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The topic of pitcher abuse is one we follow closely here at Baseball
Prospectus. The injury rate of pitchers, in particular young pitchers, is
astonishing. Pitchers are several times more likely to get injured than
hitters, and for every prospect that becomes a successful major league pitcher,
a dozen more have their careers stalled or ended by injury. This is a reality
of baseball that has persisted since the game was invented; the act of throwing
a ball overhand is inherently unnatural, and the repetition of throwing, even
with excellent mechanics, can lead to inflammation or injury to the muscles of
the rotator cuff, or in the ligaments that hold the elbow in place.


For a century this has been an accepted part of the game – pitchers got injured
all the time, and nobody ever bothered to wonder why, or whether there was a
way to prevent it. Pitchers who in the dead-ball era of baseball history were
able to throw 300-350 innings a season without injury were subsequently
marveled at as “iron men” whose exploits could not be repeated by contemporary
pitchers. Later hurlers were accused of lacking the work ethic or the
determination to approach previous standards of greatness; they were too weak
to “tough out” the sore arms that they developed by the bushel.


We know better now. Most of us do, anyway; the perception is still there among
ex-ballplayers and old-time baseball men that great pitchers somehow “know” how
to stay healthy or are able to “pitch through the pain”. The reality, of
course, is that of the vast number of minor league pitchers every year with
outstanding ability, the ones who, for whatever reason, are able to avoid the
injury bug are the ones most likely to become great pitchers.


But how? How does a major league franchise protect its most valued resource –
its young pitchers? The focus has, for years, centered around not overtaxing a
pitcher, by limiting their number of starts (the 5-man rotation developed in
the early 70’s) and number of innings (no pitcher has thrown 300 innings in a
season since Steve Carlton in 1980). But these developments – progressive as
they were – focused on imperfect measures of a pitcher’s abuse. All innings
are not created alike, and to compare 260 innings thrown by Roger Clemens with
260 innings thrown by Christy Mathewson is an oversimplification: Mathewson
faced fewer batters and threw fewer pitches in the dead-ball era, and in his
own autobiography talked about not throwing with maximum effort on each pitch.


In Craig Wright‘s excellent book “The Diamond Appraised”, he talked about using
the numbers of batters faced per start (BFP) as a measure of how overworked a
starter might be. In particular, he found that pitchers with more than 30 BFP
early in their careers – before they turned 25 – were far more likely to crash
and burn than those who were brought along more slowly. This brings up another
point – young pitchers are far, far more susceptible to long-term injury –
career-ending rotator cuff tears and the like – than older ones. David Cone
was abused by the Mets in his late 20’s, and while his durability has suffered,
he has continued to pitch effectively. Bill Pulsipher was in his early 20’s
when the Mets slagged his arm, and he is still fighting to get back to the
major leagues.


But still, given enough abuse, even a veteran pitcher can suffer major injuries
from overuse. When Orel Hershiser led the NL in innings pitched 3 straight
years from 1987-1989, and then blew out his arm in 1990, it was graphic
evidence that being overworked had led to his injury. When Greg Maddux led the
NL in innings from 1991-93, there was a widespread assumption that Maddux, like
Hershiser, was a surgery case waiting to happen.


He wasn’t. Maddux went on to lead the NL in innings the next two seasons,
throwing 202 innings in just 25 starts in the strike-shortened 1994, and has
continued to be the best pitcher in baseball. Maddux, more than anyone, has
convinced the baseball community that, to put it bluntly: it’s the pitches,
stupid.


Maddux throws fewer pitches per batter, and per inning, than anyone of his
generation. We’ve all marveled at his 79-pitch complete games, but what is
more remarkable is that he never endures a 130-pitch start. Part of that is
his incredible efficiency, and part of that is the Bobby Cox/Leo Mazzone
tandem that still has not received enough credit for the amazing run of health by the
Braves’ rotation that has allowed them to build one of baseball’s most enduring
dynasties.


Partly because of that, and partly because of the exponential growth of
statistics available in today’s game, pitch counts are routinely reported in
today’s box scores. Ten years ago, even five years ago, you could watch a
pitcher labor through the 7th and 8th innings of a game and have no idea the
next day if he threw 110 or 150 pitches. Today, that information is readily
available – and a manager can not expect to let his starter throw 140 pitches
without being noticed. Nowhere was that more evident than in last year’s World
Series, where the whole world watched as Jim Leyland let Kevin Brown – and more
significantly, rookie Livan Hernandez – rack up enormous pitch counts,
sometimes in games that were already in the bag.


And yet, no one yet has systematically looked at the pitch counts of each
starter and attempted to make sense of the data. What we have is anecdotal
evidence – we know that Bartolo Colon threw 136 pitches in a game this year –
but we don’t have any way of putting that in context. How dangerous is a
130-pitch game? Is it worse to throw 140 pitches in a game or 120 pitches in 3
straight games? What pitcher has been abused the worst this year?


