Zack Wheeler Was Overused Worse Than Any Other Pitcher Since 2000

The debate about pitch counts rages on, and likely will continue for years. Many theories exist as to why certain pitchers get hurt. For me, I am in the camp that believes that it is not the overall number of pitches or innings a pitcher throws, but rather, how many pitchers are thrown under duress and how many pitches are thrown per inning.

Zack Wheeler traditionally has thrown a high number of pitches in short outings, so I did the search. As it turns out: since 2000, no pitcher has been pushed to throw as many pitches over as few innings as Zack Wheeler. Not one.

[Edit: Since this article was published, Lance Lynn, who I pointed out was at risk, has undergone Tommy John surgery as well.]

Everyone has been all abuzz the last couple days since it was announced that Zack Wheeler has a torn UCL and needs Tommy John surgery. Many have criticized the organization for allowing Wheeler to throw too many pitches, in line with the conventional thinking about pitch counts. However, as I have tried to explain, simply counting pitches without counting the number of pitches per inning is meaningless. There is a huge difference between 110 pitches over 5.1 or 110 pitches in a nice relaxing complete game.

Take a look at the following chart, which is all pitchers since 2000 with less than 190 IP, sorted by most pitches thrown:

wheeler pitches

I am not a doctor, so I can understand why nobody cares that I keep saying this. But if you’re a former pitcher, or rec athlete, or just an observant person, you know that not every pitch is created equal. When a pitcher struggles, they aren’t getting rest, they are pitching with runners on, they are throwing harder than they ought to because they need to get out of a jam, their mechanics slip because they’re focused on the task at hand and getting every last ounce out of their bodies. Felix Hernandez’s 100th pitch is an 0-1 changeup with the bases empty in the eighth inning, while Zack Wheeler’s 100th pitch is a 96-mph fastball in the fifth inning with runners on. These are NOT THE SAME.

Adam Rubin of ESPN appears to be in the camp of people who thinks that Zack Wheeler was not overused, and cited his overall pitch count. Here is a tweet of his from earlier this week listing pitchers, aged 25 and under, who threw 15 or more games of 110+ pitches:

This list is interesting, but the use of overall pitch counts makes it sorely incomplete. These pitchers stayed healthy, because their pitches were spread over far more innings than Wheeler. In Felix Hernandez’s 2010 season, he threw 3,731 pitches over 249.2 sterling innings, only 14.94 pitches per inning. He tossed 6 complete games and faced 1001 batters, leading his league in ERA at 2.27. In Kershaw’s run from 2011 to 2012, he threw 227.2 and 233.1 innings respectively, but cruised through them with league-leading ERA’s of 2.53 and 2.28, with a combined 15.05 pitches per inning.

Zack Wheeler on the other hand was barely league average, posting a 3.54 ERA (98 ERA+) and struggled, throwing 3,308 pitches over 185.1 innings. Wheeler threw 17.85 pitches per inning. A difference of three pitches per inning might not sound like much, but it’s the difference between being at 90 pitches through 6 innings or 108 through 6. Every game. All season long.

No matter which way you slice it: Wheeler is at the top of every list in pitches-per-inning and overall pitches by a young starter.

I posted this article on Wednesday and discussed it with friends and contemporaries on Twitter, who were unconvinced. So I did some additional searches to see if other measures or comparisons would indicate that Wheeler was ridden hard.

  • In a search for all seasons by starters in the last eight years, Wheeler ranked only 108th in number of pitches thrown. However, there were no pitchers on the list ahead of him — zero — that threw less innings than Wheeler did.
  • If you limit that sample to players who pitched up to 200 innings in a season (15 more than Wheeler), he jumps to 18th on the list!
  • Among that sample of all pitchers, Wheeler is fourth in pitches per inning — behind only Al Leiter (twice) and Pat Rapp, both pitchers deep in their 30’s and/or who their team didn’t care about.
  • Among ALL pitchers age 26 or younger, qualified for the ERA title, with ANY number of innings thrown, Zack Wheeler is first in pitches per inning. No pitcher in his age bracket has been less efficient.

