We live in the era of pitch counts and innings limits. That’s not going to change. That genie is not getting put back in the bottle.
When a guy is pitching a gem in the seventh inning, if we’re at the ballpark, we check the scoreboard to see how many pitches he’s thrown. If we’re watching on TV, we check that little box in the top left corner of the screen.
It didn’t used to be that way, of course. And not that long ago.
In 1981, an 18-year-old third-round draft pick for his hometown Kansas City Royals threw 67 innings in the minors in his first professional season. A year later, he threw 177. Today, a teenage pitcher would never be allowed to jump 110 innings in one season.
That pitcher was David Cone. He went on to pitch 17 seasons in the major leagues, won 194 games, threw a perfect game for the Yankees and once threw 166 pitches in a start for the Mets.
Also in 1981, a 20-year-old righthander out of Hawaii and Massachusetts and Yale was selected ninth overall by the Texas Rangers. He threw 71 innings in Double-A in his first professional season. A year later, after being traded to the Mets, he threw 152 in Triple-A.
That pitcher was Ron Darling. He went on to pitch 13 seasons in the major leagues and won 136 games, including 99 with the Mets from 1984-91. From 1985-88, he averaged more than 240 innings, including the 1986 and 1988 postseasons.
Darling and Cone remain fixtures in the New York baseball scene as announcers, Darling for the Mets on SNY and nationally on TBS and Cone for the Yankees on YES.
They are two of the most thoughtful and insightful announcers in the game. While they both have reservations about how pitchers are treated today — babied, some would say; protected from overuse and injury, others would say — Cone and Darling are not your typical retired players who think everything stinks today and was great back in their day.
With that in mind, Newsday sat down with the two former hurlers in separate interviews and asked them about a simple premise: How do they think their careers might have been different if they came up today, in the era of pitch counts and innings limits, instead of in their own eras? Here’s what they had to say:
Q: Would you have been as successful if you came up today?
DARLING: “I think it would have been very difficult for me to have the career I had if you threw me into the way they let pitchers pitch today. I think the biggest difference for me in my career is I was allowed to stay on the mound for a boatload of pitches to kind of figure out the game. I don’t think I’d be given that courtesy. That’s something that’s rarely done today.
“I don’t know if I would have been given the opportunity to work my troubles out, to get to a point where I was really prepared. Just drop me into the system now, I think I would have some serious questions and problems and issues with how I was handled.
“It’s not only the pitch limits. It’s almost like you have two hours to get it in. It’s like an SAT test.”
CONE: “It would have been difficult. I probably would have ended up in the bullpen as a reliever. Just because I threw so many pitches and I ran a lot of deep counts. I tried to go for strikeouts. I wasn’t wild, but I wasn’t a control artist. I wasn’t worried about going 3-and-2. I was always worried about making a pitch.
“The thing I think about mostly is pitch count. Ninety-five pitches. One hundred pitches. It would change my whole approach. You would be so concerned with getting quick outs as opposed to maybe wasting a pitch or trying to set up hitters or going for strikeouts. I used to have 100 pitches after five innings in a lot of starts and I was allowed to throw 125, 130. That would not happen. So my whole approach would be different.
“It’s hard to envision [being as successful]. It really is. I see a lot of pitchers now who throw the ball on the same plane, in the same area. Working up the ladder, sequencing of pitches, you just don’t see as much of that anymore. You see a lot of guys who try to throw perfect pitches and the hitters are all looking in the same area. It would be hard for me. I sympathize with a lot of these guys with what is mandated.”
What about the idea that this is done to protect pitchers from injury?
DARLING: “What I don’t understand, what my question would be is, ‘Why am I painted with the same brush as Noah [Syndergaard] or Matt [Harvey] or Jacob [deGrom]? We’re all four different people. So why are we all the same? We don’t have the same body.’
“If Tom Seaver pitched today, you’d take away complete games, you’d take away the shutouts, innings pitched, strikeouts. All those things that made Tom Seaver ‘The Franchise’ would all be taken away by the people who run the game today. They’d say he’d last longer. Well, how long would he last? He pitched 20 years. Would he pitch 30 years?
“Syndergaard, Harvey, deGrom, [Steven] Matz and [Zack] Wheeler: They’ll probably never have as many shutouts as I had as a Met . And that’s a shame, isn’t it?”
CONE: “[Pitch counts] were not a subject. I remember starting out the season with the Mets in ’88 in the bullpen. All of a sudden, Rick Aguilera got hurt and I got a spot start. I threw nine innings out of the bullpen. No stretching out. You get a chance to be a starter, go ahead and act like a starter.
“Still, you’re going to err on the side of caution because you want to protect them. I get that. And I know there’s a lot of data that says past the 85-pitch mark or third time through the order, the numbers go the other way and you’re better off bringing in a reliever.
“I wish I would have had a little more protection when I pitched. I wish I would have had a little more somebody looking out for me, in retrospect. ‘Hey, you don’t need to throw 140 pitches tonight in an 8-1 game.’ ”
How would you tweak the way it’s done today?
DARLING: “I think it would be fun to make it a little more goal-oriented and have the wings taken off. If you performed at a certain level, you would be allowed to prove to people that ‘I’m a 125-pitch guy. I will give you 125 pitches every five days and I will be excellent from the 100th to the 125th pitch as I am from 75-100.’ I would allow that for a real special talent. I would allow rugged individualism to play a part.”
CONE: “I found out later in my career that the recovery time was key between starts. A few extra days’ rest. I would be much more creative if I ran a team. I would introduce a sixth starter here and there. I wouldn’t be so concerned with pitch counts. I’d be more concerned with giving guys extra rest. Giving Masahiro Tanaka a few extra days and put the ball in Ivan Nova’s hand tonight. I would do more of that. I’d go for quality over quantity.”