Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

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Statistics, Deception and Boswell

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In case you weren't aware, Clayton Kershaw is really good.  Photo via wiki.

In case you weren’t aware, Clayton Kershaw is really good. Photo via wiki.

Was casually reading Tom Boswell‘s article in the post today (which can be summarized as “1,000 words on why you don’t want to face Clayton Kershaw in the playoffs, duh) and he posted the following intriguing statistic as part of his argument:

  • In games started by Kershaw, the Dodgers are 19-4
  • In games NOT started by Kershaw, the Dodgers are 59-58

Ergo, the Dodgers are really beatable when they don’t throw Kershaw.

This sounded like a great stat.  Until you dive a little deeper and you do the same analysis for our own first place/better record than the Dodgers team.

Los Angeles is, as of the moment of this writing, 78-62.  By starter, their team record breaks down like this:

  • Kershaw: 19-4
  • Ryu: 15-9
  • Greinke: 14-13
  • Haren: 13-14
  • Beckett: 9-11
  • Other randoms: 8-11

All others besides Kershaw and Ryu: 44-49
All others but Kershaw: 59-58

Pretty compelling, eh? They’re a losing team when not throwing one of their two aces in Kershaw or Hyun-jin Ryu.   Surprisingly, the team under their supposed #2 Zack Grienke sports just a .500 record on the year through 27 starts despite his known quality.


Lets do the same analysis for the Nationals, currently sporting a better record of 79-59 and having just beaten the Dodgers two out of three at their house.  Here’s the Nats team record under each starter this year:

  • Zimmerman: 19-9
  • Fister: 14-7
  • Gio: 13-10
  • Stras: 16-13
  • Roark: 15-12
  • Jordan: 1-4
  • Treinen: 1-4

All others besides Zimmermann and Fister: 46-43.

Hmm.  So, much like the Dodgers, if you play the Nats and you’re not facing one of OUR two best pitchers, we’re basically a .500 team.

I guess the point is this: in a sport where a team that is winning 57% of its games has the best record in the majors, the margins for winning and losing are pretty slim.  Or maybe the point is this: you can use stats to support pretty much whatever hypothesis you wish to postulate.

I think everyone knows that beating Kershaw is nearly impossible, and facing him twice in a short series may be the difference between advancing and going home.  But then again, this is the same Kershaw who has (believe it or not) a career 4.23 ERA in the post-season and got hammered by the Cardinals for 7 runs in 4 innings in last  year’s NLCS.   I guess that’s why they play the games.

But, I think it is also safe to say that the series in Los Angeles showed why it’d be one heck of an NLCS if the seedings held and the two top NL teams  held form in the divisional series.  Lets hope it comes to pass.

No surprises in Sept 1 call-ups, yet

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Treinen returns to the Nats for the September run.  Photo via zimbio.com

Treinen returns to the Nats for the September run. Photo via zimbio.com

[A quick note; a combination of a dead-time for issues that I like to write about and a new consulting engagement has conspired to mean very little activity here.  Now that the minor league seasons are ending though, I look forward to some wrap-up posts looking at the starters.  Apologies for the lack of posts/activity here].

9/1/14 came and went, and there was little drama in the Nats call-ups.  All six players called up were a) already on the 40-man roster, and b) already had MLB service time this year.

  • Pitchers: Blake Treinen, Aaron Barrett and Xavier Cedeno.
  • Catcher: Sandy Leon
  • 1B/OFs Tyler Moore and Steven Souza

So, nobody shocking thus far.  In fact, its almost easier to talk about the remaining 40-man players they did NOT call up than the ones they did.   In fact, lets do just that.  Here’s the players still on the 40-man but not initially called up:

  • Taylor Hill: hey, somebody’s got to start for Syracuse in the playoffs, right?  He may be approaching an innings limit anyway.
  • Sammy Solis: still rehabbing, no where near ready for prime time.
  • Felipe Rivero: only a handful of AA starts since his long D/L stint.
  • Ryan Mattheus: completely ineffective this season (5.80 ERA), likely on his way to a DFA/outright this off-season.
  • Jhonatan Solano: hey, somebody’s got to catch for Syracuse in the playoffs, right? :-)
  • Michael Taylor: many think he’s ready for prime time; would you start his service time clock so he can ride the pine in September?  I wouldn’t.
  • Jeff Kobernus and Eury Perez: with Moore and Souza call-ups, there’s already 7 outfielders … no need for two more right?

I can still see some value in calling up Perez for his speed, but almost nobody else at this point from this list.

What about those in Syracuse that had great seasons but are not on the 40-man?  Tougher call: You’d have to clear room to add someone right now, and the team seems to have made its moves to that end already in Matt Thornton and Nate Schierholtz.  But, if someone wanted to congratulate minor league vets like Brandon Laird (.300/.350/.490 for Syracuse this year), Rafael Martin (0.80 ERA in 33+ AAA innings) or Matt Grace (a combined 1.17 ERA over 77 innings in AA and AAA this year) with a September call-up and a month’s worth of MLB per diems, I wouldn’t disagree.  I just think it’d be kind of hard to find the space.  I would support a DFA of Mattheus right now to make room; after that is tougher.  You’d have to cut the likes of Kobernus or perhaps a MLB veteran like Jerry Hairston and/or Kevin Frandsen to make room based on performance.  And I don’t think a players’ manager like Matt Williams is cutting any veterans to make room for some 25-yr old he’s never met in AAA.

Nonetheless; there’s some baseball to play and some impact to be had by these 9/1 call-ups.  I think Barrett and Treinen are going to slip right back into the bullpen.  Cedeno could take away lefty-lefty opportunities that Jerry Blevins has been squandering all year (speaking of someone who may be on his way to a DFA this off-season…).  I could see Moore getting some playing time spelling Adam LaRoche at first (he seems like a better offensive option there than Frandsen, who has been the sub of choice lately when LaRoche gets a blow).  I’m excited to see what Souza brings to the table too; he led the Chiefs in steals this year despite missing 40% of the season; he isn’t just some big 6’4″ slugger.

Seven game lead this morning after last night’s win and a guaranteed road-trip split.  That’s fantastic, especially considering who they’ve been playing and beating (ahem, Felix Hernandez having his hat handed to him).

Post trade-deadline playoff contender rotations

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This year’s MLB trade deadline was crazy.  Never before have so many big-time names moved teams.  And certainly I cannot remember so many big-time pitchers relocating mid-season as well.

Lets look at the playoff contender rotations as they stand right now, with Trade deadline acquisitions highlighted in blue.

NL

  • Washington: Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmerman, Fister, Roark
  • Atlanta:  Teheran, Minor, Santana, Harang, Wood
  • Milwaukee: Lohse, Garza, Gallardo, Peralta, Nelson
  • Cincinnati: Cueto, Latos, Bailey, Leake, Simon
  • St. Louis: Wainwright, Masterson, Lackey, Lynn, Miller
  • Pittsburgh: Liriano, Morton, Locke, Volquez, Worley
  • Los Angeles: Kershaw, Greinke, Ryu, Beckett, Haren
  • San Francisco: Bumgarner, Hudson, Lincecum, Vogelsong, Peavy

St. Louis clearly did the most in the NL, acquiring two mid-rotation guys to help cover for the injured Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia, but it is hard to look at their rotation and say they’d have the advantage over some of their potential playoff rivals.  San Francisco lost its ace (thought he hasn’t pitched like an Ace since signing his new deal) Matt Cain, and his replacement was not inspiring confidence (Yusmiero Petit), so they added former Cy Young winner Peavy (who is pitching better than his 1-11 W/L record .. but not a lot better).  Otherwise the NL playoff contenders mostly stood pat.  There was some small surprise that the free-spending Dodgers wouldn’t try to improve upon the suddenly underperforming Josh Beckett and/or the “fool-me-once” Dan Haren.  They’ll struggle to get through the #3 and #4 starts of their planned playoff rotation to get back to their co-aces Kershaw and Greinke (who was good but not shut-down in last year’s playoffs).  The home-town Nats may find themselves with an uncomfortable decision to make if they make the playoffs; which starter to send to the pen?  Roark is the least renound and the least tenured … but he has clearly been more effective than other rotation members.

