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June 30, 2010

Checking the Numbers

A No-No

by Eric Seidman

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Evaluating managers from a quantitative standpoint is no small feat. There have certainly been attempts and discussions in the past, but no such framework has ever taken hold of the analytical community and forced its way into our vernacular. It can be easy to suggest that the job consists of little more than penciling names onto a card to hand the umpires or lift tired starting pitchers to insert more effective relievers. These are areas that could potentially be quantified, but they're not the sole responsibilities of a skipper. Even so, sometimes the second of those two aspects of managing can become tricky and less clear-cut.

Back on April 10, CC Sabathia took a no-hitter into the eighth inning against the Rays—the Rays? No hit? Say what!?—before giving up a base hit to Kelly Shoppach. Sabathia had thrown 110 pitches prior to surrendering the hit, and as Shoppach made his turn at first base, Yankees manager Joe Girardi essentially transformed into Michael Johnson and sprinted to the mound to pull his workhorse from the ballgame. The quick hook suggested that Girardi had allowed Sabathia to pitch that long in an attempt to achieve a rare feat. As soon as that feat was no longer attainable, there was no point in keeping Sabathia in what would end up a 10-0 victory, especially with the lefty having thrown so many pitches at such an early point of the season.

Fast forward to last Friday and Diamondbacks manager A.J. Hinch found himself in a very similar situation: off-season acquisition Edwin Jackson was in the midst of no-hitting the very same Rays, with an escalating pitch count as the game entered its later stages. Fortunately or unfortunately, Hinch was not as lucky as Girardi in the sense of not having to make a decision, as Jackson completed the no-hitter, marking the fourth no-no of the young season. In total, Jackson threw 149 pitches and walked a Burnett-esque eight batters.

My reaction to the no-hitter spanned the emotional spectrum, ranging from excited to curious to angry to flabbergasted. My goal here is not to turn into Buzz Killington by any means, but rather to use the questionable non-move of Hinch to highlight a few different points: managing to a feat and not necessarily to health, a discussion of pitch counts, and a look at the worst no-hitters of the last 60 years given that, well, walking eight batters in a game is never positive, regardless of whether or not the pitcher in question uses up all of his strand rate magic bar in the same game.

Managing the Feat

I’ll be the first to admit that, while I may be very critical of Hinch’s decision to let Jackson throw 149 pitches, I can certainly empathize with the man. Though I would have been inclined to yank Jackson earlier in the game when he was struggling so mightily, it is always easier to be an armchair quarterback. Who knows how I might have felt in that moment? Perhaps my standard thought process would go out the window and emotions would take over. Regardless, I disagree with the condition, but it is interesting to discuss Hinch's choices.

The dilemma reminds me of “the train problem,” which is a reasoning test of sorts taught in introductory psychology courses. The premise, though grim, is quite simple: you're standing in a railway yard and you see a runaway train coming down the line. You see that if it keeps going, it’s going to run over five people and most certainly kill them. You also notice that you are standing next to a switch that would turn the runaway train to another track, on which it would run over just one person. Do you throw the switch? The majority of responders reply with an affirmative, reasoning that one death is certainly better than five deaths. However, it should be fairly obvious that both result in death, which is not a positive outcome.

Relating the scenario back to the baseball game, Hinch could not have made the right decision in this situation, and I might go so far as to argue that the most awkward decision a manager may face is what to do with a starting pitcher on the verge of an historic feat, but who also has an escalating pitch count that could hinder his effectiveness or lead to an injury down the road. If Hinch kept Jackson in the game, as he did, many are left to wonder how a team could let a pitcher throw so many pitches just to achieve something rare, especially when the hurler in question is considered to be a key piece of their potential success puzzle.

If Hinch removed Jackson, the opposite occurs. Most fans and many analysts spew vitriol in his direction for messing with history. these same people would then likely shift their anger towards pitch counts in general and how Hooks Dauss or other similar funnily named players from the days of yore could unleash 175 pitches in a game and come back the next day. Simply put, Hinch could not have won, but why was it a big deal in the first place?

Pitch Count Concentrations

Jackson’s no-hitter, as we will explore below and already mentioned above, was not your ordinary no-no. The 149 pitches rings alarm bells because, well, that high of a pitch count just does not happen anymore. Since 2000, there have only been five instances of a starter throwing 146 or more pitches: Livan Hernandez (150 on June 3, 2005), Ron Villone (150 on September 29, 2000), Jackson’s 149, Randy Johnson (149 on July 31, 2002), and Kevin Appier (146 on July 3, 2000). Making matters worse was that Jackson threw a high concentration of these pitches in a brief, early span of innings: he threw 27 in the first frame, 18 in the second, and 22 the inning after that, totaling 67 through three innings.

