Nationals Arm Race

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

Archive for the ‘tom verducci’ tag

TJ Surgery epidemic: upbringing, showcases and mechanics

10 comments

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 Sheinin 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?

Fantastic Verducci article on the staggering rise of pitching injuries

leave a comment

Matt Moore  becomes the 20th TJ surgery so far this year.  Photo AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez via baynews9.com

Matt Moore becomes the 20th TJ surgery so far this year. Photo AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez via baynews9.com

If you havn’t read the latest Tom Verducci article, please do so.  It has some great facts related to the rise in pitching velocity, driven by the rise of travel-league baseball and the overuse of kids’ arms as youth pitchers in show-cases (a completely new and “American” development system, he adds, in that just one of the 20 Tommy John surgeries suffered so far this year was on a non-american hurler).  At least 1/3rd of MLB pitchers have now had the surgery and it seems like that number will only rise.

This past weekend, there was a rather large uproar in the scouting ranks when NC State’s phenom Carlos Rodon was pushed back out on the mound so that he could throw pitches #119 through #134 on the night for his under-performing college team that looks like it may miss the post-season after being ranked in the pre-season top 5 by most publications.  And with good reason; the studies Verducci found show that kids have something like a 36-fold increase in pitching injuries when they throw after reaching a fatigue state.  If i’m Houston, Miami, or one of the Chicago teams … i’m looking long and hard at Rodon right now anyway (he’s regressed badly this spring and has fallen out of the 1-1 discussion), and having him throw 130+ pitches when that’s only happened a few times in the past few years in the pros would scare me.  You’re committing multiple millions of dollars there; you want damaged goods?

Scary stuff, especially if you have a kid out there who’s looking like he’s a stud and is getting a ton of pressure to play multiple travel schedules.

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/mlb/news/20140415/tommy-john-surgery-high-school-pitchers-jameson-taillon/index.html

Written by Todd Boss

April 16th, 2014 at 1:29 pm

Verducci effect for 2014 announced

10 comments

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?

 

My 2013 End-of-Season award Predictions

leave a comment

Clayton Kershaw may be the sole unanimous major award winner in 2013.  Photo via wiki.

Clayton Kershaw may be the sole unanimous major award winner in 2013. Photo via wiki.

This post is months in the making.  In WordPress I looked up the first revision and it was dated May 4th.  Its on at least its 50th revision.  Its crazy.  But its a fun piece to do, to kind of keep track of these awards throughout the season.  But with yesterday’s release of the top-3 candidates for each BBWAA award, I thought it was finally time to publish.  The top-3 announcement didn’t have too many surprises in it, but was eye opening for some of the also-rans in each category.

I like seeing how well I can predict these awards by reading the tea leaves of the various opinions that flow into my RSS feed (here’s 2012′s version of the same post with links to prior years).  The goal is to go 8-for-8 predicting the major awards, with an even loftier goal of going 12-for-12 adding in the unofficial Sporting News awards.  I succeeded in 8-for-8 in 2010 and 2011, but missed out last year by over-thinking the Manager of the Year award in the AL.   This year is going to be tougher; the NL Rookie award and the AL Manager of the Year award are going to be coin-flips.

Here’s links for the MLB Players of the Month, to include Player, Pitcher and Rookies of the month, though frankly these monthly awards don’t amount to much.  But they’re fun to go see who was hot and how they ended up (think Evan Gattis).

Here’s links to some mid-season award prediction columns from Tom Verducci, Matthew Pouliot and Jayson Stark.  Here’s an 8/27/13 post from Keith Law, a 9/5/13 post from Cliff Corcoran, and a 9/25/13 prediction piece from USA Today’s Frank Nightengale that may be very telling about the Cabrera/Trout debate.   Lastly a few end of season pieces from Stark, Passan, Pouliot NL and AL, Gammons, Keri, Olney, Heyman.

Lastly here’s a great Joe Posnanski piece complaining about the faults the typical BBWAA voter has in their methodology.  He touches on some themes I mention below.  Remember this is a prediction piece, not who I necessarily think should actually win.

Without further ado, here’s my predictions and thoughts on the awards (predicted winners in Blue).