It continues to amaze that the Braves are competing, given the losses they’ve faced in their rotation.  They are missing (arguably) their planned #2, #3 and #5 starters in Kris MedlenBrandon Beachy and Gavin Floyd but are getting by thanks to two mid-spring acquisitions (Santana and Harang) and the surprise performances of youngsters Wood and David Hale (who didn’t merit his demotion to the bullpen).

AL

  • Baltimore: Tillman, Norris, Chen, Gonzalez, Gausman
  • Toronto: Buehrle, Dickey, Happ, Strohman, Hutchinson
  • New York: Kuroda, Phelps, Capuano, Greene, McCarthy
  • Detroit: Scherzer, Verlander, Sanchez, Price, Porcello
  • Kansas City: Shields, Duffy, Ventura, Guthrie, Vargas
  • Oakland: Grey, Samardzija, Lester, Hammel, Kazmir
  • Los Angeles: Weaver, Wilson, Richards, Shoemaker, Santiago
  • Seattle: Hernandez, Iwakuma, Paxton, Elias, Young

I didn’t include fringe playoff contenders such as Cleveland or Tampa Bay here; both of those rotations were purged and weakened, and their odds of catching one of these listed WC contendors is long.  Oakland completely re-made their rotation here, attempting to keep up with Detroit, who now features the last three AL Cy Young winners to go along with Sanchez (who finished 4th last year in a season where he led the league in both ERA and FIP).  That’s quite a lineup.  Meanwhile Seattle likely finishes 10 games back of the Angels and could end up facing them in the coin-flip wild-card game … and could end up throwing the best pitcher in the AL at them (which has been noted as a significant down-side to the 2nd wild-card matchup; who wants to see a team lose out to a divisional rival that they bested by so many games in a play-in game?).

New York is the “Atlanta” of the AL this year; they currently have four planned rotation members on the D/L and (likely) out for the year (CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, Michael Pineda and Masahiro Tanaka).   Their 4th and 5th starters were a 14th and 15th round pick respectively.  They’ve been outscored by nearly 30 runs on the year yet somehow have a winning record.  It seems like just a matter of time before their luck runs out and they settle back below .500.

Who would you rather go to war with, Detroit or Oakland’s rotation?   Probably Detroit’s rotation, given its depth one to four.  But the ALCS could be one heck of a series.

 

 

What’s eating Stephen Strasburg? Some stats and some thoughts

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Strasburg's  having a weird season. Photo unk via thewifehatessports.com

Strasburg’s having a weird season. Photo unk via thewifehatessports.com

Knee-jerk question: who is the best starter on the Washington Nationals?  Who do you call the team’s “Ace?”

For years its been Stephen Strasburg, even when Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann were getting Cy Young votes (Gio 3rd place in 2012 and Jordan 7th place in 2013).  Its been Strasburg even when Zimmermann makes two consecutive all-star teams and the team acquires Doug Fister, who is 13th in the majors in accumulated fWAR over the past four seasons.  Its still Strasburg despite the fact that #5 starter (and someone who people in this space argued rather vociferously for “stashing” in AAA this year in lieu of other pitchers) Tanner Roark leads the team in victories right now.

(all stats on baseball-reference.com and/or fangraphs.com as of 7/31/14).

But this year, something is amiss with Strasburg.  He’s having a complete jeckyl-and-hyde season in many ways.  To wit;

  • He leads the starters in FIP and xFIP,  (indeed; among qualified starters right now in MLB, he’s 11th in FIP and 4th in xFIP, training just leading Cy Young favorites Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez and Masahiro Tanaka).
  • He leads the Nats starters in fWAR.
  • He leads the NL in strikeouts with 10 more than his closest competitor Johnny Cueto.

I dunno.  If someone told me that a starting pitcher was leading the league in Ks, was 4th in xFIP, 11th in FIP and was 6th in velocity i’d say you had a pretty darn good pitcher.  But he’s been arguably the Nats *least* effective starter this year all in all.

Yet he’s just 7-9 on the season with a 3.55 ERA (one 1/100th of a point better than Zimmermann for last on the Nats rotation).   He has the worst WHIP of any of our starters at 1.240.  The team is just 11-12 in his starts.

So what the heck is going on?  Here’s some interesting statistical splits:

  • Compared to last year, his K/9 is up, his BB/9 is down.  That sounds good.  But his ground ball percentage is down and his line drive percentage is up.  Batters are putting better wood on the ball.  Which leads to…
  • His current BABIP against is an astoundingly high .345.  That’s the third highest BABIP of any qualified starter this year and a good 50 points higher than the league average.
  • Why are hitters getting such good wood on him?  Here’s a hint: for reasons unknown, batters are squaring up his fastballs like never before.  Checking his Pitch F/X data: he’s got a batting average against (BAA) of .294 on his four-seam fastball and an astounding .350 against his two-seam fastball.  Both of those figures are 50 points higher than the comparable BAA for those two pitches from 2013.
  • His velocity is down.  Which is kind of like saying that a model has gained a few pounds, but still.   Last years’ avg MPH on his two fastballs were 95.2 and 95.3.  This year?  94.5 and 94.6.  That’s just 7/10ths of a mph, and even with his loss of velocity he’s still easily in the top 10 in the league in average fastball velocity (6th in four seam velocity among starters), but its still declining.  In his 5 pro seasons his 4-seam average fastball velocity has gone from 97.6 to 96.0 to 95.8 to 95.2 to his current 94.5.

It sounds to me like a combination of slightly declined fastball velocity and some bad luck has led to hitters squaring up his fastballs more this year, resulting in more line drives, higher BABIP and more runs.  That more or less explains the huge delta between his ERA and his FIP.  But why?  Pitch F/X isn’t showing much of a change in fastball movement from last year to this year, so it is hard to argue that he’s lost movement on his fastball.  Could it all just be about location?

A couple more split-related observations (some of these we’ve seen during broadcasts):

  • Home ERA: 2.62.  Away ERA: 4.68.  Yeah, but lots of pitchers have big home/away splits.
  • First Inning ERA: 5.09!  Second Inning ERA: 4.30.  He’s getting hit early and often.
  • He’s improving as the game goes on; his stats against the order the second time through are significantly better than the first time through, something you don’t normally see.

If he’s so bad in the first inning, is he just having difficulties getting loose and finding his spots?  Is he falling behind and grooving fastballs and getting more line drive hits?  Why is he so significantly worse on the road?

On the bright side, the combination of an inflated BABIP and a huge delta between xFIP/FIP and his ERA does tend to indicate that there should be some regression back to the mean.  Maybe we’ll start seeing a bunch more of 7ip, 4hit, 2walk, 10K outings and he’ll break off a slew of dominant starts to help the Nats pull away in the division, just in time to lead the charge with a  home-field start in game 1 of the playoffs.

Thoughts?  Are you worried?  What else do you think is causing his troubles this year?

