Texas Rangers' Yu Darvish, Nolan Ryan and the Pitch Count Problem

Will CarrollSports Injuries Lead WriterMay 17, 2013

ARLINGTON, TX - MAY 16: Yu Darvish #11 of the Texas Rangers throws in the first inning against the Detroit Tigers at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington on May 16, 2013 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Rick Yeatts/Getty Images)
Rick Yeatts/Getty Images

On Thursday night, Yu Darvish beat the Detroit Tigers and threw 130 pitches. It wasn't his best performance this year or even this month, but it may end up the most scrutinized

As Darvish's pitch count climbed, everyone—including announcer Matt Vasgersian and analyst Tom Verducci—had something to say about it. Vasgersian called Darvish's deep pitch count a "Herculean feat." 

Unfortunately, Rangers CEO Nolan Ryan wasn't in his customary seat just to the left of the Texas Rangers dugout, so the camera couldn't cut to him. Ryan, who pitched in the major leagues for over two decades and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999, was as well known for his durability as he was for his fastball.

While I don't know what Ryan thought about Darvish pitching the eighth inning with a six-run lead or giving up the ball in the ninth, we can look back and see what Ryan the pitcher did in similar situations. It's food for thought when considering whether more pitchers could go as long as Darvish, if only their managers would let them.

Even the amazing Baseball Reference doesn't have pitch-count data before 1988, but that doesn't mean we can't make solid estimates. Stats analyst Nate Silver, known for his work with Baseball Prospectus and The New York Times, created a pitch-count estimator that uses the known data, such as batters faced, walks and strikeouts, to tell us what a pitcher likely did on a given day in history.

The estimator was able to be tested against the pitch counts kept by Allan Roth, the statistician hired by Branch Rickey to track the Dodgers throughout the 1950s. It proved to be very accurate.

I had my stats guru, Dan Wade, run Nolan Ryan's career starts through the pitch-count estimator, and here is what he found:

> 200: 3

190-200: 1

180-190: 3

170-180: 8

160-170: 14

150-160: 37

140-150: 67

130-140: 85

120-130: 80

110-120: 85

100-110: 72

If 130 pitches is "Herculean," then Ryan was that almost 300 times in his career. That means of his 773 career starts, almost 38 percent of them ended up with a pitch count north of 120, and 28 percent were at Darvish's level or greater.

Of course, Ryan pitched in a different era. It wasn't that long ago that pitchers went deeper into games, coasting against the weak hitters and saving their best stuff for when they needed it. Today, pitchers go all out all the time, putting stress and fatigue on their arms. 

It's also important to remember that Ryan pitched the last decade of his career with an elbow ligament that was hanging by a string. In his last start it popped, and he walked off into the sunset.

Darvish's outing is notable not only in the amount of pitches he threw, but also that he was even allowed to throw them. Pitching coach Mike Maddux focused on his pitch effectiveness, not his pitch count.

While this is likely the discussion of two outliers—Darvish's start and Ryan's career—we do have to remember that outliers are what make the game great. Darvish's durability and ability to go deep into games is what makes him one of the top pitchers in MLB. There are likely more out there if managers would stop relying on a stat and start relying on what they know.

Pitchers' fatigue levels and durability should be measured and maximized not by fear, but by ability.


Statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference.

Will Carroll has been writing about sports injuries for 12 years. His work has appeared at SI.com and ESPN.com, and he wrote the book "Saving The Pitcher."