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August 6, 2013

Baseball Therapy

Prioritizing the Pitcher's Health

by Russell A. Carleton


Over the past few weeks, I've been taking an in-depth look at a single decision made by a manager: Tim Lincecum's 148-pitch no-hitter from a few weeks ago. Bruce Bochy left Lincecum in well past the usual 100-pitch limit to give him a chance at baseball immortality. But at what cost? We've seen that if a pitcher makes his next start on regular rest, there is a small carry-over effect of throwing a lot of pitches, but it's not all that big and it might even just be a methodological quirk anyway. We've seen some evidence that taking a pitcher out of a shutout (not necessarily a no-hitter) doesn't seem to affect him for good or for ill. But what about the obvious question. Are marathon pitching sessions penny-wise and pound-foolish?

There are plenty of people who would blame the demise of Johan Santana's career on his throwing 130 pitches in pursuit of a no-hitter in 2012 (despite the fact that he did miss all of 2011, so it's not like he was structurally sound to begin with.) There are still plenty of snide remarks about Dusty Baker's handling of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood during the Cubs' stretch run in 2003. Then again, Nolan Ryan has famously said that he does not believe that teams should be so beholden to the pitch count as they have been. Others have mumbled about how this is a problem of pitchers being soft and that they should "man up and shut up."

Does the evidence support the claim that pitchers who have especially long outings are more prone to injury? In the past here at BP, Rany Jazayerli popularized the idea of Pitcher Abuse Points, "awarded" to managers who allowed their pitchers to throw gobs of pitches. In 2000, Keith Woolner pulled pitch count and injury data from 1988-1998 and looked at career levels of pitcher abuse and the likelihood of injury. He found that "abused" pitchers (those who had games in which they threw a significantly large number of pitches) were more likely to be injured over the course of their careers. Let's take another look at the data, 13 years later and see whether the basic finding, that abusive pitch counts really are hazardous to a pitcher's health, is still supported.

Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead!
I started with all games from 2003-2012, for the reasons that it's a nice 10-year stretch and we have pitch count data from all of those years. Here at Baseball Prospectus, we also have a database of all (reported) injuries since 2002, although for this study, I used only injuries that involved a pitcher being sent to the disabled list, since they were serious enough that a team realized that they needed to shelve a pitcher for at least two weeks to give him time to recover. I merged the two.

One problem with modeling injury risk is that one side effect of being injured is that you spend a good amount of time not pitching afterward. It might be two weeks or two months, but injured pitchers stop providing data (at least for a while). In research methodology terms, this is a clear bias in the data set. We need to find a way around that.

Fortunately, we can turn to the world of public health (and actuarial science) for some methodological help. One problem with modeling factors that can lead to death is that dead people don't provide much more data in the "after" phase of the research. Thankfully, there are techniques that take this very problem into account.

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Related Content:  Pitcher Abuse,  Pitchers,  Injuries,  Pitcher Usage

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