If you are even on the periphery of Cubs fandom at the moment, there’s a good chance you’re aware that Jake Arrieta is having an absolutely brilliant season on the mound. I don’t really need to go over the numbers yet another time, but here’s the deal: he’s good. But I don’t want to talk about how good Arrieta has been this summer; I mean, I do, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about right now.
We’re in an era of hypersensitivity when it comes to how arms are handled in the big leagues. When Arrieta tossed a complete game to earn his 20th victory of the season 10 days ago, there were some who were concerned that the Cubs’ workhorse might have thrown 123 pitches unnecessarily, thereby putting himself at increased risk of injury. In particular, some observers I spoke to were bothered by the fact that Arrieta was allowed to reach that pitch count solely in order to be on the mound when the final out was recorded.
In all honesty, I understood the complaint at the time and still do—it felt valid. The Cubs were, after all, leading by four runs through eight innings, and they were facing a Milwaukee Brewers team that was not only without Ryan Braun and Jonathan Lucroy, but also had Khris Davis batting cleanup. Blowing the lead was hardly a worry—Maddon admitted as much after the game—and so, for the ‘pitch counts are dangerous’ crowd, it felt excessive to bring Arrieta—at 108 pitches after eight—out for the ninth inning, just so he’d be able to celebrate with his teammates on the field after reaching a milestone win.
Like I said, I understand the complaint. I also think that it’s simplistic. While I don’t love that Arrieta was out there simply to be a part of a moment, I think that there’s a more nuanced discussion to be had here than just suggesting that there was no justification for extending his pitch count to the level it reached. As I pondered this while heading down to Maddon’s interview after this game, there were two thoughts I couldn’t get out of my head: (1) did Maddon feel he had a legitimate reason to keep Arrieta in that game? And (2) just how bad, actually, is throwing that many pitches for an arm—not just for any pitcher, but for Arrieta in particular?
To answer these questions, I enlisted the help of two other journalists who have carved out quite the niche for themselves in trying to better understand pitchers, their arms, and the hows, whats, and whys that lead to pitcher injuries (or help keep them healthy). Via email, I contacted Yahoo Sports baseball reporter Jeff Passan, who has spent the last few years researching and accumulating information for his upcoming book, The Arm. I also spoke with Baseball Prospectus’ very own Russell Carleton. Carleton has a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology (you’ll understand why this is relevant shortly) and has been writing about pitchers, pitch counts, and their health for the past half-decade at BP.
In addition to speaking with Passan and Carleton, I touched base with numerous other people in baseball who I thought might have something insightful to say about the topic. Those conversations, of course, also helped to shape my opinions as I researched this article. Armed with their insights, the thoughts passed along by Carleton and Passan, and quotes from Maddon and Arrieta themselves, I’m going to tackle each issue that I think is relevant with regards to Arrieta tossing 123 pitches while earning his 20th victory of the season.
Pitch Count, Baby, It’s All About the Pitch Count
“Believe me, I’m aware of pitch numbers, pitch counts, pitch whatevers; I’ve always been,” Maddon said. “I’ve done this for a while.”
There’s more to this quote, but I’m leaving it out for now; it’s something I want to dive into later in the piece. However, let’s be clear, Maddon is no dummy. He’s aware that pitch counts matter and, rest assured, he’s aware of the data out there.
Here’s some of that data: Carleton once wrote that once a pitcher gets to 115 pitches, he’s entered a danger zone of sorts. It was clear, therefore, that putting Arrieta in for the ninth was going to get him past that magic number, but Maddon did it anyway. Some would suggest this was folly by Maddon. Especially when we consider that for pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched this season, Arrieta is sixth with 105.2 pitchers per start, fourth in pitcher abuse points (PAP), and second with seven outings of 115 pitches or more*. Based on these facts alone, it seems hard to defend Maddon’s decision to let Arrieta go out there for the ninth. But he did, and he defended it after the game without hesitation. Why?
*Interestingly, when it comes to PAP, Chris Sale is a repeat offender, and both Jeff Samardzija and Jose Quintana are high on this list. Sale is the only pitcher with more 115-pitch outings (8) than Arrieta this season. Samardizja has five, John Danks has four, and Quintana has three. And when it came to pitches per start, Sale and Quintana are first and fifth, respectively. I only bring this up because the White Sox are known as a team that is able to keep their pitchers remarkably healthy year after year. If they’re not adhering to what some would call arbitrary pitch counts, it makes me wonder just how strictly anyone else should.
