Nationals Arm Race

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

Player Killers: what college programs are known for hurting pro prospects?

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Did TCU destroy Purke's arm? Photo AP/Nati Harnik

Did TCU destroy Purke’s arm? Photo AP/Nati Harnik

Player Killers.  Arm Shredders.  Arm Abusers.  There’s more than a few college coaches/programs out there who are known for it.

Its always dangerous to make a blanket statement in baseball.  If I say that “CollegeX is known for killing pitcher arms” then there’ll immediately be people who cite players who are exceptions to such a rule.

Nonetheless, while reading a ton of prospect-driven content on the web over the years, some common themes pop up.  And the crux of it is this: there are some college baseball programs out there that are accused of hurting their players’ professional prospects and draft statuses by virtue of the misguided or (in some cases) outdated coaching and usage of players.

Grantland’s Michael Baumann wrote an excellent article summarizing some of the “danger programs” in 2013, citing work done by Rany Jazayerli and Baseball Prospectus.  Some of this also comes from Keith Law‘s freely offered opinions on the topic, and he offers up plenty of supporting evidence in his columns and chats.  Some of these are “arm shredder” programs, others are places that are thought to change player’s swings.

Here’s some trouble-maker programs (and by “programs” often times by implication you’re blaming the head coach as the decision maker):

  • Stanford: Law calls it the “Stanford Swing.”  Per Law, Stanford coaches emphasize going away, altering hitters’ swings to de-emphasize pull hitting, to the point apparently where players are outright benched for pulling the ball.  Now, there’s quite a few Stanford grads in the Majors right now, and the  hitters listed aren’t exactly an honor roll of top-hitting guys.  Jed Lowrie might be the best active hitter.  The career Stanford grad homer leader is the recently retired Carlos Quentin, out of baseball at 32.  So maybe there’s something to it.
  • TCU: Jim Schlossnagle is not well known for its handling of pitchers.  The Nats are well aware of this, having drafted damaged goods in Matthew Purke, who was 15-0 as a freshman and basically hasn’t been the same since.
  • Rice’s Wayne Graham: Law has provided an exhaustive list of pitchers who he accuses the Rice coaches of blatantly over-working and has flat out suggested that pitchers considering attending Rice should go elsewhere.  In fact, the most blatant example of this was the 2004 draft: Rice had three starters drafted in the first 8 picks (Philip Humber, Jeff Niemann, and Wade Townsend) and ALL three of them suffered shoulder injuries soon there after.
  • UNC‘s Mike Fox so over-used a reliever a few years back that the New York Times of all papers wrote about it.  And he had Matt Harvey, don’t forget, allowing Harvey to throw an astounding 157 pitches in a 2010 outing and 5 other instances of 120+ pitches.  Is it a coincidence that Harvey blew out his UCL just a couple years later?  Causation or Correlation?
  • South Carolina‘s Ray Tanner: won back to back CWS’s … on the backs of his pitching staff.
  • Texas‘ legendary coach Augie Garrido already had a reputation for overuse before the infamous Texas-Boston College regional game in June of 2009.   Texas’ Austin Wood, a reliever, came out of the bullpen to throw 13 innings and 169 pitches in the 25-inning game.  Garrido really took a lot of heat for that … but his BC counterpart might have only been slightly less culpable.  BC threw its own guy Mike Belfiore for 129 pitches and 9 2/3 innings.  In Wood’s case, it was made even worse by the fact that he had thrown two innings *the day before.*  It is no surprise to report that Wood had to undergo Shoulder Surgery the next season, nor is it a surprise that the crusty Garrido disclaimed any responsibility for the injury by Wood’s usage in that game.  Belfiore, it should be noted, has never shown any evidence of injury, was a 1st round draft pick just prior to his appearance, and looks like a 4-A pitcher who is now in the Detroit organization but who had a cup of coffee in 2013.  Perhaps its because Belfiore was a starter and basically threw a start instead of Wood, who was clearly a reliever.
  • UCLA: Look at the usage in college for guys like Trevor Bauer and Canning Griffith; is it any shock that these guys end up with injuries?
  • Notre Dame: Not a good track record (per Keith Law) of developing or protecting pitchers.