  • AL MVP:  Miguel Cabrera (May’s AL player of the month) and was leading the league in nearly every offensive category through a big chunk of the season before injuries cost him a lot of September.  There’s talk of another Cabrera-Mike Trout competition for the MVP in 2013, but I think the same results will hold as in 2012.  It comes down to the simple question; how can you be the “MVP” of a last place team?  That vastly over-simplifies the debate of course, but it is what it is.  I continue to be impatient with holier-than-thou writers who ignore the BBWAA definition of the award and who think this MVP should just be a ranking of the seasonal WAR table.  This award is not (yet) the “Best Player” award, and if it was then Trout would be the easy winner.  Of the also-rans:  Chris Davis tied the AL-record for pre-All Star break homers and finished with 53, but he’s likely #3 in this race.   Rounding out my top 5 would be Josh Donaldson and  Manny Machado.  Names briefly under consideration here earlier in the season (and possible top 10 candidates) include Joe Mauer and Evan Longoria.
  • AL Cy Young: Max Scherzer started the season 13-0 and finished 21-3.  This will propel him to the award despite not being as quite as good overall as his top competition.  Yu Darvish was on pace for nearly 300 strikeouts for a while before finishing with 277 and is likely finishing #2.   Despite a losing record pitching for one of the worst teams in the league, Chris Sale pitched to a 140 ERA+ for the second season in a row and should be rewarded with a top-5 finish.  Hisashi Iwakuma has fantastic numbers in the anonymity and depression of Seattle and will also get top-5 votes.  Rounding out the top 5 could be one of many:  Clay Buchholz was unhittable in April and weathered  accusations of doctoring the baseball from the Toronto broadcast team (Jack Morris and Dirk Hayhurst specifically), but then got hurt and may fall out of the voting.   Felix Hernandez put up his typical good numbers early despite a ton of kvetching about his velocity loss early in the season, but tailed off badly in August to drop him from the race.  Anibal Sanchez‘s 17-strikeout game has him some buzz, and he led the league in both ERA and ERA+.    Matt Moore became the first young lefty to start 8-0 since Babe Ruth and somewhat quietly finished 17-4 for the game-163 winning Rays.  Lots of contenders here.  Predicted finish: Scherzer, Darvish, Iwakuma, Sale, Sanchez.
  • AL Rookie of the Year: Wil Myers may be the winner by default.  Nobody else really stands out, and the biggest off-season narrative involved Myers and the big trade, meaning that nearly every baseball fan and writer knows of Myers’ pre-MLB exploits.  Jose Iglesias put up good numbers in the Boston infield before being flipped to Detroit, and is a great candidate but most of his value resides in his defense, meaning old-school writers won’t vote for him over Myers.   Past that, the candidates are slim.  Justin Grimm‘s fill-in starts for Texas were more than adequate.  Nick Tepesch is also holding his own in Texas’ rotation.  Coner Gillaspie and Yan Gomes are in the mix.  Texas’ Martin Perez put himself in the race with a solid year and got some last-minute exposure pitching in the game-163 tie-breaker.  Leonys Martin is another Texas rookie that has quietly put up good numbers.  Myers’ Tampa Bay teammate Chris Archer could get some votes.  Predicted finish: Myers, Iglesias, Perez, Archer and Martin.
  • AL MgrJohn Ferrell in Boston for going worst to first may be the best managerial job, but Terry Franconia in Cleveland deserves a ton of credit for what he’s done with significantly less resources in Cleveland and should win the award.  Its hard to underestimate what Joe Girardi has done in New York with injuries and the media circus this year, but this award usually goes to a playoff bound team.  I’ll go Franconia, Ferrell, Girardi.
  • (Unofficial “award”): AL GM: Initially I was thinking Ben Cherington, Boston.  He traded away all those bad contracts, brought in several guys under the radar, leading to a 30 game swing in its W/L record.  Though, I agree with David Schoenfield; with Oakland’s 2nd straight AL West title it’s hard not to give this to Billy Beane.
  • (Unofficial “award”): AL Comeback Player of the Year: Nate McLouth has come back from the absolute dead for Baltimore, though technically he was decent last year too.  Josh Donaldson has come out of nowhere for Oakland, but really had nowhere to come “back” from.  John Lackey and Scott Kazmir both rebounded excellently from injury plagued seasons.  I think the winner has to be Kazmir by virtue of his slightly better record over Lackey.  Editor’s update: this award was already given and I got it wrong: Mariano Rivera won for his great 2013 comeback; I completely forgot about him.  We’ll cover the results versus my predictions in a future post.
  • (Unofficial “award”): AL Fireman of the YearGreg Holland, despite some sympathetic desire to give it to Mariano Rivera on his way out.  Joe Nathan is also in the AL discussion.  Jim Johnson is not; despite leading the league in saves for the 2nd year in a row he blew another 9 opportunities.  I hope the voters see past that.

Now for the National League:

  • NL MVP:  Andrew McCutchen is the shoe-in to win, both as a sentimental favorite for the Pirates first winning/playoff season in a generation and as the best player on a playoff team.  Clayton Kershaw‘s unbelievable season won’t net him a double, but I’m guessing he comes in 2nd in the MVP voting.  Paul Goldschmidt has become a legitimate stud this year and likely finishes 3rd behind McCutchen and Kershaw.  Rounding out the top 5 probably are two from Yadier Molina, Freddie Freeman and possibly Joey Votto as leaders from their respective playoff teams.  Also-rans who looked great for short bursts this season include the following:  Jayson Werth (who is having a career-year and making some people re-think his albatros contract),  Carlos Gomez (who leads the NL in bWAR, won the Gold glove and led the NL in DRS for centerfielders but isn’t being mentioned at all for the NL MVP: isn’t that odd considering the overwhelming Mike Trout debate??  I’ve made this case in this space to little fanfare in the past; if you are pro-Trout and are not pro-Gomez, then you’re falling victim to the same “MVP Narrative” that you are already arguing against), and maybe even Matt Carpenter (St. Louis’ real offensive leader these days).
  • NL Cy Young:  Clayton Kershaw put together his typical dominant season and won’t lose out to any of his darling competitors.  He may be the only unanimous vote of the major awards.  Marlins rookie phenom Jose Fernandez probably finishes #2 behind Kershaw before squeaking out the RoY award.   Matt Harvey was the All-Star game starter and looked like he could have unseated Kershaw, but a later season swoon and a torn UCL in late August ended his season and his chances early.  He still likely finishes #3.   Others who will get votes here and there: Jordan Zimmermann (who nearly got to 20 wins),  Adam Wainwright (who is back to Ace-form after his surgery and is put together a great season), St. Louis teammate Shelby Miller,  Patrick Corbin (Pitcher of the Month in May), Cliff Lee (who has been great for the mediocre Phillies), and perhaps even Zack Greinke (who finished 15-4; did you know he was 15-4?).  Predicted finish: Kershaw, Fernandez, Harvey, Wainwright, Corbin.
  • NL Rookie of the Year: Seems like its coming down to one of 5 candidates: Fernandez, Puig, Miller, Ryu and Teheran.  I’d probably vote them in that order.  Shelby Miller has stayed the course filling in St. Louis’ rotation and may also get Cy Young votes and seemed like the leading candidate by mid June.  Evan Gattis, the great feel-good story from the Atlanta Braves, started out white-hot but settled down in to relative mediocracy.  Tony Cingrani continued his amazing K/9 pace from the minors at the MLB level, filling in quite ably for Red’s ace Johnny Cueto but was demoted once Cueto returned and struggled with injuries down the stretch.   Didi Gregorious, more famous for being the “other” guy in the Trevor Bauer trade, has performed well.  Meanwhile don’t forget about Hyun-Jin Ryu, the South Korean sensation that has given Los Angeles a relatively fearsome frontline set of starters.  Yasiel Puig took the league by storm and hit 4 homers his first week on the job.  Jose Fernandez has made the jump from A-Ball to the Marlins rotation and has been excellent.  Julio Teheran has finally figured it out after two call-ups in the last two years and has a full season of excellent work in Atlanta’s rotation.  The question is; will narrative (Puig) win out over real performance (Fernandez)?  Tough call.
  • NL MgrClint Hurdle, Pittsburgh.  No real competition here.  Some may say Don Mattingly for going from near firing in May to a 90 win season … but can you really be manager of the year with a 250M payroll?
  • (Unofficial award) NL GMNeal Huntington, Pittsburgh.  It really has to be Huntington for pulling off the low-profile moves that have paid off with Pittsburgh’s first winning season in 20 years.  Ned Colletti‘s moves may have resulted in the best team in the league, but he has the benefit of a ridiculously large checkbook and I hope he doesn’t win as a result.
  • (Unofficial “award”): NL Comeback Player of the Year: I’d love to give this to Evan Gattis for his back story but that’s not the point of this award.  I’m thinking Carlos Gomez with Milwaukee for his massive out-of-nowhere season.  But honestly the award has to go to Francisco Liriano.  Editor’s update: this award was already given and I got it right: Liriano indeed won.
  • (Unofficial “award”): NL Fireman of the YearCraig Kimbrel, who looks to finish the year with a sub 1.00 ERA for the second year running.   Edward Mujica and Aroldis Chapman in the discussion but not really close.

