Nationals Arm Race

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

Verducci effect for 2014 announced

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Chris Sale singlehandedly doing his best to disprove the Verducci effect.  Photo via landmarknews.com

Chris Sale singlehandedly doing his best to disprove the Verducci effect. Photo via landmarknews.com

I’m a number of weeks behind on this post, but I always enjoy the Tom Verducci article published in January of each year discussing what he titles the “Year After Effect” (here’s the link to the 2014 iteration).  In it, Verducci identifies a handful of pitchers who, using a simple innings pitched increase year-over-year rule-of-thumb and some added professional analysis, he believes are at risk for regression or injury.

Some links before we get started:

  • Here’s my blog post on this topic from last year, which includes a number of links that criticize or dispute the so-called “Verducci effect.”
  • Here’s Verducci’s 2013 iteration of his article.
  • Here’s Verducci’s 2014 iteration, published on 1/21/14 at cnnsi.com

First, some numbers.  Prior to 2013, of the 69 pitchers he’s identified in the last seven years as being at risk, 55 of them suffered an injury/posted significantly worse ERAs.  That’s about an 80% prediction clip.   Lots of critics of the effect have pointed out that there’s no effect when studying the larger population of pitchers, but that doesn’t explain Verducci’s 80% prediction rate.  So I don’t entirely accept that Verducci’s opinion is useless here.

Lets look at 2013′s pitchers and decide whether or not we think they regressed.  Verducci named 11 pitchers he thought were in jeopardy of injury and/or regression thanks to a significant workload increase from 2011 to 2012.

2013 Candidate Name/team 2012 IP 2012 FIP 2012 xFIP 2012 SIERA 2013 IP 2013 IP Delta 2013 FIP 2013 xFIP 2013 SIERA Arm Injury? Verdict
Chris Sale, White Sox 192 3.27 3.24 3.25 214 1/3 22 1/3 3.17 2.95 2.96 No Improve
Jarrod Parker, A’s 214 2/3 3.43 3.95 4.15 197 -17 2/3 4.4 4.41 4.48 No Regress
Jose Quintana, White Sox 185 4.23 4.33 4.5 200 15 3.82 3.86 3.92 No Improve
Joe Kelly, Cardinals 187 4 4.03 4.12 124 -63 4.01 4.19 4.31 No Regress slightly
Stephen Strasburg, Nationals 159 1/3 2.82 2.81 2.81 183 23 2/3 3.21 3.15 3.17 No Regress slightly
Chris Rusin, Cubs 173 4.85 4.53 4.47 187.3 14 1/3 4.75 4.46 4.78 No Improve
Matt Harvey, Mets 169 1/3 3.3 3.49 3.42 178.3 9 2 2.63 2.71 Yes Injured (TJ)
Alex Cobb, Rays 177 2/3 3.67 3.54 3.51 143.3 -34 3/8 3.36 3.02 3.26 No Improve
Felix Doubront, Red Sox 161 4.37 3.81 3.84 162.3 1 1/3 3.78 4.14 4.26 No Improve
Dan Straily, A’s 191 1/3 6.48 5.3 4.72 184 -7 1/3 4.05 4.22 4.26 No Improve
Andrew Werner, Padres 166 2/3 4.09 3.93 3.85 165 -1 2/3 4.28 ? ? No Regress

Interesting; of the 11 pitchers Verducci mentioned last year, only one suffered any kind of arm injury, and that was Matt Harvey (who was well on his way to the NL Cy Young, posting incredible numbers for a guy with his sustained velocity).  A couple of these guys saw significantly fewer innings in 2013 thanks to being either relegated to the bullpen (Joe Kelly) or having suffered a non-arm injury (Alex Cobb, who suffered a concussion and missed 10 starts).   Meanwhile, only two of the eleven guys “really” regressed in 2013 (Jarrod Parker and Andrew Werner, who spent the whole year in AAA hence the question marks for some of the advanced stats,which are not kept for minor leaguers on fangraphs).   Six of the eleven guys distinctly improved their overall stats, including specifically Chris Sale, who had a *massive* innings increase from 2011 to 2012, threw more innings yet again in 2013 and posted better numbers despite having what is easily described as “unorthodox” mechanics.

