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Updated: July 22nd, 2012 11:07pm
Mackey: Are Twins headed for a major change in pitching philosophy?

Mackey: Are Twins headed for a major change in pitching philosophy?

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire made a bold statement last week.

Following a 4-3 loss to the Baltimore Orioles last Thursday -- a game in which Cole De Vries allowed one run in six innings while throwing 95 pitches only to see the bullpen give away the lead -- Gardenhire, unprompted, said he and pitching coach Rick Anderson were strongly considering having their starting pitchers throw 115-120 pitches more regularly.

When asked on Friday in an interview with 1500 ESPN if his post-game comments were stream of consciousness after a tough loss or if the pitch counts really were likely to rise, Gardenhire said, "Really, we have to."

He added, "I think we've got to start thinking about it. If they're able to do it and we don't hurt these guys, and the game's going along good, I think you've got to be smart about it ... As we go along, if we keep going to the bullpen in the sixth inning after our pitcher throws 100 pitches, we aren't going to make it. It just won't happen.

"So maybe we're going to have to let a guy go back out there with 96 pitches going into the seventh inning and let him see where we go with it. If it's the right pitcher and he looks like he's doing fine, we're going to do it."

If Gardenhire holds to his word, this would be a monumental shift in philosophy for an organization that typically uses the 100-pitch mark as a stop sign.

In fact, since Gardenhire took over as manager in 2002, the Twins have had fewer pitchers throw 110-plus pitches in a game than any other team in baseball -- and the margin isn't particularly close.

And only two teams have had fewer pitchers throw 100-plus pitches in games since 2002 than the Twins.

From 2002 through Sunday, each MLB team has played approximately 1,715 regular season games. The chart below shows how often each team's starting pitchers have thrown 100 and 110-plus pitches.

 

110+ pitches

% of games 110+

100+ pitches

% of games 100+

Twins

121

7%

597

35%

Angels

349

20%

970

57%

Astros

271

16%

721

42%

Athletics

261

15%

830

48%

Blue Jays

268

16%

749

44%

Braves

212

12%

666

39%

Brewers

304

18%

820

48%

Cardinals

250

15%

671

39%

Cubs

398

23%

827

48%

Diamondbacks

304

18%

803

47%

Dodgers

248

14%

635

37%

Giants

468

27%

903

53%

Indians

259

15%

802

47%

Mariners

352

21%

904

53%

Marlins

284

17%

722

42%

Mets

325

19%

876

51%

Nats/Expos

233

14%

569

33%

Orioles

271

16%

783

46%

Padres

187

11%

634

37%

Phillies

329

19%

780

45%

Pirates

160

9%

563

33%

Rangers

249

15%

737

43%

Rays

331

19%

871

51%

Red Sox

326

19%

881

51%

Reds

305

18%

754

44%

Rockies

231

13%

636

37%

Royals

218

13%

687

40%

Tigers

327

19%

776

45%

White Sox

344

20%

974

57%

Yankees

315

18%

795

46%

Avg

283

17%

765

45%


It's also worth noting that only 12 times have Gardenhire and Anderson allowed a pitcher to throw 120-plus pitches in a game since 2002.

On Friday in Kansas City, Nick Blackburn surpassed the 100-pitch mark by recording two outs in the seventh inning. On Sunday, Gardenhire sent Sam Deduno out for the seventh inning with a pitch count in the 90's.

Now, getting six solid innings out of Blackburn, Deduno and De Vries might qualify as playing with house money. Sending them out for another inning is not the same decision Jim Leyland makes when he sends Justin Verlander out for the seventh.

There are several variables in play when it comes to pitch counts. The Chicago Cubs probably deserve criticism of their handling of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior last decade. Other teams like the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Angels have been blessed with multiple top-end starting pitchers annually.

It's likely the Pittsburgh Pirates rank at the bottom of the 100-plus pitch-count list because, quite frankly, they've traditionally had terrible starting pitchers who rarely pitch deep into ballgames. The same can be said for the Kansas City Royals, Colorado Rockies and Washington Nationals, at least until this season.
 
For the better part of the last two seasons the Twins' starting rotation has been a mess of moving parts, musical chairs and ineffectiveness, but that wasn't the case from 2002 through 2010. For those eight seasons, lower pitch counts had more to do with organizational philosophy than ineffectiveness.

Johan Santana, for instance, threw 110 pitches or more only 26 times in 166 starts (16%) from 2002 to 2007. Maybe keeping his pitch counts down helped with his overall effectiveness and durability. Or maybe the Twins missed out on some important innings. It's difficult to say.

Over that same stretch, CC Sabathia threw 110 pitches or more 150 times in 186 starts (81%). Tim Hudson threw 110 pitches or more 74 times in 193 starts (38%).

Also, it would seem that limiting pitch counts would help save pitchers' arms, thus keeping them healthier, but that doesn't appear to be the case in Minnesota. Twins pitchers have missed a significant amount of time over the past few seasons with arm, oblique or back injuries -- more time than teams such as the Rays and Rangers who have twice as many and three times as many pitchers throwing 110-plus pitches, respectively, than the Twins.

It remains to be seen if the Twins, and Gardenhire, will follow through long-term with pushing pitch counts higher. Maybe it's only temporary.

As it stands, they're the outlier.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
In this story: Nick Blackburn, Ron Gardenhire
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