 

Atlanta’s pending starting pitching concerns

2 comments

Is Medlen quickly approaching an innings limit?  Photo unknown via totalprosports.com

Is Kris Medlen quickly approaching an innings limit? Photo unknown via totalprosports.com

When Atlanta lost bulldog staff Ace Tim Hudson to a gruesome ankle injury last week, the Braves were able to immediately plug in the promising Alex Wood to the rotation and not really miss a beat, at least in the short term.  But an interesting point mentioned by Buster Olney in his daily ESPN Baseball Tonight podcast highlighted a dilemna that the Braves may face later this season.

Specifically; they’re depending on a lot of young arms right now who are projected to blow past 2012 and/or career innings totals, and the team may be facing a critical decision when it comes to managing innings and workload as this season progresses.  This is very much of a Tom Verducci-effect concern, which admittedly some people do not subscribe to, but some of these potential workload increases are so substantial that they cannot be ignored.

Here’s a table showing the number of innings their current set of younger starters have thrown this year (in all levels) as compared to last year (innings as of 8/1/13).  The season right now is basicaly 2/3′s over (108 of 162 games played), so I’ve used a simple 33% addition to current workloads:

Starter Age 2013 Innings to date 2013 projected 2012 ttl innings Projected delta Projected delta % increase
Mike Minor 25 144 191.52 179.33 12.19 6.36%
Julio Teheran 22 126 167.58 137.33 30.25 18.05%
Kris Medlen 27 125 166.25 151.33 14.92 8.97%
Alex Wood 22 95.33 126.7889 154.33 -27.53 -21.70%

However, this may be too simplistic a projection.  Each of their starters has about 10 starts left.  Lets assume each of them goes an average of 6 innings in each of these starts.  Now the 2013 projected totals rise a bit;

Starter Age 2013 Innings to date 2013 projected factoring 6ip/start for 10 starts 2012 ttl innings New projected delta New projected delta %
Mike Minor 25 144 204 179.33 24.67 13.76%
Julio Teheran 22 126 186 137.33 48.67 35.44%
Kris Medlen 27 125 185 151.33 33.67 22.25%
Alex Wood 22 95.33 155.33 154.33 1.03 0.67%

Mike Minor has never had any injury concerns and only really faces a small increase in the number of innings he will throw, but if he gets much above 200 innings there may be some concerns.   If he hits 204 innings, that’s a 13% workload increase over last year.

Likewise with Kris Medlen; if he makes 10 more starts and averages 6 innings a start, he’s looking at more than a 20% workload increase over last year.  Medlen is technically still coming back from Tommy John surgery done on 8/18/2010, though it isn’t as much of a concern this year as it was last (when they worked him out of the bullpen before installing him in the rotation later in the year).  A potential 20% innings increase year to year has got to be concerning for a guy with a TJ surgery in his background.

Meanwhile, Julio Teheran doesn’t have any injury history to fend with … but he’s looking at a pretty significant jump over his 2012 inning totals.  His career high was in 2011 with about 160 between the minors and majors.   But if he continues in the rotation he’ll start to get up there towards the 180 innings range, a pretty significant jump over last year.

Lastly there’s Wood, their 2nd round pick in 2012′s draft.  He has rocketed up the farm system, dominating the Sally league in his draft year, skipping high-A, then dominating AA before getting the call-up.  When you add in his college workload to his 2012 minor league numbers, he may be right in line to pitch the same number of innings as lastyear.  There’s just the small concern of a guy who this time last year was making his professional debut in low-A continuing to be effective for a major league team in a pennant race.

This analysis doesn’t include any innings analysis for Hudson (out for the year), Paul Maholm (currently on the D/L) or Brandon Beachy (just coming back from injury and without innings limitations this late in the season) since they’re either unavailable or don’t have any inning limit concerns.  Beachy had his Tommy John surgery on 6/21/13 and, while he should be healthy, still may not be 100% (to this point, his first start back was a debacle, giving up 7 runs in 3 2/3 innings).   Maholm is on the D/L now but should be off within a couple weeks (he has a “Wrist Contusion”), but he’s also their least effective starter on the year.  And of course Hudson is out until at least next spring with his broken ankle at best; his career in jeopardy at worst.

What should they do?

As you can imagine, their problem may be exacerbated because somebody has to throw post-season games (I think its safe to assume the Braves are making the post-season at this point).

This is why some questioned the Braves lack of pursuing a starter in the trade market to replace Hudson and keep Wood in the minors.  Of course, the Braves probably didn’t want to do this knowing they had Beachy coming off the D/L and Maholm returning soon too (probably pushing Wood back to AAA).   But if Teheran runs out of innings, the Braves are looking at a post-season rotation that isn’t exactly a world-beater (Minor-Maholm-Beachy and Medlen?).  Then again, that hasn’t stopped them while building a double-digit lead in the NL East.

It should be interesting to see if the Braves end up with a Stephen Strasburg shutdown-gate of their own as we head into September.

