On Justin Verlander and pitch counts

Bob Levey

Read my Detroit News column

Let me be clear right up top here: I am not arguing you leave Justin Verlander out all day until his pitch count hits 234 or something like the man is Nolan Ryan.

What I do argue is that with a unique player like Justin Verlander, putting less emphasis on pitch counts and more emphasis on watching him actually pitch is the way to go.

This discussion came up Sunday as Justin Verlander was chasing a no-hitter -- the third of his career. He was also adding up his pitch count as if it were his salary. The clicker was calling like a den of wood peckers. The fault was mostly on the early innings. Through four Verlander was on pace for more than 160 pitches for the game. Through five about 155. Through six around 145. Each inning Verlander got three outs quicker than the last. Had he continued at the pace of about 10 pitches per inning, he may actually have been able to finish the game in the 135 range.

Nonetheless, Carlos Pena got a hit with one out in the seven inning, and Verlander finished the inning -- hitting 97 mph according to MLB.com's gametracker -- and then took a seat. Pitch count worries were no more.

But what if the no-hitter had continued? How long could the Tigers leave Verlander on the mound? That was the discussion on Twitter, on the postgame show and in the media afterwards.

I dug in for a little research. A decade ago we all believed in Rany Jazayerli's "pitcher abuse points" system at Baseball Prospectus. A decade ago we were just getting into pitch counts as being all the rage. But popular culture sometimes trails behind the times. So many still think in those terms. Since then the thinking has changed a bit. We've learned, too, that a team can do everything right and still see pitchers felled by elbow or shoulder issues. There's no magic key to unlocking the health of a pitcher.

Pitchers are unique individuals. Some may not have the body or mechanics to go as deep as others. Some are going to be uberpitchers who are throwbacks to the past, going deep in games, high in counts, without showing any issues. Nolan Ryan was one of those. Justin Verlander appears to be one too. Last year three pitchers tossed games of 130 or more pitches. Verlander was the only one to do it more than once, with one of those coming in just the third game of the year. Neither time led to a drop in quality, and Verlander went on to have one of the best seasons of his career.

In my research, I discovered a study that involved Dr. Glenn Fleisig, Dr. James Andrews, and several more, that concluded (in a simulated setting):

"The relatively few differences observed imply that pitching biomechanics remained remarkably similar between collegiate starting pitchers who threw between 105 and 135 pitches for 7 to 9 innings and approached muscular fatigue.

"This study did not support the idea that there is an increase in shoulder and elbow forces and torques as muscular fatigue is approached. It is possible that if a pitcher remained in a fatigued state for a longer period of time, additional changes in pitching mechanics may occur and the risk of injury may increase."

(h/t Will Carroll)

A study by James Bradbury and SL Foreman found pitch counts to be a poor predictor of injuries.

This study supports the popular notion that high pitching loads can dampen future performance; however, because the effect is small, pitch-count benchmarks have limited use for maintaining performance and possibly preventing injury.

And then you have this study out of the University of Waterloo that also found little correlation between pitch counts and injures.

"I don't necessarily think that pitch counts or innings pitched are the best way to measure the demands of pitching," Thomas Karakolis, the lead author on the study, told Reuters Health.

He added: "If we can't predict injuries based off of these metrics, how are we going to use them to prevent injuries?"

Verlander is not normal. He is smart. He now knows an ideal training regimen to be ready in April and strong through the year. He builds through the game, starting with slower pitches early and ending the game in the 100 mph range. How he feels and how his bodies react are unique as well.

Using the same pitch counts made for the average player would be a mistake. If Verlander's got it -- and as we've seen, there's good evidence he's almost always got it -- don't worry so much.

Two things have to happen here.

1) His coaches and trainer have to know what to look for and keep an eye on his mechanics and his results. If Verlander shows signs of fatigue, they need to step in.

2) Verlander needs to be honest with himself and his staff. (This I have a little less faith in, given he is an athlete and given the Tigers' track record in players being honest about how they feel.)

In any case, I watch and enjoy Verlander without fretting about the pitch counts. The staff is there to protect him. We can enjoy him.

Verlander is a generational pitcher. The rules are different.

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