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June 13, 2000
Pitcher Abuse Points
A Midseason Report
Two years ago, when we first introduced Pitcher Abuse Points, pitch counts were still shrouded in a veil of mystery. They were available, mind you, but they were squirreled away at the bottom of box scores, and rarely ventured from their hiding place to appear in game summaries or in televised accounts of the game. Columnists never brought them to our attention. Livan Hernandez could throw 140 pitches in utter obscurity.
Today, ESPN tracks Rick Ankiel's pitch counts the way CNBC tracks the NASDAQ.
While we'd like to take a share of the credit for the increased monitoring of pitcher workloads, it was Jim Riggleman and Kerry Wood who did more to convince people that pitchers have their limits than any mountain of words could ever do.
The purpose of PAP today is less to make the argument that pitchers' workloads need to be monitored carefully; that is becoming less and less of a debate with every fallen young pitcher. What PAP is designed for is to establish the framework in which pitcher's workloads should be evaluated.
(For those unfamiliar with PAP, you can read the original article from the summer of 1998.)
The list of highest PAP scores for pitchers 30 and older:
Name Team Age PAP GS PAP/S Workload
Randy Johnson led the thirtysomething crowd when we did our first 1999 PAP update as well. Actually, despite averaging almost exactly eight innings per start so far, Johnson's PAPs per start have dropped from 38.8 to 28.7. Johnson is averaging "just" 114.8 pitches per start, down from an average of 120.2 last season. While his pitches per batter have dropped slightly, from 3.90 to 3.82, the real reason he's throwing fewer pitches is that so few batters reach base against him that he faces barely 30 batters per start.
While Johnson's recent sore arm is a sign that even the Big Unit has limits, anyone predicting his imminent demise should remember this: the single best predictor of a pitcher's future potential is his strikeout rate, and Johnson still has the best strikeout rate of any starter in the National League.
Pedro Astacio, still fresh from his flogging at the hands of Jim Leyland, is being worked just as hard by Buddy Bell. Astacio seems to be handling it fairly well; that he never threw more than 200 innings in a season until he was 26 years old might be helping.
The rest of this list is your standard assortment of aces and workhorses. Chuck Finley, Al Leiter, Mike Mussina, Roger Clemens and Orlando Hernandez are no strangers to high workloads. Not that their high pitch counts are completely benign; after all, notably missing from this list is Curt Schilling, who serves as proof that reaching your 30th birthday does not make you immune to the absurd expectations of a thoughtless manager (or, in Schilling's case, a manager who doesn't have the courage to take his ace pitcher out of the game). Kevin Tapani really has no business being on this list after the cavalcade of injuries he went through last season, but this is hardly the number one reason why Don Baylor has no business running a major-league baseball team.
A mild upset on this list is Kent Bottenfield, who has gone from journeyman to #1 starter inside a year. Unfortunately, he earned the expectations that come with the job and a place on the DL with them. Robert Person is easily the biggest surprise in the top ten, simply because no one expected him to pitch well enough to stay in games this long. And Terry Francona, bless him, doesn't know when to say when: instead of thanking his good fortune and easing Person into his new role as the team's stopper, he's gotten greedy.
The hardest-working pitchers in their middle age (26 to 29):
Name Team Age PAP GS PAP/S Workload
Sterling Hitchcock's presence on this list seems tragically prophetic, now that he appears doomed to undergo Tommy John surgery. Hitchcock carried the heaviest burden on the Padres last year, averaging 12.1 PAPs per start and posting a Workload of 20.1 (remember, workload is the generic term while Workload refers to Age-Adjusted PAPs per start). While Hitchcock's 2000 workload appears reasonable on the surface, he did throw 137 pitches in one start, the fourth-highest pitch count of any pitcher this season. When you add in the fact that Hitchcock was known to be nursing a "minor" injury since spring training, is it really that surprising that his elbow popped?
Mostly, this list is made up of good young starters on teams that don't have an older ace to rely on. Rick Helling has been the Rangers' nominal ace for three years, and with Aaron Sele no longer around to share the load, Johnny Oates is working Helling harder than ever. Oates must think he has a replacement for Sele, from the way he is working Esteban Loaiza. Mike Hampton may have Leiter and Rick Reed to cover for him, but you don't trade for the league's Cy Young runner-up and worry about protecting his arm, especially when he's a free agent after the season. Hampton's epic control problems during the season's first month certainly didn't help.
Jason Schmidt has been one of the hardest working pitchers in his age group since we started charting PAP in 1998, and the Pirates are still waiting for him to materialize into the top starting pitcher everyone expected him to be. Coincidence? I think not. Russ Ortiz had the second-highest Workload in baseball last year and currently sports a 6.88 ERA. Dusty Baker thinks the solution is for him to watch Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens and learn how to throw complete games. Shawn Estes, who actually leads the Giants with three complete games, had baseball's seventh-highest Workload in 1997, then struggled for two years before finally recovering this year (with a strikeout rate 33% less than it was three years ago). We think the solution is to get rid of Dusty Baker. More on that later.
