Anyone who has been paying attention during the first round of the World Baseball Classic has likely heard the term "Pitch Count" bounced around the broadcast booth. Simply put, its the (usually) total number of pitches made by the pitcher during the game. It is generally used to numerically gauge a pitcher's effective threshold.
Over the past several seasons, I have realized that the pitch count goes far beyond that. It plays into many factors that can influence not only the pitcher's health and stamina, but also each individual at-bat, inning, game, and even a series.
Let's talk a bit about the smallest sample, the individual at-bat.
Of the top 90 pitchers in baseball in terms of Pitches/At-bat, 83% of them had ERA+ averages of over 100 (which is considered above average). Why?
One of the reasons is less walks. Less walks equal less base-runners, which means less potential for the dreaded "big inning". That's a story for another day however. Another side of it would directly parallel the batters who see the most pitches per at bat and high OBP.
As pitchers go deeper into counts (more than 5 pitches), the batter becomes more favored for two reasons.
#1- They've seen the pitcher's repertoire and are more able to react to the pitch
#2- The pitcher is struggling to put the batter away, and may lose stamina and focus more quickly with less momentum in their favor
One example is our own Manny Ramirez in 2005. He hit .252 after 3 pitches, .330 after 4, and .375 after 5 pitches.
Moving into the bigger picture now...
While watching ballgames, I often evaluate a team's performance based on the overall pitch count.
For Boston's hitters, I want the team to average 5 pitches per out. This will bring the opposing pitcher to 15 pitches per inning, a number that seperates the good from the bad, in my opinion. Even if the offense goes down 1-2-3, they can make "semi-productive outs" by making the pitcher work.
If the hitter can get on base somehow, the pitcher is forced to start again with a new hitter, and the potential for pitch count inflation improves. This affects the fielders as well, as it is frustrating to watch a pitcher battle a hitter and get into trouble, especially early in the game. Remember Mark Buehrle's teammates talking about how they stay energized when he pitches because he keeps the pace of the game moving? He was 22nd on the P/PA ladder last season.
There's nothing I can't stand more than an inning that goes something like this...
Damon leads off, grounds out on the second pitch. Renteria up, pops out to the catcher on a 2-0 count. Ortiz lines out to first base on the first pitch. Bang. 6 pitch inning. The other team has been on the field for about 90 seconds, and has MOMENTUM.
Some pitchers get better with loosening up, however. Take Curt Schilling in 2004. His ERA on pitches 1-15 was 7.07. That dropped to a 3.78 on pitches 16-30, to 1.59 on 31-45, and 0.86 on 46-60. Anomolies exist everywhere I guess!
If our hitters can make a pitcher throw 20 pitches in an inning, they've been very successful. Not only does that pitch count often mean that the pitcher is struggling and is giving up runs, there is a chance that he will fatigue earlier and the hitters will be able to get into the opposition's bullpen.
This is EXTREMELY important in the first game of a series. Usually, the weakest pitchers on a team are the long-men/middle-relievers. If a team can knock out a pitcher early on (innings 3-4-5), they set up the potential for a very good game AND series as the bullpen will likely have to work hard. The next day's starter will then start the next game with more pressure to pitch deep into the game, which could be disasterous as well.
It is the opposite for our pitches. If our arms can keep their counts to below 15 for an inning (or averaging 5 pitches per out), the starters will be able to go deeper into the game (that average will get most starters 7 innings with 105 pitches).
So there you have it. Try watching a game this season with these thoughts in your mind, and see just how the balance of a game or even a series can shift with a long at-bat or long-inning.