Innings limits and media hypocrisy

2 comments

Matt Harvey is lucky he isn't pitching for a contender .. Photo: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Harvey is lucky he isn’t pitching for a contender .. Photo: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

I just noticed this little report float across the wire: the Miami Marlins plan to shut down their rising star 20-yr old Jose Fernandez when he reaches 170 innings.  We’ve already seen the Mets manipulate Matt Harvey‘s pre-all-star start in an attempt to limit his innings and stretch him out as long as possible, and they too have talked about an innings limit for their new-found Ace (Editor Note: this was before his unfortunate UCL injury).  Cub’s rising Ace Jeff Samardzija was shut down on September 8th of 2012 after reaching a prescribed limit that the team had set.  And our own Jordan Zimmermann worked on a 160 inning limit and was shut down in late August of 2011 after recovering from Tommy John surgery.  And there’s more: see the following for a quick summary of Operation Shutdown 2013:

So what’s the common theme here?  When the Nats shutdown Zimmermann in 2011 they were not a playoff team.  Nor were the Cubs with Samardzija in 2012.  And this year clearly the Mets and Marlins are not playoff teams.  BUT, when the Nationals in 2012 were clearly a playoff team and did a similar innings-limit shutdown with Stephen Strasburg, there was (and continues to be) national media uproar over the decision.  The Nats (and by proxy Mike Rizzo) were described as “arrogant” by more than one “anonymous GM” (aka gutless chicken-sh*t executive who wouldn’t go on the record criticizing a colleague who had to make a pretty significant, difficult decision), as dutifully and gleefully reported by bloggers and writers who go to great lengths to state their own opinions on the matter.   And it didn’t take but a few hours after the Game 5 meltdown (and in some cases even before then) for said writers to pipe up yet again with their opinions that the NLDS absolutely would have turned out differently if Strasburg was pitching.

And keep in mind, Strasburg was coming back from an injury!  Nearly every one of these 2013 Operation Shutdown guys weren’t ever hurt; they were just limited by executives who may prescribe to the Tom Verducci effect of increased workloads (whether or not you agree with the principle, which has been disproven on the macro level yet Verducci maintains an 80% successful prediction rate.  Discussion on both sides from a January 2013 post here).

Why the hypocrisy?  Because there’s a huge double standard here.  Its “OK” to shutdown your ace for health-related or longevity-related issues …. but only if your team sucks and you’re not making the playoffs.  However, if you are making the playoffs and you follow-through on your season-long stated intention to shutdown your star pitcher coming off a major arm injury … then you’re an idiot.  At least, that’s my interpretation of the media reaction in September of 2012 of Strasburg-shutdown versus Samardzija-shutdown.

Its ok to ignore doctor’s recommendations and attempt to blow out your 24-yr old’s arm again so that he can make one or two post-season starts … because, hey, Flags fly forever, and you may never get back to the playoffs.   I think this statement encapsulates the argument very simply; some people value making the playoffs for one year far above the long-term health of one particular baseball pitcher’s arm.  People with these opinions are gleefully watching our team struggle in 2013, and I’ve seen more than one opinion posted that say this is “karma” on the Nats for shutting down Strasburg last year.  Really?  Karma?  Not the 29th ranked offense in the league as being the root of all our troubles right now?

The point is this: if you were against an innings limit for Strasburg … then you should stand up and say you’re against innings limits for any pitcher.  All the “well we don’t know if shutting down a pitcher helps or hurts” arguments (which are all entirely true; we don’t have any idea if Strasburg’s career will be 3 more years or 15, and we have no idea if the 2012 shutdown will help, hurt or have no impact), shouldn’t be affected by the team’s place in the standings.  If you’re against the Strasburg shutdown on principle, then you should be equally outraged that the Mets, Cubs, and Marlins plan to “tank” games in August that their aces would have been scheduled to pitch as well.

I’m sure that we’ll continue to hear more “shutdown dates” being announced for the slew of young power arms that are making 2013 increasingly the “Year of the Rookie pitcher.”  None of these names have been mentioned yet, but rookies with decent MLB workloads such as Shelby MillerGerrit ColeZach WheelerJacob TurnerTony CingraniAlex Cobb, and maybe even guys like Jarred CosartChris Archer and Martin Perez could all be names that teams look to protect going forward.  And some of these guys (especially Miller and Cole) are pitching significant innings for playoff contenders, and are going to blow by 2012 innings numbers by mid-August.  Will we see another Strasburg-esque shutdown media blitz in 2013?


Post Script added 7/26/13: we have announced that our own Taylor Jordan will be facing an innings limit in 2013, and it is coming up very fast.  ”20-30″ more innings, or roughly 5-6 more starts.  That hopefully will coincide with Ross Detwiler‘s return from the D/L but it may not, forcing the team to scramble to fill that rotation spot.  Update: this on 8/18/13 after Jordan suffered a sprain that would have made it impossible to come back anyway.  Shut down at 142 total innings for 2013.

[After the fact post addition: ESPN’s Jerry Crasnik posted about the same topic on 8/7/13, with great updated innings counts for pitchers on contending teams.  He says the same things I’m saying here.  Sept2013 I updated this post whenever a new team announced they were shutting down a player].

9/15/13 post about innings limits

http://hardballtalk.nbcsports.com/2013/09/14/are-pitch-counts-and-early-shutdowns-actually-helping-pitchers/

Gonzalez linked with PED-clinic; are we worried?

22 comments

Gio Gonzalez may be in a bit of trouble. Photo Joy Absalon/US Presswire via usatoday.com

As announced early on January 29th, 2013, an anti-aging clinic in Miami run by Anthony Bosch has been accused of being a PED factory and the Miami New Times has published an extensive report after reviewing documents, spreadsheets and hand-written customer notes that were obtained by the newspaper from a former employee.

The relevance to the Nationals?  Gio Gonzalez appears in the documentation multiple times, along with his father.  And while the evidence directly linking Gonzalez to specific orders for HGH, Testosterone or Anabolic steroids is non-existant (unless the code “1.c.1 with Zinc/MIC” can be proven to mean a banned substance), generally speaking where there’s smoke, there’s fire with respect to PEDs and baseball players these days.  In James Wagner‘s WP article today on the topic, he found a doctor who speculated that MIC may stand for a combination of three compounds that are used frequently in weight loss routines, and definitely NOT illegal.

Even if Gonzalez is completely innocent, this report automatically besmirches his career.  Which is either a shame or will be justice.  Time will tell.  At least there doesn’t seem to be direct, provable evidence that Gonzalez (or his relations) purchased illegal products, a small light for Nats fans at the end of this particular tunnel.

Of immediate importance to the team; is this going to lead to a suspension?  Doubtful, based on evidence seen so far.  But certainly this should give players pause; what is the reputation of the clinics that I use?  Tom Verducci‘s immediate reaction is that this is a “severe” incident and notes that the new CBA allows suspensions even without positive tests.