Our own candidate Stephen Strasburg “regressed slightly” from 2012 to 2013, posting mostly 4/10ths of a point regressions in his major pitching statistical component.  He missed a couple starts here and there due to a shoulder strain and forearm tightness, but otherwise threw 183 innings, increased his workload by 23 2/3 innings, and made 30 starts.   For those that expect Clayton Kershaw-greatness out of Strasburg, 2013 was a disappointment, but in the larger picture his numbers still were generally top-10 across the board.  Its tough to claim he regressed when he’s “just” a top-10 pitcher in the league … but that’s the price of fame I suppose.

Conclusions: before 2013 Verducci was 55 for 69 in successful year-after effect predictions of regression/injury.  I’m saying he went just 5 for 11 with his 2013 predictions, so now he stands at 60-for-80 lifetime, still a 75% prediction rate.  Verducci does note that of the 11 candidates from last year, only four were “really” candidates (Kelly, Quintana, Parker and Sale),  and the rest just barely broke his 30 innings threshold.

Who did he pick for 2014′s watch list?  Unfortunately for Nats fans, another of our own is present; Taylor Jordan.   Jordan pitched nearly 48 more innings in 2013 than he ever had professionally before, which triggers his presence on this list.  We all know the reason why; he never really threw a full season in 2009 or 2010, had Tommy John surgery in mid 2011, came back to throw just 15 starts in 2012, and 2013 was his first full season back.  The team had an innings cap for him (just as they had one for Jordan Zimmermann and Strasburg), and when Jordan got up around the 140 innings mark he was shutdown for the year.  Even given that cap, he still threw a ton more innings than he’s ever thrown before and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the team cap his innings at around the 170 mark in 2014.

Here’s a statistical look at Verducci’s 2014 candidates:

Pitcher, Team Age as of Jan 2014 2013 IP 2013 IP delta 2013 ERA 2013 FIP 2013 xFIP 2013 SIERA
Gerrit Cole, Pirates 22 196 1/3 64 1/3 3.22 2.91 3.14 3.41
Erik Johnson, White Sox 23 169 2/3 +62 2/3* 3.25 5.4 4.73 4.76
James Paxton, Mariners 24 169 2/3 50 2/3 1.5 3.26 3.08 3.24 (only 4 mlb starts)
Taylor Jordan, Nationals 24 142 47 2/3 3.66 3.49 3.8 3.86 (only 9 mlb starts)
Michael Wacha, Cardinals 21 179 2/3 45 2/3 2.78 2.92 3.36 3.32 (only 64 mlb innings)
Sonny Gray, Athletics 23 195 1/3 43 1/3 2.67 2.7 2.92 3.11 (only 64 mlb innings)
Danny Salazar, Indians 23 149 41 2/3 3.12 3.16 2.75 2.79 (only 52 mlb innings)
Andre Rienzo, White Sox 25 169 41 4.82 5.85 4.76 4.94 (only 56 mlb innings)
Yordano Ventura, Royals 22 150 40 2/3 3.52 5.33 4.3 4.46 (only 15 mlb innings)
Jose Fernandez, Marlins 20 172 2/3 38 2/3 2.19 2.73 3.08 3.22

A large number of these players were mid 2013 season call-ups, and their 2013 stats are mostly based on short-sample sizes (where noted).    We’ll revisit these pitchers next year to see what happened, and to judge whether teams are starting to mind these innings increases a bit more closely.  What interests me with this list (besides Jordan’s presence on it) is the number of high-profile arms listed here.  Salazar, Fernandez, Cole, and Wacha all are expected to be significant contributors in 2014; will the run into arm issues?

What do you guys think about Verducci’s annual study?  Bunk?  Pseudo-science?

 

10 Responses to 'Verducci effect for 2014 announced'

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  1. My first reaction was your last one: wow, those are a lot of the top young pitchers in the game. It will be interesting to see if he is right, because several teams will be very disappointed.

    As for the validity of the whole thing, I think it was a great thing for Verducci to do originally. It helped bring national attention and awareness to a trend that was spot on. But I think that it is fading from relevance, and has been superseded by other measures. Generally, it is too summary to be that helpful in today’s ultra stat-oriented, hyper analytical world. For instance, I think it is generally believed that it is pitch count, not IPs that matter most, particularly pitches thrown when the arm is tired and therefore mechanics breakdown. Also, overall mechanics matter (violent deliveries/max effort v. Easy velocity), as does overuse of certain pitches like sliders. Verducci’s method doesn’t take any of that into account. It is, instead, a shorthand approximation of those things. So it was good once, may still be more right than wrong, but I don’t find it very compelling any more given all the other information out there.

