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Almost one full year ago–June of 1998, to be exact–I had become
increasingly frustrated at Jim Leyland’s idea of "entertainment"
in what was turning into The Lost Season in south Florida. My frustration
stemmed from watching as his young and promising pitchers were made to
throw close to a gross of pitches on an all-too-frequent basis. I watched
with dismay as Livan Hernandez twice reached the 150-pitch barrier,
but when rookie Jesus Sanchez labored for 147 pitches one fine
evening–accompanied by deafening silence from traditional media
sources–my disappointment turned to rage and inaction no longer seemed an
option. I had to do something.

So I created

Pitcher Abuse Points
.

The creation of any new baseball statistic is an act of arrogance. To add a
new statistic to the vast landscape of numbers that crowd the baseball
universe is like adding another drunk to Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras.
It presumes that the new stat provides information that is not available in
any other form, whether by interpreting and packaging old data in a
compelling new guise, or by digging up data that simply didn’t exist. And
certainly, there were methods in use that attempted to measure a pitcher’s
workload. One, the concept of batters faced per start (BFS), had been in
use since Craig Wright presented it in his book The Diamond
Appraised
in 1989, and could be calculated with relative ease for
virtually any pitcher in major league history. The more direct approach,
using pitches per start, has the historic data limitations imposed on any
statistic which requires pitch-by-pitch information, but represented a huge
increase in accuracy in identifying worrisome workloads.

Pitches per start has all the advantages you look for in a statistic: it
directly measures the variable in question (workload); it is easy to
calculate, requiring only two counting stats (pitches and starts); and the
information it reveals is inaccessible via our arsenal of traditional
stats. You can hype innings pitched and complete games all you want, and
Greg Maddux‘s health record would still defy explanation–unless you
look at pitch counts.

The Problem

But pitch counts contain one ultimately fatal flaw: they treat all pitches
the same. I couldn’t accept a stat that treated the first pitch thrown as
equally burdensome as the 100th or 150th pitch thrown. I couldn’t accept a
stat that treated two 90-pitch outings as equivalent to a 145-pitch effort
followed by a 35-pitch shelling of the obviously-gassed starter. I couldn’t
accept a stat that rewarded a pitcher for getting bombed and taken out
early–especially if the early shower was the direct result of a high
workload.

Pitcher Abuse Points, better known as PAP, was an attempt to address that
flaw, based on one assumption: that the body of a pitcher is able to
compensate for the tiny muscle and ligament tears and associated
inflammation that accompanies the unnatural motion of throwing
overhand–but only up to a point. Beyond that threshold, each pitch leaves
tiny but measurable damage in the pitcher’s arm, and as the body becomes
less and less able to compensate, each additional pitch does more and more
damage.

The method for calculating PAP is familiar by now, but to briefly review:
the number of pitches thrown in each start is evaluated separately. If the
starter throws 100 or fewer pitches, it is assumed that he did not cross
that threshold, and he is not awarded any abuse points. But starting with
pitch 101, each pitch carries with it a penalty, and the number of points
awarded for each pitch goes up the more pitches are thrown. Each pitch from
101 to 110 has one PAP tied to it, pitches from 111 to 120 get two PAPs
apiece, pitches from 121 to 130 get three each, and so on.

Choosing The Threshold

Central to this system is the presumption that the threshold is the same
for everybody: 100 pitches. Common sense dictates that all pitchers are
not built alike; they have different builds, different work ethics,
different mechanics and so on. And no, we don’t know what the
thresholds are for individual pitchers. PAP was not designed to be a
universal yardstick, measuring all pitchers’ workloads with disregard for
context.

If your Ford Taurus gets 24 miles to the gallon, while mine gets just 18
miles per gallon, is your car more fuel-efficient? Not necessarily; what if
you drive your car on empty highways across Nebraska while mine gets stuck
in rush hour traffic around San Francisco Bay? Similarly, who knows for
sure if Randy Johnson is more hurt by getting 45 PAPs per start than
John Snyder is racking up 20 PAPs per start?

