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Down in the count

The Baltimore Sun

Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer remembers one of the first times he charted a game for Orioles manager Earl Weaver in 1969.

Starter Mike Cuellar was beating Minnesota in the ninth inning of a close game, but he allowed a leadoff single on his 135th pitch, and the Twins had a few future Hall of Famers due up.

So Palmer let his manager know how many pitches Cuellar had thrown.

"I said, 'Mr. Weaver, that was his 135th pitch,' and he said, 'Get your [butt] down to the other end of the dugout and I'll let you know when he is tired,' " Palmer recalled. "So from that time on, I knew the pitch count didn't mean anything to Earl."

Weaver's philosophy was simple: If the guy on the mound is your best option, you stick with him. It didn't matter if he had thrown 100 or 150 pitches.

Forty - even 20 - years ago, pitch counts could be shouted down. Now, they are not only vital pieces of information for managers, pitching coaches and fans, but, at times, they can become the sole foundation behind damning criticism.

They also are ubiquitous today, with many ballparks keeping track on scoreboards, Internet sites updating them continuously and newspapers printing the numbers each morning.

But is it a good thing? In today's game, are pitch counts friend or foe?

"I say foe. I am not a friend, that's for sure," said Orioles pitching coach Leo Mazzone, a tobacco-spitting, nervously rocking advertisement for Old School Baseball. "A pitch count shouldn't be the determining factor as to whether a guy stays in a game or comes out of one."

Yet it's an easy number to point to, something tangible that fans, managers and front-office people can use to explain or criticize a move.

In fact, an argument can be made that the public fascination with pitch counts was at least partially responsible for getting Mazzone's buddy, Sam Perlozzo, fired as Orioles manager in June.

Three times from May 13 to June 3, Perlozzo's pitching moves were heavily scrutinized - and pitch counts were used as Exhibit A. Each time, the Orioles were winning in the late innings when Perlozzo pulled his starter with 101 or fewer pitches thrown. Each time, the bullpen faltered and the Orioles lost the game.

There were different reasons for each decision: Once, ace Erik Bedard said he was gassed; another time Perlozzo was trying to protect rookie Jeremy Guthrie, and the last was a traditional spot to bring in a closer.

But because his moves kept backfiring, and because the pitch counts were reasonably low, Perlozzo's handling of his staff - fair or not - became a major component in his downfall.

Perlozzo's replacement, Dave Trembley, is from the same school as guys like Mazzone.

"I think pitch counts tend to be construed sometimes as a decision maker," Trembley said, "when in fact that shouldn't be the sole criteria."

Mazzone said he'll compare pitch counts throughout the season to see if there are obvious trends with individual pitchers. But on a daily basis, he would rather use his eyes and instincts to determine whether a pitcher is tiring.

Too much of a crutch?

There are too many variables involved for Mazzone - who wonders why half-energy pitchouts and intentional walks are included (the eight warm-up tosses before innings and the dozens pre-game in the bullpen, however, aren't) in the overall total.

"I like to go on body language and what their mound presence is out there," Mazzone said. "It's a coach thing, it's a feel thing, it's a see thing, an instinct thing, and I don't think you need a number to tell you that."

Trembley, too, says the tool can become a crutch for managers and coaches.

"I think a lot of people use pitch counts to cover their butt - instead of taking the time, effort and energy to have a feel for the situation of the game at that point in time and also to know your personnel," he said.

Each pitcher on a staff is different and therefore should be handled individually.

For instance, there's Bedard, the Orioles' slender left-hander who seemingly throws each pitch with maximum effort and intensity. He said it's pointless for him to keep count, because an 85-pitch outing sometimes can be more taxing than a 100-plus-pitch one.

"I pay more attention to my body," said Bedard, who said pitch counts are much more important in the minors. "If I am tired, that's it. I am done. There is no point going out there if you are tired."

Bedard's is a cautionary tale within the Orioles organization. As the club's top pitching prospect in 2002, he had a low and strict pitch limit in his first few minor league starts.

