Examing Another Possible Cause of Arm Injuries: Sabermetrics

Denny McLain 1968A few months ago Jimmy wrote a great post that included information from the book, Summer of 68, by Tim Wendel. Intrigued, I purchased the book, and it proved to be a fun read. 1968 was the “Year of the Pitcher,” and a lot of the narrative centered on Bob Gibson, Denny McLain, Don Drysdale, and a fantastic and mostly forgotten season by Luis Tiant. The book also revolves around the eventual 1968 World Series between the Tigers and the Cardinals, and so a lot of pages are dedicated to Series MVP Mickey Lolich. Reading about this era once again, backed up in many cases with quotes from the players, it was striking how important the Wins statistic was. McLain, of course, made history that year by winning 31 games, a mark that will most likely never be achieved again. But overall, the pride a starting pitcher took in picking up Wins was evident throughout.

I understand that 1968 was a long time ago, and computers have created the ability to perform advanced statistical analysis that was unheard of at that time. Plus, and no argument on this point from me, even the best pitcher has limitations on controlling success or failure within the statistic. You can’t win if your team doesn’t score. On the other hand, it’s hard not to get the Win if your team scores six runs early (well, unless you are in Coors Field.) This undeniable fact, that the pitcher is not in total control of the statistic, has led to it being almost completely disregarded in 2014.

Shortly after I finished the book, I started noticing that once again this spring, pitchers’ elbows are blowing out at historical rates. By May 2, the total had already hit 17 pitchers, including stars such as Patrick Corbin, Matt Moore, Kris Medlen, and Brandon Beachy. The Mets were not spared, as Bobby Parnell’s elbow did not make it past Opening Day. Parnell’s eventual surgery meant that the team’s best two pitchers in 2013, Parnell and Matt Harvey, had both been stricken by the plague.

This trend has been going on for quite some time now, and teams keep making adjustments. Pitch counts in games are monitored strictly, and lower and lower innings caps are being instituted across baseball. None of this helped, though; in fact things keep getting worse. Now, a number of articles are popping up that the problem might be that kids are throwing too much at an early age. American organized youth baseball is being investigated as a possible culprit.

I don’t see that at all. In many other countries that produce baseball players, children are still allowed to play unsupervised baseball. Does anyone think that there are innings limits on Latin American sandlots? If throwing too much at a young age is the issue, shouldn’t the problem be occurring at a much higher rate with non-American arms? I don’t see that trend.

Another potential cause that gets cited is the radar gun. The idea is that pitchers are giving a Radar Gunmaximum effort, pitch after pitch, due to the gun. I can see the logic in that, if pitchers are exerting more effort, pitch after pitch, they could be pushing the human arm further than it can go. But sure, gun readings are on scoreboards now, but other than machismo, why would a pitcher worry too much about the gun? When I thought about that, I started connecting some dots. Is the gun the problem, or is the gun only measuring the true problem? That got me thinking back to 1968, the “Year of the Pitcher,” and what has changed. It led me back to statistical analysis. Is the real problem with pitchers’ arms due to how they are now valued?

The thing about the Wins statistic is that the design was crude, but the intent was noble. In the end, all that matters is wins and losses, which has always been how the standings are determined. The Wins statistic for pitchers was an attempt to measure a pitcher’s ability to deliver that win. Although flawed, it actually allowed for nuances that were consistent with the overall goal of teams winning as many games as possible. Winning 10-0 or 10-4 generated the same amount of Wins for the pitcher as the team received in the standings. This is why, of course, pitchers never wanted to come out of games, and yes, that created higher pitch counts and innings totals. But it also meant that pitchers could be less worried about pitching at maximum effort on every pitch.

Major league players are paid to do their job, and their pay is mostly generated by quantifiable data. In an age where that pay was primarily dictated by the Wins statistic, the goal of that professional would be to pitch well enough, and long enough, to win. Nothing more, as it would make sense to leave anything that you could in the tank for the next outing. The job was to deliver as many Wins to the team as possible. In that environment it would be foolish to give maximum effort on every pitch. So sure, there was no gun measuring whether pitchers did so, but more importantly, there was no motivation to do it.

Now we have evolved to the point where statistics such as FIPs, Fielding Independent Statistics, are used to measure a pitcher’s worth. Things have shifted from valuing the overall ability to manage a game to victory to counting every batter faced as equal. So a pitching coach might try to tell a pitcher with a 6-0 lead to just throw strikes, but the player’s agent knows better. Every batter he doesn’t strike out will be considered a random act, and will not assist the player in getting paid. Who do you think the pitcher is going to listen to in this situation? He wants to get paid as much as the next guy.

Sadly, if there is a strong connection, if advanced statistical analysis is the cause of many arm injuries, there is most likely no solution to the problem. The flaws of the Wins statistic, not a math-1perfect metric by any means, have been derided for a long time now. Things are never going back to the way they were. There is good in that. Many people who wouldn’t normally be fans of the game get to enjoy it due to their interest in mathematics. If you love math, the more minute the measuring, the more fun you have. This includes many actual fans of the game too, loving math and loving baseball are not mutually exclusive, and a person can love both. It has also led to jobs in baseball for a generation of people with an entirely new skillset, which is great for them. Advanced statistical analysis is not a train that can be stopped, nor should it be. There is nothing wrong with people wanting to study events to try and draw their own conclusions. It’s what I have just done.

Do I know for a fact that this is the big problem? No, not at all, but I sure see logic in my theory that it is a problem. A hell of a lot more, in fact, than the idea that a 26-year-old arm went bad because he threw a ball more than another kid when they were both 12 years old. And surely it is more logical than to continue to limit innings, as it is being proven annually that this accomplishes nothing. Matt Harvey was managed as if he was a piece of fine china, and we saw how much good that did.

When it comes to Tommy John surgery, the questions seem to be endless and the sure answers are nowhere to be found. And the casualties have continued to rise during the same period that the analysis of the game rises to new highs.

That might not just be a coincidence.

Agatha Christie quote

 

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13 comments

  1. There may be some merit to the idea that pitching year round like some kids do does not allow the elbow to properly recover, same for the shoulder to basically build up endurance via stretch and recover. Sort of basic theory of working out, you break the body down, allow it to recover and then go at it again.

    Still, I find the hypothesis being bandied about right now blaming youth baseball silly, no one has taken any of the cases and lined them and analyzed how often they pitched when they were 12, 13, 14 years of age. Moreover it is certainly data that does not likely exist in any complete or competent sense.

    Steven Matz blew his elbow out at 18, Parnell was what 27, Harvey 24, you won’t find any linear pattern I am sure.

    Still my gut says, best to throw more in a shorter block of time, rest, then repeat, then have micro managed pitch counts over 12 months.

  2. I like this post, basically thinking out loud about an important baseball issue. At the core, Mike is onto something, I think, though there’s a lot of data we don’t know. How many TJ surgeries were there in 1955? None. It was invented yet. So the comparibles don’t exist. In the old days, guys just went away. Nonetheless, we have seen a radical redefinition of what a quality starting pitcher looks like. The job description has changed. And with it, perhaps, came an entirely new way of going about the task. Clearly most pitchers do not “manage” games anymore. They throw at max until they reach 110 pitches, basically. So it is fair, to a degree, to put that at the feet of advanced statistics. Wins used to be paramount. Now, it’s widely considered to be a sign of mouth-breathing ignorance if you measure a pitcher’s worth by such a contingent statistic as W-L. You have to wonder if the pendulum has swung too far the other way.

    Here’s a thought: Will the new “Moneyball” market inefficiency — taking advantage of what other teams aren’t doing — be to ignore the SABR guys? Everybody is staring at the exact same numbers, reaching the exact same conclusions. The Hive Mentality has created an all new conventional wisdom. What if somebody came along and said, yeah, I like BA, Wins, and Runs Scored.

  3. Eraff says:

    There are a tremendous number of “tipping points” here and miles of Math before we actually answer a question of whether pitchers are actually more fragile now versus “yesterday”.

    There were 16 Major League Teams in 1955…. 20 in 1968… They had 4 Man STARTING Staffs… that’s 64-80 starters.

    There are now 30 teams…each with 5 starters… 150 starting Pitchers.

    Bill Russell once observed that the number of teams might change, but there would only ever be 2,3, maybe 4 REAL Big men at a time.

    In all likelihood ONLY a select handful of FREAKS is capable of carrying a Big League Starter Workload—- whether that’s 2–, 250, or 300 innings. The number of “freaks” hasn’t changed—the slots to fill have grown substantially. Even a reversion to 4 man starting staffs would yield at least twice as many “Starters” versus 1955.

    The freaks are still here…in limited number—the rest?…they’re dropping like flies, as they always have.

  4. Don P says:

    If you want someone to throw a 95 mph fastball, you train him to do it. There are more flamethrowers than ever before. I believe I heard Darling say last week that there are 5 times as many pitchers averaging 95+ mph than just 10 years ago. They are training pitchers to throw the heat. They are NOT training pitchers to be durable and maybe durability training is opposite of speed training. You certainly train differently for the marathon than the 100 yd dash.

