Even after Tanner Roark’s brief outing Sunday, Washington Nationals starters are throwing more pitches per start than any rotation in baseball — 101. Last year, they averaged 94. The league average is 93.
Roark, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Joe Ross have combined for 10 starts in which they’ve thrown at least 110 pitches. Only the San Francisco Giants and Boston Red Sox have thrown more.
Heart rates will jump and “I told you so’s” will fly at hearing those numbers. Dusty Baker developed a reputation for pushing his starting pitchers further into games than most managers, for running young talent such as Mark Prior and Kerry Wood into injury trouble in Chicago.
Baker has repeatedly said he does not deserve that blame. He also said the Nationals’ rotation is the most talented he has managed. His starters have the third-best ERA in the majors. The better the starters, the deeper into games they should pitch, generally speaking.
“Maybe we just get the most out of them,” Baker suggested last week. But does getting more now mean getting less later? What is the difference between 101 pitches per start and, say, 95? Do pitch counts, as loaded with arbitrary limits as any statistic in the game, mean much to the Nationals?
“They really don’t,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “Unless you’re talking about a player that’s coming back from injury. With a healthy pitcher, I think you have to rely on the eye test, what the manager and pitching coach are seeing. Not all pitch counts are created equal, and not all outings are created equal. There’s your cruising 115-pitch outing and there’s your pedal-to-the-metal, 90-pitch, grind-it-out, high-leverage pitches for four or five innings in a row.”
Baker and pitching coach Mike Maddux both say they are aware of overall pitch counts but generally glean more from pitches per inning, which says more about how many high-stress pitches are needed.
“If you throw 10 pitches an inning, you can throw 15 innings,” Maddux said. “But if you start getting those 25-pitch innings, that cuts the overall number down because it’s a heavy workload.”
Baker and Maddux collaborate on decisions about when to take pitchers out of games. When Maddux visited Strasburg on the mound in the seventh inning of his start against the Mets a couple of weeks ago, he noticed that Strasburg was “emptying the tank” — nearing the end of his effectiveness. He relayed the message to Baker, and with two outs in that inning, Baker replaced Strasburg with Felipe Rivero, a lefty, to face right-handed Juan Lagares.
“We try to let the hitters tell us when they’re done,” Maddux said. “Might be 120, might be 95. You go as long as you can, as hard as you can.”
Maddux and Baker listen to what their pitchers tell them, too. Sitting in the visiting manager’s office in Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia last week, Baker rattled off a list of former starters and exactly how many pitches each could throw comfortably. Billy Swift was good to 80. Kirk Rueter, 88. Russ Ortiz could throw far more. Baker wanted to pull Scherzer after six innings in his last start.
Scherzer, who calls 110 pitches “par,” told Baker he could go another. Baker let him, and Scherzer pitched through seven innings. Scherzer, who has emphasized pitching more efficiently since joining the Nationals before last season, said he is aware of pitch count as a pacing mechanism.
“After three innings, you have to be at 45. Four, 60. Five, 75. Six, 90, then seven, 105. Seven innings, if you can go out there and give your team seven innings, you’re doing your job. You’re aware of that,” Scherzer said. “If you’re high, you have to find a way to keep getting outs. If you’re low, you keep trying to throw the ball as well as you can. I’m actually aware of where I’m at within a start because the name of the game is trying to get as deep as you can.”
Scherzer and Roark have thrown seven 110-pitch games this season. Scherzer believes he is “good” to 115 pitches. Roark, who did not start regularly last season and is therefore carrying a much greater innings load this season, said what happens during a start — 120 pitches, 100 pitches, whatever — is far less important than what happens after when it comes to staying strong throughout a season.
“You have to take care of your arm. You gotta get worked on. You have to run,” said Roark, who can often be seen trudging into the clubhouse drenched in sweat the day after a start, having run stairs or something similarly taxing as part of what pitchers call their “flush” workout.
“Running is the biggest thing, just to sweat it all out and get all the muscles going,” Roark said. “That’s something I’ve learned over the years, how to treat my body and how to treat my arm. You can’t take a day off. Just keep it steady, keep it the same. It can be tedious, and it might suck, but you gotta do it if you wanna keep going.”
And though perhaps all starters would say they do not mind being left in the game, these Nationals starters seem adamant in their desire to keep going. Gonzalez has lauded Baker’s willingness to stick with him and let him pitch himself out of trouble. Scherzer has been known to redirect managers who head to the mound to retrieve him before he feels the need to be retrieved.
“I’m sure there are times when [Scherzer] or [Strasburg] or even myself, you come off the field and you expect to still be in the game,” Ross said. “They put their hand out and you kind of look at them like, shoot, okay. I had the mind-set to keep going and still get people out.”
Maddux talks about those high-pitch-count outings as something pitchers earn. Rizzo does, too, explaining that young pitchers benefit from working out of jams, and all pitchers prefer to control their own destiny.
“The worst-case scenario is you take a guy out too soon with guys on base and the reliever gives it up. The starting pitcher is mad because he thinks he could have done that and be responsible for his own run, and the reliever is not happy because you put him in a situation that’s tough with men on base, too,” Rizzo said. “Dusty is a good reader of who’s pitching and what the situation [is] and the stuff he has and where he’s at as far as ability to get guys out. Always in the mind-set that we’re here to win the baseball game, too.”
What do higher pitch counts mean to these Nationals? Different things to different people, it seems, but almost always they indicate that a starter is pitching well.
What will they mean for the Nationals moving forward? Time will tell, though the only two teams with more 110-pitch starts than the Nationals — the Red Sox and Giants — are in first place, too. The Cubs, Nationals and Giants lead the National League in innings pitched per start. The Cubs, Nationals and Giants lead the National League’s three divisions.