Inexplicably, he was rushed to the majors that April, faced just four batters in a week and was sent back down. Later, his pitch count at Double-A Bowie increased to 100, though he hadn't been throwing much up to that point. In a June start, he blew out his elbow on his 101st pitch and had to have Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery.

Today, the Orioles system enacts a gradual increase in pitch limits that begins at about 70 at the lowest rung and goes up to 75 to 80 for higher levels.

By June, starters at advanced levels are allowed to throw 100 pitches, and by August they are brought back to about the 85-pitch mark. They also aren't allowed to return to the mound if they have thrown a high number of pitches (about 30) in an inning. There's a fine line between protecting an investment and building a major league-ready arm.

"Our organizational philosophy is to keep guys pitching at a high rate of strength for a full season," Orioles minor league director David Stockstill said. "It's not only to prevent injuries, and hopefully it does, but if a guy throws a lot of pitches or pitches a lot of innings, his chances of pitching as strong the next time out lessens."

Most clubs have similar philosophies. The residual effect, however, is that many young starters come to the big leagues without late-game experience.

"Pitchers in the minor leagues now look for a way out, instead of a way through," said Hall of Famer Don Sutton, who amassed 178 complete games in a 23-season career.

"I think it is lowering standards. It's like telling your kid when he starts the ninth grade: 'Give me four solid years of 66s and 67s on your tests, and I'll get you into Harvard.' "

'A false barometer'

Sutton said the primary purpose of pitch counts is to allow managers and pitching coaches to avoid being honest with that evening's starter.

"It's a false barometer, and it creates a system by which you don't have to deal individually with a player that night," Sutton said. "You can say, 'Well, his pitch count was up.' You don't have to say, 'Well, I saw his stuff and ... it was bad.'

"It's not going to change until you get someone to say, 'I left him out there because his stuff was good' or 'I took him out because his stuff was bad, and you can take his pitch count and shove it.' "

Sutton scoffs at the idea that pitch counts protect pitchers and prevent injuries. So does former Orioles catcher Gregg Zaun, now with the Toronto Blue Jays.

The veteran is a firm believer that an arm has just so many effective pitches in it and eventually it will run out, no matter how coddled the arm is. He said pitch counts give managers and general managers an excuse if the inevitable injury occurs.

"Nobody ever wants to take responsibility," Zaun said. "There are some guys that it doesn't matter how many pitches they are going to throw, they are still going to break down."

But there is scientific evidence that throwing too long in a game can cause injury, said Dr. Timothy Kremchek, the Cincinnati Reds' medical director, who has performed elbow surgery on dozens of ballplayers, including Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts and former Orioles reliever Scott Williamson.

Simply put, as a pitcher continues to throw on a given day, fatigue sets in. Once fatigued, Kremchek said, pitchers alter their mechanics to keep their velocity up or to maintain command. And that's when they are most susceptible to injury.

"You have to look at a number of things, like his mechanics and is the pitcher laboring and how is his stuff and is the batter still missing the ball?" Kremchek said. "Once you get to the big league level, it's not about the pitch count as it is the effectiveness the pitcher is having."

He advocates pitch counts for Little League through the minors, for anyone who is developing or doesn't have expert monitoring on hand. Once in the majors, he said, experienced coaches can spot fatigue without looking at a number on a clicker.

Veteran right-hander Steve Trachsel, whom the Orioles traded to the Chicago Cubs last week, said the bottom line is that if a tired starter overextends himself one night, he might hamper his ability to recuperate in time to be effective in his next outing four days later.

"It comes down to your working relationship with your pitching coach and manager," Trachsel said. "You definitely want to be honest. If you are spent, you don't want to go back out there."

The mentality, for sure, has changed over the years. But the investment is much costlier now, and specialists have made it easier for starters to exit earlier.

Whether that can be considered progress is left for debate.

"The game has just evolved," said Palmer, who said in the 1971 postseason he threw 169 pitches in one start and 171 five days later. "You really learn a lot about yourself when you pitch late into ballgames. You learn how to pitch, you learn about your conditioning, you learn about your heart.

"It's very challenging. And that's the thing I think I would miss if I were pitching now."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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