The bigger scalp of course belongs to Alex Rodriguez, who the evidence seems to show bought HGH as recently as 2012.   *sigh*   He’s stated that he quit PEDs in 2003.  The report makes him look really, really bad.  For the slugger, at this point in his career and with the statements he’s already made on PED usage, to get caught again would be nothing short of amazing to me (he’s denied it, of course).  The arrogance and stupidity of his getting caught again would be the absolute nail in his public relations coffin.   At least the career HR record that Rodriguez once seems an absolute shoe-in to capture now seems safe; he likely misses most of his season with hip surgery (his age 37 year) and he’s averaged just 110 games and 17 homers the last two seasons.   The likelihood of his hitting 116 more home runs at this point seems nil.  I’m not going to go as far as some national writers though, who are saying they think Rodriguez’s career is over (David Schoenfield in particular).

Some pundits are already predicting that this will be the next Balco.  I think i’ve got PED fatigue.

Written by Todd Boss

January 30th, 2013 at 9:53 am

Verducci effect for 2013 announced

6 comments

Verducci predicts Nats fans may be reliving this ugly moment. Photo credit unknown.

SI sportswriter Tom Verducci published his 2013 iteration of the “Verducci Effect” article this week, and our own Stephen Strasburg is on his watch list.

The questions we’ll address in this article are these: Should we be worried as Nats fans about Strasburg?  And, do you even believe in the Verducci effect?

Cutting and pasting from his article, here’s the Verducci Effect defined (or the “Year-After Effect” as he calls it, so as humbly not to refer to the theory by his own name as the rest of us do):

The Year-After Effect, as I called the risk after a big innings jumps, is not a scientific, predictive system. It’s a rule of thumb to identify pitchers who may be at risk because of a sharp increase in workload. The older the pitcher, the bigger the body type and the closer to the 30-inning threshold is their increase, the less they seem to be at risk.

Of importance here is his own admission; this is a “rule of thumb,” not a scientific analysis, he limits his candidates to pitchers age 25 or younger, and he picks players instead of doing an across-the-board analysis of all eligible players (this is important as we talk about whether the effect is statistically supported).  He identified 14 such players in his 2012 iteration of this analysis and 9 of them suffered injuries or “significant regression.”  He has a similar track record in his previous years; of the 69 pitchers he’s identified in the last 7 years as being at risk, 55 of them have now suffered injury/posted significantly worse ERAs.  That’s about an 80% succeessful prediction clip.

Strasburg pitched 68 MLB innings and another 55 1/3 in the minors for a total of 123 1/3 2010 innings.  He threw 159 1/3 in 2012, for a total increase of 36 innings from his previous professional high, or a 22.6% increase.  Generally speaking Verducci’s threshold is in the 15-20% range.  Strasburg isn’t the most “at-risk” pitcher on the list; that would be Chicago’s Chris Sale, who amazingly threw 121 more innings in 2012 than he ever had before, being converted from the bullpen to a starter last year.   But Strasburg definitely increased his workload in 2012, and he’s likely to be increasing it again in 2013, with no stated limit on innings for the coming season.  If he averages the same number of innings per start this year as he did last year (5.69) he’ll end up with roughly 187 2/3 innings in 2013, which would be another 15% increase over his previous career high.  Most likely we’ll see him averaging closer to 6ip per outing, which would put him at about 200 innings and representing another 20% increase in innings.

Do we think this is dangerous territory?  Should we be worried?  All signs point to “No;” there’s not a person in the baseball world who would claim that the Nats have been anything but ultra-conservative with Strasburg since the moment he was signed.  His surgery, his recovery, and especially the heavily criticized “shut-down” in September of last year.  The team chose to be less competitive in the short term in order to attempt to be a better, stronger team in the long term.  Given his gradual ramping up of innings and his carefully managed recovery, I expect to see a similar season that Jordan Zimmermann just gave, two years removed from the same surgery.  No injuries, a strong season but with some evident fatigue at season’s end.


A better question may be this: does the Verducci effect actually exist?

This January 2012 Deadspin.com article pretty nicely summarizes all the criticisms associated with the effect.  A few more links are in this article at AmazingAvenue.  This study done by The Hardball Times that looked at ALL pitchers age 25 or younger, divided the pitchers into two groups (those who did and did not throw 30 more innings and thus usually qualify for Verducci analysis) and studied the results.    They found that the overall performance didn’t seem to be different between the two groups.

So, if the effect doesn’t exist, why does Verducci have an 80% prediction success rate?  If the statistical differences between the two groups are identical, then why isn’t Verducci’s prediction rate closer to 50%?

The answer lies in the following statement: Verducci’s articles don’t present themselves to be a macro statistical analysis, and they doesn’t approach the problem in the same way that statisticians do.  Instead, he finds candidates that qualify and then passes judgement based on his professional opinion about whether they’re a “watch candidate.”  Which I think is a perfectly fine way to do an analysis piece like this.  Of the 11 pitchers he selected this year, 4 are from 2012 playoff teams, another 2 are from teams in the ultra-competitive AL East, and 2 more experienced such extremely high jumps in innings that even a non-statistical observation would conclude they’re injury risks for 2013.  I don’t think this kind of analysis is unreasonable frankly.  He clearly “cherry picked” these candidates but for good reason; they were for the most part either severely driven or were pitching a lot of higher-than-average leverage innings for the bulk of the year, all the while throwing deeper into seasons than ever before.

Its a combination of statistics and opinion; most critics of the theory use 100% statistics to claim that the effect doesn’t exist.  But that’s the rub that I keep coming back to when talking about the use of statistics in baseball; human behavior (aka, baseball players) doesn’t operate on a spreadsheet, and statistics cannot and will not entirely predict all situations in the future.  You can’t just say that the effect doesn’t exist because you can’t prove it exists statistically.  In this case, there’s clearly an analysis/opinion portion of the effect that takes into consideration immeasurable factors that (in Verducci’s opinion) lead to more stress and a higher probability of injury.  Plus, Verducci admits that “body type” and age do factor into his opinion; meaning that a guy with a big body (and by inference he likely means that a bigger body that takes stress off the shoulder) is more likely to be able to weather a larger workload.  Roger Clemens versus Tim Lincecum.  I’d also assume he’s looking at mechanics along the way (and Verducci is on record for being critical of Strasburg’s mechanics, as I discussed in this March 2011 post).  Statistics can’t measure mechanics, or body type, clearly portions of Verducci’s analysis.