With Tanaka’s injury, will Yankees come calling?

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Free Ross Detwiler!  Photo Haraz Ghanbari/AP via federalbaseball.com

Free Ross Detwiler! Photo Haraz Ghanbari/AP via federalbaseball.com

Heard an interesting trade idea floated in Buster Olney‘s daily podcast last week while talking with Keith Law.

In light of Masahiro Tanaka‘s possible season-ending injury further depleting the Yankees rotation (which is already without projected 2014 starters CC SabathiaMichael Pineda and Ivan Nova and is depending on two 15th round picks who you couldn’t pick out of a lineup in Shane Greene and Chase Whitley right now), could the Yankees come calling the Nationals looking for Ross Detwiler in trade?

Despite all their rotational issues, the Yankees at the All-Star break sit 5 games back of a weak AL East and just 3.5 back in the Wild Card.  The Yankees don’t “pack it in,” ever, and have never shied away from spending to get what they need.  They’ve already made one shrewd starter acquisition in Brandon McCarthy (traded for cash and ineffective starter Vidal Nuno) and look like they could now use another (Greene has looked ok, but Whitley has not, and the Yankees starting pitching depth in the minors looks pretty bleak).

I’m on record saying the Nats should cash in on Detwiler.  And I still am.  My arguments are still the same; opportunity cost of an underutilized and replaceable pitcher versus filling a need for a team trying to mask issues at second base and a thinned farm system.  And i’m not alone (Adam Kilgore in April and May on the topic, Thomas Boswell said that “Detwiler has been wasted” in his June 23rd chat).  There’s now more than a few options for a Detwiler replacement in our system, a guy who can start or relieve, throw low-leverage innings in blowout wins or losses and still develop.  In fact, I’ll bet that our most recent 40-man addition Taylor Hill would *love* that role right now instead of pitching in upstate New York (even if the Chiefs are in first place).   If you wanted a lefty like-for-like replacement, look no further than Aaron Laffey, off-season MLFA who’s 11-3 for Syracuse on the season and who has 6 years of MLB experience starting and relieving.  Heck, maybe the Nats can trade Laffey if they’re so committed to Detwiler; Laffey pitched briefly (and somewhat effectively) for the Yankees in late 2011.

Why not see if the Yankees can give up something that the Nats could use?  Minor league depth.  Backup middle infielder.  Something, anything.

Detwiler, in the meantime, looks like he could be a nice fit in Yankee Stadium.  Lefties mitigate the short-porch in right field there, and Detwiler’s sinking fastball sports a decent ground ball rate (45.7% this year, right in line with his career average of 46.5% but below his 50% figure the last year he was healthy and starting in 2012) that could help keep the ball in the park.

(coincidentally … while googling for one of the links above, I discovered this link at the Washington Nationals Fan Forum: someone took my 5/9/14 article on this same topic and posted it there, where it got a ton of commentary.   Well shoot; why didn’t those people come and comment here?  I would have loved the discussion.  I had no idea it was there.  But the conversation continues today.  I’ll post this link there and see what happens).

 

 

State of the Nats at the halfway point

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Harper's run production in the middle of the order should spark this team now that he's back.  Photo via fansided.com

Harper’s run production in the middle of the order should spark this team now that he’s back. Photo via fansided.com

When Bryce Harper was reinstated from the D/L on 6/30/14, an interesting situation occurred:  The Nationals were at full strength for the first time, all year.

That’s right.  With Doug Fister starting the season on the D/L, even those who think that the team was at “full strength” for the first 7 innings of the first game (that’s how long it took before a Nationals offensive starter got hurt) aren’t quite right.  This team has been hampered and has been covering for injuries to its best available squad since the first day of the season.  Here’s a review of the tale of the injury tape for the ideal 25-man roster of this team so far in 2014:

  • Doug Fister; strained shoulder 3/23/14, missed 34 games
  • Wilson Ramos: broken hand on 4/1/14, missed 32 games
  • Scott Hairston; oblique strain on 4/6/14, missed 26 games
  • Denard Span, concussion on 4/12/14, missed 7 games
  • Ryan Zimmerman, broken thumb on 4/13/14, missed 44 games
  • Bryce Harper: torn thumb tendon on 4/27/14, missed 56 games
  • Adam LaRoche: strained quad on 5/11/14, missed 14 games
  • Gio Gonzalez, shoulder strain on 5/18/14, missed 27 games
  • Ramos again, this time a hamstring strain on 6/11/14, missed 14 games

2/5ths of the rotation and 5/8ths of the starting offense have at one time or another been on the shelf so far this year.  More than 250 games lost.  Ironically the oldest player on the team (Jayson Werth) has been one if its healthiest (he’s only missed 4 games this year).  And (knock on wood) there hasn’t been a single bullpen injury, likely one of the main reasons the Nats bullpen is among the best in the game this year.

The Nats (at the time of this writing) sit 1/2 a game out of first behind nemesis Atlanta, but have several reasons to be optimistic about catching them:

  • The Nats have a +39 run differential right now, while the Braves have a zero run differential.  That means that the Nats should be 9 games above .500 (according to pythagorean records) while the Braves should be a .500 team.  The Nats have been unlucky while the Braves have been quite lucky.  You could expect these situations to reverse themselves over the rest of the season.
  • The Nats are just 2-7 in extra inning games and 9-13 in one-run games.  You’d normally expect both of these W/L records to be near .500 and is likely the real reason behind the above run differential issue.
  • Despite the heart of their batting order missing dozens and dozens of games, the offense is not doing half bad: the Nats as a team are 8th out of 15 in the NL in WRC+, 8th in runs scored, 8th in wOBA, 10th in batting average, and are 10th in homers despite Zimmerman having just THREE on the year.
  • While the Offense treads water, the Pitching has been fantastic.  Our starters are 5th in the NL in ERA, 1st in FIP, 2nd in xFIP, 2nd in SIERA.  The bullpen has been equally as good (a huge improvement over last year):  2nd in NL ERA, 1st in FIP, 6th in SIERA.
  • The starters lead the NL in FIP despite Stephen Strasburg‘s “struggles;” ironically despite his having a .500 record an a 3.70 ERA he has the best FIP of any Nats starter.   He’s just been victim of circumstance while he pitches.   Blake Treinen has been fantastic covering in the rotation, and the team has found an excellent 5th starter in Tanner Roark.  Games that were “thrown away” time and again last year by Dan Haren and a litany of poor-performing minor league call-ups have been handled with aplumb this year.

Where do we go from here?

The Nats schedule from here on out eases significantly; as of the time of this writing the last three months look like this:

  • July: 10 of 25 games against teams with winning records right now
  • August: 12 of 28 games against teams with winning records right now … and that includes teams that very well may have losing records by the time we get to them.
  • September: Just 9 of 27 games against teams with winning records right now, including the final 11 against Marlins and Mets teams likely to be playing out the string with 40-man call-ups from AAA and key young arms sitting due to inning limits.

For this Nats fan, its hard to see the same struggles we saw last year; I see a team finally getting their squad back together, having a solid July and perhaps a dominant closing to the season to fulfil its promise.  I like where this team stands right now (even with the tepid split in Chicago last weekend) and look forward to the next few months.

Quick thoughts on Garcia and Hill Moves Today

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Garcia just couldn't ever make it back. Photo unknown credit.

Garcia just couldn’t ever make it back. Photo unknown credit.

Quick thoughts on the two major pitching-related transactions this week.