Pitch count guidelines: there’s research out there that basically shows that anything above 120 pitches in an outing is an indicator of fatigue-induced regression their next time out, and 130+ pitch outings might as well be prescriptions for injury.

Times have changed: no longer are A-1 pitching prospects left in games to rack up ridiculous pitch counts.  Mark Prior had at least 6 starts the year he was drafted where he threw 120-130+ pitches.  Ben McDonald was famously started in back to back CWS games, getting clobbered in the second game … all while having *already* been drafted by the Baltimore Orioles, who must have been screaming at the television set watching what was  unfolding as legendary LSU coach Skip Bertman set about destroying the best arm in the nation.

But then again, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  NC State, in a mad dash to make the post-season in 2014, let their Ace starter Carlos Rodon throw 120+ pitches seven times.  Rodon’s usage was also discussed in Baseball America.  Did that lead to Rodon’s diminished stuff and subsequent drop in the 2013 draft?  Maybe.  I’m sure the White Sox are ok with it, since he doesn’t seem to have suffered any ill effects and is in their rotation 2 years later.  Trevor Bauer, while at UCLA, *averaged* more than 120 pitches an outing the year he was drafted … but he seems like such an outlier because of his warm-up technique (which involves extreme long toss and clearly has built up his shoulder strength over the years).  Are NC State and UCLA trouble-programs?  I havn’t heard much since so i’m leaving them off for now.

Did I miss anyone?

Post Publishing update: we’re starting to hear more and more about UVA’s Pitching program being problematic;  Per baseballdraftreport.com, only 3 of the 22 UVA pitchers drafted since 2009 have even made it to the majors, and the career UVA bWAR leader among all UVA players is a lefty reliever in Javier Lopez.  UVA has had 42 players reach the majors and is one of the leading colleges for active players as we speak, but has had an awful track record of arms drafted recently.  Just take a look at some of the recent top-end UVA arms drafted (from recent to older):

  • Conner Jones: 1st round talent out of HS, slipped to 2nd round in 2016 thanks to regression during college career but no injury issues thus far in pro career.
  • Nathan Kirby: supp-1st rounder in 2015: after just 5 pro games he needed Tommy John.  Missed all of 2016 with injury, still not on an active roster as of Apr 2017.
  • Josh Sborz; supp-2nd rounder in 2015: 2016 High-A all-star and 2017 NRI to Dodgers MLB camp.  Starting in AA.  One minor D/L trip.  Was UVA’s closer/long reliever but starting in pro ball.
  • Brandon Waddell: 5th rounder in 2015: quickly pitched his way to AA, where he spent most of 2016, suffered a forearm strain early in 2017.
  • Nick Howard: 1st rounder in 2014, missed half of 2015 and 2016 with shoulder injuries, still in XST to start 2017.
  • Artie Lewicki: 8th rounder/senior sign in 2014: missed parts of 2014 and 2016 on the D/L but active and in AA in 2017.
  • Whit Mayberry: 21st rounder in 2014, already released by his drafting team (Detroit) and signed as a MLFA by Washington for 2017; currently in High-A.  No injuries.
  • Kyle Crockett: 4th rounder in 2013, raced through the majors and debuted for Cleveland in May 2014.  No injuries.
  • Scott Silverstein: 25th rounder in 2013, hurt in May 2015 and released after that season.
  • Branden Kline: 2nd rounder in 2012, has been on the D/L since May of 2015.
  • Danny Hultzen: #2 overall pick in 2011: massive shoulder issues, out of the game after throwing just 169 minor league innings in 6 pro seasons.
  • Will Roberts: 5th rounder in 2011, has had a long minor league career; in AAA to start 2017.
  • Tyler Wilson, 10th rounder in 2011, is currently Baltimore’s #5 starter.

So a couple of high profile injuries, but also some successes.  I suppose the issues that their marquee 1st rounders has led to this reputation.

2018 update:

  • Florida State let their starter (already having thrown 108 pitches) return to a game after a rain delay
  • UConn getting a bad rap.

