In years past it wasn’t uncommon for teams to have four man rotations with fewer pitchers in the bullpen. The guys in the bullpen might even take a behind the scenes cigarette break to calm those nerves. Starting pitchers would routinely throw as many as 170 pitches in a game. Careers would be shortened because of either a blown out shoulder or elbow after only a few years of service time. Before arthroscopic surgery pitchers had to either gut it out or have a major operation resulting in a huge zipper. After games, instead of exercising, players would lift 12 ounce longnecks.
Certainly there are outliers in any era such as Nolan Ryan, who would take the ball and expect to finish. He pitched the last 10 years of his career with a parially torn elbow ligament and popped it on his last pitch.
The game has changed during the recent years and pitchers are taking much better care of themselves. Their agents and organizations are protecting their health by monitoring the number of pitches they're allowed to throw in an inning or game. Generally, pitchers are allowed to throw a max number of innings for the season as well.
As a manager, pitch counts make things... well... more manageable. There’s a set game plan and max number in place.
When I managed professionally, our team’s pitching coach and I would either meet to discuss the pitching limits for the day’s game or he would give me a card with each pitcher’s guidelines. We'd stay within the parameters and have to make small adjustments throughout the game and season. You never know what might happen in a baseball game. Each team has 1 position player who is considered the emergency pitcher. Remember Jose Canseco's stint on the slab? His elbow popped after 33 pitches.
During the game I would write down each particular pitcher’s pitch total on my pocket game card after each inning to keep close track. Also on the card were our relievers last two outings innings, pitch totals, and notes on opponents.
Generally we would separate our pitching staff into four categories:
- Short inning relievers: 1-2 innings, 20-40 pitches.
- Middle inning relievers: 2-3 innings, 30-50 pitches.
- Long inning relievers: 3-5 innings, 45-70 pitches.
- Starting pitchers: up to 9 innings, 120 pitches.
Starting pitchers should be allowed the opportunity and conditioned to throw up to 120 pitches over the course of 9 innings. Very few pitchers will be able to accomplish this feat which is why there are 5 starters and 6 to 8 relievers.
Once a pitcher realizes that every pitch matters, he will make a concerted effort to throw quality pitches each time he delivers the baseball. If he should choose to throw without purpose or command he will find himself in the showers before the 5th, and force the bullpen to grind out the rest of the game.
Generally if a pitcher throws 15 pitchers per inning he is going to last about 7 innings. If he can throw 13 pitches per inning then he has a shot to throw a complete game with under 120 pitches.
How to keep pitch counts down:
- Throw 2 of the first 3 pitches for strikes.
- Avoid 3 ball counts.
- Pitch off of the fastball.
- Pitch to contact (end of the bat or thin of the bat).
- Pitch low in the zone.
- Pitch inside when ahead in the count and learn to effectively knock guys down (brush-back pitch).
- Field position well.
- Hold runners well.
- Be well conditioned and mentally strong.