  • Nats finally cut the cord on Christian Garcia, after attempting to nurse him back to health for most of the past few years.  They got moments of brilliance (the 2012 playoffs basically), but mostly they got frustrated promises of future utility.  There were more than a few arguments in this space even as late as this spring from people who thought Garcia was going to break camp with the team thanks to his grand total of 12 2/3 MLB innings, merely on the promise of what he could become.  I hope someone picks him back up and gives him another shot (maybe the Yankees, his original drafting team?).  One small nit: I can see perhaps DFAing the guy to make room on the 40-man; why bother outright releasing him at this point?  What harm would there be in keeping him in Syracuse to see if he gets it back?
  • Taylor Hill, who I thought would be lucky to start in AA this year, let alone dominate AAA has he has (9-2, 1.92 ERA), gets added to the 40-man and called up.  I say bravo to him and bravo to the Nats for rewarding a guy who didn’t appear on *any* prospect list for the Nationals, anywhere.  This guy was a *senior* sign, a 6th round cost-savings draft pick in 2011, a guy who probably signed for a few thousand dollars and whose ceiling of expectations was perhaps two good years in A-ball eating innings before getting released for the next crop of draftees.  Hill may only be up with the team for a couple of days to give some bullpen innings, but now he’s on the 40-man, where he’ll likely sit for quite a while.  Maybe he even pushes for a 5th starter spot sometime in the future.

Lets hope Hill gets some time tonight or in the next series so we can do a “first look” post.

Written by Todd Boss

June 25th, 2014 at 3:58 pm

A history of Pitchers taken #1 overall

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Brady Aiken joins an exclusive club.  PHoto Scott Kurtz via studentsports.com

Brady Aiken joins an exclusive club. Photo Scott Kurtz via studentsports.com

While researching for the #1 overall pick Starting Pitching matchup post, I found myself typing up little mini biographies on each of the pitchers.  I ended up moving that content to a new post, which you see here.  This is probably the last draft-related post for a while, until I summarize how our draft picks did at the end of the season.

Here’s a biography and career summary of every pitcher who’s been taken #1 overall in the history of the MLB draft, which started in 1965.  PeterGammons.com has a review of all #1 picks, which looks like a nicer-formatted version of the b-r.com page.  Dave Cameron wrote a WSJ article talking about the fact that just two HS arms have been drafted 1-1 prior to 2014 and they were both failures, and Baseball Prospectus’s Steve Goldman printed his own own version of this same post in 2009 with great insight not otherwise available, but it was light on details for the last 5 or so guys.

Believe it or not, there’s only been 17 pitchers picked first overall (including 2014) … and there’s *never* been a prep right handed starter picked.   Fourteen of the seventeen first overall pitchers selected came from college, and twelve of those fourteen were right handed pitchers.

Here’s a brief history of each #1 overall pitcher.

