June 19, 1998
Pitcher Abuse Points
A New Way to Measure Pitcher AbuseThe topic of pitcher abuse is one we follow closely here at Baseball Prospectus. The injury rate of pitchers, in particular young pitchers, is astonishing. Pitchers are several times more likely to get injured than hitters, and for every prospect that becomes a successful major league pitcher, a dozen more have their careers stalled or ended by injury. This is a reality of baseball that has persisted since the game was invented; the act of throwing a ball overhand is inherently unnatural, and the repetition of throwing, even with excellent mechanics, can lead to inflammation or injury to the muscles of the rotator cuff, or in the ligaments that hold the elbow in place.
For a century this has been an accepted part of the game - pitchers got injured all the time, and nobody ever bothered to wonder why, or whether there was a way to prevent it. Pitchers who in the dead-ball era of baseball history were able to throw 300-350 innings a season without injury were subsequently marveled at as "iron men" whose exploits could not be repeated by contemporary pitchers. Later hurlers were accused of lacking the work ethic or the determination to approach previous standards of greatness; they were too weak to "tough out" the sore arms that they developed by the bushel.
We know better now. Most of us do, anyway; the perception is still there among ex-ballplayers and old-time baseball men that great pitchers somehow "know" how to stay healthy or are able to "pitch through the pain". The reality, of course, is that of the vast number of minor league pitchers every year with outstanding ability, the ones who, for whatever reason, are able to avoid the injury bug are the ones most likely to become great pitchers.
But how? How does a major league franchise protect its most valued resource - its young pitchers? The focus has, for years, centered around not overtaxing a pitcher, by limiting their number of starts (the 5-man rotation developed in the early 70's) and number of innings (no pitcher has thrown 300 innings in a season since Steve Carlton in 1980). But these developments - progressive as they were - focused on imperfect measures of a pitcher's abuse. All innings are not created alike, and to compare 260 innings thrown by Roger Clemens with 260 innings thrown by Christy Mathewson is an oversimplification: Mathewson faced fewer batters and threw fewer pitches in the dead-ball era, and in his own autobiography talked about not throwing with maximum effort on each pitch.
In Craig Wright's excellent book "The Diamond Appraised", he talked about using the numbers of batters faced per start (BFP) as a measure of how overworked a starter might be. In particular, he found that pitchers with more than 30 BFP early in their careers - before they turned 25 - were far more likely to crash and burn than those who were brought along more slowly. This brings up another point - young pitchers are far, far more susceptible to long-term injury - career-ending rotator cuff tears and the like - than older ones. David Cone was abused by the Mets in his late 20's, and while his durability has suffered, he has continued to pitch effectively. Bill Pulsipher was in his early 20's when the Mets slagged his arm, and he is still fighting to get back to the major leagues.
But still, given enough abuse, even a veteran pitcher can suffer major injuries from overuse. When Orel Hershiser led the NL in innings pitched 3 straight years from 1987-1989, and then blew out his arm in 1990, it was graphic evidence that being overworked had led to his injury. When Greg Maddux led the NL in innings from 1991-93, there was a widespread assumption that Maddux, like Hershiser, was a surgery case waiting to happen.
He wasn't. Maddux went on to lead the NL in innings the next two seasons, throwing 202 innings in just 25 starts in the strike-shortened 1994, and has continued to be the best pitcher in baseball. Maddux, more than anyone, has convinced the baseball community that, to put it bluntly: it's the pitches, stupid.
Maddux throws fewer pitches per batter, and per inning, than anyone of his generation. We've all marveled at his 79-pitch complete games, but what is more remarkable is that he never endures a 130-pitch start. Part of that is his incredible efficiency, and part of that is the Bobby Cox/Leo Mazzone tandem that still has not received enough credit for the amazing run of health by the Braves' rotation that has allowed them to build one of baseball's most enduring dynasties.
Partly because of that, and partly because of the exponential growth of statistics available in today's game, pitch counts are routinely reported in today's box scores. Ten years ago, even five years ago, you could watch a pitcher labor through the 7th and 8th innings of a game and have no idea the next day if he threw 110 or 150 pitches. Today, that information is readily available - and a manager can not expect to let his starter throw 140 pitches without being noticed. Nowhere was that more evident than in last year's World Series, where the whole world watched as Jim Leyland let Kevin Brown - and more significantly, rookie Livan Hernandez - rack up enormous pitch counts, sometimes in games that were already in the bag.
And yet, no one yet has systematically looked at the pitch counts of each starter and attempted to make sense of the data. What we have is anecdotal evidence - we know that Bartolo Colon threw 136 pitches in a game this year - but we don't have any way of putting that in context. How dangerous is a 130-pitch game? Is it worse to throw 140 pitches in a game or 120 pitches in 3 straight games? What pitcher has been abused the worst this year?
I don't claim to be able to have the answers; I'm not sure anyone does. But for the first time, we have the data to find out. When Dwight Gooden threw 16 complete games and threw 276 innings as a 20-year-old, it was generally known that he was probably overused. But by how much? What would have been an appropriate limit for him? We simply didn't know at the time. But now, every time Kerry Wood takes the mound, everyone keeps one eye on the radar gun and one eye on his pitch count. That, in itself, is a huge step.
That said, we still need a universal measure to compare pitchers to each other. Average pitch count per start is a useful tool, but it has a major limitation - a pitcher who throws 130 pitches one start, then gets bombed in his next start and throws 70 pitches, is indistinguishable from the pitcher that throws 100 pitches in each start. It's not the number of pitches thrown - it's the number of pitches thrown tired - when mechanics fall off, muscles are sore, and the body is unable to handle the stress of each pitch as well. And so we need a way to measure, on start-by-start basis, how much abuse a pitcher is subject to.
For this, I have created a system designed to award pitchers points - Pitcher Abuse Points, or "PAP's" for short - based on the number of pitches they throw in each start. It's not perfect, but it's a start.
Please note that this an arbitrary system, and probably not relevant for every pitcher. Steve Ontiveros can't go more than 50 pitches without having to watch his arm come off and sail halfway to the plate, while knuckleballers like Tim Wakefield could throw 140 pitches, pop a couple of Advils, and be fine. But there's no firm way to tell how susceptible a pitcher is to injury. Rail-thin pitchers like Ramon Martinez can be abused by Tommy Lasorda and survive (although that is in question as I write this), while hefty lefty Sid Fernandez had reservations each year for his spot on the DL.
So let's see what kind of information we can gleam from the PAP system. All data is through the games of May 31st.
Well, there are few surprises here; this list is mostly dominated by veteran pitchers, in particular those pitchers considered to be among the best in baseball. It's no surprise that Randy Johnson has been "abused" more than any other pitcher; he's 6'10", his team has the worst bullpen in baseball, and he has shown over the last 5 years that he can take this kind of abuse without blowing out his arm. (In addition, the Mariners probably care less about Johnson's long-term future than most teams would care about their ace.) The other names - guys like Clemens, Curt Schilling, Chuck Finley, even Al Leiter - are not surprises either; their teams rely on them to be their stopper. Pedro Martinez and Andy Pettite are both just 26, but each of them has established themselves as durable, consistent staff aces. Guys like Jamie Moyer and Tom Candiotti are nobody's idea of "stoppers", but Moyer has been the Mariners' most consistent starter, and Candiotti is a knuckleballer, and so evaluating his pitch counts is essentially useless.
But the other names on this list - Colon, Hernandez, Jesus Sanchez - that's where the meat of this study lie. These are young pitchers - pitchers with exquisitely sensitive rotator cuffs - who are being senselessly abused.
Mike Hargrove hasn't been much kinder to his young pitchers, however. Bartolo Colon has exploded on the league this year, but that's no excuse for forcing him to throw so many pitches. And Hargrove doesn't have the excuse of a poor bullpen; the Indians are so deep in reliever they can't find room for Tom Martin and Ron Villone gets into a game once a week. And while it has been more subtle, Jaret Wright has struggled with his control more than Colon has, and while he hasn't thrown as many innings as Colon, he has received almost as much abuse.
Many of the other pitchers on this list are at much less risk; Radke, Jason Schmidt and Shawn Estes are all 25 and about to leave this list, and they have all had a few years of steadily increasing work in the major leagues to get accustomed to the higher workload. Jimmy Haynes has been on a roller coaster of success and failure the last three years, so the A's may want to show more caution in his use. Jeremi Gonzalez and Tony Saunders are both sophomores who just make the list, and are probably at relatively low risk for a major injury.
One interesting name on the list is Kevin Millwood, who barely makes the list but who is notable for being a Brave, and thus generally protected by the Bobby Cox-Leo Mazzone brain trust. Millwood's place on the chart can be attributed to one start; he threw 131 pitches in one start, accounting for 64 of his 101 PAP's. I don't know if Mazzone and Cox fell asleep at the wheel that day, but none of the other Braves starters have thrown so many pitches in one game this year.
And, of course, I can't write this article without mentioning Kerry Wood. At 21, he's the youngest name on this list, and he's in the middle of the pack as far as abuse goes. He hasn't thrown more than 128 pitches in a game this year, but he has a number of outings in the 120+ range. I don't think he's in grave danger of injury - he's a big guy with good mechanics, relies on his fastball, and doesn't throw a splitter. But I do think that Jim Riggleman should take a little more care of the most prized arm of the decade.
This list is predominantly made up of young pitchers who get pulled at the first sign of trouble (Trey Moore, Brian Anderson, Jeff Suppan), veteran pitchers who typically run out of gas after 6 innings (Doug Drabek, Jimmy Key, Kent Mercker, Bob Tewksbury), and pitchers with such a morbid injury history that even Dallas Green would think twice before sending them out to start the 8th (Bret Saberhagen, Mike Grace, Bill Swift). Also note that Moore, the only pitcher on this list who has yet to throw over a 100 pitches in a game, has Felipe Alou as a manager. As a team, the Expos have the lowest PAP score in baseball - yet another indication about why Alou is such a great manager. And Gene Lamont, who replaced Leyland in Pittsburgh, has kept Jose Silva - despite Silva's pitching success - on a tight leash, only to see him get hurt. Buck Showalter also deserves some credit: Anderson and Suppan were the team's top two selections in the expansion draft, and both have significant pitching experience in the major leagues, but he has brought both of them along slowly.
I leave you with this: Greg Maddux, who is averaging about 7.5 innings a start, ranks as one of the least abused pitchers in the game. He has yet to throw more than 107 pitches in a start this year. For those of us looking for yet another reason to proclaim him the best pitcher of our time, or any time, this may be the best reason of all: he might just pitch forever.