Thursday, July 16, 2009

Pitching With Pace (Part 1 of ?)

After watching Jordan Zimmermann come uncorked Sunday after six solid innings, I began to wonder whether or not the pace of the game takes more of an effect on the pitcher than managers realize. Pitch counts are treated as the “end-all be-all” and enthusiasts will harp over year-by-year inning escalations burdened upon young pitchers. Both these quantitative statistics have their time and place, but even pitchers who hit these guidelines develop control problems, dead arms, and eventually injuries. Scott Olsen is likely a prime example.

On Sunday, Jordan Zimmermann was on fire through five innings, eliminating the Astros like they were a AAA lineup. In the top of the sixth, he sat on the bench for several minutes while the Nats hitters loaded the bases and failed to score. He cruised through the meat of the Astros order in the sixth. In the seventh, he bunted his turn at the plate, then watched while the Nats hitters loaded the bases and failed to score*. When he returned in the seventh, the bottom fell out. Hit by pitch, single, strikeout (though the way Pudge was swinging the bat, Daniel Cabrera may have gotten him chasing a pitch into the dugout), the Matsui homerun, and finally walking the pitcher on four pitches.

* I added the phrase "while the Nats hitters loaded the bases and failed to score." as a shortcut... let's hope that it is wasted.

Most people would immediately jump on the pitch count and inning. Zimmermann was pulled at 102 pitches into the seventh inning. Not a bad start overall, if you glance at the box score, but having seen the first six innings of dominance, the line doesn’t make sense. The innings and pitch count were not the factor that killed his stuff. He started the inning with a pitch count in the low 80s, and has regularly thrown over 100 pitches with no ill effects. The fatigue that caught up to him was not in his arm. The first five innings were played in just over an hour and fifteen minutes. The final three and a half innings took and hour forty five.

Trek back to Zimmermann’s start against Boston. The Nats bombed the Sox 9-3, a game that featured some runs, but few long innings after the first. Zimmermann was out of the game for a pinch hitter in two hours, have torn off seven innings with five singles and a walk. He threw 109 pitches and his stuff was not waning. The key was that the pace of the game did not allow him to get mentally fatigued waiting out a 3+ hour game. The variable the Nationals players and coaches control is the time between pitches, which if accelerated to a point where the pitcher remains comfortable, can shorten the game. And while there is a good solution to the dilemma of a hot pitcher sitting on the bench while his team bats around the order, it is up to the manager be able to assess the situation before batters start getting hit and the ball winds up in the stands.

The question now is how much of a correlation can be found within this data? Craig Stammen has had more success going deeper into games recently. Is he pitching with more pace between pitches? A quick glance at game logs may not be able to prove anything, so we may have to go to the video… Where’s George Michael’s Sports Machine when you need it?

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