    Wally

    15 Feb 14 at 5:00 pm

  2. No argument on pitch count vs innings. I think the same thing but at the same time find myself using innings pitched as a simpler-to-follow metric on a season-long basis. If I said that Strasburg threw 159 1/3 innings the year after surgery, I immediately “know” what that means. If you told me Strasburg made 115 pitches in a start … i can tell you how I feel about that amount. However, If you told me Strasburg threw 2607 pitches in 2012 … is that a lot? I have no idea. Baseball-reference doesn’t even track pitches per season that I can find (and it’s weird; look at the game log for Strasburg and it shows plainly his pitches per outing but then doesn’t add them up for you), and Fangraphs shows it but you have to dig for it.

    2607 over 28 starts = 93 pitches per start. Not bad. 2607/159 1/3 innings = 16.36 pitches per inning … i guess that’s not bad either since it leads to an average of 7 completed innings before hitting the magic 120 pitch-per-outing threshold.

    Anyway. Also good point about how the relevance of this Verducci series has faded with more awareness. And you’re exactly right; 10 years ago we never would have seen teams literally shut down healthy guys after reaching a certain innings limit like we’re seeing now.

    Todd Boss

    16 Feb 14 at 9:54 am

  3. I’d say that last year demonstrates how the Verducci Effect is having less and less relevance as it has become more and more accepted that teams can’t just call up a great young pitcher, throw them into the fire for 220 innings and not expect disaster for most of them.

    There will always be exceptions (the White Sox’s gamble on dramatically increasing Sale’s innings seems to have paid off, for example), but the Neanderthals like Rob Dibble have pretty much lost the argument.

    As for Taylor Jordan being on the list, given that he’ll likely be in the minors for a good part of this season, I’m not too concerned about it. In fact, it would be nice to see them delay his first AAA start by a few weeks so that he’ll be fully available in Sep/Oct, something they really couldn’t do with Strasburg back in 2012.

    bdrube

    16 Feb 14 at 12:37 pm

  4. Maybe its the reverse; is the “Verducci Effect” and the attention he’s brought to the subject the *reason* teams are being more careful with pitchers? That’d be one heck of an arrogant claim by Verducci if he said it .. but maybe its true.

    On Jordan and on delaying the beginning of his season to “save” innings: I wonder if that’s any better of a solution? Consider: Jordan goes through all of spring training doing the same throwing motions and what not that everyone else is doing … then the team sits him for a month to “save” the innings on his arm. Well … what’s he doing for that month? I mean, he’s still *throwing a baseball” every day or near to it, right? If he just sat on his ass for a month and did nothing, then he’d be starting from scratch in terms of building up arm strength like he’s doing now. Question is: are you actually putting MORE stress on a kid’s arm by getting him out of the typical 4-5 day rhythm that starters adopt? I dunno. But the unknown is always one of the things I like to use as a counter-argument to those who just say “oh skip a couple starts here and there and you’ll have him for the post season.” I just don’t know how simple it is to do that.

    Todd Boss

    16 Feb 14 at 4:24 pm

  5. That’s precisely the argument that was given for Strasburg, and I agree with it.

    Mark L

    17 Feb 14 at 7:13 am

  6. Maybe there would be less consternation if it were labeled the “Verducci Observation” instead of the “Verducci Effect.” I don’t know if he ever intended it to enter the baseball lexicon. He states clearly in the 2014 piece: “Does it mean these pitchers are a breakdown waiting to happen? No. It simply means their teams pushed them beyond industry standards.” But when 2013 featured a victim the level of Matt Harvey, it’s hard to ignore the new industry standard.

    A few thoughts, here and there:

    –The Cards should have some concerns with Wacha on the list and Shelby Miller discussed. Todd has made clear that Miller was shut down a la Strasburg, although the Cards never came out and acknowledged it. They limited Wacha during the season but then leaned on him heavily during the playoffs.

    –Tanaka has 1,315 pro innings through his age 24 season. Fister has 1,244 pro innings through his age 29 season (not counting college years). I had noticed at the time of the trade that he had been somewhat lightly used for a starter, giving some hope for durability if we extend him into his mid-30s.

    –Pro innings numbers for other Nat starters:

    Strasburg (thru 24): 510
    Zimmermann (thru 27): 928
    Gonzalez (thru 27): 1,614.2

    Gio was drafted out of HS while Stras and Zmann went to college. Also, both Stras and Zmann had extended injury/rehab time. Gio’s total may seem like a lot, but Kershaw has 1,400 innings through age 25 – about in the same ballpark as Tanaka. If we put Kershaw down for 450 over the next two years, he’ll be at 1,850 through 27.