  • 2014: Brady Aiken, LHP from Cathedral Catholic HS in San Diego, drafted 1st overall by the Houston Astros in 2014.  Issues with pre-draft consensus 1-1 Carlos Rodon led the Astros to go with just the third prep pitcher ever to go #1 overall.  Aiken is considered the best talent in this draft by nearly every pundit, with a live arm, good mechanics, 3 excellent pitches and good command.   He quickly signed a below-slot deal, saving the Astros a ton of money that should enable them to sign over-slot deals later on in their draft.  There’s plenty of draft coverage of Aiken in the normal places, so we’ll focus on the previous guys who by now have at least a bit of pro experience.
  • 2013: Mark Appel, RHP from Stanford, drafted by the Houston Astros in 2013.  Appel had quite a draft day history; he was picked in the 15th round out of HS and didn’t sign.  And then in 2012 he was thought to be the #1 draft prospect in the draft (the first year where there were significant restrictions on bonuses by slot) but fell to #8.  The Pirates drafted him at #8 but couldn’t put together an over-slot enough deal to convince him to forgo his senior year.  So that’s what he did; pitched his senior year and then went #1 overall to Houston, who got him to sign an under-slot deal soon after the draft.   Appel was assigned to low-A to finish out the 2013 season and did well, but has struggled mightily in 2014 for Houston’s high-A team.  Some say that he has been unable to adjust to Houston’s “tandem” starting scheme, where guys throw fewer innings/pitches per outing but throw more frequently (every 4 days).  I agree; I think Houston is really foolish to take a prized possession such as Appel and shoe-horn him into a weird/non traditional rotation experiment.  Put him in AA, put him throwing regularly every 5 days and see what he can do.  As of this writing, he sports an 11+ era in the California League, having given up 10 runs in one 1 1/3 inning-outing at the end of May.  The word on the street was that he was suffering from a hand issue which prevented him from locating (but didn’t sap his velocity); still; that’s an awful lot of hits and runs to give up to A-ball players for a guy who (in some opinions) could be in the majors right now.  Is it too early to worry?
  • 2011: Gerrit Cole, RHP from UCLA, drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Cole was part of an amazing 1-2 punch at UCLA in 2011 (his rotation mate was Trevor Bauer, taken 3rd overall in the same draft.  Amazingly, UCLA didn’t even advance out of its own regional despite having two top-3 starters in their rotation).  Cole didn’t pitch in 2011, but “solved” high-A and AA in his first pro season in 2012 and was called up in mid 2013 once he’d cleared super-2 status by the cost-conscious Pittsburgh Pirates.  He was excellent in 2013, maintaining a sub 3.00 FIP for the year and helping Pittsburgh make the post season for the first time in a generation.
  • 2009: Stephen Strasburg, RHP from San Diego State, drafted by Washington.  We all are quite familiar with the story by now; Strasburg was a laconic out-of-shape  hurler in high school who barely merited a college spot, then re-made himself into the “greatest pitching prospect of all time” while at San Diego State.   Despite his reported bonus demands (he ended up with more than $15M deal) and his representation (Scott Boras), the Nats never seriously not selecting him with their first round pick.  The team played the “service time” game with him, keeping him in the minors until his super-2 eligibility was exhausted, then he struck out 14 Pirates in his MLB debut.
  • 2007: David Price, LHP from Vanderbilt, drafted by Tampa Bay.  Price was the friday starter for Vanderbilt, who entered the 2007 post season as the #1 overall CWS seed but who somehow lost in their regional.  Price signed late (this was before the moved-up signing deadline and often big-money draft picks had to wait for the signing deadline to be announced) so he didn’t debut until 2008.  He quickly proved to be un-hittable in high-A or AA and was promoted to the big club in September of his first pro season.  He was up and down (both to and from Durham and in terms of performance in 2009) before exploding onto the scene in 2010, going 19-6 and finishing 2nd in the Cy Young race to Felix Hernandez.  Price won the Cy Young in 2012 in a close race and is generally been considered one of the best 10-15 pitchers in the game.  The biggest question with Price now is where he’ll end up; he’s arbitration eligible and earning a significant portion of the Tampa payroll, and his name has been in the trade rumors for two years running.  However 2014 may finally be the time Price moves on; Tampa has the worst record in the majors and probably starts making moves as soon as the all-star break passes.  I look for Price to join a playoff contender and have a real impact in 2014 and 2015 before his 9-figure payday arrives.
  • 2006: Luke Hochevar, RHP from Tennessee/Indy league, drafted by Kansas City.  Hochevar burned quite a few bridges in Los Angeles prior to his joining Kansas City; he was drafted by the Dodgers twice, the second time agreeing to and then reneging on a 1st round deal worth nearly $3M in 2005.  Instead he played Indy ball and went 1st overall in 2006 to the Royals, who gave him a (now banned) MLB deal with significantly more money than the Dodgers offered.  He debuted in 2007, but generally struggled as a starter for the Royals for the next 5 seasons (compiling a 38-59 record in those years).  In 2013 he remade himself as a wipe-out 8th inning guy, posting a 215 ERA+ for the rising royals.  Unfortunately, he sucummed to the dreaded Tommy John disease early in 2014 and had surgery on 3/7/14.   Hochevar’s injury couldn’t be more badly timed; he’s a free agent this upcoming season and likely will have to sign a non-guaranteed deal until he can show he’s recovered.
  • 2002: Bryan Bullington, RHP from Ball State, drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Bullington’s selection by the penurious Pirates was considered a “signability pick,” with the GM given direction to sign a “safe” college pitcher as opposed to one of the prep talents that were higher ranked on most draft boards.  So Pittsburgh selected Bullington (in lieu of B.J. Upton, Prince Fielder or a slew of other now-successful MLBers from the 2002 draft).  To be fair, Bullington was considered the #1 college arm in the 2002 draft, but few thought he was the #1 overall talent.  He held out for months, finally signing in October of 2002 for $4M.  He progressed slwoly through the Pittsburgh system, debuting in September 2005.  He was hurt though, got diagnosed with a torn labrum and the Oct 2005 surgery cost him all of 2006.   He never was really effective afterwards, sputtering through 2007 and part of 2008.  Pittsburgh waived him in 2008.  After that he bounced around 3 organizations in the next 3 years, ending up with a callup by Toronto in late 2010 where he threw 8 innings of shut-out ball to earn is sole major league victory.  For the last three years he has pitched in the Japanese Nippon league.
  • 1997: Matt Anderson, RHP from Rice, drafted by Detroit.  Detroit picked the Rice hurler believing that his position (closer) and his velocity (100mph capabilities) would mean that he was quick to the majors and they were right; after dominating high-A and AA, he was in Detroit’s bullpen by late June 1998.  He had a great debut season but mostly struggled with control issues (career 5.5 bb/9) as a 7th/8th inning guy.  He tore a muscle in his shoulder in 2002 (allegedly by participating in an Octopus-throwing contest earlier in the day), which sapped him of his velocity upon his return.  Detroit sent him to AAA in 2004 and then released him at the end of the season.  After 2005, he bounced around 3 different organizations, attempted a comeback in 2011 with the Phillies and now is completely out of baseball.
  • 1996: Kris Benson, RHP from Clemson, drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Unlike the Bullington pick, Benson was the consensus #1 player in the draft, having just completed an undefeated junior season at Clemson, leading them to the CWS, and being named the College player of the year.   He spent two nondescript years in the minors and joined Pittsburgh’s rotation in the 1999 season.  He had two good seasons, then blew out his elbow and missed all of 2001 recovering from Tommy John.  He returned to the mound in 2003 and pitched like a #3/#4 starter for several years until being befelled again by injury.  This time it was more serious; a torn labrum.   By this point he had been traded from Pittsburgh to New York to Baltimore and had brought his “road show” along with him (he was married to former stripper Anna Benson, who on more than a few occasaions made headlines thanks to her curious behavior.  It is alleged in some circles that the Mets traded Benson just to rid themselves of his wife’s antics).   He missed the whole 2007 season and a good chunk of 2008 with shoulder soreness, bounced around a couple more organizations, and called it a career after 2010.    He made 200 career starts in the majors and had a 70-75 record all in all.  He filed for divorce from his (crazy) wife, who then was arrested after showing up at his house with weapons while wearing a bullet-proof vest.   I’ll be honest; his devotion to charitable causes doesn’t seem congruous with his marriage to an ex-stripper.  Maybe that’s a bit judgemental on my behalf :-)
  • 1994: Paul Wilson, RHP from Florida State, drafted by the New York Mets.  Wilson was part of a trio of high-end Mets pitching prospects who were expected to be the next wave of power arms for the team (himself, along side of Jason Isringhausen and Fairfax’s Bill Pulsipher).   Wilson’s career peak may have been the year after he was drafted, throwing 180+ innings in the minors.  He struggled in 1996 at the major league level and subsequently had to have Labrum surgery.  That cost him most of 1997 and 1998 … then to add insult to injury he tore his UCL and had to have Tommy John in 1999.   By this point the Mets were apparently tired of waiting for him to develop and traded him to Tampa Bay.  There, he finally got back on the field in 2000 and pitched well enough to earn a 4yr deal from Cincinnati.  Unfortunately, he tore his rotator cuff, underwent his third surgery as a professional … and never made it back afterwards.  He tried to rehab the arm in the minors in 2006, suffered a set-back, took a non-guaranteed deal in 2007, had a set-back, and tried Indy ball in 2008 before being released and retiring.  Despite all these injuries he managed to make 150+ major league starts.
  • 1991: Brien Taylor, North Carolina HS, LHP, drafted by the New York  Yankees.  One of only three high school pitchers ever taken number one overall and (excluding the two most recent draftees) he’s the only player on this list who never appeared in the majors.  Taylor was hitting 98-99 as a HS pitcher, had an absolutely astounding 21 K/9 rate (he struck out 213 in just 88 HS innings), and by more than one scout’s opinoin was the greatest high school pitching prospect the game has seen.  Unfortunately he suffered a significant shoulder injury (a rotator cuff tear that separated the cuff from the bone) in a bar fight while in the minors, missed an entire season after surgery, and lost 8mph off his fastball.  The Yankees released him without his ever appearing above AA.  After bounching around odd jobs, he was arrested for cocaine trafficing in 2012 and is currently in federal prison.  ESPN has a great oral-history just posted about Taylor, with all sorts of quotes from Yankees officials of the day.   He’s a sad story all around.
  • 1989: Ben McDonald, RHP from LSU, drafted by the Baltimore Orioles.   He was the consensus #1 overall pick, the best player in the college game the year prior, and had just led USA baseball to the gold medal in the 1988 olympics.  He is one of the most “close to the majors” pitchers ever drafted.  He signed on August 21st and made his MLB debut just 18 days later, pitching out of the bullpen.  In July 1990, he pitched a 4-hit shut-out in his major league debut, a game I distinctly remember watching on TV.  McDonald was a phenom and was going to bring Baltimore back to the promised land.  It never happened: McDonald struggled with injuries and ended up leaving Baltimore after his initial deal ended.  In Milwaukee he was pitching well but suffered a torn rotator cuff, from which he never recovered.  McDonald was out of baseball at the age of 29.  In the years since, he was elected to the College Baseball Hall of Fame, a nod to his completely dominant career at LSU.
  • 1988: Andy Benes, RHP from Evansville University, drafted by the San Diego Padres.  Career 1989-2002.  Benes was a “pop up” guy who went from being an unknown prospect to a first rounder thanks to an amazing 21-K outing his junior year in college.  The Padres were “drafting for need” somewhat and had targeted a quick-to-the-majors college arm to be their #1 pick, and Benes was the best available choice.  He was a multi-sport player in college, which some pundits believe limited his pitching development.  He was known to have an excellent fastball with great command … and little else.  Nonetheless, he flashed through the minors and debuted in 1989, finishing 5th in the Rookie of the Year voting.  For the next six years he was basically a #3 starter/innings eater for San Diego, never missing a start, putting up great K/9 numbers and compiling a near .500 record for a series of decent-to-awful Padres teams.  He was traded to Seattle in 1995 (for one Ron Villone) in his walk year to join the Mariners for their playoff run, then signed a 2-year deal with St. Louis.  He pitched well in St. Louis, even getting Cy Young votes, but then a contract snafu led him to join Arizona ahead of their debut season, where he threw the first pitch in franchise history.  After his stint in Arizona, he came back to St. Louis but a series of injuries cause him to miss significant time during his last two seasons.   He pitched excellently in the 2nd half of 2002, but his declining health (he suffered from an arthritic knee, which sapped him of his power, forced him to pitch with a knee brace and caused him to become more of a finesse guy later in his career) caused the Cardinals to decline their 2003 option on Benes.  Frustrated with his health and unwilling to pitch anywhere but in St. Louis, Benes retired in the winter of 2002.
  • 1983: Tim Belcher, RHP from Mount Vernon Nazarene College, drafted by the Minnesota Twins.  Career 1987-2000.   Technically Belcher was a #1 overall pick twice.  He was drafted by Minnesota #1 overall but didn’t sign (Minnesota was known to be cheap with their money back then), and then was picked #1 again in the January 1984 supplimental draft phase by the Yankees.  Belcher visited two more organizations before making his debut, getting snagged by Oakland from the Yankees as FA compensation, then getting flipped to the Dodgers after Belcher struggled in the minors.  He was immediately effective for Los Angeles though, giving them several good seasons after finally debuting at age 25.  He threw EIGHT shutouts in 1989 enroute to a 5th place Cy Young finish, his most effective season as a pro.  He was flipped to Cincinnati (for Erik Davis) and bounced around 5 other orgnaizations from there, always featuring as a #3-#4 starter quality guy who stayed relatively healthy and ate innings but was nothing more.  His career was ended thanks mostly to an elbow surgery late in 1999; he tried to come back in 2000 but was mostly ineffective and hung them up in spring training of 2001.  He served as a coach in the Cleveland organization for most of the rest of the decade but (as far as I can tell) has been out of the game since 2011.
  • 1981: Mike Moore, RHP from Oral Roberts, drafted by the Seattle Mariners.  Career 1982-1995.  Moore was already a known quantity, having been drafted in the 3rd round out of High School.   After being drafted by Seattle (who by 1981 also had former #1 overall pick Bannister on their payroll), Moore made just 14 minor league starts before debuting in the majors in April of 1982.   Predictably, he got hammered.  Seattle was generally awful during Moore’s entire tenure there, despite his putting up several 5-6win seasons.  When he made it to free agency, he joined Oakland and immediately became the leader of a world series winning squad.  He finished his career off by vastly underperforming during a 3yr/$10M contract with Detroit, ending with his being released a month before his contract ended.   He ended up with a career profile quite similar to some of the names above here (especially the likes of Benes and Belcher): decent career, #3 starter ceiling, .500 pitcher.
  • 1976: Floyd Bannister, LHP from Arizona State, drafted by the Houston Astros.  Career 1977-1992.  As with Moore after him, Bannister was a 3rd round pick out of HS but opted to go to Arizona State, where (like McDonald and Benson after him) he was the collegiate player of the year and the clear #1 overall prospect in the draft.   And like several guys before him, he ended up being less of a total Ace and more of a #3/#4 starter, .500 career record kind of hurler.  He probably had his best season for the White Sox in 1987, but knocked around three more organizations and Japan after that, retiring in 1992 with 363 career starts.
  • 1973: David Clyde, Texas HS LHP drafted by the Texas Rangers.  Career 1973-1979.  The first ever pitcher taken #1 overall was Clyde, who turned into a cautionary tale of what NOT to do with your prep draftees: Clyde was a Texas-based high school phenom who had an amazing senior year and was the consensus #1 overall pick.  But Texas did something rather extraordinary; they drafted Clyde and then immediately put him on the major league roster.  He ended up starting 18 games for Texas as an 18 yr old, mostly as a publicity stunt by the owner, looking for increased box office revenue.  He got hurt, was traded to Cleveland and was out of the league by the age of 24.  His wikipedia page is a good read; after retiring he went through some tough times but seemed to come out ok.