Maddon Felt Arrieta Deserved a Shot at Being on the Mound to Get His ‘Moment’
On the surface, this seems silly. It’s become pretty universally acknowledged that the win statistic is overrated; to push Arrieta’s pitch count up so high just so he can be on the mound to celebrate this accomplishment seems like specious decision making. But let’s dig into this a little more.
“It’s a really tough decision to make in that moment,” Maddon said. “It’s unusual. Honestly, if all this other stuff was not attached to it, I would have taken him out. But with everything else attached to it, I thought it was appropriate to send him back out. You have to be in the dugout to really feel all of that. Believe me, I didn’t do it lightly or easily, I thought about it a lot.”
Maddon’s making it clear that he didn’t come to the decision to leave Arrieta out there without putting significant thought into it. He weighed the positives and negatives, his postgame comments made it clear that he was truly tormented over what to do, and came to the conclusion that it was worth it to leave his ace on the mound for another dozen or so pitches so he could celebrate with his teammates. And that’s exactly what happened. Arrieta finished off the ninth with 15 pitches, got the win, and was mobbed by the rest of the Cubs. Of course, the win is a nearly-meaningless statistic that is often arbitrary, and Maddon knows this—but it’s about the result, the moment, and that’s what Maddon felt it was important for Arrieta to experience.
As Carleton put it:
I spent several weeks of 2004 trying to figure out how to propose to my then-girlfriend, now wife and then planning the actual proposal. I proposed to her at the Lincoln Park Zoo, at the Kovler Penguin House…which they have since torn down! I specifically ordered a Beanie Baby penguin and bought a little plastic ring to safety pin onto the flipper at the Walgreen’s on Clark. If I wanted to ask her in the most efficient way possible, I would have simply diverted my nightly run over to her apartment one day, asked her, gotten a yes, and run back to my apartment. Nightly workout and marriage proposal in one fell swoop. Not bad.
Of course, I didn’t do that. I planned a romantic picnic in the gardens outside the zoo. I already knew she was gonna say yes, because we had already talked about it, but I wanted it to be a special moment for both of us. You’re likely familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It’s the pyramid that says that first people seek (at the base) things like food, water, and shelter. Then we seek things like companionship and social interaction. Then we seek things like the esteem of the people around us. Finally, we seek things like those wonderful transcendent moments where—if even for a few brief seconds—it’s all perfect.
Well, Russell, I was not familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy, but now I feel foolish, so thanks for that. But I digress. This is what Maddon was giving Arrieta: that transcendent moment. Arrieta has built that social interaction and companionship with his teammates. After the Cubs clinched, he talked about how he feels it’s important to get to know the guys in the clubhouse, meet their wives, their kids, and to not just have a surface relationship. These things are important to Arrieta.
“Absolutely, and Joe does it as good or better than anybody I’ve seen,” Arrieta responded when asked if he could appreciate the fact that his manager let him finish off the game. “It could have gone either way, I could have easily come out after eight with all the factors in place. But he allowed me to go back out there and finish it in the ninth and that’s something you love to see from your manager.”
While he likely would have accepted being pulled in the eighth and he also didn’t seem to be obsessed with the idea of having 20 wins—Arrieta basically admitted it was a team accomplishment and he was happy to have had even a hand in it—that moment with his teammates, in front of his home fans, meant a lot to him.
“It’s special,” Arrieta said of finishing off the game in front of the Wrigley faithful. “The crowd here appreciates it. They were into it from the first pitch and that’s what makes playing this game so fun: playing in front of your home crowd in a city like Chicago.”
And outside of the fans, being mobbed by his teammates will be a lasting memory for Arrieta.
“Those are the kinds of moments you live for in this game,” Arrieta reflected. “It’s the first time we’ve done something like that on the field—we usually do that in the clubhouse. It was fun. That’s something my teammates initiated. Just the support from the entire group of guys has been amazing. They’re very appreciative, as am I, of the guys I have around me.”
As Carleton told me, Maddon had two choices. He could pull his starter due to a high pitch count—which is a decision dictated by the empirical data we have available to us. Or he could leave Arrieta in and maybe increase team morale, make Arrieta happier, and possibly even help team chemistry. There’s no way of actually measuring this, of any of us actually understanding if that actually matters. “I still have no idea how to even approach that question,” Carleton told me. But Maddon weighed the two options and went with the unknown when deciding that giving Arrieta his moment was the right avenue to take. I’m still not sure if it was the right way to go about things, and I never will, but one thing is clear: to do what Maddon did took major guts.