Let me put it a different way: would anyone be the slightest bit surprised to see Sale come down with a shoulder injury in 2013?  I certainly would not.  And that’s the essence of the article, to provide a baseball opinion, and one of the reasons I still put stock into it while others waste time trying to disprove it.

Lets just hope Strasburg is one of the 20% he’s wrong about…

Written by Todd Boss

January 25th, 2013 at 10:56 am

Jack Morris, Statistics and the meaning of the Hall of Fame

9 comments

Its Hall of Fame ballot time. Let the Jack Morris arguments start-up again. Photo John Iacono via si.com

(coincidentally, this is the exact same picture and exact same caption as I used last year.  Nothing w/r/t Morris has changed).

Every year about this time comes the inevitable Jack Morris battles when it comes to deciding whether or not he’s a Hall-of-Famer.  Those who argue against him (and argue they do, rather loudly, as exemplified by writers such as David Schoenfield, Rob Neyer, and Joe Posnanski and easily found at nearly any baseball blog, almost all of which are extremely anti-Morris) typically point at Morris’ career ERA, his ERA+, his career WAR and then argue that he was actually a mediocre pitcher.  They have all sorts of arguments against “pitching to score” and even make arguments that middling starters from the 90s are actually “better” than Morris.

My one overriding opinion on the whole “Hall of Fame” worthiness argument is that the stat-inclined seem to be missing the whole point of the “Hall of Fame.”  It isn’t defined as the “Hall of the Best  Statistically Significant players above some arbitrary benchmark.”  If it were, then arguments comparing Morris to Rick Reushel or Brad Radke (both of whom have higher career WARs than Morris) would be important.  (side note: Ironically, this is the same distinction that these people generally also miss when talking about the “Most Valuable Player” award; it isn’t the “Best Player” its the “Most Valuable,” and therefore you can’t just give me a gazillion stats that tell me why Mike Trout had a better season than Miguel Cabrera and call me an idiot for saying that Cabrera was the MVP this year.  How can you be the MVP of a 3rd place team that would have still been a 3rd place team with or without you?  How can you be the “most valuable” player in the league but have zero impact on your team’s standings or the playoffs?  But I digress).

No; its the Hall of FAME (emphasis mine).  It should be the Hall of the most FAMOUS people in the game’s history.  And inarguably Jack Morris is more famous than either Reushel or Radke (since these two pitchers are often used in comparison).  And since its baseball writers themselves that a) remember Morris as being better and more famous than he was according to specific career-measuring stats like WAR, and b) do the voting themselves, its likely that Morris may very well get into Cooperstown despite other people feeling that he’s a lesser pitcher.  Its why a pitcher like Catfish Hunter has been elected already, despite his having even worse career numbers (in the sabre-slanted statistical categories that the new-wave know-it-all bloggers constantly refer to) than Morris.  I can’t recall ever reading one single article talking about how bad it is that Hunter is in the hall of fame, but it seems that EVERY single baseball blogger and columnist out there under the age of 30 has written multiple times about how its the death of the legitimacy of the Hall of Fame if Morris makes it in.  I just don’t get it.

A lot of these arguments seem to be driven by one stat: Career WAR.  People look at that one overriding stat and make their arguments.  My biggest problem with career WAR is its “accumulator nature.”  It rewards a healthy, mediocre pitcher who makes a ton of starts and accumulates a ton of strikeouts and wins and innings pitched. Meanwhile a better pitcher with a higher peak who ends his career earlier won’t “score” as high in career WAR.

The two pitchers in particular i’m looking at in the above paragraph are Bert Blyleven (career bWAR of 89.3) and Pedro Martinez (career bWAR of 80.5).  There is not one person in their right mind that would say with a straight face that Blyleven was a “better” pitcher than Martinez.  But, if you look at the WAR without context you’d argue that was the case.

Blyleven during his career, for those of us actually old enough to have seen him play, was a mediocre pitcher.  Plain and simple.  In 22 seasons he made 3 All Star teams and received Cy Young votes only 4 times, never coming close to sniffing the award.  Morris on the other hand, received Cy Young votes in 7 of his 18 seasons and started the All Star game 3 times.  Morris STARTED more all-star games than Blyleven ever made.  Blyleven was traded for relative nobodies a number of times in his career, and the prevailing press of the day referred to him as a middling pitcher.  Only after he’s retired, when we “discovered” statistics like ERA+ and FIP and realized he was better than his numbers at the time indicated did we make the push for him into the HoF.

Why do I point out All Star appearances and Cy Young voting?  Because in the context of the Hall of Fame discussion, they’re important.  You can quibble about the meaning of all star appearances (certainly they’ve been diluted in the last 20 years) and cy young votes all you want, but the fact is this: if you REALLY want to know who the writers felt were the best players of their day, then all star appearances and Cy Young/MVP voting is vitally important.

But here’s my main point: why can’t the Hall recognize BOTH the likes of Blyleven (better than people realized at the time) AND also recognize Morris (overrated statistically but still historically significant and thus “famous” enough for enshrinement)?  Why do people devote so much time towards disparaging the case for Morris?  Yes, Morris gets undue credit for his fantastic 1991 World Series Start, for leading the 1984 Tigers, for leading the 1980s in Wins.   If you ask any player or manager in the game at the time, they’d likely tell you Morris was one of the best.   But these are all the same aspects that make him “Famous” and thus a likely candidate for the Hall of FAME.  These are the same reasons why a fine pitcher like Curt Schilling, who also was part of some iconic moments in the game’s history, also should be in Cooperstown (in my opinion).

I just feel like the nature of sports writing has come to the point where people use statistical measures as the be-all, end-all proof of everything in baseball.  And then they forget that the game is played by humans, that there are ALWAYS some things that cannot be measured, and just because some statistic has been cheapened in today’s game (I’m thinking of the pitcher Win) does not mean it was always cheapened.  I know there’s people out there who wrote doctoral thesises about how Morris never “pitched to score.”  But how do you measure a pitcher who knows he’s gotta go 9 innings, who knows he’s not getting pulled in the 6th inning for a lefty-on-lefty matchup, who knows he’s more likely to throw 160 pitches than 95?  I absolutely think there’s something in the “pitching to score” arguments, if only because I have played with pitchers who absolutely would coast through games when they got a lead, or who would “take innings off” against in order to preserve their arm to go 9 full innings.  Unless you had a biometric measure on every single pitch Jack Morris ever threw, correlated to the weather, the score, his team’s bullpen status and his manager’s whims, you can NOT tell me that Morris did or did not pitch to score, let up with a big lead, or cruise through innings knowing he may have to go 9 on a 100 degree day.  Just because you can’t prove something mathematically doesn’t mean it still doesn’t exist.  Tom Verducci did an excellent piece recently on Morris and his innings pitched and complete games in context, somewhat related to this topic.

