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The Counting Game: Are Pitchers' Arms Being Protected, or Babied?

Stevens High pitcher Ryan Tanguay delivers during a game against Mascoma this spring. Tanguay threw 140 pitches in a playoff loss to Newmarket, whose pitcher threw 180 pitches. Pitch counts are more closely examined than ever before, and some baseball observers wonder if that’s a good thing. (Valley News - Libby March)

Stevens High pitcher Ryan Tanguay delivers during a game against Mascoma this spring. Tanguay threw 140 pitches in a playoff loss to Newmarket, whose pitcher threw 180 pitches. Pitch counts are more closely examined than ever before, and some baseball observers wonder if that’s a good thing. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »

Pitch counts. It’s one of baseball’s least understood and most dissected statistics. Basically, it comes down to one question: How many pitches are too many?

In an NHIAA playoff game at Stevens High this spring, the winning pitcher from Newmarket, Dahlton Fairbank, threw 180 pitches. The losing Stevens pitcher, Ryan Tanguay, tossed 140 in a 3-2 game. Postgame discussion, naturally, centered around the issue of pitch counts. Most thought the 180 was a bit much — and 140 was not much better.

Twenty years ago, pitch counts were never a factor. Pitchers were left in or taken out of a game dictated by the score and situation, not pitch count. Today, every pitch is counted either by marking a box in the scorebook or by using a hand counter, clicking off each pitch.

Determining just how many pitches, however, is a difficult decision to many. The durability of the respective pitchers differs, as does the situation. Three retired coaches with impeccable baseball credentials — Windsor’s Leon Royce, Woodsville’s John Bagonzi and Springfield’s Richie Wyman — brought their expertise to the issue. All three felt pitch counts were more of an issue today than when they were coaching. And as for determining the best way to judge a pitcher’s effectiveness, or lack of the same, was visual, not statistical.

“You’re not much of a baseball coach if you can’t tell when your pitcher is starting to lose it,” said Bagonzi, who once threw both ends of a doubleheader while at the University of New Hampshire and later threw 241 pitches in a game while playing for a team in Nova Scotia. “Neither one of those performances affected my arm at the time, but I would be wary of having a kid throw 180 pitches today,” he admitted.

New Hampshire has no pitch count limit in its high school games, using innings pitched as a guideline. At the same time, Vermont limits its pitchers to 118 pitches every three days. During Vermont playoff games, the scorers are required between innings to inform the umpires how many pitches their respective hurlers have thrown. The umpire makes note of each number on a card he carries.

In the era before the pitch count, teams could go through the tournament with only one ace pitcher. Royce remembers a Hartford hurler playing for coach Ken Dyer, who pitched the eighth-place Hurricanes to the state championship.

“The rainouts helped him, and back then, when you beat a team ahead of you in the seedings, you took their seed,” Royce said. “He pitched that kid in every game and Hartford won the whole thing.”

Wyman remembers his Cosmos started keeping track of pitches as far back as 1984. “There were no pitch count rules back then, we were not setting a limit. But we were keeping track of them,” he said.

Wyman also remembers a 21-inning morning game with Mount St. Joseph’s when the Mounties’ pitcher went all 21 innings. “Then that same day we went to Stevens for a night game,” Wyman added.

Royce said if he were coaching today he would not be affected by the pitch count.

“I would probably be thinking about it, and I can see the reason for it,” Royce said. “But I don’t think a few extra pitches is going to hurt anybody.”

Royce thought the ideal situation was to have two pitchers who alternated between first base and the mound, so you wouldn’t wear out the pitcher. The idea was the player at first base would not have to throw the ball a lot.

“Bob Stacey was not only my best pitcher, he was also my best infielder, but I played him at second base instead of shortstop when he was not pitching to save his arm,” said Royce. “Then he went to Tufts and played shortstop.”

Royce also talked about how star pitcher Jim Ewald would throw complete game after complete game. “I never gave it much thought — about how many pitches he threw,” said Royce. “What was important to me was determining if he was OK to throw however many pitches he had to throw.”

Bagonzi, who played five years in the Red Sox organization and has coached 10 players who played professional baseball, said he would have probably backed away from using a pitcher for 180 pitches, but remembered that while he was coach at Plymouth State University, he left Newport’s Bobby Bates in a game for 141 pitches.

“I asked if him if he was OK and he said he was,” Bagonzi recalled. “That game was important to him, and I left him in there. He had a good arm, and there was nothing wrong with him mechanically.”

Bagonzi’s five-year run with the Red Sox came to an end when the team used him in a fashion that hastened the end of his professional career.

“They used to have me pitch batting practice the day after a start. I believe in a lot of throwing, and throwing a lot helps your fastball, but you don’t go right out there and throw after a start,” said Bagonzi.

While Bagonzi admitted he’s not a big pitch count guy, he understands why the pitch count is so important today.

“You never want to ruin a pitcher, particularly if he’s good enough to be scouted. You have to be cautious. Good pitching coaches don’t ruin guys,” he said

If the worst happens, and a pitcher breaks down, Bagonzi points to another difference today from when he was pitching.

“At the major league level today, pitchers today are really cared for. If the arm goes, They have Tommy John surgery and come back to pitch some more,” he said.