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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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A Wheeler's Dozen

You know what Doc Gooden’s typical pitch count was when he was regularly registering double-digit strikeouts in 1984? Neither do I. It never occurred to me to ask. The only pitches any Mets fan was counting 29 years ago were the ones that resulted in strike three. That was the fun of the greatest new toy a Mets fan ever unwrapped and never got tired playing with.

Zack Wheeler struck out 12 Padres in six innings Thursday night in San Diego. Then he came out, because he had already thrown 115 pitches. That gets counted assiduously now. It gets counted so assiduously that it seemed surprising that he didn’t depart after five innings when he had recorded 10 strikeouts yet had already thrown 99 pitches. In 2013, letting a rookie who’d pitched that much pitch the sixth seemed to be pushing it. In 1984 — when Gooden was the last rookie Mets pitcher to strike out more hitters than Wheeler struck out last night — it likely wouldn’t have occurred to anybody to take out a pitcher with 12 strikeouts after six innings. Tom Seaver had once struck out 19 Padres in nine innings, a figure matched in Mets annals only by David Cone. Wheeler was theoretically mathematically alive to make some real team history at Petco Park.

Of course, Terry Collins wouldn’t have gotten back to the hotel alive had he thought to let him try.

Mind you, our current rookie phenom wasn’t ex-Zack-ly necessarily operating on Dwight’s level. Doc shut down the opposition totally and completely once he got rolling in his 16-K performances versus the Pirates and Phillies in September of ’84. Zack, on the other hand, gave up seven hits in his six innings and was saved from trailing only because of nifty defense on a couple of the pitches the Padres touched. Eric Young played some volleyball at the top of the left field wall in the third inning and batted Rene Rivera’s sure home run down to the ground to hold the .188-hitting catcher to a triple. It may be the only ball Young has batted with any success lately, but it was huge. So was Juan Lagares practically Puiging Tyson Ross out at home to prevent San Diego’s pitcher from scoring the go-ahead run in the fifth. Juan’s on-the-fly peg to John Buck was a beautiful strike in its own right…as beautiful as Ross’s slide into Buck’s shoes was ugly.

And speaking of ugly, how about that objectively unattractive two-out call at first blown by Brian Knight? Josh Satin had grounded to Ronny Cedeño (remember him?), who made an off-balance throw to Yonder Alonso to end the top of the fourth, except Knight mysteriously decided Alonso’s foot wasn’t on the bag, even though it probably was, and Daniel Murphy characteristically decided to keep running from second and thus crossed the plate safely. That this latest episode of human error unfolded amid a lively SNY discussion of MLB’s spectacularly flawed plan to institute instant replay on more close plays next year made the whole incident that much more delicious. That the fairly apparent mistake went in the Mets’ favor…hey, like Keith said, human error’s part of the game!

You had Young leaping. You had Lagares firing. You had Murphy with an assist from Knight. You had Mike Baxter graciously getting hit on the foot by Luke Gregerson, Murphy dutifully accepting a poorly conceived intentional walk and Marlon Byrd doubling clear over Chris Denorfia’s head in the eighth to break a 1-1 tie. You had Scott Atchison for one inning and Gonzalez Germen for two giving up nothing of substance. You even had Buck step away from Infant Watch ’13 to give birth to a bouncing baby bomb over the left field fence (it’s a solo shot!). So you had a lot of good things to count up Thursday night en route to the Mets’ 4-1 win.

But mostly you had the starter’s 12 strikeouts. Seven strikeouts swinging. Five strikeouts looking. An incredible slider working brilliantly if not overtime. The rookie’s pitch count topped a hundred in the sixth. Who would let a rookie who’s gonna need his right arm every fifth day over the next umpteen years go even that far usually? If the Mets had their usual allotment of seven ready relievers — which is to say if LaTroy Hawkins didn’t share at least one unfortunate equipment choice with Jordany Valdespin — Zack’s probably out of there after five, never mind that he raced to 10 Ks. He was definitely going to be out of there after six, his Wheeler’s Dozen notwithstanding. You don’t get rookies striking out 16 like in young Doctor Gooden’s day for two very reasonable reasons.

1) They don’t really make ’em like Dr. K anymore.

2) Even when they do, they know what the pitch counts are. They know ’em, they watch ’em and they swear by ’em. They ask for trouble when they don’t abide by ’em. They have loads of data supporting why this makes all the sense in the world. We are conditioned to nod and agree that a rookie who strikes out 12 batters in six innings almost certainly should never come back to the mound and try to strike out any more in the seventh. We understand what we didn’t decades ago that this would be reckless and that taking that kind of chance with this kind of arm would be irrational.

Progress can be a real shame sometimes.

13 comments to A Wheeler’s Dozen

  • March'62

    I think I’ve become a Dream Wheeler.

    If this game meant something, I can hear your point. But pitchers nowadays are not trained to throw so many pitches. They’re pulling Syndergaard after 5 in the minors. I’ll start to get upset when they’re pulling the starters too early in a pennant race. For now, it’s just nice to see all of the fresh arms that are converging on Flushing. This could really turn into something great. Or is it just another Dream Wheeler?