Jackson managed to settle down for the middle three innings, before throwing 51 more pitches over the final three frames. Nothing came easy, and he labored for most of the game. A quick glance at his inning-by-inning totals don’t look like they sum to almost 150 pitches, primarily because he didn’t have too many 20-plus pitch innings, but his distribution was still cause for concern.

Back when I first started writing at Baseball Prospectus I ran a two-part study looking at the effects on velocity and movement, broken into subsets based on average velocity, of tallying a high number of pitches in an inning. The results were intuitive in that throwing 100 pitches in a game while staying fairly consistent in the number of pitches thrown per inning was much less problematic than throwing 35 in the first inning and reaching 100 by the fifth frame. The results were also more drastic for pitchers in the 94-plus mph range, as they were throwing with less movement to begin with, and lost the velocity that served as a counteracting force over the course of the same game, as well as their next start. The study likely needs a bit of a refresher with all of the added data over the last couple of years, but intuition will likely win out given that pitching a baseball is a very unnatural motion.

The underlying rationale for the higher concentrations of pitches within a very few innings becoming a problem deals with just how unnatural the motion is on the body. Consider going to the gym and doing 25 or more reps on the bench press of approximately 90 percent of your maximum benchable weight, without proper rest in between each rep. Placing that amount of stress on the body without the proper recuperation period can be very damaging, because the muscles and tendons need time to recoup the lost energy. This is why not all pitch counts are the same, even if they happen to consist of the same number. For Jackson, the 149 raised a red flag because it was high in nature but also because he did not have many easy innings.

Where Does the No-Hitter Rank?

Upon hearing of his no-hitter and the eight walks I began to wonder where it would rank in the annals of no-hit history, in terms of the Game Score, a Bill James invention. While flawed a bit, is convenient and tells a very decent story of the game, where a score of 50 is average, and above is better. Jackson recorded an 85 on his no-hitter, which is certainly very good, but only one point better than a complete game/shutout he threw a couple of weeks earlier that isn’t going into the history books anytime soon.

Since 1995, there have been 71,394 starts, only 1,911 of which have featured game scores of 84 or higher, a minuscule rate of 2.6 percent. So while Jackson’s game might not be impressive relative to no-hitters, it still ended up being a great effort from a results standpoint. Of the no-hitters thrown since 1954, the average game score is 92, with a range of 84-101. The 84 belongs to George Culver in 1968, Ken Holtzman in 1969, and Joe Cowley in 1986. Jackson’s certainly falls into the lower quintile of no-hitters, but it was not the worst.

But then I got to thinking about those eight walks, as it seemed like such a rare occurrence in its own right. Sure enough, since 1995, just 87 of the aforementioned 71,394 starts have seen the starting pitcher walk eight or more batters. Those 87 games averaged a game score of 41, with a range of 13-85. Put both of these factoids together and Jackson simultaneously tied the highest game score for one involving eight or more walks while coming oh so close to achieving the lowest game score for a no-hitter. If Hinch had taken him out, we would have missed out on gold like that!

---

To reiterate my earlier point, I am not trying in any way to diminish Jackson’s effort, because he is now in the history book with the achievement. My concern is that the Diamondbacks risked the short-term and long-term health of a pitcher they have under contract through next season, just to see if he could prevent the opposing team from registering a base hit. The decision to leave him in had to be gut-wrenching for a young manager like Hinch, but the skipper's job description includes helping the team win now and into the future, not doing what he can to immortalize an athlete or help Jackson do something that was rare.

 If Jackson remains healthy for the entire season and the rest of his career, it doesn’t render this argument moot. I'm a decision-based organism and not one who thrives on results or outcomes all the time. For the sake of pitcher health, though, I sincerely hope that opposing teams register hits like in the Girardi-Sabathia game, so the decision is taken out of the hands of potentially unsure managers.

Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Eric's other articles. You can contact Eric by clicking here

Related Content:  Edwin Jackson,  The Who,  A.J. Hinch,  No-no,  Fourth Of July,  Pitches

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beerchaser42
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The play on words notwithstanding (and not to detract from the point of your article), it grates on my nerves every time I hear a no-hitter referred to as a "no-no". A no-no is something the dog does on the living room floor. It should not be used to describe one of the greatest accomplishments in baseball. Whoever started that should get his face rubbed in the carpet.

Jun 30, 2010 06:14 AM
rating: -8
 
whichthat

Interesting list above: Villone pitched for nine more years until he was 39, Appier for four more years until he was 36, Johnson for seven more years until he was 45, and Livan is still active today, five years later, at 35. Jackson is the youngest of the five, so maybe that will make a difference -- OTOH, this neatly illustrates the problem of making blanket judgments about what pitchers can handle.

My opinion is that since the Diamondbacks are going nowhere this year, they can afford to baby Jackson through the All-Star break; not to be callous, but Jackson isn't a cornerstone kind of pitcher; and given those two things, the no-hitter may well turn out to be the best thing for everyone concerned.

I'm certainly not saying you should shove a pitcher into the grinder in this situation, but it's not clear that the Diamondbacks have.

Jun 30, 2010 06:41 AM
rating: 4
 
TheRealNeal

This is going to sound snarky, but it's not really intended to. The article seems like it was written by someone who hasn't participated in a lot of sports.

A large reason overuse injuries occur is because as your muscles expand after extended exercise, things no longer "fit" as well as they should. When throwing a baseball your shoulder, triceps/biceps and forearms are all going to swell. Besides getting tired and losing strength you tend to loose a little bit of coordination as well. Combine those two things, and you're going to become more prone to injury.

But in Jackson's case, he had all of his big innings early in the game, when he was least tired, he had the least amount of swelling, and his mental facilities were probably sharpest. If you're going to throw 150 pitches, piling them up in the early innings is exactly what you want to do. What you don't want to do is throw 60 pitches in the 8th and 9th innings, when you're already tired.

Jun 30, 2010 17:11 PM
rating: 3
 
Matthew Avery

As a manager, you will almost inevitably be criticized more in the media for pulling a player having a no-hitter than leaving him in and seeing him injure himself later. Not to mention the player in question would hate you for taking away this opportunity. So doing it one way, you open yourself up to boarder criticism and lose the respect of one (and possibly more) of your players while doing it the other way gets you the applause of the relative few who observe that it's probably the right long-term thing for your ball club and player.

To me, the decision is obvious.

Jun 30, 2010 08:00 AM
rating: 4
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Matthew, that's why the train situation helps to illustrate this. Either way, he is going to be "wrong" but it's about choosing what is less wrong to the individual making the decision. For Hinch, diverting the track to the one with just one person was equivalent to leaving Jackson in, and that's fine. As I said, it's an impossible situation and an incredibly tough decision.

As you said, removing him has several short-term drawbacks: fans and media go crazy, Jackson is mad, maybe Ryan Reynolds gets another tattoo on his neck because he's so angry, while lifting him would potentially prevent something more drastic from a long-term point of view. A big issue is that, while people SAY they like to live/manage for the long-term, their actions are short-term based.

Jun 30, 2010 08:18 AM
 
chrisbarncard

So, the best first base-runner scenario from Hinch's seat is ... a single in the second inning by the guy batting sixth? No more no-no to worry about, and the seven hitter coming up with two outs?

Jun 30, 2010 10:56 AM
rating: 0
 
David Coonce

Just take the hits out of the equation: Jackson pitched a complete game in which he walked 8 batters and threw 149 pitches. That's the definition of insanity.

Jun 30, 2010 11:26 AM
rating: -1
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

David, that's precisely one of my points. Walking 8 batters is NEVER good, regardless of whether or not 0 hits were given up. In fact, one can comically but semi-seriously opine that nobody got a hit because he walked everyone! He essentially is risking injury to throw close to the worst no-hitter of all time.

Jun 30, 2010 11:37 AM
 
rajzen

One big difference between CC's no-hit bid and Jackson's is that the D'backs were only leading 1-0 and have the worst bullpen in the history of baseball. Not that one more win would impact their season at this point, but Hinch may have been managing to win the game, which is why you play the game (to paraphrase Herm Edwards). And in fairness to Jackson, his pitching improved noticeably in the later innings although he was clearly tiring.

Also, Jackson threw 114 pitches or more in 5 of his previous 9 starts. 149 pitches is significantly higher, but the D'backs were hardly babying him up to that point.