Injury History Over Pitch Count
When Carleton looked at what is actually the best predictor for pitcher injury, pitch count was up high. Even more prominent, though, was whether the pitcher in question had been injured before. Not only did Carleton find this correlation clear in the data, but when communicating with Passan, he spoke of it like it was common knowledge.
“If I’m the Dodgers, Clayton Kershaw is throwing 125 pitches [in] every game we need him to because he can,” Passan told me. “He is big and strong and has stayed healthy, and the biggest predictor of an arm injury, of course, is a past arm injury. Which, again, isn’t to say Kershaw won’t get hurt, because it’s an arm and he’s a pitcher and throwing absolutes on anything is completely foolish.”
Let’s be clear, Passan wasn’t trying to single out only Kershaw, and things like his contract status of course factor into these types of decisions. But the fact of the matter is, in a vacuum, Passan, after all the research and digging he’s done, believes that pitchers like Kershaw, who are of a certain age (more on that later) and have a pretty clean injury history, are exactly the type who can afford to have a few more pitches—pitches many would be uncomfortable piling on another arm—added to their workload.
The fact is, there’s a reason the Cubs were attracted to Jon Lester over other arms in the offseason. When speaking with reporters after Lester’s introductory press conference, Theo Epstein pointed to Andy Pettitte as a comparable to Lester. Two lefty arms with a long history of health, and, in Lester’s case, he’d reached that magic age of 30 with a very limited injury history. The fact that they were familiar with Lester was certainly attractive to the Cubs front office, but the reason they pursued him with such vigor was because they believed his injury history was the most accurate indicator of what they could expect from him—at least health-wise—in the future.
With Arrieta, his most recent injury was shoulder inflammation that afflicted him at the beginning of the 2014 season. It was an injury that the Cubs admitted to being extra cautious about while keeping him out of the season’s first month. Arrieta’s most severe injury was probably surgery on his elbow to deal with bone spurts and a fibrous mass. These aren’t the type of red flag injuries one would point to when worried about recurring injuries, so perhaps Arrieta is safe in this respect.
And while Arrieta may be in the clear with respect to injury history, we can’t gloss over the pitch count which I explored in the previous section. We can, however, try to determine whether just looking at the pitch count as a number alone is a flawed tactic.
High-Stress Pitches More Important Than Raw Pitch Count?
“And it was kind of, honestly, a non-stressful 120 pitches, if that makes sense,” Maddon told the media after the game. “He wasn’t really in a lot of binds in the course of the game.”
There’s a theory out there that high-stress pitches—pitches thrown in high-leverage situations, with men on base, generally in situations that would be considered more strenuous—are more taxing on the body and arm than your run-of-the-mill pitch thrown with nobody on base. So, theoretically, 20 pitches tossed in a 1-2-3 inning are easier on the arm than 20 pitches thrown with men on second and third with one out late in a one-run game.
Nearly five years ago, David Allen took on this topic and suggested this:
It makes perfect sense: When the game is not close or there are no runners on, a pitcher’s best stuff is not necessary, but when the game is close, it’s time to shift to another gear. These higher-leverage pitches almost certainly take more out of a pitcher than when he is cruising.
When I asked Arrieta if he felt ‘high-stress’ pitches were more taxing on his body, he hesitated, gave a quick no, but eventually admitted that the idea may have some merit.
“I think that at times it can,” Arrieta said “Those are some times where you try and add a little bit, or do more than is necessary. So I think that’s where the stress comes in, with guys on base. The first inning, I had a lead-off double and was able to get out of that. Those are ‘high-stress’ pitches, but I don’t intentionally try and add effort. But I think the situation dictates a little more aggressive type stuff. There weren’t many of those situations throughout the game. I think that boded pretty well for me.”
So Maddon, Arrieta, and Allen all felt, to varying degrees, that the situation of when the pitches were thrown matter. However, Carleton studied this topic just last week and came to a different conclusion:
…this does suggest that—at least in the aggregate—the physical act of throwing pitches, whether accompanied by mental gymnastics or not, is the real driver of pitcher fatigue. For the purposes of making strategic decisions, managers and pitching coaches should keep the raw pitch count in mind.
But there’s more here. Just because Arrieta has been allowed to enter into a dangerous area with regards to his pitch count doesn’t mean that he’s headed for disaster.