I wanted to try and find an accurate cohort to compare Wheeler to.

I found only 8 pitcher-seasons where a pitcher in his 20’s has thrown more than 3,200 pitches in less than 190 innings: Wheeler, Tim Lincecum in 2012, Max Scherzer in 2012, Ubaldo Jimenez in 2011, Edinson Volquez in 2012, Chad Billinglsey in 2011, and Yovani Gallardo in 2009 and 2010.

I also took a look at pitchers that were 26 or younger, who were okay, not great (ERA+ of 115 or less), who threw a lot of pitches (3100+) and who struck out a lot of batters (K/9 of 8.8+).

wheeler last

This is not a list of pitchers who had a track record of success after their high-usage seasons… aside from Yovani Gallardo, who is apparently an invincible man. But again we see Lincecum, and to that we can add Daisuke Matsuzaka, Kerry Wood, Jake Peavy, and Yu Darvish among others (Lance Lynn has escaped injury or ineffectiveness for one year). First on the list in pitches-per-inning? Zack Wheeler, with 17.87, with the next closest being Brandon Morrow at 17.38.

Lincecum. Morrow. Billingsley. Matsuzaka. Wood. Many of these pitchers were never the same.

Lincecum was terrible in 2012, and was never good again. Jimenez and Volquez have struggled since then, with poor ERA’s of 4.46 (86 ERA+) and 4.29 ERA (82 ERA+) respectively. Billingsley has been so broken that he hasn’t thrown a single pitch in the majors since 2013. Morrow was injured the next season, Darvish is slated for Tommy John, Matsuzaka missed half of the next two years, never to regain his effectiveness, and Wood had one healthy year before his famous collapse.

I’ll say it again – no pitcher has gotten less from more pitches than Zack Wheeler in the last decade. No pitcher, not one, has been pushed to throw as many pitches over as few innings as Zack Wheeler over the last decade. Usage similar to his hasn’t been a death knell for all pitchers, or hasn’t been immediately (Peavy pitched effectively for a few years, Scherzer has been great, and Gallardo continues to perform well), but I’d be willing to venture a guess that this sample has done worse than most.

This isn’t Monday Morning Quarterbacking. This was plain as day at the time it was happening. It’s especially plain to see if you have ever pitched before at any level, and have yourself labored to complete innings. Comparing Wheeler to young studs who threw a lot of pitches because they were cruising through complete games, like Rubin did, is not a useful comparison. He should be compared to young league-average pitchers who were forced to throw and throw and throw to try and get through five or six innings. The track record with those young pitchers is not good.

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Brian Mangan is an attorney who lives and works in New York City and is a lifelong Mets fan. Follow him on twitter at @brianpmangan

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Disclaimer, again: Of course, none of this explains the effect of competitive youth leagues, or sliders, or throwing at max effort, or pitch counts, or inexplicable injuries like Matt Harvey. There are hundreds of factors, I am sure, that contributes to the injury or non-injury of any player. I am not a doctor. However it is clear that pitching under incredible duress cannot be good for you – and everyone is missing that point.

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A commenter at Baseball Think Factory put together the following list of games in which Wheeler threw 20+ pitches per inning:

Date, Innings Pitched, Pitches, Pit/IP
4/4/2013, 3.1, 86, 25.83
4/19/2013, 4.1, 108, 24.94
4/25/2013, 5, 102, 20.40
5/27/2013, 4, 80, 20.00
6/7/2013, 4.2, 105, 22.48
—Called up from AAA to MLB—
6/25/2013, 5.1, 109, 20.45
7/20/2013, 4.2, 106, 22.70
8/4/2013, 5, 101, 20.20
9/17/2013, 5, 107, 21.40
5/13/2014, 4.1, 118, 27.25
6/8/2014, 3.2, 86, 23.43
6/14/2014, 5, 100, 20.00
6/25/2014, 2, 48, 24.00
9/1/2014, 4.2, 114, 24.41
9/13/2014, 4, 100, 25.00
9/25/2014, 5, 107, 21.40

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My original exchange with @MarcCarig, @RisingAppleBlog and @nyillini311 is here: