Nationals Arm Race

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

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TJ Surgery epidemic: upbringing, showcases and mechanics

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

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

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

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

  • Dr. James Andrews, perhaps the most famous sports doctor in the world, attributes the growing trend to the rise in year-round baseball competition in the US.
  • SI.com’s Jay Jaffe reviews Dr. Andrews comments and had other excellent stats about the trend in this April 2014 piece.
  • The Washington Post’s Dave 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?

Are we going to have to go through this every time he stubs his toe??

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Strained Oblique is not the same as torn UCL. Photo credit unknown.

It didn’t take the holier-than-thou Jon Paul Morosi 10 minutes after Stephen Strasburg‘s early exit on 5/31/13 to post this “I told you so” missive to remind everyone that he thinks the Nationals 2012 Shutdown decision was stupid (oh, and just to make sure everyone knows how smart he was, he also conveniently posted a link to his own opinion posted at the time).

Of course, the fact that a “Strained Oblique” isn’t the same thing as an “Ulnar Collateral Ligament” didn’t stop him from his highly hypocritical post.  Why hypocritical?  Because teams shut down pitchers on innings limits ALL THE TIME.  When the Cubs shut down Jeff Samardzija at the end of last season, did anyone bat an eye?  No?  Why was that?  Was it because the Nats were in first place and the Cubs in last?  Is that so?  Well if you’re going to have a national debate about one guy and not a word about the other solely based on the team’s position in the standings, then something is wrong.  Because both decisions were made to protect the player, not advance the team’s best short-term interest.

I’m not going to re-hash the whole argument again.  It isn’t worth it.  Nobody’s going to listen, everyone has their opinion already formed and hardened again and again.  The reason the Nats lost the NLCS wasn’t because our bullpen leaked run after run or because our closer coughed up a 2 run lead in the 9th; it was because Mike Rizzo arrogantly shut down Strasburg!  Of course!  Never mind that Strasburg’s replacement on the roster (Ross Detwiler) gave the team its best post season start.  Never mind that the St. Louis Cardinals were a heck of a hitting team and never mind that our offense only really showed up in Game 5 (when, as it turned out, scoring SEVEN runes wasn’t enough to win).

Ok, maybe I did just rehash the issue again.

But to the point of this post; are we going to have to live with this stupid argument every time Strasburg stubs his toe or has any sort of routine strain or injury for the rest of his frigging career?  Pitchers, as a rule of course, get injured.  Throwing a baseball at max effort is hard on the body.  Guys get injured all the time.  Some guys are incredibly durable (think Justin Verlander) and other guys are just not (think about what this franchise went through with John Patterson and Shawn Hill).  Just because Strasburg had a minor injury (and by all accounts it seems to be minor at this point) doesn’t mean Rizzo’s 2012 shutdown decision is to blame.

Are we going to have this discussion every time?  I hope not.

6/3/13 update: found this Tweet from Jon Heyman who acts as the voice of reason, not only shooting down Morosi’s article by pointing out that Oblique/Lat is not the same as Arm, but shouting down Twitter followers who questioned the shutdown.  He had a very, very good point about last year’s shutdown; is it worth a 25-yr old’s career for “1 or 2 more starts?”  A sage question that few people seemed to be asking, even if it was going to probably be 4-5 more starts.  There needs to be more people coming back to the middle on this (as Will Carroll seemed to be doing), saying that we just don’t know if a shutdown helps or not, as opposed to people who vehimently and rudely state that the Nats and Rizzo were so stupid for shutting him down.  It just gets old.

6/10/13: A little late to the game but Thom Loverro of the Washington Examiner calls out specifically Morosi and an Atlanta reporter for their “gutless” criticism of the Strasburg shutdown.  He makes very good points.

30 for 30 Review: “9.79*”

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This should have been a seminal athletic moment of the 80s. It ended up being so, but for very different reasons. Photo unk via dailymail.co.uk

Editor’s note: there are spoilers in this review, and if you have not seen the film they are surprising enough that you may want to skip this post and see the film first.

The 2nd installment in the return of the “30 for 30″ series aired on October 9th, 2012 and is titled “9.79*.”  Directed by Daniel Gordon (a decently acclaimed british documentarian), it tells the story of the 1988 100m Men’s final from the Seoul Olympic games.  As most sports fans would be able to tell from the title, the race was won by Ben Johnson in a then-world record time of 9.79, an astounding improvement upon the standing world record and a seminal event in the sports decade.

Soon after though, Johnson tested positive for the use of Steroids, was stripped of his medal and booted from the games, and the event was a shocking introduction to the world of doping and the use of performance enhancing drugs that has only exploded since.  Nowadays, we hear about Baseball players using steroids and the narrative is familiar.  The USADA just released its report by which it made the decision to charge and eventually ban Lance Armstrong and attempt to strip him of titles won 10+ years prior.  But in 1988, the only knowledge of doping that casual sports fans knew of was allegations of eastern bloc athletes (women mostly) who were astoundingly breaking records in Swimming, Track and Weight Lifting.

(Here’s an excellent review of the film, doing it much better than I: avclub.com)

As with before, I’ll break down talking about the Subject Matter and then the film-making.

Subject Matter: the film maker got all 8 participants in the 1988 100m final to appear on film and talk somewhat candidly about the state of the sport leading up to that race, the role of drugs, and the ethical dilemna they all faced.  Contrast this to prior 30 for 30 films about Allen Iverson and Michael Jordan which didn’t include any on-screen interviews from the subjects.  The fact that Johnson himself speaks at length and openly about the experience makes this a pretty compelling watch.  Even more-so based on points we’ll touch on later…

The film starts off with an anonymous quote, “If you don’t take it, you don’t make it.”  The implication is, if you’re a runner in the 1980s and you’re not taking drugs, then you’re not going to win.  At least one of the interviewees (Calvin Smith, he himself a banned doper who was awarded the Bronze medal upon Johnson’s disqualification) talked openly about this choice.  Runners train extremely hard to only have a shot at coming in 5th or 6th place in the face of other runners who were cheating, leading (much as we saw in the Cycling world) to an escalating arms race of doping to “re-level” the playing field.  It is an awful choice to make for an athlete; stay clean and never win, or cheat like everyone else and give yourself a shot at lucrative glory.  I don’t know what choice I’d make if forced to.

The film doesn’t outright “accuse” Carl Lewis of doping himself, but the implication is pretty clear and pretty stark.  One person talks about how taking HGH forces adults to get braces (since the substance causes the jaw bone to grow far after it typically stops growing in adults), and then a few minutes later shows Lewis in 1987 … wearing braces.  Lewis himself doesn’t do himself any favors, nor does his coach and head cheerleader Joe Douglas, who seemed all too eager to brag about the sundry things that went on, or about the money that was greasing the skids in the mid 1980s in the sport.  I was left after watching thinking that Lewis was just as dirty as the rest of the competition, just that he got “out-roided” in the final.

A very frank interview with the head of the testing lab from the 1984 Olympic Games also raised some eyebrows; he accused the powers-that-be of outright ignoring the results they were seeing, and he seemed to imply that the 1984 Olympic organizers ordered him to sweep positive tests under the table so as not to sully those politically-charged games.  He kept previous samples and re-tested them years onward and found rampant drug use in the 1984 games, but he decided to destroy the evidence rather than re-open yet another investigation into past results.  I slightly disagreed though with the premise of the lab director that testing is a simple either/or principle; as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out on a recent “BS Report” podcast, to conclude that an athelete has tested positive for certain markers (especially testosterone) is incredibly difficult, since your natural testosterone levels ebb and wane on a day to day basis, are affected by your moods and naturally degrade as you age.  They’re even affected by what you eat!  And, as we learned in the Ryan Braun debacle, testosterone levels in samples can quickly change if not properly stored (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, read my post on the topic from February 2012 and read Will Carroll‘s amazon story about what *really* happened.  It is well worth the read.  Or just read this piece at the HardBallTimes to understand why I don’t believe Braun cheated at all).  So unfortunately drug testing is more of an art form than something that provides conclusive proof.  And that is troubling, since in order to justify its existence a drug testing lab needs to, you know, find people who cheated.

