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Did Pitchers of Yesteryear Throw With "Much Less" Velocity Than They Do Today?

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  • Extremely insightful article by Tim Kurkjian on why we're obsessed with pitch counts, why starting pitching has changed, etc. It is from 2009, but, all of the points not only still hold water, but I'd say even moreso in 2021.

    Baseball's magic number: 100


    "In 1988, 18.5 percent of all starts were in the 96-105 pitch range. In 2008, that number jumped to 32 percent. In 2000, there were 454 starts of at least 120 pitches. Last season, there were 71 starts, or 1.5 percent, an 84 percent drop. In 2009, 1.9 percent of starts have been 120 pitches."


    "Since 1968, I believe the intensity of every pitch has gotten harder and harder in the big leagues," said Orel Hershiser, the National League Cy Young Award winner in 1988. "In 1968, guys threw over the top, the ball went downhill and became a moving fastball. When they lowered the mound in 1969, they took away the pitcher's leverage. They took away the plane of the baseball, and a straight pitch became more on the plane of the bat. At that point, pitchers had to move the ball so it was not on the plane of the bat, and to do that, they had to increase the intensity on every pitch. Movement became a key, not just velocity. So with all the elements we have today, if the intensity of one pitch is increased by, say, 10 percent, then 125 pitches becomes 115, which becomes 110, then becomes 100."

    Hershiser said the strike zone "now is the smallest it has ever been. When we lost the height on the strike zone, we added some width, but then there was a trend to cut down on violence in sports -- in hockey, the third man in -- in the early 1980s, and with the new rules in baseball, we lost the inside corner. So you pitch in, hit a batter, and a fight starts."

    Hershiser made his major league debut in 1983. "I could rest at certain times during the game: two outs, no one on, seventh hitter up in the National League," he said. "I didn't want to show all my bullets at that time, so I'd throw a BP sinker away and get a ground out. If the guy got a hit, no big deal; you had the eighth and ninth hitters up. But you can't do that today with these lineups. You can't throw only 80 percent of what you have. You can't get by with a get-me-over curveball. What used to not be a big deal is now a huge deal."

    High-intensity pitches are often high-stress pitches. Teams all across the major leagues don't just count pitches; they count the number of pitches a pitcher makes under duress.


    Today's young general manager

    "Twenty years ago, nearly 90 percent of all GMs had played in the major leagues. Now there are three out of 30: Philadelphia's Ruben Amaro Jr., the White Sox's Kenny Williams and Billy Beane of the A's. This decade has brought a new breed of GM, one who is highly educated, can run a spreadsheet and has mountains of data to support his theories.

    "We have a new wave of general managers who are deeply into mathematics, analysis, metrics -- I'm not saying it's wrong -- because that's what they charted in the minor leagues," said Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey. "I don't know the numbers, but the new wave of GMs are the ones who have charted that the chance of injury is, say, greater at 85 pitches than it is at 75. And with every five-pitch increment, there's a 22.8 percent more likely chance that someone gets hurt. With each 10 extra pitches, it goes up by five percent."

    The new GMs sometimes clash with the old-school manager about how the club should be run. Often, the GM wins.

    "My GM used to load reams and reams of paper on my desk about that night's game," one former manager said. "Sometimes I'd read it; sometimes I just throw it in the trash. But in the end, if it comes down to him or me, he's usually going to win. And if the discussion is about pitch counts, he is always going to win."


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