Best career of any #1 overall pick by total bWAR: Andy Benes with 31.7 bWAR compiled over a 14 year career where he was basically a .500 starter (career record: 155-139, career ERA+ was 104).   Belcher didn’t quite have the bWAR but had the longest career of any of these guys.  You can probably argue that David Price is more successful already by virtue of his Cy Young award.

Least successful #1 overall pick: clearly Brien Taylor, the only one of these 17 players who never reached the majors (excepting recent picks Appel and Aiken of course).  A couple of the other picks here at least made the majors but compiled negative bWAR for their brief careers.

 

Strasburg-Cole matchup and a history of #1 vs #1 picks

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Gerrit Cole won the latest installment of #1 versus #1 overall drafted pitchers.  AP Photo via sporting news.

Gerrit Cole won the latest installment of #1 versus #1 overall drafted pitchers. AP Photo via sporting news.

I saw a cool stat while idly watching a Nats-Pittsburgh game a few weeks back.  The match-up between Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole was the 11th time ever that #1 overall picks faced each other in baseball history.

What a great stat.  So naturally I wanted to look up the other ten.  I was hoping that I could find this data in the Baseball Reference Play Index, but couldn’t find it, so I went with a “brute force” method of finding the 11 matchups by scouring b-r.com’s play index data for each of the handful of pitchers entire career game logs.

The draft has existed since 1965.  In that time just 17 pitchers have been drafted #1 overall (including this year), and a few of them barely had careers.  Thus the rarity of this occurence.  While researching this article, I found myself looking more closely at all seventeen #1 overall picks, but moved that to a subsequent post, so look out for that in the future.

Meanwhile, here the 11 matchups are, in descending chronological order:

  • 11th: Stephen Strasburg vs Gerrit Cole 5/24/14: Strasburg gives up 3 in 7 while Cole gives up 2 in 6 and gets the win.  Pittsburgh d Washington 3-2.
  • 10th: David Price vs Luke Hochevar 8/21/12.  Seven years have passed since the last 1/1 matchup by this time.  Here, both pitchers threw 8 shutout innings (Hochevar giving up just 1 hit) and Kansas City prevailed by getting a run in the 10th.  This game was likely the greatest game Hochevar ever pitched (game score of 87), slightly better than a 3-hit shutout he had in 2009.   Hochevar was pretty-well awful as a starter for years with Kansas City but transformed himself into a great middle reliever in 2013; he suffered a blown elbow and had Tommy John surgery in March.
  • 9th: Kris Benson vs Paul Wilson 5/16/05:  Nearly a decade has passed since we had a #1 vs #1 matchup.  Here, neither guy was pitching terribly well in 2005, but Benson got the better of Wilson on the day.  Benson gave up just 2 runs in 7+ innings while Wilson got beat around for 7 runs in 5 1/3.   After the game, Wilson hit the disabled list and eventually had shoulder surgery for labrum and rotator cuff issues, which cost him the rest of 2005 and all of 2006, and he never appeared in another game.  So Wilson’s last ever MLB appearance was his sole #1 versus #1 matchup.
  • 8th: Ben McDonald vs Tim Belcher 6/27/96: McDonald was enjoying a nice bounce-back season after leaving his original team (Baltimore), and threw a nifty 7ip/3hit/1 run performance to beat Belcher’s Royals.
  • 7th: Ben McDonald vs Tim Belcher 4/11/94: McDonald was off to a great start for Baltimore, while Belcher was not for Kansas City.  Odd how these two guys both met up again, both with new different teams.   McDonald again threw 7+ innings of 2 run ball to beat Belcher on the day.
  • 6th: Ben McDonald vs Mike Moore 9/2/92: Their second meeting in two weeks, McDonald threw 6 innings but Moore threw 9 innings of 1 run ball; the game was won in the 10th by Baltimore.
  • 5th: Ben McDonald vs Mike Moore 8/23/92: Moore again got the better of McDonald, who gave up 6 in 6 for the loss.
  • 4th: Andy Benes vs Tim Belcher 4/8/92: Benes got the better of Belcher on the day, though both pitched well.
  • 3rd: Ben McDonald vs Mike Moore 5/7/91: McDonald hit hard early and Moore gets a win over his fellow #1 overall pick.
  • 2nd: Mike Moore vs Floyd Bannister 6/24/1988.  Moore pitched a 4-hit shutout to beat Bannister and the Royals in a rematch of their first 1-1 meeting four years prior.  Bannister gave up 7 runs (4 earned) in 3 2/3′s innings to get knocked out in the first ever matchup of former #1 overall picks.
  • 1st: Mike Moore vs Floyd Bannister 6/27/84: The first ever meeting between #1 overall picks took nearly 20 years to occur, thanks to just a couple of pitchers being taken first overall in the first two decades of the draft and thanks to bad timing.  This meeting was nothing to write home about though; neither guy pitched that badly, but neither figured in the decision after each gave up 3-4 runs in 5 innings.

