“Kershaw’s already up to 17 pitches and we’re not out of the first inning yet,” said my friend Richard as we watched Tuesday night’s Mets-Dodgers playoff game at an adrenaline-charged Citi Field. “This is going well.”
I agreed, continuing to keep my eyes glued to the portion of the scoreboard tracking the Dodger ace’s number of pitches. Once upon a time, the most important numbers on the scoreboard were hits, walks and runs. Now it’s the number of pitches. Kershaw’s pitch count was the dominant lens through which I was viewing the game. Sure, the Mets were losing 3-1 by the sixth, but if we could only get Kershaw’s fucking pitch count up, we’d be golden.
The most absurd part was that it was actually true. I was not the only one counting pitches. The Dodgers were counting them, too. And once Kershaw got up near the 100 mark, he would be near the end of the line. That was true whether it happened in the 4th inning or happened in the 9th. That’s what baseball has become. It is, like everything else in this computerized age, driven by data. And the data indicates that a pitcher’s effectiveness after pitch number 100 is much lower than it was before. Plus, he is more susceptible to injury.
I’m not arguing with the premise or even the science. It’s undoubtedly true. But that doesn’t make it a good or a fun thing for the average fan to know about and pay attention to. I was much happier when I was in a blissful state of ignorance, when the way a pitcher looked and how he was actually doing determined how long the manager stayed with him.
I didn’t feel anxious about Dwight Gooden’s pitch count when he threw a no-hitter for the Yankees (yes, I rooted for him even though he was a Yankee). Hell, it wasn’t even a recorded statistic then. But I did have a bit of agita when Johan Santana pitched the only New York Mets no-hitter in history in 2012. Because by then the dreaded pitch count had become a thing. Near the end, as Santana surpassed the 130-pitch mark, I was overcome by a sinking feeling that something bad would befall him.
The fact that he was never the same pitcher afterwards, and his subsequent arm trouble was attributed by many baseball experts to his high pitch count in that game, does not change the fact that nobody should have been worried about his fucking pitch count while he was throwing a no-hitter. That’s just wrong. Anxiety about him allowing a hit, yes. About his pitch count? No!
Beyond us fans, though, what about the players? What does thinking about pitch count do to them? If some statistician or scientist tells me that I can only play my best poker for two hours and after that there’s going to be a notable drop in my effectiveness, guess what? There will be a notable drop in my effectiveness after two hours. Humans conform to what’s expected of them. They just do. You tell your 9-year-old that she’s bad at math, what do you think happens? You think that helps her?
Yeah, yeah, I know what the stats geeks say, it’s a measuring stick. Well, I got news for you, buddy. I don’t need a ruler to know I’m not playing in the NBA. And lucky for him, neither did Spud Webb.
See, when we’re only paying attention to data and numbers we lose something big, the elusive mystery of trusting our instincts, our gut, and the magic that makes sports special.
So fuck the pitch count.
On Second Thought: While we’re at it let’s also ditch WAR, wOBA, VORP, PERA and every other stupid new baseball statistic they try to throw at us. I don’t care if home runs and RBIs and batting average don’t measure a ballplayer’s worth as accurately. No one’s going to tell me that Hack Wilson’s 191 ribbies or Ted William’s .406 BA weren’t as splendidly transcendent as I always thought they were—or as easy to understand. If it takes more than thirty seconds to explain a stat, I don’t care how awesome a gauge of performance it is, I don’t want to know.