By SAM MILES
COLUMBIA — When Missouri coach Tim Jamieson removed pitcher Ian Berger after the fifth inning of Sunday’s eventual 9-2 loss against Texas at Taylor Stadium, he did so because of Berger’s lack of command.
As a right-handed finesse pitcher who relies on hitting his spots, Berger’s mistakes had been pounded all day by the suddenly energized Longhorns bats and earned him an early seat on the bench.
Throughout most of baseball history, effectiveness has been the sole factor in determining when a pitcher exits a game. Over the past decade, other factors have begun to influence the decision-making process.
“I don’t remember even having discussions about pitch counts when I was a player,” Jamieson said of his playing days in the late ’70s and early ’80s at the University of New Orleans. “We didn’t talk about it or worry about it.”
Today, he worries about it. He does not obsess, and it isn’t his chief concern, but he is aware. Although it didn’t play a role in Berger’s removal on Sunday, Jamieson knew exactly how many pitches he had thrown, because he keeps track of them each game in the dugout. Twenty years ago, counting pitches might have been something he did only while bored or trying to fall asleep.
Why they have come to the forefront is simple: Throwing a baseball puts strain on the arm and, in theory, the more strain you have, the more likely you are to injure your arm.
Will Carroll, a writer and injury expert for Baseball Prospectus, among other things, has fairly strong opinions on the trend. Carroll says that pitch counts have been talked about for about 10 years now with regard to injury, though they’ve only had an effect on pitcher usage for the past five years. Over the past two years, Carroll said they’ve gained almost dogmatic standing in some organizations, particularly in professional baseball.
“So many pitchers are getting injured,” Carroll said by phone in March, “they aren’t willing to take that shotgun approach anymore.
“What’s criminal is that the NCAA hasn’t done anything about this. Coaches can’t do it on their own.”
Carroll added that with such pressure to win, individuals have incentive to ride their best pitchers past the point where it is healthy. Without a uniform limit, like the one Little League has implemented, pitchers remain at risk.
Tony Vitello, the Tigers’ highly-regarded pitching coach, said he doesn’t think such pressure is a concern for his program.
“It’s not a factor, and it could be a factor, but it’s not here,” Vitello said. “One of the recruiting sales pitches we have for these kids is that coach Jamieson treats this program like an extension of his family. He’s a great family man at home, but he’s just as good in the dugout with these guys.
“It just honestly never gets to that point.”
Vitello said the Tigers’ philosophy is somewhat supportive of throwing a lot of pitches. Jamieson said the coaches pay more attention to innings pitched than they do pitch counts. He also said factors such as how difficult it was for a pitcher to get out of the previous inning, how good a pitcher’s stuff is and how much rest the pitcher was working on, among many other things, played in to his decision making.
Though there have been big changes in how pitch counts are viewed, Jamieson said he still has one key.
“When you start looking at pitch counts, first of all, ‘Is the guy still effective?’ That’s still the most important thing,” Jamieson said. “There is no pitch count that’s a magic number.”
While it is true that there is no one number, particularly because of the differences between each pitcher, Missouri’s weekend starters have routinely thrown between 100-120 pitches per game. In the minor leagues, where young pitchers are often coddled, it isn’t uncommon for pitchers to be held below 90 pitches per game.
Though keeping track on a scorecard is rather tedious, every fan who wonders why an otherwise effective pitcher has been removed late in the game must keep the advancement of pitch counts in mind. Twenty years ago, that pitcher would have been expected to finish the game. Now, at least in the Missouri dugout, there is debate.
“Coach Jamieson likes to challenge them a little bit, and say ‘you’re out of the game,’ and see what they want to come back with as far as a debate,” Vitello said. “I don’t say it as a challenge, like ‘Hey, man-up and go back out there,’ but if a kid feels really adamant, he’s feeling good and he wants to finish the game, you’ll be able to see it in his eyes.
“If not, a guy fresh out of the pen is probably better than a guy worn out.”