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Pitch Counting in a Pinch
2003-09-16 01:26
by Mike Carminati

IN most Big League ball games, there comes an inning on which hangs victory or defeat. Certain intellectual fans call it the crisis; college professors, interested in the sport, have named it the psychological moment; Big League managers mention it as the "break," and pitchers speak of the "pinch."...

Two evenly matched clubs have been playing through six innings with neither team gaining any advantage. Let us say that they are the Giants and the Chicago Cubs. Suddenly the Chicago pitcher begins to weaken in the seventh. Spectators cannot perceive this, but McGraw, the Giants' manager, has detected some crack. All has been quiet on the bench up to this moment. Now the men begin to fling about sweaters and move around, one going to the water cooler to get a drink, another picking up a bat or two and flinging them in the air, while four or five prospective hitters are lined tip, swinging several sticks apiece, as if absolutely confident that each will get his turn at the plate.

The two coachers on the side lines have become dancing dervishes, waving sweaters and arms wildly, and shouting various words of discouragement to the pitcher which are calculated to make his job as soft as a bed of concrete. He has pitched three balls to the batter, and McGraw vehemently protests to the umpire that the twirler is not keeping his foot on the slab. The game is delayed while this is discussed at the pitcher's box and the umpire brushes off the rubber strip with a whisk broom.

There is a kick against these tactics from the other bench, but the damage has been done. The pitcher passes the batter, forgets what he ought to throw to the next man, and cannot get the bail where he wants it. A base hit follows. Then he is gone. The following batter triples, and, before another pitcher can be warmed up, three or four runs are across the plate, and the game is won. That explains why so many wise managers keep a pitcher warming up when the man in the box is going strong.

It is in the pinch that the pitcher shows whether or not he is a Big Leaguer. He must have something besides curves then. He needs a head, and he has to use it. It is the acid test. That is the reason so many men, who shine in the minor leagues, fail to make good in the majors. They cannot stand the fire...

Very often spectators think that a pitcher has lost his grip in a pinch, when really he is playing inside baseball. A game with Chicago in Chicago back in 1908 (not the famous contest that cost the Giants a championship; I did not have any grip at all that day; but one earlier in the season) best illustrates the point I want to' bring out. Mordecai Brown and I were having a pitchers' duel, and the Giants were in the lead by the score of 1 to 0 when the team took the field for the ninth inning.

It was one of those fragile games in which one run makes a lot of difference, the sort that has a fringe of nervous prostration for the spectators. Chance was up first in the ninth and he pushed a base hit to right field. Steinfeldt followed with a triple that brought Chance home and left the run which would win the game for the Cubs on third base. The crowd was shouting like mad, thinking I was done. I looked at the hitters, waiting to come up, and saw Hofman and Tinker swinging their bats in anticipation. Both are dangerous men, but the silver lining was my second look, which revealed to me Kling and Brown following Hofman and Tinker.

Without a second's hesitation, I decided to pass both Hofman and Tinker, because the run on third base would win the game anyway if it scored, and with three men on the bags instead of one, there would be a remote chance for a triple play, besides making a force out at the plate possible. Remember that no one was out at this time. Kling and Brown had always been easy for me.

When I got two balls on Hofman, trying to make him hit at a bad one, the throng stood up in the stand and tore splinters out of the floor with its feet. And then I passed Hofman. The spectators misunderstood my motive.

"He's done. He's all in," shouted one man in a voice which was one of the carrying, persistent, penetrating sort. The crowd took the cry up and stamped its feet and cheered wildly.

Then I passed Tinker, a man, as I have said before, who has had a habit of making trouble for me. The crowd quieted down somewhat, perhaps because it was not possible for it to cheer any louder, but probably because the spectators thought that now it would be only a matter of how many the Cubs would win by. The bases were full, and no one was out.

But that wildly cheering crowd had worked me up to greater effort, and I struck Kling out and then Brown followed him back to the bench for the same reason. Just one batter stood between me and a tied score now. He was John Evers, and the crowd having lost its chortle of victory, was begging him to make the hit which would bring just one run over the plate. They were surprised by my recuperation after having passed two men. Evers lifted a gentle fly to left field and the three men were left on the bases. The Giants eventually won that game in the eleventh inning by the score of 4 to 1.

-The legendary Christy Mathewson in the legendary Pitching in a Pinch (Or Baseball from the Inside)

Boy, things were a bit different in Matty's day. Walking two men to load the bases with no outs is de rigueur today: it's the prevailing strategy and one that quite often backfires. The strategy has become so ossified that now analysts look at ways to debunk its supposed advantages.

A few weeks ago at Baseball Primer's Primate Studies, Tangotiger came up with a set of formulas that estimate pitch counts for all pitchers since 1889. I don't want to discuss the reliability of the estimates. If we are not sure how many walks Ted Williams drew in 1941, one of baseball's biggest hitting stars in one of its most memorable seasons, estimating the number of pitches thrown by a pitcher a hundred years ago of course involves a good deal of guesswork. Tangotiger should be commended for dividing the darkness from the light on the matter. I doubt even Retrosheet can be able to revivify enough game accounts to determine the number of pitches Old Hoss Radbourne threw in 1884. (it would be nice, however, if we could decide on the number of wins he registered-is it 59 or 60?)

I thought it would be interesting to use those estimates to look at pitch use/overuse historically especially as it relates to the long-term expectations of young pitchers. Have approaches evolved as strategies evolved and become inculcated?

I also thought that it would be interesting to see if different teams used pitchers differently in different eras. Do winning teams approach pitch counts differently than losing ones? Are losing teams catching on more and more over time thereby affecting competitive balance?

Before we delve into these sorts of studies, I have to comment on a limitation in the data that has nothing to do with Tangotiger's research. The problem is one inherent to pitching statistics or rather the way that they are recorded. Pitchers, historically, have been used in different ways at different times. At the turn of the last century some very good starters were used as "closers" in the bullpen. Mathewson himself was posthumously credited with 28 saves for his career and a career high of 5 in 1908 when he went 37-11 with a 1.43 ERA in almost 400 innings. 84 of Matty's 635 games pitched were in relief. So the problem is that we have no way of knowing how many innings were pitched as a starter and how many as a reliever-not to mention all the other pitching stats.

So what does that mean? If we want to do analysis for pitch counts by starting pitchers, we are limited to those pitchers who were used purely to start games. The same goes for relievers. Pitchers who both started and relieved I call "swingmen", and they forma third category with which we can't do much, on its own.

To be continued...

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