But just as we know from experience that cars get less mileage in the city
than on the highway, we may use PAP to see if pitchers can stand more abuse
in certain situations than in others. If older pitchers can stomach higher
PAP scores than younger ones and stay healthy, we can build that into the
system. If taller pitchers get injured less often than short pitchers given
similar PAP scores, we can penalize short pitchers and reward tall ones. If
right-handers stay healthier than left-handers…you get the idea.

And just as cars get their mileage quoted for both city and highway
driving, we can adjust PAP to give a better sense of the context that each
pitcher finds himself in. I made a first attempt to do that last year, by
using the concept of Age-Adjusted Workload, multiplying each pitcher’s PAP
score by a factor depending on their age, so that given the same PAP score,
a young pitcher would be penalized more than his veteran counterpart. And
one of the things I want to do this year is expand on that concept, to
adjust PAP scores to take other factors into account, like penalizing a
pitcher more for starting on three days’ rest, or after coming off a
high-pitch outing in his previous start. But more on that later.

PAP’s Course

Since its unveiling last year, the future of PAP has been shaped by three
events:

  • First, the response from the readers was overwhelmingly positive. Without
    the encouragement and support from our audience, PAP would have quickly
    sank to a watery death alongside so many discarded statistical tools.

  • This spring, Kerry Wood tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right
    elbow, bringing the issue of pitcher abuse to the attention of the national
    media, and thrusting PAP into at least the fringe of a national spotlight.
    While terribly unfortunate for Wood, the Cubs and baseball fans nationwide,
    this did provide additional focus on the problem of pitcher abuse, and by
    extension, PAP.

  • Helping the process was PAP’s simplicity. Anyone can calculate a PAP score
    by knowing a pitch count. Since one of the goals of PAP was to educate both
    the baseball establishment and baseball fans on the importance of
    protecting the health of pitchers, it was important to keep PAP, or at
    least the ideas behind it, in the national consciousness as much as
    possible. No point trying to teach calculus to a society still coming to
    grips with the concept of the zero. Simplicity has therefore become a
    hallmark of PAP, and no matter how much effort we spend trying to improve
    upon it, the basic form has to be maintained.

Additionally, I now have the privilege of working alongside some very
talented colleagues who have graciously lent their assistance to the cause.
David Smith, who heads the finest volunteer enterprise in all the land
(support Project Retrosheet!),
has helped provide
pitch-by-pitch data from baseball’s past, allowing us to take a historical
look at PAP. Keith Woolner is lending his considerable expertise and
insight–as anyone who read his "Field General" article in Baseball
Prospectus 1999
can attest to–to help take PAP in new directions. How
well does PAP correlate with future injury risk? Using data from previous
seasons, we hope to begin answering that question. How much more
susceptible to injuries are young pitchers? We’re going to try to answer
that, too.

More Questions to Answer

What about relievers? Trying to measure the workload of relievers is a
hellish task, because of all the variables involved (time off since the
last appearance, the reliever’s recent workload, etc.) and the fact that
some information (how many times did Dusty Baker tell
Julian Tavarez to
warm up?) is not available and probably never will be. But the correlation
between reliever workload and future ineffectiveness is certainly there;
take a look at all the pitchers who have thrown 100 relief innings in a
season, and watch many of their careers plummet thereafter. So we’re going
to try to study the issue.

And, perhaps most intriguing of all: what about the minor leagues? I don’t
profess to care about the usage patterns of Medicine Hat’s fourth starter,
but wouldn’t you like to know if the Cardinals are really taking care of
Rick Ankiel‘s arm? If the Mets are taking better care of
Octavio Dotel than
they did the Young Guns? The trouble is that pitch count information for
the minor leagues is not readily available. At least, I haven’t found the
data, and I’ve asked colleagues of mine.

If any of you know where to find some data on minor league pitch counts–no
matter how little–
please let us know.
But there are
techniques to estimate pitch counts from box scores, and any data is better
than none.

In short, PAP is not a fixed object. Its use is changing as its value
grows, and its value grows as we find more and more ways to apply the data
to answer questions about baseball. And finding the answer to baseball
questions is why Baseball Prospectus exists in the first place.

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