Jun 30, 2010 12:04 PM
rating: 2
 
onegameref

I think Hinch proved to be less of a mgr because he didn't want to stand up and say he was protecting his player and the team by removing him when he struggled. If a mgr is going to manage for personal accomplishments rather than team success, he is faulty as a mgr. Didn't a mgr try to protect a hitter a couple of years ago that was nearing the strikeout record? How foolish was that? If he gave you the best chance to win by playing then he should be played. The record was surpassed later and simply proves the point.

Jun 30, 2010 14:17 PM
rating: -3
 
Llarry

You seem to have missed the mention of the the game situation. The D'Backs were only up 1-0: leaving Jackson in was (given the bullpen situation) probably the best chance the team had to win. Also, since the D'Backs aren't in a pennant chase, the chance of having to ease up in Jackson's next couple of starts (which might be blowouts, might not, and by which time *maybe* there might be some bullpen improvement) is not that big a price to expect compared to the chance to win this one and do something special. Fact is, Hinch made his player and the fans happy, and the latter is not to be lightly dismissed in an entertainment medium.

Since Jackson has been throwing some higher pitch counts (114-120 or so), that 149 is not as extreme a jump as it would be for pitchers who've been seeing 95-100 per game. He averaged about 16.5 per inning, which is higher than you'd like to see in a complete game, but not outrageous (or unusual) in shorter outings. He had 2 innings over 20, but avoided the 30-40 pitch monster inning. Note also that 7 of the 8 walks came in the first three innings -- neither the Rays nor the Umpire gave indication later on that fatigue was affecting his pitching...

All in all, it's an interesting situation to discuss, but there's far too much grey area for broad proclamations against Hinch. Especially from those of us who weren't sitting in the dugout with Jackson and a trainer and pitching coach...

Jun 30, 2010 16:34 PM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

The one-line description of the article was a bit too harsh given my tone -- I distinctly said that this was the toughest possible decision for a manager, and that I empathize with the man even if I, from afar, disagree with the end result. Regardless of whether or not he has thrown higher pitch counts, throwing 30 pitches above that, a high concentration of which were early in the game -- which my study previously showed was detrimental the next time out -- is not optimal. There are certainly reasons to leave him in and to take him out -- not everyone will agree. It's interesting to discuss given that not every situation is the same, but I'm in no way panning Hinch for the decision; rather I'm using it to discuss a few different areas of interest that arose.

Jun 30, 2010 17:48 PM
 
Llarry

Eric, I thought it was a great article; I was replying to the comment above. It's definitely a great discussion subject, with plenty of grey area for everyone to play in. I do think it's important to note how most of the walks were early, showing that, regardless of the pitch numbers, he was *much* more effective in the later innings.

While we understand that pitchers aren't always (ever?) going to accurately self-report their condition to the manager (and culturally we reward that -- he's "scrappy", doncha know...), we often don't give the skipper enough credit for being able to look the pitcher in the eye, and talk to the coach and trainer in the dugout. When it's done right, that's potentially a lot of useful input we don't have access to. (When it's done wrong, you have things like Trey Hillman and Gil Meche...).

Jul 01, 2010 14:51 PM
rating: 0
 
TonyinAsia-Pacific

Living in Asia it's interesting to see the controversy of the 100 pitch firewall. In Japan a power arm phenom, Yu Darvish, has a pitch limit of 140 which he exceeds more than half of the time. Japanese pitchers are generally allowed to go 130 if effective and there doesn't seem to be much in the way of arm breakdowns. Colby Lewis avereaged about 130 last year and in the past Hideki Kuroda was regularly at 130 and Dice K at 150. Then again, in Japan there is a lot of emphasis by the coaches on coaching technique and form.

It will be interesting to see how the Texas Rangers make out over the next couple of years...

Jun 30, 2010 20:49 PM
rating: 0
 
BrewersTT

Not that it should be a factor in making this decision, but as an aside, there's always some chance - though maybe not great with this particular pen - that the no-hitter would have been completed after Jackson was removed. I can recall this happening to Bob Milacki and Steve Barber in Baltimore, and Vida Blue and Mark Langston. I think there are some more of these, perhaps the strangest of all no-hitters. I know in Milacki's case he left with an injury, and Barber made Jackson look like Greg Maddux with I think 10 walks plus a few HBPs and WPs, but I don't know the story behind the rest.

Jul 05, 2010 20:35 PM
rating: 0
 
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