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May 15, 2008

Lies, Damned Lies

The Lost Generation?

by Nate Silver

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When we see the level of offense go up or down in baseball-and it has been down dramatically this season-we tend to attribute it to everything other than the players themselves. In any given downturn, it's the bats, or the baseballs, or the ballparks, or the drugs that the players are injecting themselves with. Or all of those things. But what if it isn't all about context? What if, when offense is up, it literally does mean that there aren't very many good pitchers?

Consider the case of the old six-team National Hockey League. In a six-team league, there are only six regular goalies, and the quality of those goalies is going to have a rather dramatic effect on the number of goals that are scored across the league. If two of the six are Jacques Plante and Terry Sawchuck, the level of offense is going to be significantly impacted. But if Sawchuck had tripped on his skates and broken his back on a pond in Manitoba before ever reaching the NHL, things might have looked very different.

The situation is not nearly so dramatic in baseball, where you have about 350 active pitchers at any given time. Even so, one pitcher can affect the league-wide numbers more than you might think. In his best season in 2000, Pedro Martinez allowed 130 fewer runs than a replacement-level pitcher. If you added those 130 runs back into the league's offensive totals, American League scoring would have gone up from 5.30 runs per game to 5.35 runs per game. Granted, that's an enormous difference, but you have to think about it; if you took the equivalent of three or four Pedros out of the league, the effect would start to be fairly noticeable. If there were some systemic reason that a lot of potential Pedros weren't living up to their promise, that might then begin to change offensive levels a lot.

For a while now, I've had a pet theory that we lost a generation of pitchers. These would be the guys who were drafted and developed in the late '80s through the mid '90s, and whose primes would have coincided with the high-offense era of about 1994 through 2004. To get a little bit more specific, the theory is that these pitchers were caught in between two things. On the one hand, pitching was for whatever reason becoming more stressful. Perhaps pitchers had started to make more use of pitches like the split-fingered fastball, and those pitches were placing more strain on their arms. Perhaps the increasing amount of bullpen specialization was encouraging an ethos wherein pitchers were expected to go all-out on every pitch, rather than the Livan Hernandez/Christy Mathewson "pitching in a pinch" approach. Perhaps amateur baseball was becoming more competitive, meaning that the pitchers had accumulated more mileage on their arms before they ever turned pro. Perhaps the smaller ballparks were making those 160-pound shortstops more dangerous. Perhaps the hitters were starting to juice up.

We don't need to pinpoint the exact reason, but the theory goes that these pitchers were born too early for their managers and pitching coaches to make an adjustment in terms of pitch counts. Maybe you really could get away with having your ace throw 140 pitches per start in the 1970s, but pitching in the 1990s was different than pitching in the 1970s, and perhaps 120 pitches today was the equivalent of 140 pitches back then in terms of the stress it placed on a pitcher's arm. If you had a gap between pitching becoming more stressful and pitcher usage patterns being adjusted to accommodate that new reality, you might have lost a couple of Pedros from your league due to injury.

The problem is that I haven't figured out an especially good way to test this theory. I don't know how you distinguish an intrinsic change in the quality of pitching talent from an intrinsic change in the quality of hitting talent from an intrinsic change in the offensive context. But let's try something, and see where it leads. What I've done is to look at the pitchers selected with the top 50 picks in the June amateur draft in each season from 1980 through 2003. Then I've simply added up their WARP scores over their first ten professional seasons, beginning with the year in which they were drafted. So, for Dwight Gooden, drafted in 1982, this period would cover 1982 through 1991. The idea is that this is the group from which you'd expect to find most of your Pedros. If pitchers who were selected high in the draft weren't succeeding, it could have simply meant that the scouts weren't doing a very good job. But it could also have meant that something like overuse was systemically impeding their success, and you were taking a lot of pitching talent out of the league as a result.

Let's quickly review each of these drafts:

1980
Pitchers Selected in Top 50: 22
Reached Majors: 14
First Pitcher Selected: Ken Dayley (#3)
Blue Chippers: Dennis Rasmussen (#17), Tim Burke (#49)
Bust: Mike King (#4)
Total WARP through Year 10: 170.8
Notes: This was a humdrum draft in which almost everyone had some kind of a career, mostly out of the bullpen, but it did not really produce any stars.

1981
Pitchers Selected in Top 50: 22
Reached Majors: 17
First Pitcher Selected: Mike Moore (#1)
Blue Chippers: Mark Gubicza (#34), Mark Langston (#35), Frank Viola (#37)
Bust: Matt Williams (#5)
Total WARP through Year 10: 276.2
Notes: A fairly pedestrian first round was buttressed by a strong run of picks into the middle of the second. Gubicza, Langston, Viola, and Neal Heaton-each of them selected from the college ranks-were all chosen over a run of six selections from #34 through #39.

