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June 29, 2011

The BP Broadside

Pineda to Infinity and Beyond

by Steven Goldman

In the early days of BP, the group had a catch-phrase for young pitchers coined by Gary Huckabay: TINSTAAPP: There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect. I’m not sure if Gary picked it up from Robert Heinlein or Milton Friedman, both of whom got some mileage out of “There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch” back in the last century, but regardless of the inspiration, Gary’s point was that young pitchers are so susceptible to both injury and random fluctuations in performance that you could never take their prospect status at face value.

In the days since, teams have done everything they can to prove Gary wrong, often by treating their young pitchers with kid gloves. Gone are the days when a Dwight Gooden would be allowed to throw nearly 500 innings in the majors before his 21st birthday. Now many young pitchers are subject to arbitrary pitch counts and innings limits in order to forestall the point of injury—as if anyone knows specifically where or when that point lies.

While we can credit some common sense decisions about pitch counts—today a manager doing what Dallas Green did to a 23-year-old Al Leiter in 1989 would be tarred and feathered—with reducing injuries to young pitchers, it is foolish to say that we can know with any specificity that it’s the 751st pitch of the season that is going to break a kid and not the 603rd or the 811th and how much that particular pitch matters versus the pitcher’s mechanics, the weather he’s pitching in, the stress of any particular inning in that chain of 800 pitches, or if a butterfly is flapping its wings in Patagonia. There is really only one surefire way to protect a pitcher from injury and that is to seal him in Mylar, stick him in the basement with your comic book collection, and never let him anywhere near the mound.

In pretending that they have a handle on these interactions, teams may be acting in accordance with the so-called “Verducci Effect,” a wholly spurious invention of the sportswriter Tom Verducci, who posited that pitchers under the age of 25 who sustain an increase of 30 innings year over year tend to underperform. I say spurious because folks looking for the asserted correlation (here, here, here, here, and here, among others)  have yet to find it.

All credit to the Mariners, then, for throwing the conventional wisdom out the window when it comes to young star Michael Pineda, who has thus far pitched 102 innings over 16 starts. Unlike, say, the Yankees, who panicked in their handling of two pitchers (more about whom in a moment) and finished with less than what they began with, the M’s won’t act as if they know more than they do:

The Mariners have mapped out a couple scenarios for the remaining three months of the season with their entire five-man rotation, which is the only starting group that has not missed a game yet this year. [Manager Eric] Wedge… indicated the team would primarily just keep the five starters in the same rotation and monitor innings and tough situations as they arise.

“If it gets to point where it’s a little tight at the end, that’ll be a good thing and will be for good reasons. But we’ve been trying to manage his game-to-game pitch count and inning-to-inning pitch count.”

At the risk of translating incorrectly from a great distance, Wedge seems to be saying that he is not going to drop Pineda into the bullpen, randomly send him down, or skip his starts for a week at a time. He is just going to make an effort not to be stupid.

Note his emphasis on pitch counts rather than innings. One area in which a correlation to injury has been convincingly theorized is not in total innings or even total pitch counts, but in per-inning pitch counts, which is to say that if both Pitcher A and Pitcher B throw 135 pitches in a game, but Pitcher A throws 50 pitches in the third and Pitcher B just has a nice steady 15 per frame, Pitcher A is much more likely to have done himself damage.

Pineda is not running up complete games, he’s not on a pace for 200 innings—210 seems about right—and his pitch counts, at least on a game-to-game basis, have been very conservative. His high for the season is 106 and he has crossed the 100-pitch threshold just four times.

Contrast the Mariners’ handling of Pineda with the Yankees’ approach to Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes. Here is what I wrote about Chamberlain in BP 2009:

Chamberlain was sent to the bullpen out of spring training with an amorphous promise that he would transition to the rotation; the idea was to prevent injury by minimizing his workload. The highly anticipated move came on June 3, and Chamberlain pitched quite well as a starter, but he got hurt anyway, missing most of August with rotator cuff tendonitis… Chamberlain was probably no safer in the pen than he was in the rotation, and his injury may have actually been caused by an awkward spill he took trying to get out of the way of a Pudge throw to second that came at him head-high earlier in the same inning that he was hurt. Nonetheless, upon his return he was back among the relievers.

And then in BP 2010:

What a mess. It's possible that no pitcher in the history of baseball has suffered through as many team-inflicted head games as Chamberlain. Though not pitching up to expectations, he was nonetheless the club's most successful starter in the early going, posting a 3.89 ERA in 15 starts that were often shortened due to a combination of strikeouts and nibbling eating up the pitcher's strict pitch counts. A couple of rough starts heading into the All-Star break raised anxiety levels, but Chamberlain came roaring out of the hiatus, allowing just two runs in three starts comprising 21 2/3 innings. At that point, the Yankees initiated the Joba Rules 2.0 in order to hold the young pitcher to no more than 160 innings on the season, skipping starts and then shortening them, which had the effect of turning Joba's starts into bad relief appearances. From the New Rules' imposition on, his ERA was 7.52, as he was so clearly rattled by the constant threat of being pulled about two minutes into the game and then not pitching again for a week that he was unable to concentrate. If the Joba Rules are in conflict with the goal of developing Chamberlain into a consistently successful major-league pitcher, then it isn’t clear what the Yankees are accomplishing. The Rules were supposed to be out the window for 2010, but the acquisition of Javier Vazquez likely pushes Chamberlain back to the pen—perhaps the best role for Joba after all, and a tacit admission that in their eagerness to spare him injury, the Yankees killed a potentially great starter with kindness.

Last season, the Yankees tried to apply some of the same magic to Hughes, creating an arbitrary 175-inning limit, and when Hughes went over 100 innings roughly halfway through the season, they forced him to skip starts to stay under the cap. Despite these maneuvers, both pitchers got hurt. Chamberlain is gone for the year and more, having required Tommy John surgery, while Hughes is trying to work his way back from “right shoulder inflammation,” a problem which has seriously impacted his ability to achieve and maintain velocity.

The Yankees did triple-somersaults trying to avoid their encounter with TINSTAAPP, but we don’t even know if they succeeded in delaying it. As I wrote in that same ’09 comment on Joba, “There are many causes of pitcher injuries; some can be mitigated, though not all, and until medical technology reaches a point when coaches can get live-action film from inside a pitcher's shoulder as he's working, it's very difficult to know which of the dozens of injury-causing variables is in play, or even if supposedly helpful things aren't actually harmful.” Kudos to Wedge, pitching coach Carl Willis, and the rest of the M’s braintrust for having the bravery to treat Pineda intelligently, rather than as a porcelain doll that they don’t quite understand how to preserve.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

12 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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brukru

arent we seeing this in baseball everywhere, Trout and Harper being held to the lower levels, just to be careful or protect them. I wonder how a team would handle Al Kaline in todays game?

Jun 29, 2011 07:49 AM
rating: 0
 
bisanders
(329)

Whether Huckabay changed his mind, was speaking tongue-in-cheek, or sought to clarify his intended use of TINSTAAPP I can't say. But my increasingly-unreliable recollection is that he later claimed to mean primarily that there are no pitching prospects -- there are only pitchers.

I'm not going to put words in Gary's mouth, but what I took away from the cute little acronym was that somebody like Pineda or Chamberlain, if capable of getting major league hitters out, should be used to get major league hitters out. While he still can. Because even if the arm is treated with tons of TLC, pitching a baseball is not a likely path to a long career of constant health.

Kudos to Wedge and the M's for basing their evaluation on observations and performance, rather than on an arbitrary number. 'Course, perhaps the Yankees were doing the exact same thing, and all their talk about innings and pitch counts was just a smokescreen for their own uncertainty and indecisiveness. And perhaps the Mariners' handling of Pineda ultimately won't bear any more fruit than the Yankees' handling of Chamberlain or Hughes has so far. But thanks, Steven, for illustrating for us the difference between understanding, unsubstantiated speculation (Verducci), and outright stupidity (Green).

Jun 29, 2011 08:03 AM
rating: 4
 
gjhardy

The link to the Leiter game is priceless. A 23-year-old pitching in early April throws 163 pitches, with 9 BB and 10 K, in an 8-5 win. He actually faced one batter in the ninth inning!
The most interesting stat from that 1989 game, IMO? Thirteen runs, 15 walks, 17 hits, 2 errors, 2 HBP, 85 plate appearances ...and the game was over in just 2 hours and 33 minutes. Yesterday's 1-0 OAK win over FLA (5 hits, 4 BB, 19 K total, 61 PA) took 2:25. The Lee-Beckett 5-0 game featured 60 PAs, and took 2:37. Whatever happened to pace of play?

Jun 29, 2011 08:04 AM
rating: 3
 
formersd

I believe MLB has increased the time between innings.

Jun 29, 2011 08:09 AM
rating: 4
 
Ric Size

To cram in more commercials.

Jun 29, 2011 08:27 AM
rating: 5
 
ScottyB

Commercial breaks are now 2:30, used to be 1:00

Jun 29, 2011 08:27 AM
rating: 4
 
SirVLCIV

The Yankees mishanding of Chamberlain has to be one of the worst moves by a franchise in recent memory. On par with the Angels taking on Vernon Wells.

Jun 29, 2011 09:06 AM
rating: 2
 
evo34

So Chamberlain would be a much better pitcher now and/or would never have become injured had he not been "mishandled?" Please explain.

Jul 05, 2011 22:31 PM
rating: 0
 
randolph3030

A bit off topic, but did anybody here John Smoltz stating 12-15 times that "NO PITCHER will EVER EVER EVER throw three straight complete games EVER again in baseball unless they are on the Phillies."

Umm...James Shields?

Jun 29, 2011 09:23 AM
rating: 1
 
SaberTJ

He was talking about 3 cg shutouts. He clarified that afterwards.

Jun 30, 2011 08:30 AM
rating: 0
 
cfinberg

Through 3 of Pineda's last 4 starts he's been dominant through his first 75 or so pitches, then had his command/control desert him and been pulled in short order (usually not short enough). A few of these trouble spots have coincided with Smoak-y butchery, but either way Pineda's wall seems to materialize earlier than it used to. True, he's not yet close to the 139 innings he pitched last year, but those 139 IP were almost a 300% increase over 2009. And while I can't find pitch counts associated with any of his minor league results, I'd be willing to bet that he's operated under a pitch-count cap up until this season.
So if Pineda IS running out of steam then wouldn't it be not-stupid to apply a cap or sit him down for awhile? I can't see continuing to run him out there when it is effectively costing them games.
I laud Wedge for his open minded approach, and imagine it has something to do with the Mariners' success thus far. And it may be his plan to have Pineda push through this rough patch and learn how to handle major league adversity. But it also seems that this time thinking inside the box may have value, especially since it would be done not out of vague fear but with a specific purpose in mind.

Jun 29, 2011 11:00 AM
rating: 0
 
cfinberg

Besides which, since the current trend is to limit the number of pitches they throw as they climb the organizational ladder, then why would team expect the resulting major league pitchers to succeed without these limits? I guess they might not. And that might be why Wedge is going about things this way...

Jun 29, 2011 11:02 AM
rating: 0
 
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