Mike Moore appeared in 5 of the 11 one-vs-one matchups and his teams were 4-1 in these five games.   Bannister’s teams went 1-1 in his two appearances.  Ben McDonald also appeared in 5 of the 11 one-vs-one games and his teams went 3-2 in the games.   Belcher’s 3 games all resulted in losses for his team, despite (arguably) Belcher having the most accomplished career of any #1 overall drafted pitcher.   There’s only been 3 such meetings in the last 20 years, all featuring more recently drafted pitchers.

I also found these games where two former #1 overall picks both appeared, but one (or both) was in relief:

  • Kris Benson vs Andy Benes 7/20/02: Benson got the start and the win while Benes pitched 3 innings of mop-up duty as St. Louis fell behind by 10 runs.
  • Tim Belcher vs Matt Anderson 9/7/00: Belcher got the start and the win with 6ip/3er, while Anderson pitched the last out of the 8th for the losing team.
  • Tim Belcher vs Matt Anderson 7/14/98: Belcher got the start and got blasted; Anderson pitched the 7th and got a hold.
  • Mike Moore vs Floyd Bannister 6/12/92.  Moore got punched out of the box early and Bannister picked up the victory by pitching the 14th inning.
  • Ben McDonald vs Floyd Bannister 5/17/91: McDonald started and pitched a complete game win while Bannister relieved the losing starter in the 5th.
  • Mike Moore vs Floyd Bannister 4/17/91.  By this time in their careers, Bannister was relegated to the bullpen, but they did “face” each other in this game.  Moore threw 7 innings of 1-run ball for the victory.

Just for completion sake, who are the 6 pitchers not mentioned already who were picked #1?  That would be 2014′s Brady Aiken, 2013′s Mark Appel (neither of which has appeared in a major league game yet, obviously), along with Bryan Bullington (who bounced around the league for a few years but never matched up with any of his fellow draft picks), Brien Taylor (the 1991 #1 overall pick who never made it above A-ball), and David Clyde (who was the first pitcher to go #1 overall but didn’t last long enough to get any matchups with subsequent picks).

Stay tuned for a look at all seventeen of these guys, their stories and their careers in a future post.

TJ Surgery epidemic: upbringing, showcases and mechanics

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Jose Fernandez is (arguably) the biggest name to go down to TJ surgery yet.  Photo via thestar.com

Jose Fernandez is (arguably) the biggest name to go down to TJ surgery yet. Photo via thestar.com

Its the biggest story in baseball so far in 2014.   We’ve had nearly 20 MLB pitchers get diagnosed with torn elbow ligaments so far this calendar year.  All of them have or are set to undergo “Tommy John” surgery (also known as ulnar collateral ligament/UCL replacement surgery).  That’s nearly as many as who got the surgery ALL of 2013 and we’re just 6 weeks into the season.  There’s an alarming trend upwards over just the past few seasons of pitchers getting this surgery.  There’s been plenty more minor leaguers (two Nats farmhands in Erik Davis and Danny Rosenbaum have already gotten it in 2014) and already a couple of very high-profile draft prospects as well (including as discussed in this space potential 1st rounders Jeff Hoffman and Erick Fedde just in the last week).

Lots of people are talking about this story, especially some heavy-weights in the baseball world.  A sampling:

  • Dr. James Andrews, perhaps the most famous sports doctor in the world, attributes the growing trend to the rise in year-round baseball competition in the US.
  • SI.com’s Jay Jaffe reviews Dr. Andrews comments and had other excellent stats about the trend in this April 2014 piece.
  • The Washington Post’s Dave Sheinen did an excellent piece in the paper a few weeks ago about the injury, which he attributes to youth usage.
  • Tom Verducci (he of the “Verducci effect”) proposed a solution in a column this week after the Jose Fernandez announcement.  His idea?  Lowering the mound across all levels of the sport.  He draws this conclusion after hosting a very interesting round-table on MLB Network.
  • Jayson Stark teamed up with ESPN injury analyst Stephania Bell and former player Alex Cora to discuss the rise in arm injuries in this ESPN.com video, and they follow Andrews’ theory of year-round pitching.
  • Chris O’Leary, king of the Inverted-W (whether you believe his theories or not, I’ve included this link here) has his own theories as discussed here.  He doesn’t really have much in the way of explanation, just more whining about how every pitcher’s mechanics has something you can complain about.
  • Jeff Passan basically calls out baseball executives for not having any answers.
  • If you want an index of all of ESPN.com’s stories on the topic, click here.  It will have columns, analysis and press releases for individuals getting the surgery.

Some interesting stats about Tommy John surgery:

So what the heck is going on??  Lets talk about some theories.  I’ll highlight them in Blue.

The new “hot theory” is essentially this: Over-throwing at Showcase events, which have become crucial scouting events for kids raised in the United States, are to blame.  Thanks to the rise in travel leagues and select teams, scouts spend less time sitting at high school games and more time at these all-star events.  To prescribers of this theory, it isn’t so much about the amount of innings or pitches that kids throw … its the nature of the “showcase” events and the high pressure situations that those events put kids under.  Kids are throwing year-round, and they’re ramping up max-effort pitches at national competitions multiple times per year, and in some cases out of “season.”  This leads to serious damage to kids’ arms done as 16 and 17 yr olds, which then manifests itself over the years and results in blown ligaments in pro ball.

Do you buy this explanation?  It certainly makes sense to me, but how do you prove this?  And, it doesn’t explain the similar rise in elbow injuries to non-American pitchers.

Is it less about the showcase events and more about the Larger Increase in Youth pitched innings thanks to the rise in Travel Leagues?   This theory also makes some sense to me: thirty years ago kids played an 18-20 game spring Little League season, at best would pitch half those games and that was it.  Maybe they played in the fall too, but there were specific innings limits in place that protected kids.  Now instead of playing limited spring and fall seasons, kids are playing AAU travel teams that play 40-50 games a summer, plus weekend tournaments, plus (eventually) the above showcase events as they get closer to matriculation.  This theory certainly is supported by a startling rise in youth arm injuries, as noted in this 2010 study by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

But, if its “bad” to play more baseball … then shouldn’t we be seeing even MORE injuries from players who grew up in third-world baseball hot beds like the Dominican Republic or Venezuela, where by all accounts kids play baseball from sun-up to sun-down 12 months out of the year in tropical climates?

