that game was 18-19.

Buck Martinez, the Royals catcher in that game, would say later that he was trying to tell manager Jack McKeon for several innings that Busby wasn't right. McKeon, under pressure to keep his job, put winning that game ahead of keeping Busby healthy. McKeon was fired less than a month later (July 23), and came to be widely blamed for destroying Busby's career because of that game.

Fidrych the next year threw 24 complete games at the age of 21. He was never good again.

These incidents generated a great deal of chatter among those of us who talk about managers -- and I don't doubt, even now, that they should have done so. Twenty-four complete games for a 21-year-old? It's crazy.

Joe: Nolan Ryan threw 26 complete games in back-to-back years -- 1973 and 1974 -- and he threw 300 innings in each of those years. As far as I know, nobody counted pitches then, but can you even IMAGINE the number of pitches Nolan Ryan must have thrown in, say, 1974? The guy set the modern record that year with 383 strikeouts -- here we are, 35 years later, and that record still stands. But Ryan also walked 204 batters that year -- nobody has come CLOSE to that number in the last 35 years. According to Tom Tango's pitch-count estimator, Ryan AVERAGED 134 pitches per start that year, and almost certainly threw more than 200 pitches on a couple of occasions.

And he loved it. That, undoubtedly, is what drives him now. Ryan believed that the game belonged to the starting pitcher. It was his. Ryan HATED 1987 -- that was the year when Houston manager Hal Lanier put Ryan on a strict pitch count (Ryan did not complete a single game that year). On one level it worked: Ryan led the league in ERA. On another, it did not: Ryan finished the season 8-16. You have to think that year is part of what's driving him to recapture a little bit of the 1970s.

Bill: Putting Nolan Ryan on a pitch count is like telling Oprah she can't cry. It's like telling him, "Be somebody else."

Around 1984 ... wish I knew for sure the exact year... USA Today began publishing box scores WHICH INCLUDED PITCH COUNTS FOR PITCHERS.

When you introduce hard facts into a discussion, it changes the discussion. The pitch counts introduced by USA Today became a weapon of the critics. Whenever a young pitcher got hurt, someone could always point to this game when he threw 162 pitches on a cold day in Detroit, or these two games in July when he threw 150-plus pitches twice in six days in hot weather, or ... SOMETHING. Every time a pitcher got hurt, somebody could point to something that the manager had done to cause this injury.

It is my view that, once conventional wisdom about leaving pitchers in the game stampeded into a full-fledged retreat, it ran right past the point of reason, without any real effort to balance the discussion by taking account of the costs of pulling pitchers out of the game too early and too often.

Joe: Something happened around 2001, too. I'm not sure what it was ... but while managers were definitely being more careful with pitchers throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it had not reached the point of absurdity. In 2000 managers let their starters throw 120 pitches or more about 12 percent of the time -- there were 454 instances of a pitcher throwing 120-plus pitches. That was more or less in line with the 1990s.

But in 2001 the 120-plus pitch games were cut in half. By 2006 they were cut in half again. Last season there were only 71 games where a pitcher threw 120-plus pitches ... these games have become almost extinct. I do think it's fear-driven ... most of the managers I talk to around the game privately DESPISE the pitch count. Or, more to the point, they despise the oppressive nature of pitch counts -- "Sure, we have to be careful with pitchers," one big-league manager told me. "But we're to the point now where we're babying them. You'll see pitchers now throw five or six good innings, and they feel like they've done their job. That's our fault."

Bill: The problem with the move toward pitch counts was that there was never any logic or research that said that limiting a pitcher to 100 pitches would prevent injuries, as opposed to 130 pitches, or 130 for young pitchers and 160 for mature pitchers, or as opposed to getting the pitcher out of the game at the first sign of a problem, or as opposed to improving his training regimen. I am opposed to making decisions based on fear, and in favor of making decisions based on logic and research, and therefore I support what Nolan Ryan is trying to do.

I always admire people who have the courage to confront the conventional wisdom ... I mean, people within the system. Those of us on the outside ... it's easy for us to say whatever we think, because there are no consequences to it. It's much harder to say, "I think the conventional wisdom is full of beans, and I'm not going to go along with it," when you're inside the system and exposed to the possibility of actual failure. I think the people who do this drive the world to get better, whereas the people who snipe at anybody who dares suggest that the conventional wisdom is malarkey are, in my view, gutless conspirators in the mediocrity of the universe. To me, what Ryan is doing is the clearest and boldest example of challenging the conventional wisdom from within the system that I've seen in years, and I'm applauding.

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