Now that baseball-reference.com is providing historic pitch data game-by-game back to 1988, I was able to do a little research today on the number of pitches that two future Hall-of-Famers, Greg Maddux and Roger Clemens, threw that year, long before the current era when pitchers are kept on strict limits. I found that both of these young pitchers (Maddux was 22 at the time, Clemens was 25), were allowed to throw far more pitches than any pitcher, let alone a young pitcher, would be allowed to throw today, and on numerous occasions.
Here are my findings:
Maddux's highest pitch total that year occurred on May 17, when he threw 167 pitches in a 10.2 inning appearance.
Other high outings for Maddux that year included 143 pitches (his first start of the season), 137 pitches, 134 pitches (a 10-inning outing), and two 131-pitch starts. He averaged just 104 pitches per start that year for the 33 starts I have records of (there's no pitch count available for his May 22 start). Nevertheless, those high-pitch outings would raise quite a few eyes if they occurred today.
Clemens threw even more pitches. His highest total for the year was a 162-pitch start on July 25. He also had starts of 135, 152, 133, 132, 145, 150 (10 innings), 134, 141, 148, 138, 133 and 154. He averaged 120 pitches for the season.
Why bring these old statistics to light? Only to counter the widely-held theory that allowing young pitchers to throw more than 130 pitches in a game endangers their career in all cases. Certainly these high-pitch games didn't prevent Maddux and Clemens from each going on to win 300 games. Arguably, the high pitch counts early in 1988 affected Maddux's young arm in the second half of the season, when he wasn't all that effective. But there were no lingering effects in 1989, when he went 19-12, and obviously none thereafter. Clemens had a few years of struggles in the mid-1990's, which some might argue stemmed from throwing so many pitches early in his career. But he bounced back pretty well, I'd argue (4 Cy Young awards between 1997 and 2004).
Some would argue that Maddux and Clemens aren't good examples. They're freaks, people will say, and you can't subject any old pitcher to these kind of pitch counts and expect them to go on to win 300 games. However, I'd counter that Clemens and Maddux were far from freaks in those early years. This was the way all pitchers were treated at the time. True, some pitchers back then developed arm problems and faded. But that happens all the time today, when pitch counts are so closely watched.
And many other pitchers whose careers began between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s and who threw similar numbers of pitches (though that data mostly isn't available), had HOF or near-HOF careers. Carlton, Ryan, Blyleven, Sutton, Jenkins, Perry, Seaver, Hershiser, Eckersley, Jack Morris, Luis Tiant, and many others come to mind. Clemens and Maddux happened to debut at the tail-end of this era, when so many HOF starters began their careers.
The high number of pitches thrown by both Maddux and Clemens in 1988 also contradicts the theory that the average game today sees more pitches thrown than in decades past due to the emphasis these days on strikeouts and also due to the advantages now enjoyed by hitters (body armor, better bats, smaller ballparks.) Obviously, just as many pitches were thrown in games in 1988 as are thrown in most games today. It's just that the starters aren't throwing as many of them.
I wasn't able to research Clemens' or Maddux's pitch counts prior to 1988, because that was the first year the stat was kept. But I'd assume 1988 was no fluke for Clemens, who had 18 complete games in 36 starts and threw more than 280 innings in 1987.