If you are watching a baseball game, you may hear a broadcaster mention pitch count in reference to a Major League pitcher. Pitch count is displayed on the broadcast so that fans can follow along with how many pitches a pitcher has thrown. This may cause you to wonder “Do MLB pitchers have a pitch limit?”.
No, Major League Baseball pitchers do not have set pitch limits. A pitcher is eligible by rule to throw as many pitches as necessary.
Despite this, Major League Baseball teams will monitor the amount of pitches thrown by an individual pitcher to help minimize injury risks. Most teams prefer to not extend starting pitchers past 100-115 total pitches. There are exceptions based on manager, team, pitcher, and circumstance.
The amount of pitches Major League Baseball teams prefer relief pitchers to throw is harder to nail down. Many relief pitchers will only throw one inning of work which makes their typical workload in the 15-30 pitch range. Anything beyond that could be a potential injury risk because their arms are not conditioned for heavier workloads.
Long-relief pitchers who are conditioned to come out of the bullpen and throw multiple innings in one outing may throw as many as 60-80 pitches if necessary.
Pitch count is a complicated subject for those who are not familiar with it because there are many factors that go into how many pitches a pitcher may throw. Let’s discuss the details of pitch count and the strategy behind it.
What is Pitch Count?
Pitch count is the number of official pitches a pitcher throws in a game. Other throws a pitcher makes in a game – like warmup pitches or throws to first base – do not count in this number. It is only official in-game pitches.
Why Does Pitch Count Matter?
Pitching is a strenuous arm motion that can easily lead to injury. Pitching mechanics and workload are closely monitored in baseball to help minimize these injury risks.
In-game pitch count is one metric that teams will use to closely monitor pitchers and help reduce risks. So, although there is no official pitch limit in the rule book, teams themselves are invested in making sure that pitchers do not throw more pitches in a single game than their arms are conditioned to handle.
Pitch count can also matter to opposing batters. The quality of a pitcher’s pitches will diminish as he gets deeper into his pitch count. Opposing batters know that a starting pitcher on pitch number 80 is likely to be less effective than he was on pitch 10. This means the fastball might not be as fast or the breaking ball might not be as sharp. Pitch count can help a batter get an idea of what to expect when he steps into the batter’s box.
How Many Pitches Do MLB Pitchers Throw?
Typical pitch limit of an MLB pitcher differs depending on the type of pitcher. Let’s break this down into starting pitcher, long-relief pitcher, short-relief pitcher.
MLB Starting Pitcher Pitch Limits
MLB starting pitchers have a pitch limit usually in the 100-115 pitch range. Every pitcher is unique and there are several factors that may cause a team to limit or extend this range.
The body type of starting pitchers is important. Bigger bodies can carry heavier workloads. MLB teams typically prefer starting pitchers with bigger body types for this exact reason (there are of course numerous exceptions to this rule).
Personal injury history of the pitcher is also a factor in the number of pitchers a team will allow a player to throw. If a pitcher has a long history of multiple arm injuries, teams will not want to push them much past 100 pitches.
Recent injuries also play an important factor. If a starter is coming off a recent injury a team may limit total pitches in the short-term to more in the 80-100 range as a precaution.
The overall dominance of the pitcher will also play a factor. Pitchers who are superstars and have gained the trust of their managers over time may be extended out past 115 pitches in certain circumstances that make sense. For example, a manager may let a veteran superstar stay in to finish out an inning if he is teetering on the 110-115 pitch range, which could push the total pitch count to 120 or maybe slightly beyond.
MLB Long-Relief Pitch Limits
Relief pitchers in baseball are established into roles by their teams. Dominant relievers who expend maximum energy on all pitches (to increase velocity) typically only throw one inning per outing. But sometimes there is a need for relief pitchers to pickup multiple innings in a game because of ineffective starting pitching or because of an extra-inning game. This is the role of a long-relief pitcher.
Long-relief pitchers will not be asked to throw as many pitches as a starting pitcher, but may be asked to throw in the 60-80 pitch range. If a starting pitcher had to exit the game very early in the game, a long-relief pitcher who can throw 60-80 pitches over the course of several innings can help save the rest of the bullpen from having to be used.
Long-relief pitchers will not be asked to throw 60-80 pitches unless their arms have been conditioned to do so. Asking a pitcher who typically throws 15-30 pitches to go throw 80 pitches could result in injury.
MLB Short-Relief Pitch Limits
Short-relief pitchers are typically dominant relievers used in the late innings of a baseball game. These pitchers throw very hard and expend maximum effort on every pitch. Because of this, their pitch limits are very short.
Late-inning relievers typically only throw one inning of work which puts them in the 15-30 pitch range. If a reliever gets into trouble and is pushing past the 30-pitch limit, the manager will likely make a pitching change to avoid risk of injury.
