I fear for the modern pitcher. Little League, travel ball, college, the pros—we are witnessing a revolution in the way that pitchers are grown, used, and eventually discarded, with results that look good in the box score but which claim the limbs of countless hurlers every year.
Injury rates are up across the board at every level of play, and pitchers are throwing harder today than they ever have before, such that a “60-grade” fastball of 10 years ago might qualify as a 50-55 grade now, sliding from plus to average (though not every scout has adjusted his/her scale, nor have they adjusted the scale in a uniform way). Scientific minds no less esteemed than Dr. James Andrews and the crew at ASMI have firmly established the link between velocity and injury, as throwing harder requires greater joint loads and effectively tests the limits of the human body, limits that are discovered only once an individual breaks down.
The results are perpetuating the problem, because strikeout rates are up, run-scoring is down (4.22 runs/game from 2011-15), and the modern ballclub no longer expects 7-8 innings of effective pitching, but rather 100 pitches of max-effort performance by one player, followed by a bucket brigade of 20-pitch flame-throwers. It's interesting how the term “effort” was considered a pejorative term to describe a pitcher's delivery for years, and to some evaluators it is still a red flag, yet the system that has been created is one that encourages such aggression on a regular basis.
It starts young. I used to tell parents that the worst thing that could happen to their child ballplayer was that he was really good at a young age, because those players are overworked by well-meaning coaches and endure heavy workloads at a time when their bodies are rapidly changing. These players are often hand-selected simply because they hit early puberty and physically developed ahead of their class, and such players have an easy time dominating fellow preteens while chasing dreams of Williamsport, though many end up on the operating table before they can legally drive a car.
The issue continues through development, as pitchers are subjected to the rigors of year-round baseball split between a cadre of different coaches, each with his own philosophies and techniques when it comes to grooming pitchers. The players just want to be seen, so they often grab at any opportunity that is presented, including showcases where the one attribute that rises above the rest is what that kid can coax out of a radar gun. The ones who survive the gauntlet are subject to the whims of high school or collegiate coaches, many of whom are much more concerned about their own reputations and the team's won-loss record than the health of any individual player (despite rhetoric to the contrary). Professional coaches at the highest level can't agree on a safe path of effective pitcher development, so we certainly shouldn't expect better from the coaches of amateur players, yet those coaches impact more arms in the span of four years then a big-league pitching coach might influence over a decade.
The litmus test of durability doesn't end once a player is drafted, but it does take on a curiously-different shape. Consider that Little League pitch limits state that a player can not start a batter at a pitch count higher than 85, so it stands to reason that 90 pitches is effectively the cap for these 12-and-under arms (though it's curious to choose a number that could escalate quickly if facing a batter with a penchant for foul balls). If that 12-year-old can survive the next ten years of wear to his arm, impressing enough people along the way and continuing to hone his delivery and stuff, staying atop the heap of pitching prospects while navigating the whims of countless coaches, then someday he might just find himself on a major league mound – where his pitch limit will be extended by 10 pitches.
Think about that. The difference in expectation between a 12-year-old schoolboy and a 22-year old big-leaguer is 10 pitches. That's it. And the way that pitch counts are used in today's game, there is little room to account for players whose optimal usage pattern might be 50 pitches every three days, or 70 pitches every five – they either fit into the 100-pitch bucket every five days or the 20-pitch bucket of one-inning relief, or they have little place on a big-league roster. That is not only inefficient, but it's negligent in terms of appreciating the differing physical capacities of the population of pitchers.
This used to be my issue with Pitcher Abuse Points (PAP) here at BP, as the numbers were only indicative in a relative sense, but it required knowing the player's other attributes to understand the danger inherent in workloads. 120 pitches for a 35-year-old Randy Johnson did not endure the same “abuse” as did 120 pitches for a 25-year-old Kerry Wood, yet they would trigger the same score for PAP, and though it was nearly impossible to account for this reality in the numbers, it was a known aspect that was dealt with by the teams. Fast-forward to today, and the indoctrination of pitch counts is so pervasive that there is very little leeway for those pitchers who can endure a heavier workload. There is also little leeway for those pitchers who struggle to hold up for the prescribed duration, and if they can't last for 100 pitches then off to the bullpen they go.
@drivelinebases Dae Ho Lee does
— J (@JordanFCameron1) April 14, 2016
Such statements make me sad, because he's not wrong. The current reality of major league baseball is that velocity is king, followed by movement. Far in the distance, there's pitch command. I was trained under the reverse philosophy, that command is paramount in the hierarchy, followed by movement and finally velocity. At the National Pitching Association we trained all three aspects, but the emphasis was on command first and foremost, while velocity came after a pitcher was able to hone the basic aspects of their delivery, starting with balance. We knew that it was dangerous to train an unstable system to be more powerful, yet the modern emphasis creates a coaching paradigm that favors exactly that scenario.
