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February 8, 2006

Developing Pitchers

A Progressive Approach

by Will Carroll

Since the dawn of the free agency era when pitching became scarcer and more expensive, teams have stopped treating pitchers like a fungible, replaceable commodity. Unfortunately, their strategies for keeping their pitchers straddling that mythical line between healthy and effective have been, at best, hit or miss. In fact, there's almost no science in pitcher development. The training methods of Johnny Sain and Leo Mazzone are simple folk wisdom passed down from guru to student, with the student eventually becoming the new guru. Of course, this wisdom does stand up to many of the tests science throws at it. With newer pitching coaches, science is entering the picture with Tom House, Rick Peterson, and Glenn Fleisig leading the way. Still, we're leaving something on the table and leaving far too many pitchers headed to the table--the operating table.

The work of Craig Wright, Keith Woolner, and Dr. Rany Jazayerli on Pitcher Abuse Points, as well as some subsequent work by others, has shown us that there is certainly some value in pitch counts. However, pitch counts and PAP work in the average--what describes pitchers as a whole does not necessarily describe each and every pitcher. In fact, it is this variability that is often cited as a criticism of the system (the inability to describe outliers was notably debated in The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers by Bill James, Woolner, and Jazayerli). Apart from pitchers like Livan Hernandez who still pitch in a Mathewsonian style--where they "coast" and save their best stuff for when they need it--there are pitchers who seem to be able to take a workload higher than average over an extended period of time without discernible or predicted negative consequences. It was three years ago when I predicted that C.C. Sabathia would break down--and I'm still waiting.

Still, there is a value in understanding what pitchers can exceed the averages and become the outliers, maximizing their talent and usability. Instead of merely understanding how pitchers become injured or ineffective, is it possible to use the science of PAP and marry it to the coaching-centric current system? That's the motivation behind The Progressive Development System.

Progressive Development is a very simple concept that takes the tenets and rules of PAP and molds it to a system that would work with very little adjustment inside the current, change-resistant baseball system. Progressive development is already an accepted principle of weight training and physical therapy. In fact, the minor league promotion system is itself a progressive development system. One wonders why this approach has never been used for pitching or if in fact it has, only quietly. Parts of the system have been in place, but never in an organized and complete manner. The simplest way to explain progressive development is to put it in terms of weight training. No one bench-presses 300 pounds on their first day. They work at it, gradually adding weight to the bar and, over time, grow stronger and stronger. Some will be stronger than others and each will have an individual maximum that will fluctuate slightly.

The key question becomes: how is it that pitchers stay healthy in the absence of low pitch counts and Mathewsonian technique? The key may well be the progressive approach that was taken. Often, this approach was taken by accident and the pitcher himself is known at a young age as a workhorse, able to take on workloads that break down lesser, weaker athletes. If we accept the Sain-Mazzone tenet of "Throw more, pitch less" then we are also accepting the principles of progressive resistance. Throwing is the equivalent of strength training, one five-ounce lift at a time.

A more scientific and less random approach would be better and there are simple adjustments to the normal development curve used by major league teams that could employ this. It's important to note that the approach should work at any level, including the high school or college level and, at least in theory, this should be the beginning of any enlightened approach. In practice, high schools and colleges have turned into arm-shredding machines, forcing pitchers to take on workloads that approach the criminal with the survivor effect the most noticeable benefit of drafting collegiate pitchers. The current approach will begin with the assumption that the pitcher is being drafted into professional baseball, where the initial low-workload stages in the low minors serve as a quieting, calming period that should negate some of the short-term effects of overwork.

A pitcher is initially drafted and assigned to rookie ball and should have a hard pitch count limit based on his previous workload. These short-season leagues serve as an important adjustment period and, in fact, seem to be very effective for just this purpose. Extremely low pitch counts, as low as 60, should be in place. This serves multiple purposes. First, it is again a calming period for the pitchers who have been previously overworked. Second, the low count should serve to protect the arms of young pitchers with mechanical shortcomings. (Surprisingly, some of the more enlightened teams do no mechanical work with their draftees in the first short-season by policy. "I want to see them pitch. The work comes in the off-season," said one minor league pitching coordinator.) Finally, the low count forces the use of multiple pitchers, allowing the largest number of draftees to have a chance to develop while also putting these pitchers in various roles. Since almost all pitchers will be starters at this stage, allowing them to start games, close games, and pitch in relief will help give them a taste of what they may one day be asked to do.

At the Single-A levels, pitchers will begin the season on artificially low pitch counts, again beginning as low as 60. The more advanced pitchers will be paired in the tandem starter system, alternating as the starter and the reliever. Any relievers will also be on pitch counts, though they will likely not be reaching them due to their reduced role. So far, this is no different than the tandem system already used by several teams with excellent results.