Morris comes from a transitionary time in baseball, before specialized relief pitchers, before the power of the 90s and before PEDs.  He comes from a time severely under-represented in the Hall (think of players like Dale Murphy, Alan Trammell, Denny MartinezOrel Hershiser and Bret Saberhagen: these were the stars of the 80s and some of them barely got 2% of the HoF vote), a side-effect of the ridiculously talented players we saw in the 90s and thus victims of the inevitable comparisons, falling wanting.  He holds an important place in the history of the game, in the narrative of the 1980s, and of the fantastic 1991 World Series.  Cooperstown is a museum, not a spreadsheet.

Call me ignorant, call me old school.  Whatever.  Maybe I’m just tired of the negative rhetoric.  I say “Elect Jack Morris.”

My 2012 End-of-Season award Predictions

3 comments

Mike Trout is a shoe-in for Rookie of the Year. Will he add AL MVP as well? Photo Gary Vasquez/US Presswire via espn.com

I’ve had a good string of predicting MLB’s major Post season awards in this space.  In 2010 I went 8 for 8.  In 2011 I again went 8-8 in predicting MLB’s awards, though I missed on predicting the unofficial Sporting News Executive and Comeback Player of the year.   I don’t have much confidence in going 8-for-8 this year though; the AL MVP seems way too close to predict, and I have no idea how the Cy Young awards will go.

[Editor Note: I write this in phases over the course of the season, and finalized it in early October.  After I wrote this piece some of the awards have already been announced; Sporting News announced Comeback Players of the Year last week.  I’ll put up another post talking about my guesses and which awards I got right and wrong in another article once all awards are announced in November.]

Here’s a sampling of major baseball writers’ and their predictions that I could find ahead of my publishing this article: Tom Verducci, Ken Rosenthal, Bob Nightengale, Jonah Keri, and Jayson Stark.  Here’s the Fangraphs.com staff picks, heavily statistically weighted as you’d expect.  As you will see, even the national writers are all over the road with their predictions.  Here’s HardballTalk’s Matthew Pouliot‘s theoreticall ballot, with some contrarian picks.  Seamheads’ Andrew Martin has the typical sabre-slanted ballot.

Before reading on to my predictions on 2012′s winners, a statement to prevent arguments in the comments section.  These are my guesses as to who will WIN the awards, not necessarily who DESERVES them.  Invariably there’s a player who plays on a non-playoff or losing team but puts up fantastic numbers (Matt Kemp for the 2011 Dodgers, perhaps Mike Trout this year) who a number of loud pundits say “should” win the MVP.  Well, the fact of the matter is that the current voter base absolutely takes into account the circumstances behind a player’s production, and places more value on batters who are in a pennant race.  As do I.  The MVP isn’t the “Best Overall Batter Award,” which would end a lot of these arguments (since, the Cy Young essentially is exactly the “Best Overall Pitcher Award” and thus is easier to predict); its the “Most Valuable Player” award, and I agree with many who believe that a guy hitting .370 for a last place team isn’t nearly as “valuable” as the guy who hits .320 and leads a team deep into a playoff race.  It is what it is; if we want to change it perhaps the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA, whose awards these are) needs to add a category or clarify their requirements.

Secondly, when considering the Cy Young, invariably there’s one pitcher who puts up comparable numbers to another, but one plays in a weaker division so the same Sabr-focused pundits make their holier-than-thou proclamations about how the voter base failed in their picks.  And their points are valid.  But this is a prediction piece, not an opinion piece, and the fact of the matter is that current voters are still mostly old-school and put value on things like “Wins” and “ERA,” stats that most Sabr-nerds think are useless in evaluating a pitcher.

So keeping those two points in mind, Here’s my predictions for 2012:

  • AL MVP: Miguel Cabrera.  Despite the massive amount of internet baseball material devoted to talking about how great a season Mike Trout has had (mostly looking at his WAR values historically), I still see the voter base placing emphasis on three major points:
    • Cabrera plays for a playoff team, Trout does not.   The fact that the Angels will finish with a better record than the Tigers, or that the Angels clearly played in a harder division?  Immaterial to the old-school voter base.
    • Cabrara won the Triple Crown.  And most Triple Crown winners throughout history also won the MVP.  The fact that the triple crown is based on 3 relatively flawed statistics?  Irrelevant to the narrative of the achievement itself.  It remains an incredibly difficult achievement to accomplish in modern baseball’s era of specialized hitters (Ichiro for batting, Adam Dunn for homers) to hit for both average and power in the way that Cabrera consistently does.  (Rob Neyer posted thoughts about this topic, quoting random people on the internet with various takes).
    • Cabrera had a monster finish, Trout did not.  Cabrera’s OPS in the run-in months was over 1.000 each of July, August and September.  Trout peaked in July but was merely above average in the closing months.   Your finish matters (as we’ll see in the NL Rookie of the Year race discussed later on).

    Opinions like USA Today’s Bob Nightengale‘s exemplify the bulk of the voter base right now.  A few years ago the writers were smart enough to award Felix Hernandez a Cy Young with nearly a .500 record by recognizing more of the advanced metrics in play, but the Cy Young’s definition is a lot more specific than that of the MVP.

    This is nothing against Trout; the Angels were 6-14 when he got called up and finished 89-73.  That’s an 83-59 record with him, a .584 winning percentage that equates to 95 wins, which would have won the AL West.  Trout was the undeniable MVP for me nearly all season.  You hate to say it, but when the Angels faltered so did Trout’s MVP candidacy.

    The rest of the ballot?  Adrian Beltre and Robinson Cano get some typical “best player on best teams” votes.  I’d give Josh Reddick some top-5 votes too.