Pedro Martinez ranks fifth with an average of 18 PAPs per start, down more than a third from his average of 27.3 last year. He's still throwing lots and lots of innings--7.75 per start, up more than half an inning a start from last season. Even more so than Johnson, Martinez's secret really isn't a secret at all: he's so utterly unhittable that he has faced only 321 batters in 85.1 innings, an average of 3.76 batters per inning. Or to put it another way, Martinez has given up just 0.76 net baserunners (baserunners minus double plays and baserunner kills) per inning. Hey, if you can whittle your workload down by retiring 80% of opposing hitters, that's great. Mere mortals have to come up with some other way.
Jimmy Haynes? Well, someone has to sponge up innings in Milwaukee, and it might as well be the guy who puts up more walks than strikeouts. Hey, at least Davey Lopes isn't overworking Jeff D'Amico. Brad Radke is actually being used with some restraint, considering he's been the Twins' ace for several years and that he might not be their ace much longer. Maybe this is a sign that the Twins intend to keep him after all.
The chef highly recommends any of the following well-cooked entrées, the 25-and-under pitchers with the highest PAP scores:
Name Team Age PAP GS PAP/S Workload
Like the villain in an out-of-control horror series, Livan Hernandez just...won't...die. His managers have flogged him, tortured him, made him pitch the ninth inning in 12-1 laughers, left him in to work out of a jam after he's walked the bases loaded in the seventh inning. And he keeps coming back for more.
On the surface, Hernandez's ability to still pitch with some degree of effectiveness is worthy of commemorating; he is, after all, the two-time defending champion of the Most Abused Pitcher award, and well on his way to winning again.
But if anything, his ability to survive only makes his abuse more tragic, as it suggests that he might have become a truly special pitcher had he been handled with anything approaching common sense. As a 22-year-old rookie for the Marlins in 1997, Hernandez allowed just 81 hits in 96 innings (7.57 H/G) during the regular season and went on to win World Series MVP honors. Since then:
1998: 234 IP, 265 H (10.18 H/G)
Hernandez has managed to improve his control from 3.99 walks per 9 innings in 1998 to 2.31 this season, which is why he has managed a very respectable 3.99 ERA in 2000. But his stamina has already begun to suffer. Take a look at these splits so far this year:
Pitches 1-60: .243/.283/.365 Pitches 61-105: .322/.380/.492 Pitches 106+: .524/.535/.667
Rather dramatic, no? Not only is Dusty Baker jeopardizing the right-hander's future by forcing him to work to deep into ballgames, he's actually hurting the Giants' chances of winning in the process. Maybe Hernandez will manage to remain "healthy," but keep in mind that the last pitcher to rank in the top three in Workload for three straight years, Bobby Witt (1988-90), had rotator cuff surgery in 1991 and hasn't been the same since.
Several other pitchers have been worked as hard as Hernandez at a young age and warded off injury for years. But almost without exception, all of those pitchers, from Bob Feller to Fernando Valenzuela to Dwight Gooden, never had a season in their thirties that came close to the success they had in their twenties.
With Jim Leyland's retirement and the coup in Toronto that cost Tim Johnson his job, Baker has only Terry Francona to challenge him for the title of Most Abusive Manager. Randy Wolf could become the Phillies' best left-handed starter since Steve Carlton, but Francona seems determined to prevent that.
Thomas Boswell wrote earlier this season that much of Mike Mussina's early struggles may have stemmed from the fact that Mike Hargrove, unlike his predecessors in Baltimore, had forced Mussina to rack up outings of 100 or more pitches right from Opening Day, instead of easing him into longer outings as the season progressed. (Thanks to reader William Wang for bringing the article to my attention.)
The failure of the Indians to develop a dominant starter during Hargrove's time there can be traced to Hargrove's overwork of Charles Nagy early and Bartolo Colon and Jaret Wright later. And now, Hargrove is working Sidney Ponson even harder than Ray Miller did last year, when Ponson averaged 10.8 PAPs per start and a Workload of 28.8. Sort of a mini-Livan, Ponson has managed to take the mound every five days and pitch reasonably well (4.71 ERA in 1999, 4.70 ERA so far this year), but after starting last season 7-4 with a 3.69 ERA, Ponson's upside looked a lot higher than it does right now.
Jim Fregosi might take better care of his starters than Tim Johnson did, but the difference is small. The Blue Jays have been hurt as much as any team in baseball by their recklessness with their rotation. Kelvim Escobar had the second-highest Workload in baseball in 1998, and after a brilliant first two seasons in the majors, saw his ERA balloon to 5.69 last season. Two years ago, Escobar and Chris Carpenter were considered two of the finest young arms in baseball, but neither one has developed as well as the Blue Jays would have liked, and the organization only has themselves to blame.
