A 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 maximum 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 perfect 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.