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Maybe baseball teams should limit warm-up pitches

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Pitchers throw a lot of warm-up pitches every year. Do they need to?

Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

As you well know by now, Zack Wheeler is set to miss the entire 2015 season with a torn ulnar collateral ligament. Unfortunately, he is not the first and will not be the last pitcher to suffer the injury.

Professional pitchers throw a lot of pitches every year. In order to become professional pitchers, they very likely threw a bunch more pitches as amateurs. On top of all pitches that count in a game, they throw quite a few warm-up pitches, too. Major League Baseball's Rule 8.03 sets the limit for warm-up pitches before each inning at eight. Would cutting down on that number make sense to save some of the wear and tear on pitchers' elbows?

Let's say an average start lasts six innings. That makes for 48 warm-up pitches per start for a starting pitcher. If he makes thirty starts at that rate, he will have thrown 1,440 pitches over the course of a season. Warm-up pitches might not be thrown with the intensity of actual pitches, but they are not nothing. Even if they are thrown at minimal effort, they are still pitches, and at the core of the Tommy John problem is the unnatural motion of throwing a baseball overhand.

Pitchers are creatures of habit, of course, so making any changes might be met with a little resistance, whether a team tried it out or the rule itself were changed. And getting warmed up seems like a reasonable goal to accomplish, but perhaps, as Eno Sarris points out in a piece at Sports on Earth about the differences between Tommy John rates in the U.S. and Japan, there are better ways to get pitchers warm before they get into the game.

It might not sound like much, but cutting warm-up pitches to six per inning takes that total down from 1,440 to 1,080. Going a step further and cutting the number to four would mean just 720 warm-up pitches over that same span of time. We still don't know what prevents an ulnar collateral ligament from breaking—other than just not throwing baseballs at all. If warm-up pitches aren't really necessary, perhaps reducing the workload there makes sense.