17 Responses to 'Player Killers: what college programs are known for hurting pro prospects?'

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  1. Mike Fox also had Alex White. Alex White also had TJ surgery and has been awful as a pro.

    PDowdy

    29 Jun 15 at 4:32 pm

  2. Good point on Fox.

    Todd Boss

    29 Jun 15 at 8:15 pm

  3. Roger Clemens managed to survive both Graham (at JUCO) and Garrido. In fact, Graham went to Rice touted as somewhat of a pitching guru because he had Clemens and Pettitte at San Jacinto. But he hasn’t produced much in the way of successful MLB pitching, despite Matt Anderson, who had some crazy mechanics, going 1/1.

    Graham has been much more successful with hitters (Berkman, Cruz Jr., Rendon), but he had some interesting hitting theories as well. Reportedly, at least back in the Cruz/Berkman era, he made all his players try switch-hitting. That seems to have passed by the Rendon time.

    As for Purke, the Rangers did try to say that there there was an arm issue before he went to college, but 15-0 seemed to dispute their findings.

    You would think in this day and age that there would be more correction with the pitching abuse with players and parents starting to avoid the abusive programs. I know for some kids it is hard to turn down the winning programs and coaching “legends,” though. It doesn’t seem like the pros have much influence on the college programs, as the complaint has been out there forever that colleges abuse arms. The Ben McDonald story got well covered at the time, and that was eons ago. The flip side is that the pros have no choice but to draft college pitchers, as they succeed at an exponentially higher level than do HS arms.

    It would be interesting to know, though, the rate of TJs among major leaguers who went to college vs. those who didn’t.

    KW

    30 Jun 15 at 9:33 am

  4. Handy reference to look up players produced by specific college programs:

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/schools/

    KW

    30 Jun 15 at 9:37 am

  5. Is it a coincidence that two of the programs listed here are also two of the most coveted baseball destinations? If you’re a parent and your kid gets a scholarship to play baseball at a place like Rice or Stanford … are you saying, “well gee I can’t send my kid there, they’ll abuse his pitching arm?”

    Lots and lots of speculation on the rise of pitcher injuries. But that’s a great question (TJ in college kids versus non?)

    Todd Boss

    30 Jun 15 at 12:24 pm

  6. KW: check out this link: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1gQujXQQGOVNaiuwSN680Hq-FDVsCwvN-3AazykOBON0/edit#gid=0

    This guy meticulously tracks TJ surgeries and has exactly what you’re after: a college/non-college flag. I did a quick study of all pitchers who have had TJ since 1/1/2013. 225 total pitchers. Of those 225, 183 were US based. Of that 183; 122 pitched in college, 61 did not. So that’s 2/3rds of US-based TJ pitchers who had college experience.

    What does that mean? It looks like pitching in college is a huge factor here. Buuuuuut what is the ratio of MLB pitchers in general who did and did not pitch in college? I have no idea. If more than 2/3rds of MLB pitchers appeared in college, then these numbers would indicate that NON-college pitchers were more at risk.

    Looking at Nat’s 40-man roster, pitcher category: of the 22 guys with MLB time this season, 2 were Int’l signings (Rivero and Martin), 3 were HS picks (Gio, Ross and Cole) and the other 17 were college guys. 17/22 is 77% college guys. Now, maybe the nats are bad examples b/c Rizzo only drafts college players basically. Here’s the best link i could find:
    http://www.baseballamerica.com/today/majors/season-preview/2012/2613177.html

    Of 662 pitchers on 40-man rosters in 2012, only 315 were either college or juco. That’s less than half.

    So, i think you can conclude that pitching in college makes you more susceptible to TJ.

    Todd Boss

    30 Jun 15 at 4:34 pm

  7. Todd, very good stuff. I don’t think it would be too much of a generalization to say that college pitchers are more likely to make it to the big leagues, but also more likely to break down. Whether there is a direct correlation between how pitchers are used in college and if they break down would take more digging. You would think that someone should have done this, but maybe they haven’t.

    It’s not cut and dried, though, and it would be virtually impossible to get standardized data on college pitch counts. You can get college innings fairly easily on recent players, though. Baseball Cube includes the college stats.