A case for better bullpens: Jose Rosado had the fifth-highest Workload in baseball last season as Tony Muser sought any excuse to keep his relievers out of the game. Now, he's probably done for the season, and Muser has turned his attentions to an unsuspecting Jeff Suppan. The Pirates could probably be a little more gentle with Kris Benson, but his workload should not be considered nearly as worrisome as that of teammate Jason Schmidt: Benson is 25 and almost into the next grouping, he never threw more than 160 innings in a season until last season and, unlike Schmidt, he is pitching well enough to earn the mantle of team ace.
Ryan Dempster and Matt Clement have both pitched too well for their teams to keep their workload in a safer range. I worry more about Dempster, who is younger and being worked hard for the second straight year (10.3 PAPs per start last season). Octavio Dotel is certainly not the Astros' ace; his workload is a reflection of the bullpen woes that have created an extremely trying year in Houston.
Conspicuous by his absence from this list is Rick Ankiel, which is a good thing. Here, we'll list Ankiel's numbers so far this year, along with Kerry Wood's numbers from his rookie season:
Name Season Age Pit/GS PAP GS PAP/S Workload
(Ankiel is listed as a year younger than Wood in the chart above, but in fact Wood turned 21 that June and Ankiel turns 21 in July. They're essentially the same age.)
Rick Ankiel's Workload ranks 17th among all pitchers so far this year; Wood had the fourth-highest Workload in 1998. Ankiel has thrown more than 100 pitches just four times in his 11 starts; Wood threw fewer than 100 pitches just four times in his rookie season. Clearly, Ankiel is being handled much more sensibly than Wood was. Of course, Ankiel hasn't fanned 20 men in a game yet.
The fact that Ankiel is averaging more than 100 pitches per start is clear evidence that Scott Boras has a point: Tony La Russa could be a lot more protective of Ankiel's arm than he has been. Boras's reputation has preceded him in this argument, to the point where 60% of fans in an ESPN.com poll thought he was out of line in "advising" the Cardinals to watch how they use Ankiel. But Boras is doing exactly what any competent agent should do: he is looking out for the interests of his client. And in this particular case, it works out that what's good for Rick Ankiel is good for the fans. If Scott Boras had been Kerry Wood's agent in 1998, fans might have had a reason to watch WGN in 1999. Well, other than the Andy Griffith Show reruns.
The Good News
After all the nasty words we used above, we thought we owed you a look at the kinder, gentler side of baseball. Presenting the 12 least-abused pitchers in the game(minimum: eight starts):
Name Team Age PAP GS Pit/GS
We could have just listed the top ten, but that would have deprived us of the opportunity to make a very compelling point. Four of the 12 pitchers on this list hurl for the Red Sox, and we've already accounted for the guy not on this list. What this means is that the Red Sox really are using Pedro Martinez to take the load off the rest of the pitching staff, virtually guaranteeing an off day for everyone else except Derek Lowe. This allows Jimy Williams and Joe Kerrigan to protect the entire remainder of the rotation, which consists of two injury cases (Ramon Martinez and Pete Schourek), an enormous reclamation project (Jeff Fassero) and a young pitcher (Brian Rose). While Rose and Martinez are struggling, Schourek (3.63 ERA) is having his best season since his One Good Year of 1995 and Fassero (3.93 ERA) is trying to become the first pitcher in history to record an ERA under 4.00 the year after posting an ERA above 7.00 in at least 100 innings.
The usual cadre of fragile arms is on this list; Buck Showalter is doing his best to protect Todd Stottlemyre's rotator cuff. Teams have been trying to baby Dwight Gooden's arm for years, but the damage is past the point of repair. There are the young (Brian Meadows), the ineffective (Hideki Irabu, Scott Karl, Sean Bergman) and the, uh, both (Chad Durbin).
The biggest surprise on this list has to be John Halama. Halama has done the near impossible: he has found a way to be neither a favorite of Lou Piniella--who shows his love by letting you throw 120 pitches--nor be in his doghouse, a la Ken Cloude. Halama gets the ball every fifth day and he gets pulled when he gets into a jam, a philosophy recently unseen in the Pacific Northwest.
The Danger Dozen
As always, we finish with the list of the 12 hardest-worked pitchers, adjusted for age, in baseball. Remember that the age-adjustment formula is simply PAP * (38-age)/6, with a minimum of 1. In other words, all pitchers age 32 and over don't see their PAP changed at all, a 26-year-old pitcher would have his PAP doubled and a 20-year-old would have his PAP tripled. Workload is simply PAP, adjusted for age, per start. The list:
Name Team Age PAP AAPAP GS Workload
Forget Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson. When quantity, not quality, is what you're looking for, there is no more dominant pitcher in baseball than Livan Hernandez.
Rany Jazayerli, M.D., can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus.