May 6, 2013 at 1:00 am

Kurt Mensching

Tigers should count on Justin Verlander's conditioning, not the number of pitches

How many pitches are too many?

That question comes up frequently, and it appeared at the forefront Sunday in the midst of Justin Verlander's no-hit bid against the Houston Astros.

Through four innings, Verlander had already thrown 75 pitches. A relatively stress-free fifth put him at 86. He hit 96 through six. At that pace, Verlander could need 147 pitches to get through nine innings.

That really seems like too many, doesn't it?

Yet with Verlander attempting to throw the third no-hitter of his career — just three pitchers since 1919 have thrown three or more — manager Jim Leyland had a decision to make:

Keep his workhorse in no matter the pitch count, or to do the safe thing and ask for the ball.

Not much of a choice, though.

Does Verlander have a no-hitter going? Yes? You leave him in the game.

The good-old days…

Maybe it shouldn't be that simple. Just ask Johan Santana, sitting out the season with a shoulder injury suffered months after throwing a 134-pitch no-hitter last June for the Mets.

The question of Verlander's pitch count became moot when former Tiger Carlos Pena broke up the feat one out into the seventh inning.

Old timers out there are right now scoffing and clearing their throat to tell you about four-man rotations and how Warren Spahn routinely threw 20 or more complete games in a season.

Back in the day, a man finished what he started, and that included the game.

Hall of Fame pitcher and current Rangers executive Nolan Ryan tried to change the culture in Texas to make the organization's pitchers more like himself. Worry about your conditioning, not your pitch count, was his mantra.

He should know. He tossed 222 complete games across 27 years in the big leagues.

For much of his career, pitch counts were not even recorded, though tales abound of Ryan's 235-pitch, 13-inning game during the Angels' 4-3 victory over the Red Sox in 1974.

Ryan showed no lingering effects, taking the mound on three days' rest against the Yankees and throwing six shutout innings. Ryan completed his next three games after that, winning two of them.

He finished that season with 332 innings pitched and a 2.89 ERA. Given his career trajectory -- 324 wins, 5,714 strikeouts, 3.19 ERA and seven no-hitters -- it would be hard to argue the start had any effect at all.

More recently, Japanese 16-year-old pitcher Tomohiro Anraku made news for tossing 232 pitches in a game in April and compiling 772 pitches in a nine-game tournament, Baseball America noted.

Only outside Japan did that seem unusual.

Verlander may be the Tigers' ace and iron man, but the team has 180 million reasons to do everything in its power to keep him healthy and effective through 2019.

Contracts, as much as anything, could be the impetus behind pitch counts.

That and risk aversion.

Woe be the manager whose high-priced pitcher is injured following a high pitch count.

But are pitch counts the best way to protect Verlander?

Dr. Glenn Fleisig, a biomechanics expert for American Sports Medicine Institute, endorses pitch counts at lower levels of baseball — high school or Little League. But he stops at pitch ceilings as limits for major-league teams.

"They should be guidelines to give you a feel for if he has had a high workload or not," Fleisig told Baseball Prospectus last year. "The rule should be that when a pitcher has arm fatigue, he should come out. So when he has arm fatigue, he should not pitch again until the fatigue is gone."

Verlander no average case

Pitch counts are a one-size-fits-all indicator, but pitchers are not all the same size.

Verlander is a remarkable athlete with remarkable and rare conditioning, one of the rare pitchers who can go 130-plus pitches with no ill effects. You cannot compare him to average.

His fastest pitch Sunday came in the seventh inning. He's a player known for touching 100 mph in the eighth and even ninth innings of games. In recent years he has continued to be effective in the games following appearances of 125 or more pitches.

Should Verlander labor, should he struggle to make the baseball do what he wants, should batters tee off his pitches, should his coaches, trainer or manager note fatigue, you'll know it's time to take the ball out of his hand.

Until then, put your pitch count worries away.

Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at bybtigers@gmail.com.

Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander's day was done shortly after he gave up a no-hitter in the seventh inning Sunday in Houston. / Bob Levey/Getty Images
See Also