Every Pitch Counts In College Baseball

College players are throwing lots more pitches per game than Major Leaguers. Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin talks with NPR's Mike Pesca on baseball and other sports news of the week.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME MUSIC)

MARTIN: The NBA Finals just wrapped up and the Stanley Cup Finals are still up in the air, but you know what? Everyone else is talking about those sports stories. So, we are going to do something different. We're going to look at a series that may not be getting as much attention. We're joined now by NPR's Mike Pesca. Good morning.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Hey.

MARTIN: So, College World Series, huh?

PESCA: Yeah. The finals are between UCLA and Mississippi State. That will be awesome, we hope. The aspect of the College World Series that I wanted to focus on was pitch count, which is how many pitches a pitcher throws. And lately there's been more and a developing body of science talking about the danger of letting, especially young pitchers, throw their arms out - the long-term danger. And it's especially dangerous, as the science goes, and it's a nascent field, but if you allow pitchers to, you know, exceed something like 120 pitches for a couple of starts in a row.

MARTIN: Well, why does this happen more in college - or is it happening more in college ball?

PESCA: Yeah. Well, that's the thing about the College World Series. If you watch, and it's usually this statement tagged onto the end of a game after a pitcher has a great outing. They'll say, you know, when Thompson pitched for 124 pitches, or Johnson pitched for 132 pitches, which is, you know, a testament to their toughness or their resilience or how much they wanted it. But when we're talking about 20- and 21-year-olds, there is the health factor. In fact, there's some talk about, you know, limiting the number of pitches like they do in the Little League World Series. Of course, that's Little League and it's not Division I baseball. And the reasons - to get back to your actual question...

MARTIN: Yes, please.

PESCA: ...is because I think in college some players are just so far heads and tails above everyone else. A relief pitcher might be such a drop-off from a starter or there might be one ace of a staff who's so good that you're so very tempted to bring him in not only on the days he started but maybe in a relief appearance here and there. You're so tempted to let him roll and to not hand the game over to a reliever. And it is the World Series, you know. So much is on the line. And for most of these players, who won't play in Major League Baseball, it is the pinnacle of their careers.

MARTIN: Well, and also - this is just my opinion - but I would imagine that in the major leagues, they're going to have those pitchers for a longer time. They have a bigger investment in resting their arm because they're in for the long haul.

PESCA: I think the world investment's a really good one. And it is - yes, and that's what you do - it's a little cynical, but, you know, the definition of cynicism is to believe that everyone's is motivated by self-interest. And in college, not that the coaches are bad people, not that the managers don't care - but if this is a senior, if this is maybe the only time you're going to get in the World Series, you might not think about next year. But in professional baseball, you're always thinking about the value that this pitcher is going to return to you. So, we do see in the postseason and to try to get into the postseason, a couple of years ago, C.C. Sabathia, for instance, was sent out and he threw, you know, a massive number of pitches. But in general, just in general, this year there have only been three outings in the Major Leagues where a pitcher has exceeded 130. And if you look at the list of the College World Series, and there's a blogger named Boyd Nation - he keeps a track of all of them - it's routinely done in college, 120, 130 pitches.

MARTIN: Tell me the story of R.A. Dickey.

PESCA: Yeah, so R.A. Dickey was a pitcher who's now a very good knuckleballer who just won the Cy Young, but the reason he had to be a knuckleballer was a few things. In the in College World Series, he was just going out there, pitching, you know, they know, they didn't even keep exact counts, but he believes like 130, 140 pitches. He couldn't hold his arm at the correct angle. They found out he lacked a ligament in the arm. But he still - in college, a guy who could reach 90s by the time he got to the pros, you know, his arm was shot. There's a few instances of that.

MARTIN: It's amazing. So, he basically changed the way he pitched.

PESCA: He had to change the way he pitched. He's the one, yeah, he's the one pitcher out of, you know, a thousand that is able to do that. Most of them, if you're a 95-mile-an-hour pitcher and your arm is spent, that's it. Your career is done.

MARTIN: Your career is going to be long, Mike Pesca.

PESCA: Thank you.

MARTIN: Thank you so much.

PESCA: Bye-bye.

MARTIN: There's Mike Pesca. See ya.

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