The Nolan Standard

When pitching legend Nolan Ryan joined the Texas Rangers Front Office he was sick and tired of pitchers leaving the game because of high pitch counts. If under a pitch count during his career he rarely would have made it past the 5th inning. Instead, he was one of the best workhorses of the past generation. His MLB record of walks and strikeouts prove that he threw as many pitches as anybody. Unfortunately since pitches were not officially kept in the statistics, we will never know how high his counts were.

According to the Pitch Count Estimator of the Hardball times, Ryan topped out at a decade high of approximately 5,684 pitches in 1973. That tops the range of MLB leaders in pitches from the early 90’s until now which is 3,900-4,200 by quite a large number. Only Bob Feller of 1946 tops the amount Ryan threw in ’73.

Ryan also threw over 90,000 estimated pitches in his career, taking the crown by over 7,000. Compare that to Roger Clemens (68,000+), Greg Maddux (60,000+) and Tom Glavine (55,000+) and it is shocking to see how much Ryan really did throw.

In Texas, he has emphasized conditioning and building up a players leg and arm strength to allow them to go deeper into games. He has also banished pitch counts from being the reason a pitcher is pulled from a game.

The results have been mixed thus far in Texas. They are working in 26 year old Scott Feldman and 22 year olds Tommy Hunter and Derek Holland. Feldman, Hunter and veteran Kevin Millwood have been stable thus far for the Rangers while Vicente Padilla, Brandon McCarty and Holland have struggled in their turns in the rotation.

The experiment will take years to work. A long term study will have to be done to determine what happens to the career of each Ranger pitcher based on their body of work under Ryan and whether his higher pitch count tolerance enhanced or hurt their careers.

While the average number of pitches thrown in an MLB game has remained consistent for over 50 years, the number of pitches by the starter has gone down. Starters are starters for a reason. They are the better pitchers. They have more tricks in the bag and more pitches to work with. In the older days they were able to stay in the game longer. In today’s game, more relievers are used so it seems as if more pitches may be throwing more because they are spread out from guy to guy, but it is not true. The workload of a starter simply has diminished.

Too often a broadcaster or manager will say about a certain player “if he can just give us a 6 quality innings we will be fine.” The problem with that philosophy is a starter will condition himself to think that he is doing his job if he can get through 6 innings and give up 3 or fewer runs and earn a “Quality Start.”

In Texas, Ryan and his staff have upped the ante. They have added an inning and deemed a Quality Start an effort in which a pitcher goes at least 7 innings and allows 3 earned runs or fewer. The industry wide accepted 6/3 QS is fools gold. An ERA of 4.50 for a game is slightly below the league average. Also, it forces a diluted and weaker group of arms to make more outs that they would better off not be used to get in the clutch innings of a game. It benefits the entire staff if the starter can make it through another inning or two.

In Cleveland, the team has been devastated by the starting rotation and bullpen underachieving for the entire 2009 season. The bullpen has been in flux since April and the faces have changed nearly as often as Brett Favre’s mind. The rotation has been muddled with the “5 and fly” performances made famous by Fausto Carmona, David Huff and Jeremy Sowers. They have not been able to grit their way through a game and pitch through some rough patches to shorten the game for the undermanned ‘pen.

Carl Willis and Eric Wedge have not gotten enough from the pitching staff in their entire tenure with the club. A new philosophy needs to be developed and the one Ryan is crafting in Texas has worked magic so far this year with the Rangers.

In every sport there are teams who have repuatations around the nation for the way they play. The Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears immediately spark the words “offense” and “defense” when I think of them. In the NBA, the Detroit Pistons and Phoenix Suns spark defense and offense. The Texas Rangers have long been known as a franchise which suffers from a lack of pitching and has a wealth of hitting. On the other end of the spectrum, the recent St. Louis Cardinal teams have brought more of an aggressive and dominating pitching staff to the table with weaker hitting. Sure, they have Albert Pujols (and now Matt Holliday), but they are rarely an offensive juggernaut. They always typically rely on the strength of their pitching, defense and bench to be a consistent contender.

Texas has overcome that stereotype this season to become a team anchored by its pitching. Even in the brutal heat of an Arlington summer the Ranger pitchers have not wilted. The staff has featured some powerful young arms, too.

The Indians have relied on many young arms this season as well. None can really be called overpowering, they instead use the soft, slower stuff to get outs. Teams who have starting pitchers who pitch deeper into the game and allow fewer runs win ballgames. It’s that simple.

Taking a look at the entire American League Central pitching staffs with regards to starts of 7+ innings and 3 earned runs or less will give us a good measuring stick of where the Indian pitchers are at against the teams they compete with the most.