Where the progressive system differs is in how the pitchers are allowed to develop. Simply put, pitch limits are set by three factors: results, goals, and health. Pitchers are allowed to increase their in-force pitch limit by five or ten pitches each time they complete three starts in an effective manner, come back for their next start without limitation, and complete goals for factors that the team sets (such as first strikes, ground ball ratio, or more individual goals, like mechanical changes). Even with the increases, there should be an emphasis on pitch efficiency. There is no reason that any successful pitcher cannot complete five innings--enough for the win--on 60 pitches.

Once those goals are reached in a three game "set" (three consecutive games), the pitcher is allowed five or ten more pitches per outing. This will allow a pitcher to progress throughout the season, a satisfying thing for a young pitcher looking to succeed while both protecting his arm in the short- and long-term. If a player goes from Low-A to High-A or repeats a level, the pitch count should be set to a number somewhat lower than the ending count for the previous season. By the time a player reaches 85-90 pitches, he can safely be removed from the strict tandem system. Any pitcher that cannot work to these levels can be shifted to a reliever track or washed out of the system.

At the Double-A level, pitchers often face their toughest tests. It's no different in the progressive system. Pitchers again start the level with a slightly lower limit than they ended the previous season with and are allowed an increase after a five game set of successful outings. The pitcher is proving that he can accept more workload, and that he knows the specific things he will need to do to advance. Since it is implicit in the system that a pitcher will be at 80 pitches or more at this level, efficiency can be introduced, essentially asking the pitcher to complete more innings on fewer pitches. Ideally, the pitchers at this level will be in a four-man rotation, teaching them to recover from starts quickly and, since single-game pitch counts should be relatively low, the recovery should not be a problem. Pitches should be capped at this level at 120 for pitchers under 25. Research shows that not only have pitchers passed the "injury nexus" discovered by Nate Silver, but should also have physically mature arms. For college pitchers, this limit may come off, but high school pitchers could be as young as 20 years old and must retain this cap at any level, even the Major Leagues.

Triple-A is like finishing school for pitchers. "Hitters know how to hit at Triple-A," said the pitching coordinator. "That means pitchers have to know how to get hitters out at that level." This is still the focus, but in addition, Triple-A pitchers should be allowed to extend their arms and find the level to which they can safely pitch the most. It is often said that we are "babying pitchers" in the modern era, that we never test them. Instead of testing them and hoping they can survive baseball's version of trial-by-fire, the progressive system will build them to their maximum effective use slowly, safely, and measurably. Pitcher A may only be able to go an effective 90 pitches while Pitcher B could go a safe 120. There will be the occasional pitchers who harken back to the high pitch counts of the Forties and Fifties. When those are found who can safely go to 140 or 150 pitches per outing, we'll have proof rather than guesswork. For each and every pitcher, this system will allow them to give their maximum safe contribution, something neither the trial-by-fire system nor the strict pitch count system does. These outliers will now be known quantities.

The progressive system continues to work at the Major League level, both in an additive and diminutive fashion. Few pitchers come to the Majors as a finished product and few never make improvements. Some pitchers will extend upwards from their call-up maximum and others, due to age or ineffectiveness, will lose some of their top-level pitches. The number also gets a bit softer, accepting the reality that a manager will sometimes have to go for a win or that a pitcher is "cruising." The system allows for an exception, but only once in a "set." Managers will now have to weigh one outing against not having that option in the pitcher's next four outings. Additionally, pitchers who exceed their number will have those taken off during the rest of the set. A pitcher who has a number of 120 could be asked to go to 130, but he would be only allowed 110 during the rest of the set. Bad outings, where a pitcher is pulled before his number, can bank up to 5 pitches, though this is discouraged. Basing that number on five game sets as well as the expertise of the pitching coach and medical staff will allow fine adjustments in-season and over the course of a pitcher's career.

We can look at two great pitchers of this era--Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux--as perfect specimens under the system. Clemens both extends further into games and continues to hold much of that pitch level into his forties while Maddux has had to be more efficient underneath his pitch level (and appears to be losing some of it over the past few seasons). Certainly, there is a value in 80 pitches per game of a Greg Maddux-style craftsman. Our current system (or lack thereof) gives no quantitative tools; the progressive system shows in certain and easily understood ways how pitchers can safely and effectively be used.

It should be made clear that the progressive system in no way refutes the PAP system, which is accurate in describing most pitchers. The progressive system compliments PAP in "explaining" the exceptions to the system and creating a framework that lives in harmony with the information PAP gave us. In all likelihood, these exceptions used some primitive or accidental form of the progressive system to reach those levels. The scouting description of "country strong" often holds true; there are people who are simply built to be pitchers and likely became that way through a progressive throwing program as well as other techniques.

There's an old tale about a man who used a primitive progressive system to gain strength. He put a newborn calf on his shoulders and walked around the field. Each day, the calf would get a bit bigger and the man would get a bit stronger. Eventually, he was carrying a cow and was as strong as a bull. I wouldn't recommend the old calf over the shoulders trick, but who knows. Putting a cow on the back of pitchers might help to get the injury monkey off the back of Baseball.

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