1982
Pitchers Selected in Top 50: 21
Reached Majors: 15
First Pitcher Selected: Jimmy Jones (#3)
Blue Chippers: Dwight Gooden (#5), Duane Ward (#9), Todd Worrell (#21), David Wells (#30) Busts: Jones, Bryan Oelkers (#4)
Total WARP through Year 10: 191.2
Notes: A top-heavy group that would rate fairly marginally if not for Dwight Gooden. Note however that David Wells does not contribute very heavily toward the WARP total, as it took him an especially long time to establish himself.

1983
Pitchers Selected in Top 50: 22
Reached Majors: 10
First Pitcher Selected: Tim Belcher (#1)
Blue Chippers: Belcher, Roger Clemens (#5)
Busts: Stan Hilton (#5), Jackie Davidson (#6)
Total WARP through Year 10: 212.4
Notes: Clemens accounts for approximately 40 percent of this draft's collective WARP. Maybe it's just me, but Stan Hilton and Jackie Davidson sound like a pair of anchors on the local news.

1984
Pitchers Selected in Top 50: 28
Reached Majors: 17
First Pitcher Selected: Bill Swift (#2)
Blue Chippers: Terry Mulholland (#24), Norm Charlton (#28), Greg Maddux (#31), Tom Glavine (#47), Al Leiter (#50)
Bust: Drew Hall (#3), Pat Pacillo (#5)
Total WARP through Year 10: 218.0
Notes: This was a pitching-heavy draft, although the party did not really get started until late, with Maddux, Glavine, and Leiter all going in the second round.

1985
Pitchers Selected in Top 50: 22
Reached Majors: 11
First Pitcher Selected: Bobby Witt (#1)
Blue Chippers: Witt, Randy Johnson (#36)
Busts: Mike Campbell (#7), Mike Poehl (#9)
Total WARP through Year 10: 159.1
Notes: This draft is fondly remembered for its college talent; Barry Bonds, Will Clark, and Barry Larkin all went in the top ten picks, as well as some lesser lights like Walt Weiss and Pete Incaviglia. What's forgotten about it is that the pitching had somewhat the short end of the stick, and gets a passing grade only because the Expos gambled on Randy Johnson with the 36th overall pick. I'm not sure whether to call Bobby Witt a blue chipper or a bust; he had almost 300 major league decisions but a lifetime ERA+ of 91.

1986
Pitchers Selected in Top 50: 21
Reached Majors: 17
First Pitcher Selected: Greg Swindell (#2)
Blue Chippers: Swindell, Kevin Brown (#4), Roberto Hernandez (#16), Kevin Tapani (#40) Busts: Brad Brink (#7)
Total WARP through Year 10: 235.4
Notes: A good, deep draft class with some star talent-Swindell and Roberto Hernandez accomplished more in their major league careers than you might remember off-handedly-as well as some sleeper picks like Tapani later on.

1987
Pitchers Selected in Top 50: 28
Reached Majors: 21
First Pitcher Selected: Willie Banks (#3)
Blue Chippers: Jack McDowell (#5), Kevin Appier (#9)
Busts: Banks, Mike Harkey (#4)
Total WARP through Year 10: 229.0
Notes: In a year where offense was way up across the league, there were lots and lots of pitchers taken; after outfielders Ken Griffey and Mark Merchant went first and second overall (hmm, who got the better of that one?), the next eight selections were all moundsmen. Even so, the pitchers mostly belonged to a scrappy varietal along the lines of Pete Harnisch and Jack Armstrong.

1988
Pitchers Selected in Top 50: 27
Reached Majors: 15
First Pitcher Selected: Andy Benes (#1)
Blue Chippers: Benes, Steve Avery (#2), Gregg Olson (#3), Jim Abbott (#8), Charles Nagy (#17)
Bust: Bill Bene (#5)
Total WARP through Year 10: 273.0
Notes: This group rates strongly not just because the overall amount of talent was fairly high, but because pitchers like Olson and Abbott required very little lead time to begin accumulating value in the majors. No pitcher from this class is going to make the Hall of Fame, but it contributed a lot of wins to the league.

1989
Pitchers Selected in Top 50: 16
Reached Majors: 11
First Pitcher Selected: Ben McDonald (#1)
Blue Chippers: McDonald
Busts: Roger Salkeld (#3), Kyle Abbott (#9), Jeff Juden (#12)
Total WARP through Year 10: 117.2
Notes: Here is where we start to encounter the names of some of the more infamous busts from early '90s prospect lists, guys like Salkeld and Abbott, as well as a couple of guys like McDonald and Cal Eldred (#17) who suffered from overuse.

1990
Pitchers Selected in Top 50: 25
Reached Majors: 19
First Pitcher Selected: Alex Fernandez (#4)
Blue Chippers: Fernandez, Mike Mussina (#20), Bob Wickman (#44)
Busts: Kurt Miller (#5), Tod Van Poppel (#14)
Total WARP through Year 10: 220.8
Notes: Speaking of busts, this was the infamous Todd Van Poppel/"Four Aces" draft, but the overall talent grab was not so bad thanks to guys like Mussina and Wickman, and other pitchers who chipped in a good year here and there, like Donavon Osborne (#13).

1991
Pitchers Selected in Top 50: 21
Reached Majors: 12
First Pitcher Selected: Brien Taylor (#1)
Blue Chipper: Aaron Sele (#23)
Busts: Taylor, Kenny Henderson (#5), John Burke (#6)
Total WARP through Year 10: 138.7
Notes: There are lots of frustrating stories among this group of pitchers, not just Brien Taylor, but also guys like Scott Ruffcorn (#25) and Justin Thompson (#32) who looked like they might turn into something, and then never really did.

1992
Pitchers Selected in Top 50: 22
Reached Majors: 15
First Pitcher Selected: Paul Shuey (#2)
Blue Chipper: Jon Lieber (#44)
Busts: B.J. Wallace (#3), Pete Janicki (#8)
Total WARP through Year 10: 103.1
Notes: This draft class was even worse than 1991's, making it three bust classes out of four. You have to go down to Lieber at #44 before you find a pitcher who won 100 games in the majors, although Shuey and Rick Helling (#22) had their moments.

1993
Pitchers Selected in Top 50: 27
Reached Majors: 22
First Pitcher Selected: Darren Dreifort (#2)
Blue Chippers: Billy Wagner (#12), Chris Carpenter (#15), Jeff Suppan (#49)
Busts: Jeff Grander (#5), Kirk Presley (#8)
Total WARP through Year 10: 200.1
Notes: Five of the top six picks were pitchers. While 22 pitchers reached the majors from this class, and there's only one potential Hall of Famer in Billy Wagner. There were also a lot of injury-plagued underachievers like Dreifort and Jeff D'Amico (#23).

1994
Pitchers Selected in Top 50: 23
Reached Majors: 12
First Pitcher Selected: Paul Wilson (#1)
Blue Chipper: Nobody, really. Dustin Hermanson (#3) probably had the best overall major league career.
Busts: Wilson, Doug Million (#7)
Total WARP through Year 10: 75.6
Notes: This was just an awful draft class, as the two pitchers who probably had the most raw talent (Wilson and Jaret Wright) were worked very heavily and flamed out before reaching their primes. As it happened, this draft contained a lot of position-player flops too, like Antone Williamson and Josh Booty.

1995
Pitchers Selected in Top 50: 23
Reached Majors: 13
First Pitcher Selected: Kerry Wood (#4)
Blue Chippers: Matt Morris (#12), Roy Halladay (#17)
Busts: Ariel Prieto (#5), Jonathan Johnson (#7)
Total WARP through Year 10: 161.1
Notes: Yes, Matt Morris was a blue chipper; don't judge him by the pitcher he is today. Still, there was very little depth here after Morris, Wood-another victim of overuse-and Halladay.

1996
Pitchers Selected in Top 50: 27
Reached Majors: 20
First Pitcher Selected: Kris Benson (#1)
Blue Chippers: Jake Westbrook (#21), Gil Meche (#22)
Busts: Seth Greisinger (#6), Matt White (#7)
Total WARP through Year 10: 191.5
Notes: This was another draft that was invested very heavily in pitching; pitchers represented six of the top seven overall picks. What we got out of it was a lot of league-average talent, guys like Benson, Braden Looper (#3), Eric Milton, Gil Meche, and Jason Marquis (35), but nobody who consistently pitched at an All-Star Level.

1997
Pitchers Selected in Top 50: 24
Reached Majors: 14
First Pitcher Selected: Matt Anderson (#1)
Blue Chipper: Jon Garland (#10)
Busts: Anderson, Jason Grilli (#4), Geoff Goetz (#6)
Total WARP through Year 10: 66.3
Notes: What a mess. Anderson was a reach with the #1 pick to begin with, but nevertheless underachieved any reasonable expectation. Garland is the only pitcher selected in the top 50 to have won more than 31 games in the majors.

1998
Pitchers Selected in Top 50: 24
Reached Majors: 15
First Pitcher Selected: Mark Mulder (#2)
Blue Chippers: Mulder, Jeff Weaver (#14), Brad Lidge (#17), C.C. Sabathia (#20)
Busts: Jeff Austin (#4), Ryan Mills (#6)
Total WARP through Year 10: 211.3
Notes: We're finally getting back on the right track, as this was the highest-rated draft since 1990. There were still a couple of busts in the top ten, but snagging someone like Sabathia can make up for a lot of dead weight.

Brief Interruption. From this point onward, we do not have ten full seasons to evaluate for each draft class, so what I've done is to evaluate these pitchers' performances through 2007, and extrapolated outward a trend based on the 1980-1998 data to fill in the remaining years.

1999
Pitchers Selected in Top 50: 36
Reached Majors: 15
First Pitcher Selected: Josh Beckett (#2)
Blue Chippers: Beckett, Barry Zito (#9), Ben Sheets (#10), Brett Myers (#12)
Busts: Josh Girdley (#6), Bobby Bradley (#8)
Total WARP through Year 9: 206.6
Projected WARP through Year 10: 235.7
Notes: By no means the most efficient draft, as 36 of the top 50 picks were used on pitching talent (although Beckett was the only pitcher selected in the top five). Where it paid off, it paid off big, as the four blue chippers are All-Star level talents.

2000
Pitchers Selected in Top 50: 26
Reached Majors: 14
First Pitcher Selected: Adam Johnson (#2)
Blue Chipper: Adam Wainwright (#29)
Busts: Johnson, Mike Stodolka (#4), Justin Wayne (#5)
Total WARP through Year 8: 34.6
Projected WARP through Year 10: 46.8
Notes: Just as we were starting to build momentum, we encounter one of the worst pitching classes of the generation. Adam Wainwright and Dustin McGowan (#33) are trying to give this draft some dignity, but seven of the top ten picks were pitchers, and those pitchers have combined total of six major league wins.

2001
Pitchers Selected in Top 50: 28
Reached Majors: 14
First Pitcher Selected: Mark Prior (#2)
Blue Chipper: Jeremy Bonderman (#26)
Busts: Dewon Brazelton (#3), Josh Karp (#6), John Van Benschoten (#8), Colt Griffin (#9)
Total WARP through Year 7: 89.7
Projected WARP through Year 10: 153.9
Notes: To some extent, the jury is still out on this one, as guys like Gavin Floyd (#4) might sneak into a career for themselves. Still, there are an awful lot of guys here who either didn't live up to the hype or, like Mark Prior, burned out early.

2002
Pitchers Selected in Top 50: 25
Reached Majors: 14 (so far)
First Pitcher Selected: Bryan Bullington (#1)
Blue Chippers: Zack Greinke (#6), Jeff Francis (#9), Scott Kazmir (#15), Cole Hamels (#17), Matt Cain (#25)
Busts: Bullington, Chris Gruler (#3), Clint Everts (#5)
Total WARP through Year 6: 112.6
Projected WARP through Year 10: 265.1
Notes: It was very much a feast-or-famine affair, but in terms of upside, this is one of the best drafts for pitching talent that we've seen in a long while. I made sure to list Greinke as a blue chipper just in case Rany is reading this.

2003
Pitchers Selected in Top 50: 22
Reached Majors: 11 (so far)
First Pitcher Selected: Kyle Sleeth (#3)
Blue Chippers: Chad Cordero (#20), Chad Billingsley (#24)
Busts: Sleeth, Tim Stauffer (#4)
Total WARP through Year 5: 54.6
Projected WARP through Year 10: 190.7
Notes: We're really way too close to this one to make a credible evaluation, especially with guys like John Danks (#9). But overall, it's off to a fairly good start thanks to guys like Cordero and Billingsley.

OK, so we've done that. Now, let's line up those WARP scores for the 24 draft classes we evaluated, and see whether we can detect any kind of pattern:

chart1

Is there a pattern here? I've tried to create the appearance of one through some graphic design trickery, but in truth the evidence is inconclusive. If I run a significance test on the hypothesis that the WARP scores were lower over the 1989-1997 period, it indeed comes up as statistically significant, but then again, there's a little bit of a multiple endpoints problem in terms of how I've selected those seasons. The good, scientific way to put it is that I don't think we can reject the Lost Generation Hypothesis, the idea being that there was a period of about a decade where young pitchers were being systemically overused, and that the attrition this created was a significant contributor to the offensive boom. I'd like to hear from you readers in terms of other ways that we might try and test the hypothesis.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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