Austin Wood and the pitch-count question
by Tommy Craggs, Senior writer for Deadspin.com
By now, you've surely heard of Austin Wood (pictured right) the University of Texas reliever and modern folk hero who, cramping and vomiting, threw 169 pitches in a seven-hour NCAA regional Saturday. Most amazing of all? That throwing 169 pitches in a college baseball game isn't, in itself, all that amazing.
Wood's performance against Boston College — 13 innings (in relief), 46 batters faced, two hits, and all this a day after throwing 30 pitches — has been justifiably praised, but it's also become something of a referendum on college baseball coaches' famously Neanderthal approach to their pitchers. Within hours of Texas' 25-inning victory, ESPN.com's Keith Law went all J'accuse on Longhorns coach Augie Garrido, calling his handling of Wood "reckless, selfish and incompetent" and a "firing offense." (He also ripped BC coach Mikio Aoki, who let a reliever, Mike Belfiore, go nine-and-two-thirds and throw 129 pitches.)
Nothing summons baseball's Angry Old Men from their golf carts like a debate about pitch counts, even though the matter is more or less settled in baseball's upper levels. Pitch counts are so de rigueur in the pros now that it was a minor controversy recently when Rangers President Nolan Ryan announced that the team was, if not abandoning them altogether, then at least questioning their value. Ryan's argument is that high pitch totals build up arm strength, thus preventing injuries. There's probably a sliver of truth to this, but Baseball Prospectus' research suggests that "high pitch count outings ... represent the greatest risk for both short-term, and long-term potential for injury."
So why has the college game, where pitchers are younger and more fragile, been so slow to come to its senses?
Consider this, from Boyd Nation's excellent site: At least two pitchers have cleared the 170-pitch mark this season (Texas-Pan American's Scott Wingo, with 179 against Northern Colorado, and Oral Roberts' Drew Bowen, with 177 against Arkansas), and Nation estimates that pitchers have thrown 150 pitches or more 25 times in all. (It's incredible to think that this probably represents an improvement over previous years. Nation's site measures something called Pitcher Abuse Points. In the aggregate, that number has dropped steadily since 2006.)
"Mostly," Boyd Nation says in an e-mail, "I think it's just a matter of numbers — there are 30 MLB teams with a lot of people watching as opposed to 300+ Division I teams, most of them playing in obscurity. There's also more job security for college coaches; that doesn't give them license to abuse pitchers, I don't think, but it does mean that turning over the coaching corps so that most of them are more educated on workload issues is taking longer."
Baseball Prospectus' injury guru, Will Carroll, also points to the tightly compacted schedule of the college baseball season, not to mention the fact that "coaches really only have four or five pitchers on the roster."
Nation makes an exception for what he calls "life moments." Two weeks before Wood's outing, a pitcher for Campbellsville of the NAIA, Bryan Fuller, tossed 21 shutout innings in a 26-hour period. He told coaches that he didn't care about his arm; he was going to be an accountant, anyway. "If you're not a prospect to play at a higher level," Nation says, "and you've got one chance to create the memory of a lifetime, it may be worth it to push a little harder than would be advisable as part of a career."
Austin Wood, however, is a middling pro prospect — a reliever, remember — who could find himself drafted in next week's amateur draft. His Boston College counterpart, Mike Belfiore (a reliever who threw 129 pitches), could go as high as the second round, according to Law. And now a red flag hangs over both their futures, the way it once did for Kirk Dressendorfer and Ben McDonald and Lane Mestepey; the way it probably should have for Mark Prior (who in his final year at USC had starts of 133 pitches, 129, 128, 125 and 120 twice). These are scary comparables. "It was abysmal even giving special circumstances points," Carroll writes of Wood. "He was dehydrated, puking ... and a reliever!"
And Belfiore? As a scout told Law, "He's probably damaged goods."