The Commish Online www.thecommishonline.com
Pitch Counts - So Important, Nobody Was Counting
July 13, 2009
I received a great question in an e-mail this weekend. I'm assuming it was in response to Jason Marquis' brilliant 86-pitch complete game shutout against the Dodgers a couple weeks ago or Luke Hochevar's 80-pitch performance over the Reds in early June, but the question was: "What is the fewest number of pitches thrown in a complete game?" Simple question, impossible answer.
I usually praise the "Play Index" feature in baseball-reference.com, but this time it failed me, more so because of the lack of available data than any problems with the site itself. Running a quick search of complete games of 9 IP or more between 1954 and present (sorted by total pitches) yielded a bunch of "0" pitch counts. Worse yet, I found some pitch counts in the 20s and 30s. These were incorrect, but a quick look at the play-by-play revealed that pitch counts for individual at bats were missing, so the totals were incorrect. That's where baseball-reference.com failed me. If data is incomplete, it would be better to publish "N/A" or "Incomplete" rather than incorrect numbers.
Enough about the problems with data mining and on to the results. After filtering the data to begin with 1985 (a more reasonable chance at getting "real" numbers) and throwing out the games with incomplete data, I found a few remarkable performances. On 08/29/90, Bob Tewksbury of the St. Louis Cardinals threw just 73 pitches in a complete game, 9-1 victory over Cincinnati. Wasting no pitches on strikeouts (because "Tewks" didn't have any), Tewksbury was helped by the Reds putting NINE first pitches into play. Oddly enough, the only batter that saw at least 5 pitches was the first batter Tewksbury faced, Billy Hatcher. Obviously keeping the ball in the strike zone all day, Tewksbury gave up 6 hits (including a home run) in the victory. 12 days earlier, Tewksbury threw a 79-pitch complete game!
More recently, Aaron Cook of the Rockies threw a 74-pitch game on 07/25/07 against the Padres. Like Tewksbury, Cook gave up his share of hits (7 hits, 2 runs) but got help from TEN first pitches put in play. One year later, on 07/01/08, Cook threw a 79-pitch complete game against... yup, the Padres.
On the flipside, there is a 207-pitch performance recorded in 1961 by Stan Williams, and a 205-pitch outing by Sandy Koufax in the same year. Before you say "they don't make 'em like that anymore," you should know that Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Tim Wakefield, Livan Hernandez, John Smoltz, and Kenny Rogers all have at least one complete game of 150 pitches or more. What does that prove? Nothing I suppose, but my opinion still remains that pitch counts may help in taming a young arm, but genetics far outweigh the babying of talent when it comes to maintaining a long career.