The most outrageous point of the documentary made came from Johnson, and was a shocker.  He accused a member of Lewis’ camp of spiking his post-race beer after the 1988 100M final with the same steroids he then tested positive for.  The accused person refused to be interviewed on film but provided an incredible quote when asked whether he spiked the drink; he said something along the lines of, “Maybe I did, and maybe I didn’t.”  What kind of answer is that??  Of course he’s not going to admit such a thing, but the lack of a powerful denial almost seems like proof in and among itself that this hanger-on of Lewis’ purposely spiked the drink.  The back-story of the bad blood between the runners and the massive competition for the fastest times in the season leading up to the Olympics, to go with the arrogance of Lewis and his coach makes the accusation of a spiked drink completely believable.

From a film-making perspective, I thought the documentary was very well filmed, with excellent b-roll shots of Toronto (where Johnson is from) and other on-location spots.  You can slightly quibble with the “faked” footage, but most of the b-roll is used as supporting shots being played during quotes from the participants.  It was a little difficult to understand all the interviews, mostly because of the heavy West Indian accent of Johnson and his country-mates.  But that also may be because I was watching the film late at night and trying not to wake my wife :-) .  I’d place this film somewhere in the middle-range of the pantheon of 30-for-30 films.  It was an interesting watch but i’d probably not bother to watch it again.

Braun appeal: Opinion and a part of the story few are talking about…

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Braun eloquently defended himself but left out a key part of the story that would have changed a lot of opinions. Photo Norm Hall/Getty Images via bleacherreport.com

(editor’s note: I updated and clarified two points in this post on 2/29/12 at 14:00 after receiving feedback from Will Carroll; apologies for misrepresentation.  He does not work for Baseball Prospectus and Braun’s testosterone RATIOs were elevated, not his testosterone levels).

I suppose I have to put my 2 cents in on Ryan Braun.

Here’s what I think; I’m less concerned about the fact that Braun got off on a supposed technicality (though that opinion has now changed given the information discussed further down below) than I am about the breaches in the process.  He suffered a career-damaging leak during what was supposed to be a confidential process and to that I say, shame on whoever leaked the information and double shame on ESPN for their TMZ-style reporting on the matter.  You want to be so cavalier with a person’s life and credibility?  I say you should be 100% culpable to your divulgions and should face financial punishment when Braun inevitably sues you for your leaks (as he has said he will do).

My view on drug testing and these self-appointed anti-doping organizations is incredibly skeptical; much like the NCAA, they self-aggrandize and preach about how they’re trying to keep sports clean, but then don’t acknowledge the irreversable damage done to athletes reputations when false positives, confidential leaks, and mistakes in the process come about.  Braun’s test was supposedly 10 times higher than what had EVER been measured before in baseball testing, and he had tested clean dozens of times before; why isn’t anyone talking about these two points together and asking the question, “gee, maybe something was actually wrong in this case?”   Why is everyone focused on how Braun “beat the system” but not questioning why, as he’s pointed out, he didn’t change his performance, didn’t gain a pound, and tested clean dozens of times previously?  Testing organizations TRY to find people who are cheating because it validates their existences, and when questionable evidence or results arise, instead of looking at things dispassionately they will always take the viewpoint that best supports their corporate missions.

This is related to my problems with the ongoing witch hunts surrounding Lance Armstrong as well; you have banned and proven liars in Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis who conveniently claim that Armstrong has cheated, yet you have Armstrong’s body of literally hundreds and hundreds of clean tests with absolutely no evidence of any positive test, ever.  At some point I’ve just kinda said, “Enough.”  Come to me with incontrovertable proof of a positive test or stop talking.  Interviews and “he said, she said” evidence is just that; hearsay.

(Note that the collector has released a statement describing what he did that fateful night and it sounds like he did nothing out of the norm, but his admittance that he stored the samples “in his basement” as opposed to a refrigerator certainly gave me pause).

We’re also seeing ridiculous theories on why the appeal was successful.  Deadspin is reporting that the arbitrator purposely blew the appeal to keep getting work (if i’m reading the article right).  I’ve read a theory that somehow Selig engineered this because of his relationship with Milwaukee.  I guess in the absence of anything besides what we learned from MLB’s ridiculous statement (saying they were “incredibly disappointed” in the arbitration finding seems to be unneccesarily vindictive) and Braun’s attack on the process (which also seemed over-stated; I don’t think its “fatally flawed,” just poorly worded), we’re left to our own imagination.