I don’t claim to be able to have the answers; I’m not sure anyone does. But
for the first time, we have the data to find out. When Dwight Gooden threw
16 complete games and threw 276 innings as a 20-year-old, it was generally
known that he was probably overused. But by how much? What would have been an
appropriate limit for him? We simply didn’t know at the time. But now, every
time Kerry Wood takes the mound, everyone keeps one eye on the radar gun and
one eye on his pitch count. That, in itself, is a huge step.


That said, we still need a universal measure to compare pitchers to each other.
Average pitch count per start is a useful tool, but it has a major limitation
– a pitcher who throws 130 pitches one start, then gets bombed in his next
start and throws 70 pitches, is indistinguishable from the pitcher that throws
100 pitches in each start. It’s not the number of pitches thrown – it’s the
number of pitches thrown tired – when mechanics fall off, muscles are sore,
and the body is unable to handle the stress of each pitch as well. And so we
need a way to measure, on start-by-start basis, how much abuse a pitcher is
subject to.


For this, I have created a system designed to award pitchers points – Pitcher
Abuse Points, or “PAP’s” for short – based on the number of pitches they throw
in each start. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.

Pitcher Abuse Points
Situation PAP/Pitch
Pitches 1-100 0
Pitches 101-110 1
Pitches 111-120 2
Pitches 121-130 3
Pitches 131-140 4
Pitches 141-150 5
Pitches 151+ 6


These points are cumulative: a 115-pitch outing gets you 20 PAP’s – 1 for each
pitch from 101-110 (10 total), and 2 for each pitch from 111-115 (10 total). A
120-pitch outing is worth 30 PAP’s, while a 140-pitch outing is worth 100 PAP’s
– more than 3 times as much. This seems fair; a pitcher doesn’t get tired all
at once, but fatigue sets on gradually, and with each pitch the danger of
continuing to pitch grows.


Please note that this an arbitrary system, and probably not relevant for every
pitcher. Steve Ontiveros can’t go more than 50 pitches without having to watch
his arm come off and sail halfway to the plate, while knuckleballers like Tim
Wakefield
could throw 140 pitches, pop a couple of Advils, and be fine. But
there’s no firm way to tell how susceptible a pitcher is to injury. Rail-thin
pitchers like Ramon Martinez can be abused by Tommy Lasorda and survive
(although that is in question as I write this), while hefty lefty Sid Fernandez
had reservations each year for his spot on the DL.


So let’s see what kind of information we can gleam from the PAP system. All
data is through the games of May 31st.

12 Most Abused Pitchers
Pitcher Age PAP Starts PAP/Start
Johnson, Randy 34 420 11 38.2
Clemens, Roger 35 398 11 36.2
Colon, Bartolo 23 374 11 34.0
Schilling, Curt 31 364 12 30.3
Hernandez, Livan 23 293 12 24.4
Martinez, Pedro 26 281 12 23.4
Candiotti, Tom 40 272 12 22.7
Leiter, Al 32 223 10 22.3
Moyer, Jamie 35 265 12 22.1
Sanchez, Jesus 23 175 8 21.9
Pettite, Andy 26 260 12 21.7
Finley, Chuck 35 260 12 21.7


These points are cumulative: a 115-pitch outing gets you 20 PAP’s – 1 for each
pitch from 101-110 (10 total), and 2 for each pitch from 111-115 (10 total).


Well, there are few surprises here; this list is mostly dominated by veteran
pitchers, in particular those pitchers considered to be among the best in
baseball. It’s no surprise that Randy Johnson has been “abused” more than any
other pitcher; he’s 6’10”, his team has the worst bullpen in baseball, and he
has shown over the last 5 years that he can take this kind of abuse without
blowing out his arm. (In addition, the Mariners probably care less about
Johnson’s long-term future than most teams would care about their ace.) The
other names – guys like Clemens, Curt Schilling, Chuck Finley, even
Al Leiter – are not
surprises either; their teams rely on them to be their stopper. Pedro Martinez
and Andy Pettite are both just 26, but each of them has established themselves
as durable, consistent staff aces. Guys like Jamie Moyer and Tom Candiotti
are nobody’s idea of “stoppers”, but Moyer has been the Mariners’ most consistent starter,
and Candiotti is a knuckleballer, and so evaluating his pitch counts is
essentially useless.


But the other names on this list – Colon, Hernandez, Jesus Sanchez – that’s
where the meat of this study lie. These are young pitchers – pitchers with
exquisitely sensitive rotator cuffs – who are being senselessly abused.