Chicago White Sox

Jose Contreras: 5/21, 23.8%

John Danks: 10/28, 35.7%

Gavin Floyd: 13/30, 43.3%

Mark Buehrle: 12/30, 40%

5 others: 7/37, 18.9%

Total for the core starters: 40/109, 36.7%

Total for Chicago: 47/146, 32.2%

The White Sox made waves by twice trading for former Padre Cy Young winner Jake Peavy. He is under club control for a long time and should transition well into the front of the White Sox rotation in the long run beginning in 2010. With a front four of Peavy, Buerhle, Danks and Floyd the South Siders will be a solid team next year. Unfortunately, their system is depleted and their entire offense is aging other than budding star 3B Gordon Beckham. Even with some nice arms, Chicago is going to need to rebuild the lineup with some fresh young players before they make another few playoff runs.

Detroit Tigers

Jarrod Washburn: 1/8, 12.5%

Armando Galarraga: 5/25, 20%

Rick Porcello: 5/27, 18.5%

Edwin Jackson: 14/29, 48.3%

Justin Verlander: 15/31, 48.4%

8 others: 0/25, 0%

Total for the core starters: 40/120, 33.3%

Total for Detroit: 40/145, 27.6%

Detroit has the best Big Three of JV, Jackson and Porcello. The scariest thing is they are just 26, 25 and 20 respectively. Porcello has been on a short leash all season due to his age but has still been clearly one of the best surprises in baseball. What he has done at his age has been phenomenal. Jackson, another newcomer to the Central, has joined Verlander to give the Tigers a scary 1-2 postseason punch should they reach October. Verlander has been dominant against the Indians more often than not. He features a 95+ mph fastball and strikes out lots of batters. That bodes well for him when he faces teams who strike out a lot to begin with, like the Indians. If Galarraga or Dontrelle Willis had figured it out just a little more it would have helped Detroit immensely. Washburn has been a flame out since coming over at the trade deadline from the Mariners. He was much more lauded than the Twins trade acquistion of Carl Pavano, but Pavano has had much more of a positive impact so far. The addition of Washburn has not aided the rotation as much as Jim Leyland was hoping it would. Like Chicago, Detroit’s hitters are getting old. Every player in their regular lineup is over 26 other than Miguel Cabrera. An infusion of young blood to “grow old” with some of those young arms will be necessary for them to stay near the top of the division.

Kansas City Royals

Luke Hochevar: 5/21, 23.8%

Kyle Davies: 2/22, 9.1%

Gil Meche: 4/23, 17.4%

Brian Bannister: 6/26, 23.1%

Zack Greinke: 18/29, 62.1%

5 others: 2/24, 8.3%

Total for the core starters: 35/121, 28.9%

Total for Kansas City: 37/145, 25/5%

The decade dubbed as the “aughts” for the Royals has been completely a lost cause. If they don’t move up in the next few weeks, they will have finished in last in 5 of the past 6 seasons and will have only finished above 4th in the Central one time this decade. They have been the Pittsburgh Pirates of the American League. Hochevar, the former #1 overall pick, has shown some promise this season. Davies and Bannister have been just veterans filling out a rotation, much like Paul Byrd did in Northeast Ohio. Greinke has final put everything together and had a completely dominant season. Despite his amazing year, the team is just 14-15 in his starts. He is the odds on favorite to win the AL Cy Young and is one of the best feel good stories in baseball in 2009. 

Minnesota Twins

Carl Pavano: 3/8, 37.5%

Kevin Slowey: 4/16, 25%

Glen Perkins: 6/17, 35.3%

Francisco Liriano: 4/23, 17.4%

Scott Baker: 10/29, 34.5%

Nick Blackburn: 12/30, 40%

5 others: 6/23, 26.1%

Total for the core starters: 39/123, 31.7%

Total for Minnesota: 45/146, 30.8%

The Twins should be the favorite in the division in 2010 behind the likes of Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn. A key for them will be the return of Kevin Slowey from his wrist surgery. Since Pavano has pitched so well, it would be a savvy move by the Twins to offer him a deal in the 2 year/$12-14 million with incentives to bolster the middle of the rotation. He has been good at eating innings for the Twins and has dominated against Chicago and Detroit this year. The demise of Francisco Liriano is very similar to that of Fausto Carmona. I have discussed that at length many times with two good friends (who you can find here and here) who are diehard Twins fans and it is a fairly valid comparison. Liriano used his wicked slider to dominate the second half in 2006 and was supposed to be the next Johan Santana. He got injured, lost his stuff and never has been the same. Carmona won 19 games in 2007 and was supposed to anchor the staff once CC left Cleveland. He lost his control, had a few minor injuries and well, Indians fans know the rest. The future for both probably will be in the bullpen as they seem lost as starters.