    I once got curious about the relative mileage on the Nats’ starters arms and tried to look at the combined innings across college and pros vs. Gio and what he did in the minors. Gio threw a ton of innings in the minors, nearly 700 over six years. Stras threw 243.1 at SD State and was used less than Gio through ages 18-21. JZim pitched even less at frigid Stevens Point, 218 innings, but he completed 12 games, making you think he was pushed harder. Stras completed only six. Gio had only one CG in the minors, at age 22.

    What it all means, I don’t pretend to know . . .

    KW

    1 Jul 15 at 9:53 am

  8. Scherzer and Fister each only completed two games in college, and Roark only completed one in his two years at Illinois. But then Matt Harvey only completed two at UNC, despite the nasty pitch counts.

    KW

    1 Jul 15 at 10:38 am

  9. Yeah, i’m not sure what it means either. If i had days and days to do the analysis (and was getting paid to do so.. :-) ) I’d do some research.

    Todd Boss

    1 Jul 15 at 10:54 am

  10. So who are we going to get to pay us to do this, Rizzo or Boras? Truth be told, I’ll bet Boras’s minions have at least some good information along these lines, but I would imagine he doesn’t want it known since he makes a fortune off of college pitchers.

    Based on a little more browsing I did after posting the above, I’m thinking it’s pretty likely that JZim was abused in college. The 12 CGs are a huge number, and he seems to have averaged nearly seven innings an outing, all in a frigid location.

    KW

    1 Jul 15 at 11:23 am

  11. Maybe Zimmermann’s workload is well known to Rizzo already, and has factored into the max offer he was willing to give him. In fact, i’ll bet that between TJ and workload (for both him and Strasburg) that has factored into their decision to let all these guys walk.

    The Desmond extension denial looks like a terrible decision now, doesn’t it?

    Todd Boss

    1 Jul 15 at 11:56 am

  12. That reminds me of what I was trying to look up all those months ago: it seemed to me that Fister, even though he is a couple of years older, had pitched a lot fewer innings across college and the pros than had JZim and Gio. (I think this was before Max was in the plans.) I believe I found my thesis to be true, but I’ve forgotten the details.

    Nothing against Desi, but I was never a fan of a megabucks 6/7-year extension. I feel sorry for him that he hasn’t managed to put up the numbers to get that $125M deal for himself, though.

    KW

    1 Jul 15 at 1:24 pm

  13. About Desmond, I’m going to paraphrase but it goes something like this…….

    If someone offers you $100+ million dollars to play for a team that will perennially be in contention, in front of fans that are totally supportive, and involves living in one of the world’s great cities, maybe you should take it.

    Mark L

    1 Jul 15 at 1:44 pm

  14. I’ve posted it here before, but I think Desmond (or perhaps his representation) couldn’t get away from the belief that Desmond merited what Elvis Andrus got. In fact, here’s a post from Apr 2013 on the subject. 8 years, $120M. And for a while it looked like Desmond may very deserve that contract w hen looking at his combination of bat and defense as compared to Andrus.

    Now, given what he’s done (or more to the point, not done) in 2015, he’s cost himself tens of millions of dollars. He’s not a $100m player right now. He’s probably looking more at a 4yr/$60M deal.

    Grass is always greener… especially to Scott Boras clients.

    Todd Boss

    1 Jul 15 at 3:03 pm

  15. And today we have the signing of the 16-year-old international kids, which is even more nuts than trying project an 18-year-old high schooler or 21-year-old college junior. The 16-year-olds are the same as high school sophomores. Yet several of these kids will get more to sign than college stars.

    KW

    2 Jul 15 at 10:10 am

  16. KW — The rules sure do distort the numbers, don’t they?

    Meanwhile, we get to watch uber-prospect Rey Lopez who was signed for $17,000.
    Wilmer Difo was for a little more.

    Mark L

    2 Jul 15 at 2:12 pm

  17. Yeah, imagine what Lopez’s price would be if he was on the market now!

    KW

    2 Jul 15 at 4:39 pm

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