12 Most Abused Young Pitchers
Pitcher Age PAP Starts PAP/Start
Colon, Bartolo 23 374 11 34.0
Hernandez, Livan 23 293 12 24.4
Sanchez, Jesus 23 175 8 21.9
Radke, Brad 25 171 11 15.5
Wright, Jaret 22 166 11 15.1
Estes, Shawn 25 178 12 14.8
Wood, Kerry 21 128 9 14.2
Haynes, Jimmy 25 153 11 13.9
Schmidt, Jason 25 133 11 12.1
Saunders, Tony 24 117 11 10.6
Gonzalez, Jeremi 23 104 10 10.4
Millwood, Kevin 23 101 11 9.2


Now this is what we want to look at. Look at the drop-off between Sanchez and
Brad Radke on this list. Without question, Colon, Hernandez, and Sanchez are having
their right arms thrown to the wolves. This is senseless brutality, and as you
can see, it is restricted to just a couple of teams. Jim Leyland, for all the
criticism he has already received, is due for some more. The Marlins aren’t
going anywhere, but rather than treat his young arms gingerly in preparation
for the future, he’s testing their “manhood” by driving them into the ground.
After Sanchez threw 146 pitches in one start, Leyland praised him by saying he
“has the heart of a lion”. If Leyland keeps this up, Sanchez may have the arm
of a Rhesus monkey by year’s end. And as for Hernandez… keep in mind this
doesn’t even include his 153-pitch flogging earlier this month. Sign me up for
August 14th in the office pool for his surgery date.


Mike Hargrove hasn’t been much kinder to his young pitchers, however. Bartolo
Colon has exploded on the league this year, but that’s no excuse for forcing
him to throw so many pitches. And Hargrove doesn’t have the excuse of a poor
bullpen; the Indians are so deep in reliever they can’t find room for Tom
Martin
and Ron Villone gets into a game once a week. And while it has been
more subtle, Jaret Wright has struggled with his control more than Colon has,
and while he hasn’t thrown as many innings as Colon, he has received almost as
much abuse.


Many of the other pitchers on this list are at much less risk; Radke,
Jason Schmidt and Shawn Estes are all 25 and about to leave this list, and they
have all had a few years of steadily increasing work in the major leagues to
get accustomed to the higher workload. Jimmy Haynes has been on a roller
coaster of success and failure the last three years, so the A’s may want to
show more caution in his use. Jeremi Gonzalez and Tony Saunders are both
sophomores who just make the list, and are probably at relatively low risk for
a major injury.


One interesting name on the list is Kevin Millwood, who barely makes the list
but who is notable for being a Brave, and thus generally protected by the Bobby
Cox-Leo Mazzone brain trust. Millwood’s place on the chart can be attributed
to one start; he threw 131 pitches in one start, accounting for 64 of his 101
PAP’s. I don’t know if Mazzone and Cox fell asleep at the wheel that day, but
none of the other Braves starters have thrown so many pitches in one game this
year.


And, of course, I can’t write this article without mentioning Kerry Wood. At
21, he’s the youngest name on this list, and he’s in the middle of the pack as
far as abuse goes. He hasn’t thrown more than 128 pitches in a game this year,
but he has a number of outings in the 120+ range. I don’t think he’s in grave
danger of injury – he’s a big guy with good mechanics, relies on his fastball,
and doesn’t throw a splitter. But I do think that Jim Riggleman should take a
little more care of the most prized arm of the decade.

12 Least Abused Pitchers
Pitcher Age PAP Starts PAP/Start
Moore, Trey 25 0 10 0.00
Drabek, Doug 35 2 11 0.18
Anderson, Brian 26 3 11 0.27
Tewksbury, Bob 37 3 10 0.30
Key, Jimmy 37 5 10 0.50
Suppan, Jeff 23 8 11 0.73
Maddux, Greg 32 9 12 0.75
Saberhagen, Bret 34 8 10 0.80
Silva, Jose 24 11 11 1.00
Swift, Billy 36 10 10 1.00
Mercker, Kent 30 12 11 1.09
Grace, Mike 28 11 10 1.10


This list is predominantly made up of young pitchers who get pulled at the
first sign of trouble (Trey Moore, Brian Anderson, Jeff Suppan),
veteran pitchers who typically run out of gas after 6 innings (Doug Drabek,
Jimmy Key, Kent Mercker, Bob Tewksbury), and pitchers with such
a morbid injury history that even Dallas Green would think twice before
sending them out to start the 8th (Bret Saberhagen, Mike Grace, Bill
Swift
). Also note that Moore, the only pitcher on this list who has yet to throw
over a 100 pitches in a game, has Felipe Alou as a manager. As a team, the
Expos have the lowest PAP score in baseball – yet another indication about why
Alou is such a great manager. And Gene Lamont, who replaced Leyland in
Pittsburgh, has kept Jose Silva – despite Silva’s pitching success – on a tight
leash, only to see him get hurt. Buck Showalter also deserves some credit:
Anderson and Suppan were the team’s top two selections in the expansion draft,
and both have significant pitching experience in the major leagues, but he has
brought both of them along slowly.


I leave you with this: Greg Maddux, who is averaging about 7.5 innings a
start, ranks as one of the least abused pitchers in the game. He has yet to
throw more than 107 pitches in a start this year. For those of us looking for
yet another reason to proclaim him the best pitcher of our time, or any time,
this may be the best reason of all: he might just pitch forever.

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