Making it count
Pitch count forces GJ Rockies' starters to throw smarter
You come in from college, where you were the Friday night starter, the ace of the staff.
You’re used to throwing 100 or more pitches, striking guys out left and right. Hey, if you can go nine innings, go for it.
You’re drafted, sign your first pro contract and report to Rookie baseball, ready to set the Pioneer League on fire.
You’ve got 35 pitches.
Say what? That won’t even turn kindling into embers.
“In college I’d go out there every Friday and I threw 100, 115 pitches, and if I could go all nine innings, go all nine innings,” Grand Junction Rockies left-hander Sam Howard said. “You come here, and they tell you you’ve got three innings and you’re done. It’s stressful.
“It usually takes a few innings to settle in. My first few starts here, the third inning I’m just starting to settle in, and they tell me I’m done. You don’t want to hear that.”
Howard was the Rockies’ third-round draft pick out of Georgia Southern this past June.
Harrison Musgrave, Colorado’s eighth-rounder out of West Virginia, is another lefty who is happy to be free of those tight pitch counts, as is the club’s third starter out of the draft, right-hander James Lomangino, taken in the 18th round out of St. John’s University.
“It really makes you pound the zone, you’re pitching to contact, and strikeouts are really irrelevant,” Musgrave said before Wednesday night’s game was rained out. “Myself and Howard, a couple of times early, our 35 pitches would be up and we didn’t even make it out of the second inning. That happened to me twice. It’s not necessarily that I did terrible, but some kid fouls off six pitches and you only face five batters in 35 pitches. It’s tough.”
The Rockies’ two other starting pitchers, Javier Palacios and Carlos Polanco, came out of the Dominican Summer League and were pitching in extended spring training, so they could go deeper into games from the time the season began.
There’s a reason the starters out of the draft are on such a short leash early. They’re coming off a heavy workload in college, so the primary goal is to get their arms fresh. A tired arm leads to poor mechanics, which leads to shoulder and elbow injuries, and sometimes, a career ends before it really began.
And there’s another reason.
“I’m trying to get them to be more efficient,” pitching coach Ryan Kibler said. “In college, they don’t pitch to get contact, they pitch to get strikeouts, and that gets the pitch count way up.”
With three weeks remaining in the regular season, the starters are up to a 90-pitch limit.
“It’s definitely better than throwing 35 pitches,” Musgrave said. “You can’t get a feel for anything, but the 75 to 90 pitches that we get, it really allows you to pace yourself. It’s like pitching in college again.
“The strike zone is smaller, but you get into your routine and you have more innings to figure out what your issue is instead of the 10 extra pitches.”
That Musgrave talked about routine is a bit ironic, because he readily admits he doesn’t really have a routine, at least when it comes to game preparation.
Howard, who lives with the same host family as Musgrave, is just the opposite. He was scheduled to pitch Wednesday, arriving at the clubhouse just before 5:30 p.m.
“I just go with the flow,” Musgrave said. “Howard’s always making fun of me because I have no routine warming up. I have none. I can warm up in five minutes, I can warm up in 10 minutes. He has a set routine. It’s what, 5:30? You saw he just got here, he’ll go out there at 6 o’clock, 6:05, and goes through his stuff. I show up whenever.”
Kibler’s OK with that, as long as they’re physically and mentally ready to go at 7:05 p.m. Now that the pitch counts are up and they’re pitching deeper into games, he likes what he’s starting to see from his starters.
“The consistency is huge right now,” Kibler said. “They’re going to be able to carry us. They’ve got stuff, they’re left-handed, and they’re going to eat up innings. Starting pitching is where it’s at. The bullpen feeds off it, especially these guys. They feed off that good starter.”
Howard is 1-2 with a 4.88 ERA, 24 strikeouts and seven walks in 31 1/3 innings. He got his first win Aug. 7 at Billings, a 9-5 victory. He threw five shutout innings, striking out six, walking three and giving up only four hits.
“The way it went down was good,” Kibler said. “Early on he attacked with his fastball, he used his fastball and then he gets antsy and thinks he has to completely reinvent himself in the fourth or fifth inning, and that’s when things go bad.
“I think he saw that, and he’s beginning to learn what a professional pitcher he is.”
Musgrave reported to Grand Junction as a change-up/fastball pitcher. He’s added a slider that’s become an out pitch, always pitching off his fastball. He’ll still throw the change, but he doesn’t rely on it as much. He’s 2-2 with a 5.06 ERA, with 36 strikeouts and nine walks in 32 innings of work.
“I got here and the emphasis was to develop some sort of breaking ball. I haven’t lost my change-up per se, but throwing the breaking ball a little bit more and the type of balls you throw, with the smaller laces, it’s easier to get the ball to move,” Musgrave said.
“They always talk about winning isn’t everything. Everybody wants to win, but this is more of a developmental league, is how they describe it to us. Me not developing a breaking ball would be defeating the purpose.”
And the purpose is progressing through the minors.
“From a standpoint of college to here and now getting paid for what I do, I love that part of it,” Howard said. “It almost lets me take the game to another level, being serious about it and wanting to get to the bigs. It’s been my dream since I was a little kid. I love it.”