Interestingly, of the list of 19 MLB players so far who have been diagnosed with a torn UCL (see next section), there’s 4 non-American developed pitchers (Rondo, Nova, Figueora, Cisnero).  4 of 19 = 21%, whereas about 22% of MLB pitchers are non-American developed (my 22% figure comes from this quick study that I did; I grabbed every active MLB pitcher as of early May 2014 and did a quick-and-dirty player upbringing analysis to determine that about 78% of players “grew up” in the current American system of player development).  It is small sample size … but the percentage of american versus foreign developed players are so far exactly in line with the total percentage of each type of player in the larger pool of MLB pitchers.  This doesn’t seem to support either of the two above theories.

We’ve all heard horror stories about pitch counts and pitcher abuse at  high school events in Japan (this came to light over the winter as we looked at Masahiro Tanaka and learned about these Japanese showcase events; this article here at thebiglead.com talks about one Japanese prospect’s 772 pitches thrown over 9 days, and Jeff Passan talked about Tanaka’s own pitch count abuse stories and his average pitch counts as a Japanese-league pro).   Unfortunately there’s not a ton of data available about this TJ theory and Japanese pitchers.  I can find a couple of instances of Asian pitchers getting the surgery (Kyuji Fujikawa in 2012 being the most recent example), but not enough to establish any trends.

But lets state it this way: you can’t have things both ways.  Both these stereotypes about player upbringing cannot be true:

  • Latin American poor youth plays baseball from sun up to sun down 12 months a year, building arm strength constantly, therefore his arm is “stronger” and he’s less suceptible to injury
  • American little leaguer plays limited schedules (18 games in the spring, perhaps fewer in the fall), has closely monitored pitch counts, therefore does not abuse his arm as a youth and thus his arm is “stronger” later in life as a result.

Here’s a list of the 19 MLB pitchers who have already gone under the TJ knife so far in 2014 (data from baseballheatmaps.com, which has detailed Disabled List data).

Of these 19 pitchers, they are evenly split between being starters (10) and relievers (9).  So that doesn’t seem to lend itself to any Starter vs Reliever usage conclusion.

How about Pitching Mechanics?  We’ve all heard ad-naseum about the “Inverted W” and people talking about pronation and timing and elbow lift and etc etc.  Here’s a quick attempt to analyize the mechanics of each of these 19 guys (all photos grabbed as thumbnails from google images for the purposes of demonstration; no copyright infringement intended).

CisnerJose landingFernandezJose landingGriffinAJ landingFigueroaPedro landing

 

NovaIvan landingJohnsonJosh landingMooreMatt landingGearrinCory landing

 

ParnellBobby landingDavisErik landingHernandezDavid landingMLB: Spring Training-Arizona Diamondbacks at Los Angeles Dodgers

 

RondonBruce landingCorbinPatrick landingParkerJarrod landingBeachyBrandon landing

 

MedlenKris landingHochevarLuke landingLeubkeCory landing2

Quick and Dirty Mechanics analysis (images in same order as list of pitchers above, which is choronological in order of diagnosis in 2014):

  • Inverted W: Griffin, Nova, Gearrin, Beachy, Hochevar
  • Sideways M: Fernandez, Johnson, Davis, Moylan, Rondon, Parker, Medlen
  • Inverted L: Cisnero, Figueroa, Moore, Parnell, Hernandez, Corbin, Luebke

But I’ll immediately add a caveat to these classifications; at various stop-points in a guy’s delivery, he may exhibit “good” or “bad” trends.   Maybe some of these “sideways-M” guys are actually “inverted-W” guys.  Maybe some of these inverted-W guys are ok and the stills make their mechanics seem worse than they are.

Nonetheless; there’s no trend among the 19 guys in terms of their mechanics.  In some cases they’re “bad” (Griffin and Gearrin’s look awful) but in some cases excellent (nobody should look at Moore’s mechanics and say they’re anything but clean, nor with Parnell or Corbin).  These pitchers are overhanders, 3/4-slot guys and even side-armers/submarine guys (Gearrin and Moylan).   These guys include hard throwers (Rondon had the 3rd highest velocity of *any* pitcher in 2013) and softer-throwing guys (Medlen had one of the lowest fastball velocities in the majors in 2013).  There’s starters and relievers almost equally represented in this list.

Conclusion; there’s no conclusions to draw from pitching mechanics analysis.  I think all attempts to look at guys’ mechanics and make judgements are useless.  I think (as does Keith Law and other pundits in the field) that the “Inverted W” is nonesense and that “research” posted online by concerned-fathers-turned-self-appointed-mechanics-experts is not exactly trustworthy.  The fact of the matter is this: throwing a baseball over and over is hard on the body.  Throwing a ball is an unnatural motion, and throwing a ball at max-effort will eventually lead to pitching injuries, no matter what your mechanics.  They can be “good” or “bad” according to someone’s pet theory on bio-mechanics and it has nothing to do about whether a pitcher is going to throw 10 seasons without injury or have two tommy johns before they’re 25.

Some historical context for pitching mechanics arguments: the pitcher who has the 2nd most innings thrown in the non-knuckleballer modern era (behind Nolan Ryan) was Don Sutton.  Sutton displayed absolutely *classic* inverted-W mechanicsnever hit the D/L in his career and threw nearly 5,300 innings over the course of 23 seasons.   Walter Johnson‘s mechanics were awful; he slung the ball sideways as he literally pushed backwards away from the hitter at the end of his delivery.  If someone saw Johnson’s mechanics today they’d talk about how over-compensated he was on his shoulder and how he lost velocity thanks to landing stiff and having zero follow through.  Johnson only threw 5,900 innings in his pro career; yeah those mechanics really held him back.  Nolan Ryan was a freak of nature, throwing at that velocity for as long as he did.  The point?  You just don’t know.


Maybe there’s something to the “showcase abuse” theory for some players.   Maybe there’s something to the travel-ball overuse theory for some kids.  But I think the answer may be a bit more simple.  We all know there’s been a rise in the average MPH of fastballs in the majors, both on starters and especially with relievers.  My theory is simply this: kids who “can” throw upper 90s spend all their time trying to throw upper 90s/max effort fastballs 100% of the time, and human arms just cannot withstand that kind of abuse over and over.  In prior generations, kids who “could” throw that hard wouldn’t, or would rarely try to throw that hard, and thus suffered fewer elbow injuries.

Side note: I also firmly believe that we’re “victims of our own success” to a certain extent with respect to modern medicine; 30 years ago would someone have just “blown out their arm” instead of being diagnosed specifically with a “torn ulnar collateral ligament?”  Would some kid in the low minors who hurt his harm even bother to get an MRI?  How much of the rise in these injuries is simply the fact that we’re better at diagnosing injuries in the modern sports world?

Why are these kids trying to throw so hard these days?  Because velocity is king, and that’s what scouts look for.   A kid who “only” throws mid 80s as a 17-yr old is dismissed, while the kid who can throw mid 90s at the same age is fawned over.   Guys like Greg MaddoxMark Buehrle, and Tom Glavine probably don’t even get drafted in the modern baseball climate thanks to the over-focus on pure velocity.

You can talk about upbringing and showcase events and pitch counts and mechanics all you want, but I think it comes down to Pitcher over-exertion thanks to the rising trend of fastball velocity and the human nature urge of prospects and farm-hands to show more and more velocity so they can advance their careers.

What do you guys think?  Do you dismiss the “inverted-W” arguments like I do?  Do you think its all about showcase events?