Ever since the careers of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood fell gently to earth, Dusty Baker has been acknowledged as a meat grinder. He hasn’t been able to shake it despite evidence that, at the very least, he has evolved. The drum beat is starting to rise again, as Nats’ pitch counts have swelled in his first season as skipper in DC. But let’s dive a little deeper.
First, here are the pitch counts for each game started by a Nats pitcher in 2015 and 2016, through 68 games of each season.
At least anecdotally, there are a lot more pitch counts bunched in the 100+ category, and even more in 115+. Those higher totals have replaced 2015 pitch counts in the 50-70 range. Here are the same figures broken down by categories. However, I’ve added a third data set in this graph (more in a second):
I’ve added the league average pitch count for all starters in 2015 and 2016. There’s no denying that Dusty’s 2016 Nats are seeing higher pitch counts across the board, in every single category over 100 pitches. To put those percentages into real world terms, we’re talking about 3 more starts over league average in the 106-110 category; 2.4 more starts in the 111-115 category; and 2.4 more in the 116+ category over a 68 game stretch.
But that ignores two major factors. First, Dusty’s Nats rotation is extremely good at their job. Collectively, they are 4th in MLB in fWAR; 3rd in xFIP; 2nd in K/9 (trailing by just .02 K/9); 3rd in K/BB; and basically towards the top of any meaningful category you can name. Put another way, this is not a series of starting pitchers who are being left to languish while being torched. They’re getting impressive results. And their impressive numbers also means more of their innings are low stress- fewer baserunners, fewer runners in scoring position, fewer high pitch count innings.
Second, Dusty’s staff is in fairly good shape in terms of long-term health and age. Tanner Roark, Max Scherzer, and Gio Gonzalez are 29, 31, and 30 years old, respectively, and all have made it through the injury nexus without incident. The biggest predictor of future injury is past injury, and none of that trio have ever had significant arm woes. Joe Ross has also avoided major arm woes, though he is still young enough to develop troubles. Of course, Ross has 8 of Dusty’s 27 under-100 pitch counts thus far, so some work has been done to protect him.
The one part of this story where you have to arch your eyebrow a little is Dusty’s handling of Stephen Strasburg. Amongst Nats starters, Strasburg is the one with a significant injury history, having had Tommy John surgery in 2010. There is a shelf life to repaired UCLs and Strasburg is surely approaching it. Mind you, he could be the outlier who pitches beyond his shelf life, but the reality can’t be ignored. While no one game for Strasburg has been egregious this season, he is consistently cracking 100, 105, and 110 pitches or more at higher rates than the rest of the league. The kid gloves with Strasburg are off, as Dusty is treating him just like any of this other prized starters.
The truth is that Dusty has taxed his starters more than average, but he has had good reason to do so. Most of his excess can be explained away reasonably. It’s worth keeping an eye on, particularly as Ross piles up innings or if any of them start to show signs of wear and tear. Thus far, though, it really does look like an old dog has learned some new tricks.