There's no denying the impact of velocity. Increase the speed of pitches thrown and a pitcher effectively shrinks the time window that a batter has to identify the pitch, predict a location, and decide whether to swing. Scouts and coaches seek it for a reason, myself included, but the problems arise when velo is treated as the end-all be-all at the expense of pitch execution.
Whether focusing on velocity or command, the ability to improve is tied to pitching mechanics as well as training in functional strength and flexibility. The idea is to give a pitcher the physical foundation to discover the upper limits of his own command, movement and velocity. At the NPA, we had velocity programs, conducted velocity studies and created training paradigms to anchor on the safest ways to build pitch-speed; so we certainly didn't ignore velo. But it was a late phase of development.
Fact of the matter is that, from a mechanical standpoint, the contributors to command – such as balance and repetition – are not only different, but often in opposition to the contributing factors for velocity, such as hip-shoulder separation (which requires core strength and flexibility) and momentum, in addition to pure arm strength. It is tougher for a pitcher to contain a more powerful delivery, so we chose to emphasize the aspects that led to command in order to establish a physical baseline that made it easier to add power. Much of today's instruction has it backwards, teaching kids how to throw hard even though they lack the physical baselines to endure that strain.
More and more, I see a philosophy that seems to dictate that if a pitcher throws the ball hard enough and/or with enough movement, then it doesn't matter where the ball is going. And this works – in small doses – but overexposure is common and these pitchers are often their own worst enemy, walking batters by the truckload only to watch them score on a deep fly due to the pitcher missing targets up in the zone (if this sounds familiar, it's somewhat related to my disdain for the slide step).
I'm reminded of a Nolan Ryan quote that my mentor, Tom House (who was Ryan's pitching coach with the Rangers) used to say with regularity, in regard to how Ryan felt about the possibility that he was tipping pitches: “If I put the ball where I want to, they ain't gonna hit it anyway.” It's the exact opposite of the modern philosophy, emphasizing pitch command above all else, but of course it is also coming from the preternatural flamethrower of his day. Ryan was perhaps the ultimate example of what a human can do with a baseball, but he didn't appreciate the finer elements until he was in his forties (Randy Johnson was another late bloomer), having some of the best seasons of his career despite his physical prime being in the rearview mirror.
I grew up in an era of offensive domination, where home run records were being smashed to smithereens and chemical enhancements were making life exceedingly difficult on an entire generation of pitchers. Yet there existed a handful of players who bucked the trends, who put together elite seasons that would stand out in any era, let alone a time when 7-6 ballgames were commonplace. Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens; these pitchers were able to throw hard yet sustain command and improve as they aged past the age of physical prime. These players had a much greater impact than today's arms are allowed—the modern-day Randy might be among us, but we would never know because he is capped at 100 pitches per game and 200 frames per year. Baseball folks sure do love round numbers, don't they?
It's interesting when thinking about what the radar gun represents. Debates have raged for years about the relative merits of scouting and sabermetrics, and though the consensus has evolved to appreciate both disciplines in the modern age, the audience has largely ignored the one instrument that ties the two sides together most seamlessly: the radar gun. It is the one true objective measurement that a scout has when evaluating players on the field. Sure, there are pop times and other situations where a stopwatch comes into play, but that data is subject to human error (when to start/stop the watch), whereas the radar gun is an unbiased instrument of a sport-specific skill; so it's no wonder that scouts love it. The baseball industry has become obsessed with velocity because it's the one part of the game that is measured on the field at all times… and it has been for years. The gun makes a scout's job easy—can you imagine the days of evaluating fastballs based just on the look and sound of the pitch?
The modern combination of pitch counts, workloads and injuries has stirred together a dangerous mix, and I fear the rapid demise of the long-term starter, the type of star that pitches well enough long enough to toss 3000 innings. There have been 134 of these pitchers all-time, and modern veterans CC Sabathia and Bartolo Colon are leading the active pack and about to clear the 3000-frame threshold, though both appear to be in the final stages of their careers and they may be among the last of a dying breed. I grew up with the philosophy that you want the best players throwing the most innings, but in the modern environment the best players are usually driven into the ground or under the knife, while those that survive are tethered by pitch counts and workload limits.
In closing, I want to apologize for instigating a depressing rant in the second week of the baseball season. I should be gushing about Noah Syndergaard or breaking down Vincent Velasquez's ruination of the Padres, but I have been overwhelmed by a peculiar feeling, like being caught in a whirlpool that drained into a sea of ruptured UCLs. I fear that we're heading down a dangerous path, but rather than walk with caution we're essentially running downhill—and if you've ever run downhill, you know hard difficult it can be to stop, that is without crashing hard. It is possible to breed successful pitchers who work over the long haul, but we would never know because A) pitch count limits are too strict for those players to reveal themselves, and B) we are stopping that development path in its tracks so that we can get 180 innings of 100-mph fastballs.
If Randy Johnson were born in 2000, would he ever see the light of the major leagues? Would he survive long enough to realize his peak? And would any team in the modern era allow that peak to last for more than 225 innings in a season?
I ask these hypothetical questions, and the answers are frightening.
Thank you for reading
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