Thursday, June 04, 2009

How many pitches is too many?

I don't follow college baseball as closely as some people (it doesn't help that the team I normally follow had a poor outing this past spring). But it's interesting to follow the fallout from last weekend's remarkable game between Boston College and the University of Texas. The game set a new NCAA record, lasting a grueling 25 innings, before the Longhorns finally won 3-2. The hero of the game was UT reliever Austin Wood, who pitched an astounding 13 innings, cruising through the first twelve of them without giving up a hit.

You'd think that this young man's feat would be something for sports fans to marvel at and celebrate. But that's not the case for some, including Chronicle sportswriter and UT alumnus Richard Justice. He thinks that UT head baseball coach Augie Garrido should be punished for allowing Wood to throw 169 pitches:

There's simply no excuse for it. Young pitchers are too susceptible to arm and shoulder injuries. When a big-league team gets a young pitcher, he's brought along slowly, allowing his arm to strengthen year by year.

But big-league teams have so much invested in young pitchers and understand that young pitchers are the lifeblood of an organization, that they're not about to take a chance on ruining one.

I can see Justice's point here - 169 pitches is a lot - although, as some of his commenters (many of whom seem to have a good grasp of the mechanics of pitching and the effects of over-using a pitcher) point out, there's more to this story than just the pitch count itself. Factors such as the type of pitches being thrown, the number of pitches per inning or the way the pitcher has been used over the course of the season also come into play. For what it's worth, Wood never seemed to be laboring on the mound that night, and his average pitch count per inning - about 13 - was actually rather efficient. When somebody's throwing a no-no, you generally want to leave them in as long as they seem to be cruising, and that's what Garrido did.

But that's apparently not acceptable to Justice, because Garrido put winning the game above the senior's possible future career in the pros:

The entire mission is different at Texas. It's about winning for Texas and everything else appears to be secondary. Whether Austin Wood's career has been harmed or not isn't even an issue. Garrido was risking the kid's career — and he appears to have one — by allowing him to throw that many pitches.

It's really remarkable that a professional sportwsriter gets paid to write something as jaw-droppingly stupid and disingenious as this. Of course it's all about winning! As the Houston Press's John Royal correctly points out:
Garrido's job at the University of Texas isn't to prepare Austin Wood for a possible pro career. Garrido's job is to win baseball games, and I'm pretty damn sure that, if the Texas baseball program stunk, Longhorn alumnus Richard Justice would be calling for Garrido to be fired. And based on statements he's made recently, Justice ought to be happy that Nolan Ryan ain't running the UT baseball program, because Ryan has made it pretty clear that he thinks that pitch counts are jokes and that pitchers should be prepared to pitch complete games every time they pitch.

But that's Nolan Ryan. He's just one of the game's all-time greatest pitchers. There's no way he can possibly know more about the sport than Richard Justice.
It's also worth mentioning that Wood's pro future isn't as inevitable as Justice implies it to be. Wood went undrafted last season as an eligible junior and, if anything, this game helped his chances to make the pros by gaining him some recognition.

Finally, if what happened to this young man last weekend is so potentially damaging, then why doesn't the NCAA have rules in place that limit the number of pitches a player can throw in a given game or set of games? Maybe Justice's ire should be focused on the NCAA, rather than on a coach who found himself in an extra-innings situation in a double-elimination tournament last weekend with a player who was pitching well?

I'm not a big fan of Augie Garrido. I still remember how he classlessly declined to accept the second-place trophy after the Longhorns were defeated by Cal State Fullerton on the 2004 College World Series. But given the circumstance (i.e. that it was a playoff game, that it turned out to be the longest baseball game in NCAA Division I history, and that the guy pitched a no hitter through 12.1 innings), I'm inclined to cut him some slack.

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