Injury Pitch Limits MLB
Recent injury is a scenario where a Major League Baseball team may choose to put a pitcher on a “pitch limit”. This is done to allow the arm to slowly transition back into a full workload while minimizing risk of re-injury. This pitch limit is more of a soft number than a hard number. For example, if a starting pitcher off injury is put on a 65-pitch limit by the club, the manager will likely let the starter finish the current at-bat before pulling the player, even if that means they throw 68 pitches instead of 65.
A pitch limit off an injury will usually be used on a pitcher coming back from some sort of arm injury but may also be used for other types of injuries as well.
The amount of time a pitcher has missed will affect whether a team institutes a pitch limit for that pitcher. If they have only missed a few days, or couple starts, there will likely be no pitch limit.
Major League Baseball uses minor league “rehab” assignments to allow pitchers (and position players) time to get back in game flow and re-condition their bodies. Because of this, many rehabbing pitchers are on pitch limits while on their minor league rehab stint, but by the time they have rehabbed and returned to the Major League level, pitch limits are no longer needed.
Clubs will also fluctuate workload of their pitchers throughout the season to help pitchers nurse tired and sore arms without having to miss time. This means a starting pitcher capable of a 115-pitch workload may only throw 90-100 pitches for a few starts if their arm is feeling overworked.
History of MLB Pitching Workload
Major League Baseball today is more aware of pitcher workload than it has ever been. In the past, starting pitchers in Major League Baseball would throw a lot of pitches. On June 14, 1974, as a member of the California Angels, Nolan Ryan threw a reported 235 pitches across 13 innings. Pitch counts were not officially recorded back then. The opposing starter, Luis Tiant for the Boston Red Sox, pitched into the 15th inning before being pulled from the game.
Starting pitchers in the past were asked to take on much heavier workloads. It became a point of pride for most starters who relished the opportunity to throw all nine innings of a baseball game despite the pitch total.
Over the past couple decades, much has been learned about workload and how it affects injury in pitchers. Player safety has become a very important subject because clubs have hundreds of millions of dollars invested in their team payroll. It is in the best interest of the team to make sure these players stay healthy.
Very rarely do starting Major League Baseball pitchers exceed 120-125 pitches in modern baseball. There are exceptions, especially if a pitcher is pursuing a no-hit bid and has not given up a hit. That creates a conflict for the manager who wants to protect the pitcher from injury, but also feels obligated to give the pitcher a chance at making history by throwing a no-hitter.
Edwin Jackson on June 25, 2010 threw 149 pitches in a no-hitter. These elevated pitch counts are now very rare in Major League Baseball.
Highest Pitch Count in A Game in MLB History
What are the most pitches ever thrown by a pitcher in MLB history? Leon Cadore for the Brooklyn Robins threw an estimated 360 pitches over the course of 26 innings on May 1st, 1920.
This is considered by many experts to be the most pitches ever thrown in one game by a single player. The opposing starting pitcher in that game, Joe Oeschger, also pitched all 26 innings.
The problem is pitch count was not recorded consistently throughout history because its importance was not appreciated as much as it is today. Therefore, the highest pitch count in MLB history is not officially known.
Most Pitches Thrown in An Inning
On April 9, 1997, Bartolo Colon threw 61 pitches in the first inning. This is considered by many experts to be the most pitches ever thrown in a Major League Baseball inning. This is another stat which is impossible to verify due to the fact that pitch count was not consistently recorded throughout the history of baseball.
Pitch Counts in Youth Baseball
Many youth leagues do institute pitch limits for players. This is an important step in assuring that the health and growth of an aspiring player is not derailed by serious injury due to overuse. The arms of young athletes are not built to handle heavy workloads or certain types of pitches.
Where Can You See Pitch Count During a Baseball Game?
Pitch count is usually displayed in the graphic next to the score on your television screen. By 2014, most all major networks had adopted a score display that included current pitch count for the pitcher.
How Will Pitch Count Change in the Future?
How pitchers train and perform is always changing as new research sheds light on arm injuries and player performance. Today’s athletes are stronger and more prepared than athletes of past generations. This is due to advancement in technology and health and nutrition.
Players today also have access to many more resources than players did 25-50 years ago. Teams have nutritionists and trainers. Technology helps pitchers understand mechanics and how they can better their own pitching motions to reduce injury risk.
As these advancements continue, the workload of professional pitchers may be able to increase. That said, there is no guarantee workload will increase. It is possible that research unveils that 75-80 pitches is an optimum pitch count for a professional pitcher.
The only guarantee is that baseball will continue to evolve, just like it has over the past century. Every generation leaves it own fingerprint on the game.