Cleveland Indians

Scott Lewis: 0/1, 0%

Zach Jackson: 0/1, 0%

Carlos Carrasco: 0/3, 0%

Anthony Reyes: 0/8, 0%

Justin Masterson: 0/7. 0%

Tomo Ohka: 2/5, 40%

Aaron Laffey: 4/16, 25%

Fausto Carmona: 1/21, 4.8%

Jeremy Sowers: 4/19, 21.1%

David Huff: 3/21, 14.3%

Carl Pavano: 7/21, 33.3%

Cliff Lee: 14/22, 63.6%

SL, ZJ, CC, AR, JM, TO: 2/25, 8%

Total for the core starters: 33/120, 27.5%

Total for Cleveland: 35/145, 24.1%

The most disturbing thing about the Indians numbers is that they are incredibly deceiving. Lee and Pavano accounted for 21 of the 35 total starts. And neither managed to stick with the team beyond 22 starts. The so-called “core” of guys whom the Indians will have to choose from internally for the 2010 rotation are Jake Westbrook, Carrasco, Masterson, Laffey, Carmona, Sowers and Huff. This group (not including Jake) made just 12/87, or 13.8% of their starts, a Nolan Ryan standard quality outing. Also, for the first and last time in my life I am going to give Tomo Ohka some credit. He did have two pretty nice starts this year when many other young guys (Masterson, Reyes, Carmona and Carrasco) have not even combined for his total in their outings.

The prevailing thought all this season with CP Lee (other than what he’s not reading, of course) had to be “I can’t do this by myself anymore.” That is why he was dealt. He had to do too much as the others around him had not been able to prove themselves. He was getting tired of waiting around for help and was certain to test the market once his contract ended.

Overall, the division in order from top to bottom goes like this:

Chicago: 47

Minnesota: 45

Detroit: 40

Kansas City 37

Cleveland 35

This looks very similar to the division standings. Detroit slipped down mainly due to Washburn not living up to expectations and Porcello being lifted early most nights to preserve his young arm. Cleveland lost some of these once Pavano and Lee left. Other than that, the numbers show that the teams who have pitched the best deeper into games have won the most.

The top ten individuals so far have been:

Lee, Cleveland, 63.6%

Greinke, Kansas City, 62.1%

Verlander, Detroit, 48.4%

Jackson, Detroit, 48.3%

Floyd, Chicago, 43.3%

Blackburn, Minnesota and Buehrle, Chicago, 40.0%

Danks, Chicago, 35.7%

Perkins, Minnesota, 35.3%

Pavano, Cleveland/Minnesota and Baker, Minnesota, 34.5%

The Indians and Royals rode one horse to bottom of the league finishes. The other teams have had more consistent starters and thus more consistent teams. 

Each pitcher on the Indians staff walks a fine line between failure and success. We can’t tell where any of them are going, but time will tell us which way to drive the stake between their chest.


10 thoughts on “The Nolan Standard

  1. I have always admired pitchers who pitch deep into games. That is why Doc Halladay is my favorite pitcher. He is a throwback to yesteryears where pitchers pitched deep into games. You always hear retired pitchers complain that 6IP and 3ER isnt a quality start and I couldnt agree with them more. It is more along the lines of an average start. These retired pitchers also complain about how pitchers are “babied” and never pitch deep into games. Once again they are exactly right.

  2. Good stuff, although the Rangers aren’t demonstrably better than last year

    2009 FIP: 4.53
    2008 FIP: 4.83

    A lot of the value they made up is from no more Vicente Padilla, a guy who goes deep into games.

    Adding an inning is great, but that means you have to pitch to contact more, something Texas is able to do since their defense is so good this year. Cleveland might not be able to as well. It’s one reason why Twins starters look much worse than they actually are.

  3. Also, the reason why pitchers now days don’t throw as many innings is because the hitters are better now days. Every hitter in most lineups can hit the ball out of the park, or at least make you pay, if you miss with a pitch, whereas back in the raised mound days you could pump fastballs down the middle and guys would ground out. And another reason is because we know a lot more about how mechanics and stuff work. I don’t get why people complain, no one complains that we use anesthesia for surgery today.

  4. Pingback: All Encompassing Twins-Tigers Preview | Twinkie Talk | A Minnesota Twins Blog

  5. I think the potential for good pitching in Cleveland in 2010 is poor when the staff for 2009 is compared to the rotation candidates for next year. The position players seem weak as well. Grady, get ready for a true rebuilding year where the team could be out of the race by June 1. I am tired of “Waiting for Next Year.”
    Anyhow, nice article John.

  6. Very interesting stuff. I didn’t know Nolan Ryan has pushed his starters to go longer. Bert Blyleven would love this article. Anybody got his email address? Bert hates the pitch count theory.
    These statistics also prove that pitching is extremely important in major league baseball, although the Twins could be an exception in 87. The Twins won the world series in 87 with two excellent starters, Blyleven and Viola, and one average starter, whose name escapes me at the moment; Les Streckel or something like that. Tom Kelly rarely let him pitch beyond the sixth inning, because that was all he had in his tank. I remember listening to the Twins game when Streckel pitched. I knew if he pitched six innings with less than four runs the Twins had a good chance to win.

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