Now, that rant being said, check out this link at Hardballtimes from writer Mat Kovach. Apparently, Braun’s lawyers decided to see what would happen to Braun’s urine if they repeated the exact same scenario that led to the positive test … and after replicating the 3-day storage conditions before the samples were FedEx’d they found that a different urine sample showed the same elevated testosterone ratio levels!  I think a LOT of the outrage over Braun would disappear if this fact was more widely known.  In fact, frankly if this IS the case i’m not sure why Braun’s camp isn’t leading with this fact.  The narrative behind this story would go from “he got off on a technicality” to being “he got off because his sample was tainted” in a hurry.

Other sources on this topic include this link at Chad Moriyama‘s blog but apparently the person who really discovered this is Will Carroll.  Carroll has published a Kindle-reader story for 0.99 on Amazon and, well, its worth the 99 cent fee to buy and read (proceeds go to the Jimmy V fund).  You don’t need a Kindle reader; if you buy it right now you can read it via Kindle’s “cloud reader.”  For any of you who still have doubts on the case, you MUST read this story.

In fact, I’m still amazed that Carroll’s findings aren’t more well known.  The kindle article says that Carroll wrote it on behalf of si.com, so perhaps this is a future Sports Illustrated article (either in print or online or both).  I hope so; this story needs to have more traction.  To any the holier-than-thou baseball columnist or blogger stating that they “still think Braun is guilty,” I say simply, “read this article.”  To me its 100% incontrovertable proof that Braun’s sample was clean and that the conditions of its handling led to the positive test.

I just wish this was part of the narrative, instead of the tired “he beat the system” reporting that has dominated the story.

(Post-story update: Apparently Braun’s sample contained Synthetic Testosterone at advanced levels.  This particular fact puts a different spin on the entire defense of Braun above, honestly.   I’m less inclined now to defend the process and more at odds with the synthetic positive test.  That’s unfortunate.)

Written by Todd Boss

February 29th, 2012 at 9:15 am

Does lineup protection exist?

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I was reading Zuckerman’s blog posting today and the subject of “batter protection” came up in the comments.  Specifically, a reader rather forcefully said that “lineup protection is a proven myth.”  I know there are some reports out there (Bill James) that claim it is a myth (here’s a link to an article with 3 myth-proving reports).  But I counter instead that “baseball protection is so difficult to really measure that hard core statisticians end up discounting it.”  Here’s a “protection exists” link for comparison purposes.

My thoughts are these: You can’t just look at pure baseball outcomes, compare them to the quality of the following hitter, and make a blanket judgement like this.  You can’t measure a pitcher being “careful” and you can’t measure a hitter purposely trying to make something happen knowing that he’s being pitched around.  Will Carroll at BP did a study of Matt Kemp‘s at bats before /after Manny Rodriguez providing protection and found that the number of fastballs and strike zone pitches were the same … but then concluded somehow that the significant change in the number of curveballs faced was somehow NOT a result of the hitter but instead was just the vagarities of the pitchers being faced.  Really?  You don’t think somehow that the same hitter suddenly getting a ton more curveballs (which are more difficult to adjust to and drive for most hitters) is meaningful?

You also can’t tell me, as baseball fans, that a #8 hitter hitting with two outs and with the pitcher to follow is going to get ANYTHING decent to hit.  The opposing pitcher is always going to be willing to pitch carefully to the batter, force the batter to hit the pitcher’s pitch, expand his own strike zone knowing that you have a 50% chance of a punchout (and usually about an 85-90% chance of an easy out in general) sitting in the ondeck circle.

I have two supporting pieces of evidence right here on the nats.

1. Ryan Zimmerman hit for an OPS+ of 107 and 102 the two years prior to Adam Dunn‘s arrival.  Once Dunn is hitting in the 4 spot, Zimmerman’s last two year’s OPS+ are 133 and 150.  In 2008 Zimmerman’s cleanup hitter/protection was usually Austin Kearns or Lastings Milledge, not the 40-homer hitting Dunn.

2. Look at Ian Desmond‘s splits hitting in the #2 hole versus #8.  .Hitting #2 he’s *significantly* better than hitting #8.  Why?  You think maybe its because he’s got boppers behind him at #2 but a pitcher or a cold pinch hitter behind him at #8?