    As you guys have pointed out in the past, staying healthy is a SKILL. Perhaps it is the rarest of skills. Let’s not forget “Craig Swan disease” or “Mark Fidyrich disease”. Maybe the greats of the past had natural heaters and were trained to be durable and today all we want is everybody, regardless of innate speed on their fastball, to throw harder.

  5. James Preller says:

    All we know is that pitch counts and innings counts do not appear to have solved the problem — though I do think that “work load” abuses contributed to injuries in the past, and it’s probably for the best that people are trying to protect young arms.

  6. Michael Geus says:

    I also believe it’s a fair statement that previous generations of pitchers were tougher than today’s bunch, and had higher pain tolerance. It is a very different society than it used to be. I’m not judging when I say that, just observing. I freely admit my father was tougher than me, and my grandfather tougher than him. I thank them for making my life easier and less painful.

    Forget banning home plate collisions, the catcher once had no helmet. Slightly before that the batter didn’t have one. Walls were brick, and not padded.

    That’s not the world we live in, and in that world if a pitcher’s arm wasn’t falling off, he just kept pitching. And if his arm hurt he figured, “so what?” Pain was much more accepted in that world, expected even. My dad used to tell me that the fact that his knees hurt every day was no big deal, all that mattered was he had legs. He could deal with some pain. That mentality is very rare now, things have changed. Now if someones knees hurt they go get new knees.

    And that is the other thing, modern medicine. When there was no TJ surgery the only choice was to suck it up. Now, there is a choice.

    So many variables.

    • I am reminded of one of my favorite comedy bits . . .

    • Eraff says:

      I knew some young guys who simply could not throw, as in “anymore”, before surgical advancements. All of us who’ve played and coached undertstand the difference between Pain and Injury—- there is no Toughing through a Torn Biceps, Rotator, Labrum, UCL—- you can face the pain, but the FUNCTION is gone.

      • Michael Geus says:

        There is no doubt that some injuries are too severe for a person to compete. And of course there were always serious career ending injuries, the question is why are there more than in the past.

        As to what a person can and cannot perform through that varies by individual. And I truly believe the average American individual 50 years ago had a higher pain tolerance than the average counterpart now. They had to, many of the discoveries that alleviate pain today had not yet been created.

        Let’s remember, the last two Mets to have TJ surgery, Harvey and Parnell, elected to do so before fully attempting a non-surgical option that had been presented to them. Fifty years ago they would have seen if they could live with the situation. Maybe they could not have, but maybe they could have. Now, they just go get cut.

        Understand, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, I’m not going to tell anyone else how much pain to endure.

        But it is another difference.

        • James Preller says:

          I don’t know that there are more arm injuries “than in the past.” Where’s the info on that? I don’t think it exists.

          • Michael Geus says:

            TJ surgeries are at record rates, according to the linked articles.

            So, substitute surgeries for injuries,apologies, that was a poor choice of words. In fact, without some of the surgical options, more careers were probably ended early, not less. But I will say probably because I haven’t studied it and I don’t know if data exists.

            Personally, I would think DL time per player has risen, but I can’t say I’ve studied that either. That information must exist somewhere, I’m not sure where.

  7. Raff says:

    Lot’s of theories and hypotheses advanced here- ALL interesting and with merit. As for why baseball players- pitchers- are almost immediately opting for surgery instead of “rehab”, I think, is simply answered by 3 facts> 1) The “state of the art” in TJ surgery- and the predicted success rate of surgery is now such that a committed “patient” can reliably expect a return to pay at FULL FUNTION- Sometimes at ENHANCED function (another yard on the fastball)- after surgery. And the recuperation time for the surgery now pretty much approximates the non-surgical rehab time on a “rest and strength building” regimen of exercises. , 2) The surgical option is now viewed as more of a Sure Thing than the rest and rehab option — The Players and their agents believe this- and so do the teas that pay them. 3) Baseball contracts are guaranteed for their full term. There’s no financial incentive to tinker around and “wait and see” if rest and rehab works. In fact- there’s a Disincentive to do so. Kibbeeing around for a season of rest and rehab just gets a player closer to the end of his contract, with a less sure predictable outcome than going under the knife.

  8. Michael Geus says:

    Here is a quick link to something I found showing how much DL time has increased since 1989.

    http://www.beyondtheboxscore.com/2010/3/10/1365703/disabled-list-trends-and-team

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