    • Every game means something, or whatever we choose to invest in it. In another era, it would’ve meant Zack Wheeler coming out for the seventh and maybe ramping up those dozen into the teens. Or, with the Mets’ luck, throwing one too many strikes and see you in 2015, maybe. I’m neither surprised nor upset he was pulled. I just wish, sometimes, that we weren’t so smart about these things nowadays.

  • metsfaninparadise

    Wonder if Buck handed out cigars…

    • Apropos of nothing Buckish, I long ago volunteered in a congressional campaign and was working in the candidate’s storefront headquarters when an old-timer came in and complained that we didn’t have enough trinkets like they used to have. Where, he asked, are the cigars? Where is the talking campaign button that will convince him to vote for our guy?

      The button doesn’t talk, I said, but the man does.

      I got a hearty handshake out of that.

  • First of all, first time poster, long time reader. Great blog. Well written, insightful, a must-read for a Met fan living in Pittsburgh.

    Second, I’ve ben a baseball fan long before Bill James broke the mould (I remember watching Jack Fisher when HE was the Mets’ ace), and also served on the board of directors of Project Scoresheet for a while, so it’s not like this question comes out of the blue. You say above that it is well-known about the effects of pitch-count on (what I presume to be) pitcher injury frequency. Well, I sorta lost touch with modern baseball research before the Prospectus became king, and I’ve been searching for the latest definitive analysis that shows that relationship (pitch count/innings count vs age vs. injury rate) because the last time I read anything like that (more than 10 years ago, probably) the jury was still out. I’m not arguing for or against, mind, I just would love to read the conclusions. Do you know where that exists?

    • Chris,

      I have to admit, when I made reference to “the data,” I was thinking, “geez, I hope nobody asks me to specify that data ’cause I really don’t have any at my fingertips and I’m too tired after a West Coast game to seek it out.” I guess I was speaking in general terms, the way they watch innings pitched during the first couple of seasons at the major league level, and perhaps anecdotally, back to Kerry Wood being left in to strike out twenty. I don’t recall being aware of pitch counts until Bud Harrelson let Dwight Gooden throw (I think) 149 pitches on a cold day in 1991 and Jeff Torborg allowed David Cone to stretch to 166 pitches a year later. It wasn’t considered a good thing for either of them and it seems most (not all) teams have been excessively careful ever since.

      Last night among the Mets Twitterati (not a scientific sample), I was surprised how many fellow travelers were of the “get him out of there” school of thought after Zack threw five. I got it but I was also surprised at how ingrained the pitch count mentality has become among the fans, particularly where young arms are concerned. And I don’t know it’s wrong. I suspect you don’t want to let Wheeler go on and on in his eleventh MLB start. I was just being a romantic about strikeout totals, I suppose.

      Thank you for dropping by, hope you’ll stick around!

  • Kevin from Flushing

    I assume they’ll all blow their arms out in their third season anyway, no matter the innings/pitch count. Might as well let em stay out there and give us a thrill.

  • vin

    well, Goodens shoulder was shot by 1991 at age 27 or 28 and he was never the same and his career was cut short…even in 1984 and 1985 there were many a game where Dwight was pitching into the 8th or 9th in games where he had a nice lead but no shutout or K record looming and I thought thst this would be a nice time to give him a break keep something in that arm for later on..I thought Johnson and the Mets rode his arm until it broke and it did! That being said we were not thinking strict pitch count but rather practicality and winning was what counts…that said the nonsense with strict pitch counts today and limiting guys like Syndergaard to 5 innings deprives them of the opportunity to build strngth, stamina and to get thru adversity and this is reflected in todays game where it takes a whole bullpen to win a game since no one knows how to pace themselves for 8 or 9 or get out of trouble! The handling of Srausburg last year was malfeasant and cost Dc a pennant perhaps…there were other ways to limit him like skipping a start etc..Managers McGraw and Stengel and Mack knew about pitchers and often skipped starts and pitched the likes of Ford or others in really important games at home while skipping a turn against a last place club on the road to give the man a rest physically and pschologically..this has been going on a long time but the way it is handled today is too mechanical and eschews pitching development.

  • All, I am not saying it ISN’T true, and also I certainly understand why anyone would want to protect young arms (vide Davey’s gentle handling of Strasberg vs. his ‘pedal to the metal’ handling of Doc) but I am looking for data that might dig a little deeper than “be careful!’ and something that shows us that since, say 2000, injury rate is ‘X’ and in 1960-1970, injury rate was ‘Y’. I was hoping that kind of study did exist. Because, to me, post BJ (um, that’s Bill James, not,,, oh, never mind) the injury rate hasn’t visibly slowed down.

    The only article I remember reading is something that the effect of James’ bringing everyone into awareness about the value of OBP and working walks, that OVERALL pitch count has gone up, thus putting more wear and tear on arms.

  • open the gates

    Well, remember that the last time Collins threw out the book on pitch counts was when he allowed one Johan Santana to throw 130+ in pursuit of his no-hitter. As right as that decision was, we all know the aftermath. I’m guessing that Terry’s not going to be coming close to doing that again any time soon.

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