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Pitch-count strategy no exact science


Since it's still early enough in the season for pitch counts to supposedly be strictly enforced, it's not too soon to again question their validity.

Because of the curtailed spring training, every starting pitcher opened the season with limitations. But they certainly weren't standard, not even among individual teams -- though there did seem to be a common, and familiar, separation point.

How many pitches is enough? In Mike Mussina's case, it was 49. For the Dodgers' Ramon Martinez (102) and Blue Jays' David Cone (101), that number was more than doubled.

For those who like to keep track of this kind of information, the average number of pitches thrown by the 28 Opening Day starters was 76.5. The starters went 13-10 with Mussina one of five who didn't get a decision -- and the 16 who exceeded the average were 9-4 with three no-decisions.

What do these numbers prove? Other than the fact that all pitchers are not created equal, they provide nothing more than very basic, and logical, information.

The pitchers who are the most effective get to hang out longer and throw more pitches. The others get early use of the shower facilities.

So don't be misled by the annual caution signs of spring. Even under normal circumstances, pitchers are generally not over-extended at the start of a season.

And even though spring training was cut in half, it's folly to think that pitchers aren't more advanced now than they would be at midpoint of their preparation. Supposedly they all perform some sort of off-season rituals -- this year they just got to do them longer.

Still, if you scan the box scores closely, there is a common denominator to this inexact science, and it is the one that seems to be guiding Orioles manager Phil Regan. No matter how cautiously a manager tries to protect his starters, he's always aware of the five-inning rule.

Even during a normal season (when was the last one?) starters always get benefit of the doubt when a decision is at stake. Despite all the other fancy statistics, these guys are paid primarily for their won-lost records -- as all managers know.

Mussina needed only 49 pitches to get through five innings. In the Orioles' next game, it took Ben McDonald 89 to go the same distance. Sid Fernandez, provided with an early 6-0 lead, used up 68 in 3 1/3 innings before seven hits and a walk were enough to convince Regan the five-inning limit was out of reach.

All of which goes to prove another basic fact -- hitters provide the best information as to when a pitcher has reached his limit. That's the same now as it will be in October.

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