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June 29, 2011

The BP Broadside

Pineda to Infinity and Beyond

by Steven Goldman

In the early days of BP, the group had a catch-phrase for young pitchers coined by Gary Huckabay: TINSTAAPP: There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect. I’m not sure if Gary picked it up from Robert Heinlein or Milton Friedman, both of whom got some mileage out of “There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch” back in the last century, but regardless of the inspiration, Gary’s point was that young pitchers are so susceptible to both injury and random fluctuations in performance that you could never take their prospect status at face value.

In the days since, teams have done everything they can to prove Gary wrong, often by treating their young pitchers with kid gloves. Gone are the days when a Dwight Gooden would be allowed to throw nearly 500 innings in the majors before his 21st birthday. Now many young pitchers are subject to arbitrary pitch counts and innings limits in order to forestall the point of injury—as if anyone knows specifically where or when that point lies.

While we can credit some common sense decisions about pitch counts—today a manager doing what Dallas Green did to a 23-year-old Al Leiter in 1989 would be tarred and feathered—with reducing injuries to young pitchers, it is foolish to say that we can know with any specificity that it’s the 751st pitch of the season that is going to break a kid and not the 603rd or the 811th and how much that particular pitch matters versus the pitcher’s mechanics, the weather he’s pitching in, the stress of any particular inning in that chain of 800 pitches, or if a butterfly is flapping its wings in Patagonia. There is really only one surefire way to protect a pitcher from injury and that is to seal him in Mylar, stick him in the basement with your comic book collection, and never let him anywhere near the mound.

In pretending that they have a handle on these interactions, teams may be acting in accordance with the so-called “Verducci Effect,” a wholly spurious invention of the sportswriter Tom Verducci, who posited that pitchers under the age of 25 who sustain an increase of 30 innings year over year tend to underperform. I say spurious because folks looking for the asserted correlation (here, here, here, here, and here, among others)  have yet to find it.

All credit to the Mariners, then, for throwing the conventional wisdom out the window when it comes to young star Michael Pineda, who has thus far pitched 102 innings over 16 starts. Unlike, say, the Yankees, who panicked in their handling of two pitchers (more about whom in a moment) and finished with less than what they began with, the M’s won’t act as if they know more than they do:

The Mariners have mapped out a couple scenarios for the remaining three months of the season with their entire five-man rotation, which is the only starting group that has not missed a game yet this year. [Manager Eric] Wedge… indicated the team would primarily just keep the five starters in the same rotation and monitor innings and tough situations as they arise.

“If it gets to point where it’s a little tight at the end, that’ll be a good thing and will be for good reasons. But we’ve been trying to manage his game-to-game pitch count and inning-to-inning pitch count.”

At the risk of translating incorrectly from a great distance, Wedge seems to be saying that he is not going to drop Pineda into the bullpen, randomly send him down, or skip his starts for a week at a time. He is just going to make an effort not to be stupid.

Note his emphasis on pitch counts rather than innings. One area in which a correlation to injury has been convincingly theorized is not in total innings or even total pitch counts, but in per-inning pitch counts, which is to say that if both Pitcher A and Pitcher B throw 135 pitches in a game, but Pitcher A throws 50 pitches in the third and Pitcher B just has a nice steady 15 per frame, Pitcher A is much more likely to have done himself damage.

Pineda is not running up complete games, he’s not on a pace for 200 innings—210 seems about right—and his pitch counts, at least on a game-to-game basis, have been very conservative. His high for the season is 106 and he has crossed the 100-pitch threshold just four times.

Contrast the Mariners’ handling of Pineda with the Yankees’ approach to Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes. Here is what I wrote about Chamberlain in BP 2009:

Chamberlain was sent to the bullpen out of spring training with an amorphous promise that he would transition to the rotation; the idea was to prevent injury by minimizing his workload. The highly anticipated move came on June 3, and Chamberlain pitched quite well as a starter, but he got hurt anyway, missing most of August with rotator cuff tendonitis… Chamberlain was probably no safer in the pen than he was in the rotation, and his injury may have actually been caused by an awkward spill he took trying to get out of the way of a Pudge throw to second that came at him head-high earlier in the same inning that he was hurt. Nonetheless, upon his return he was back among the relievers.

And then in BP 2010:

What a mess. It's possible that no pitcher in the history of baseball has suffered through as many team-inflicted head games as Chamberlain. Though not pitching up to expectations, he was nonetheless the club's most successful starter in the early going, posting a 3.89 ERA in 15 starts that were often shortened due to a combination of strikeouts and nibbling eating up the pitcher's strict pitch counts. A couple of rough starts heading into the All-Star break raised anxiety levels, but Chamberlain came roaring out of the hiatus, allowing just two runs in three starts comprising 21 2/3 innings. At that point, the Yankees initiated the Joba Rules 2.0 in order to hold the young pitcher to no more than 160 innings on the season, skipping starts and then shortening them, which had the effect of turning Joba's starts into bad relief appearances. From the New Rules' imposition on, his ERA was 7.52, as he was so clearly rattled by the constant threat of being pulled about two minutes into the game and then not pitching again for a week that he was unable to concentrate. If the Joba Rules are in conflict with the goal of developing Chamberlain into a consistently successful major-league pitcher, then it isn’t clear what the Yankees are accomplishing. The Rules were supposed to be out the window for 2010, but the acquisition of Javier Vazquez likely pushes Chamberlain back to the pen—perhaps the best role for Joba after all, and a tacit admission that in their eagerness to spare him injury, the Yankees killed a potentially great starter with kindness.

Last season, the Yankees tried to apply some of the same magic to Hughes, creating an arbitrary 175-inning limit, and when Hughes went over 100 innings roughly halfway through the season, they forced him to skip starts to stay under the cap. Despite these maneuvers, both pitchers got hurt. Chamberlain is gone for the year and more, having required Tommy John surgery, while Hughes is trying to work his way back from “right shoulder inflammation,” a problem which has seriously impacted his ability to achieve and maintain velocity.

The Yankees did triple-somersaults trying to avoid their encounter with TINSTAAPP, but we don’t even know if they succeeded in delaying it. As I wrote in that same ’09 comment on Joba, “There are many causes of pitcher injuries; some can be mitigated, though not all, and until medical technology reaches a point when coaches can get live-action film from inside a pitcher's shoulder as he's working, it's very difficult to know which of the dozens of injury-causing variables is in play, or even if supposedly helpful things aren't actually harmful.” Kudos to Wedge, pitching coach Carl Willis, and the rest of the M’s braintrust for having the bravery to treat Pineda intelligently, rather than as a porcelain doll that they don’t quite understand how to preserve.

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

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