  • AL Cy Young: David Price, by virtue of his 20 wins and league leading ERA, will squeak out the win over last year’s winner Justin Verlander. The statistical crowd will point out that Verlander was just as dominant in 2012 as he was in 2011 (when he unanimously won), and that his significantly higher innings total and lead in Pitcher WAR should get him the award.   However, as with the AL MVP you have to take into account the voter base.   Price won 20 games, that he pitches in a tougher division, that he beat out Verlander for the ERA title.  Plus, and I hate to say it, but Price is the “sexy pick,” the guy who hasn’t won before.  Verlander is the known guy and sometimes you see voters being excited to vote for the new guy.  Its kind of like the Oscars; sometimes an actor wins for a performance that wasn’t the best as a way to “give it to the new guy.”  Certainly this contributed to Clayton Kershaw‘s victory in 2011 and we may see similar behaviors again.  There might even be an east coast voter bias in play.  Jered Weaver, Chris Sale, Jake Peavy, and Felix Hernandez all get some top-5 votes, possibly finishing in that order behind Price and Verlander.
  • AL Rookie of the Year: Mike Trout, in what should be an unanimous vote. He could (if the MVP vote goes the way many thinks it should) become only the 3rd player ever to win both the MVP and the RoY in the same year (Fred Lynn and Ichiro Suzuki being the others).  In the conversation: Yu Darvish (who certainly did not have a BAD year, but drifted mid-season), Yoenis Cespedes (who would win it in most years), Matt Moore (my preseason guess; I’m still shocked he displayed virtually none of the dominance of the 2011 post-season during his 2012 season), Will Middlebrooks (who made Kevin Youklis expendible within just a couple of months of arrival), and amazingly Tommy Milone (who was nearly unhittable in his home stadium and continued his performance from the Nats in the end of 2011).  A couple other names in the conversation: Scott Diamond and Jarrod Parker.
  • AL Mgr: Buck Showalter should get this this award for taking a team that should be a .500 ballclub based on pythagorean record and put them in the playoffs for the first time in a decade.  I also think he wins because of east coast bias, since certainly what Bob Melvin and the Oakland A’s pulled off is nothing short of fantastic.  Robin Ventura may have gotten some votes had the White Sox held on, but may be the 3rd place finisher.
  • (Unofficial “award”): AL GM: I almost hate to say it, but Billy Beane. The A’s were supposed to be awful this year, having traded away most of their starting rotation (as explained further in this Aug 2012 post here) and let most of their hitters walk.  Instead they acquire a couple of good pieces from Washington, sign the exciting Cespedes to go with a few bottom-barrel FAs, and overcame a 13-game deficit to win the powerhouse AL West.  A great story.
  • (Unofficial “award”): AL Comeback Player of the Year: It has to be Adam Dunn, right?  How do you go from the lowest qualifying average in history to career highs in homers and not get votes.  Jake Peavy may get some votes after two injury plagued seasons, but he was pretty decent last year and isn’t exactly coming out of nowhere like Ryan Vogelsong did last year.

Now for the National League:

  • NL MVP: Buster Posey‘s strong finish, combined with his team’s playoff run and his playing catcher gives him the nod over his competition here.  For much of the season I thought this award was Andrew McCutchen‘s to lose, but his fade and Pittsburg’s relative collapse from their division-leading mid-season costs him the MVP.  The rest of the ballot? Ryan Braun may be putting up MVP-esque numbers but the fall out from his off-season testing snafu will cost him votes (both in this race and for the rest of his career unfortunately). Johnny Molina getting some press too, for many of the same reasons as Posey.  Joey Votto probably lost too much time to be really considered, but remains arguably the best hitter in the league.
  • NL Cy Young:  R.A. Dickey was the mid-season choice, was challenged late but his 20th win combined with his fantastic ERA for a knuckleballer makes him the winner.  Amazingly, Dickey has pitched most of the season with a torn abdominal muscle, making his season accomplishments even more impressive.   Johnny Cueto makes a great case, leading the playoff-contending Reds, but he slightly sputtered down the stretch.  Clayton Kershaw quietly had a fantastic year, leading the league in ERA, but as we saw with David Price above, I think the voters like to vote for the new guy.  Kershaw got his Cy Young last year; this year is Dickey’s time.  Other names in the top-5 mix: Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, Gio Gonzalez and perhaps even Jordan Zimmermann (who got some mid-season attention by virtue of his excellent July).  I have a hard time giving the award to a reliever, but the numbers Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel are putting in as the closers of Cincinnati and Atlanta respectively may be enough to at least appear in the top-5.  Lastly, the odd case of Kris Medlen; his WAR puts him in the top 10 despite only having 12 starts.  Is this enough to give him some votes?  Maybe some 5th place votes here and there.  But look out in 2013.
  • NL Rookie of the Year: Bryce Harper, who won his 2nd rookie of the month in September, finished incredibly strong and took advantage of late-season fades from his two biggest competitors to win this award.  The National media buzz on Harper/Trout was never greater than during the season’s last month, and while games in April count the same as in September, the lasting impression is made by he who finishes strongest.   Wade Miley has a great case but I think falls short.  Cincinnati’s Todd Frazier has had a great season and was beating Harper’s numbers across the board, but he sat once Scott Rolen came back and faded down the stretch.   Milwaukee’s Norichika Aoki has had a nice season at age 30, coming over from Japan.  I don’t think guys like this (or Darvish, or Ichiro Suzuki for that matter) should qualify as “rookies” but rules are rules.  Anthony Rizzo, Wilin Rosario, Matt Carpenter, and Mike Fiers also put up good rookie numbers and may get some 5th place votes.
  • NL Mgr: Davey Johnson.  Nobody had the Nats winning nearly 100 games.  Had the Pirates not collapsed perhaps we’d be talking about Clint Hurdle. Don Mattingly had somewhat of a transitionary team playing great early, but the mid-season influx of high-priced talent, and their subsequent collapse costs him any support.
  • (unofficial award) NL GM: Mike Rizzo, pulling off the Gio Gonzalez trade, signing Jackson in a deal immediately lauded as a great move and quickly putting together a team that looks to be 15-20 games improved over 2011.  We thought they’d be in the mid-80s in wins; who thought they could be pressing for 100??
  • (Unofficial “award”): NL Comeback Player of the Year: Buster Posey.  He went from a season-ending injury to an MVP season.  In other years Adam LaRoche may get some looks here, but not in the face of what Posey has been doing for San Francisco.  Lastly I had Johan Santana on a short list for this award until he was lost for the season in the aftermath of his 134 pitch no-hitter on June 1st.  At at point he was 3-2 but with a 2.38 ERA.  He finished the season 6-9 with a 4.85 ERA and was shut down on August 17th.  Are we sure that no-hitter was worth it?