    –The focus on innings brings to mind the question of where do the gremlins lie in terms of innings? One could make lists for days on these things, showing guys who plowed through with no issues (Verducci cites Maddux) as well as ones who broke down relatively young and were never the same. A couple of guys came to mind to check. One recently on the minds of Nat fans is Dan Haren, who was a very good pitcher through age 30, which was 2,174.2 pro innings on top of college. He hasn’t been the same since, as we know. Another player I thought of, from the recent HOF debate, is Roger Clemens, who very much hit a mid-career wall after his age 29 season (plus college). He then had four more up-and-down years in Boston before finding the fountain of youth (or whatever it was) in Toronto. Anyway, through age 29, Clemens had pitched 2,158.2 pro innings, very close to the Haren number (and probably even closer in pitch count since Rocket had more Ks).

    I will be the first to admit that a sample of two doesn’t amount to much, but if Kershaw hits a wall around age 29-30 near 2,200 innings, you heard it here first.

    KW

    17 Feb 14 at 2:57 pm

  7. Great comparison there with Tanaka & Fister. There’s a reason Japanese pitchers have short shelf lives. Hideo Nomo had a great first few years here and then was very ordinary for another 7-8 years.
    Uehera was phenomenal at age 39 last year because he never pitched in those arm-ruining high school tournaments in Japan and was mostly a reliever later so they couldn’t blow out his arm.

    This just in … Pitching is an unnatural motion.

    Mark L

    17 Feb 14 at 8:06 pm

  8. I should add that I forgot to include postseason numbers in my hasty math. That shouldn’t affect too many of the totals too much, though.

    Mark, yes, it’s difficult to measure the additional arm effects from HS pitching, not only in Japan, but in the U.S. I’m not around the travel baseball scene right now, so I don’t know how they track the innings of the young guys who are playing year round. I do know that there has been a spike of “professional” pitching injuries and surgeries among HS kids. I’ve seen comments by guys like James Andrews saying that they are now regularly seeing injuries among HS kids that they used to only see in mid-career pros. Perhaps that helps explain why the Nats seem to have accepted that an early-career arm surgery is going to be the price of doing business these days.

    KW

    18 Feb 14 at 5:19 am

  9. Miller’s shutdown: as you all know I was pretty vocal about it last fall, not because I agreed or disagreed, but because St. Louis got a huge pass in the media while Washington got crucified when they shut down Strasburg (who, by way of comparison, was coming off a frigging surgery while the worst thing that ever happened to Miller was a bruise on his elbow mid-last season). But I digress.

    Tanaka may have a ton of innings, no argument. And he is known for throwing a ton of pitches. But consider this: is it really harder on the arm to throw a ton of pitches in a start if you then get 6 days off like they do in the Japanese pro leagues? The total innings is a concern no doubt on the longer term though … but I wonder if the whole single session stuff gets overblown a bit.

    I dunno. Given how difficult the transition of Japanese pitchers has generally been coming to the states, there clearly seems to be something to it. Look at the list of Japanese-born players (not an exact list of “japanese league” pitchers but close) and there’s some success stories but mostly mediocracy. Japanese developed pitchers are notorious for the high number of innings and pitches thrown per game/tournament (google stories about Japanese high school tournaments and the workload on their pitchers is amazing), but then they get more days off between starts. The transition to the states seems to be a struggle for many of them. Will it be so for Tanaka?

    btw; all these comments are not about race; its about the typical development and use of players in the Japanese baseball system. If a white guy grew up in the Japanese leagues, we’d be having the same conversation. I agree with Keith Law and other pundits that we too often simply compare the newest Japanese pitcher to the previous guy, kind of like people now easily draw comparisons between Tanaka and Darvish, and it smacks of racism.

    Todd Boss

    18 Feb 14 at 7:45 am

  10. Ken; scary observation from Andrews about kids getting injuries. Remember in the old days when you’d play 18 games in a spring little league season and then that was it? Now travel teams play 3-times that easily. Its no wonder kids are getting TJ surgery in their teens now adays.

    Then again … there’s a huge, incredible number of current major leaguers who have had Tommy John surgery. Wil Carrol’s study in the link just posted found that 124 of the 360 pitchers who started last season on an active roster have had TJ surgery. That’s 34%. That’s amazing.

    Todd Boss

    18 Feb 14 at 7:48 am

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