Age Matters, as Does the Individual
The Injury Nexus was something Nate Silver explored over a dozen years ago. The basic premise is that if a pitcher can get past the age of roughly 24 without suffering a serious injury, their chances of them suffering recurring injuries down the line reduces significantly. Every bit of information I found on the topic of pitch counts pointed to young pitchers being at greatest risk. As Passan pointed out, that isn’t to say that once you get to the age of 25 and plow past it to 30 without any injury that you’re safe. Bronson Arroyo says hello and Greg Holland would like to have a word with you. Nothing is guaranteed here.
But age is important, and while Arrieta may be in the midst of a major innings jump (his start on Friday will likely put him 70 innings over his previous career high, and that figure will only continue to rise if the Cubs go as deep as they hope to in October), he’s at the right age with the right injury history for Maddon to take chances with his pitch count.
“It’s all this stuff that’s very prominent in the news right now as far as pitchers and innings pitched,” Maddon said. “The thing I’ve talked about with him, the fact that he’s not in his early 20s, the fact that he’s been pitching for a while, I think separates him a little bit. Actually, a lot. Combine that with his workout regimen and the kind of shape he’s in.”
That last sentence—about Arrieta’s workout habits and impeccable physical shape—sticks with me and it reminded me of a piece Carleton wrote for the 2014 BP Annual. If you’re going to read any article about baseball, this is the one to read. Carleton points out that while we often strive for an overarching concept that can be applied to everyone, the fact is, we often ignore the individual. From Carlton’s piece:
I often answer that the next big thing is understanding how each player works, and instead of strategies that can be applied across entire organizations or in every situation, understanding the nuances of each player on a case-by-case basis.
This is such a simple concept, but it so often goes ignored—I’m guilty of it far too much as well. Remember that Maddon quote I said I cut short about 2,000 words ago? Here it is in its entirety.
“Believe me, I’m aware of pitch numbers, pitch counts, pitch whatevers, I’ve always been. I’ve done this for a while. But my bet is this guy is going to be fine. He’s a different animal and we’ll see how it plays out.”
This isn’t something that Maddon is alone in believing. Arrieta’s fitness level, diet, and work ethic are well known all across baseball. Last weekend, when the media walked into the room where we chat with Maddon in pregame, Arrieta was showing members of the ESPN staff—who were in town to call the Sunday night game—how he went through his Pilates routine. This is no secret; Arrieta’s dedication to his craft is a topic that’s widely discussed.
“Arrieta’s workout and workout discipline is probably unmatched in baseball,” an NL scout told me. “There’s a good chance that he would be an outlier in terms of health. I bet he could throw 150 pitches every four days.”
Sure, that’s probably a touch of hyperbole, but the sentiment is clear: Arrieta should not be held to the same standard as every other pitcher in baseball. And the fact is, Maddon isn’t applying a hard pitch count across his staff. We’ve seen it in action all season long. He treats Lester and Arrieta very differently than he does the other arms in the rotation. Part of that is his trust in their ability to get the job done, but another is the belief that their arms can handle that type of use.
When making the decision to keep Arrieta out on the mound to earn his ‘moment’ Maddon didn’t apply some universal baseline. He made an educated judgement call based on the individual, based on what he knows about Arrieta being a ‘different animal.’
From my chat with Carleton:
There’s a well-known phenomenon in human behavior about certainty. For example, let’s say that the fate of the world rests on you blindly pulling a white marble out of a jar of white and black marbles. But you are given a choice of two jars to pull from. Both have 100 marbles. The one on the left, the evil super-villain who is running this test tells you, has 50 white marbles and 50 black ones. The one on the right, well, that’s a mystery. Most people prefer to pull from the one on the left. What’s weird is that immediately afterward, with the same set up, the fate of the world now depends on you pulling out a black marble, and people still take the known 50/50 shot. This is logical nonsense. If you believe that the 50/50 jar represents your best chance at a white marble, then by definition, the unknown jar represents your best shot at a black marble. People prefer certainty.
Something Passan hammered home to me, and a point he says he repeatedly comes back to in his book, is that far too often decisions are based on fear rather than science. Too many managers won’t allow their pitchers to reach a certain, often arbitrarily set, number out of fear, fear of the unknown. Maddon may not have had the numbers to back up his decision, and he had no certainty that he was making the ‘right’ call, but he wasn’t going to let fear dictate how he handled things. We may never know if Maddon was right or wrong to choose this path, and there is likely no way of knowing if what Maddon decided was detrimental to Arrieta’s arm. But perhaps his ability to have the temerity to choose the unknown is exactly what makes Maddon so great at his job.
Lead photo courtesy of Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports