This isn’t my idea. (Always a rousing way to start an article!) You may read this and conclude that I’m a moron. I’m not saying that’s wrong! I’m just saying that your logic in saying so may be fallacious, if you’re basing it on the proposal here. It isn’t mine. I’m just reporting it.
Craig Wright is a prominent baseball analyst. He was the first front office sabermetrician for the Rangers, way back in 1981. During a 10-year stint with the Dodgers, he’s widely credited with promoting the abilities of 62nd-round draft pick Mike Piazza.
In 1989, he published two books. The Diamond Appraised, co-written with Rangers pitching coach Tom House, is a pioneering sabermetric text, promoting concepts such as homefield advantage; pitcher development, deployment, and workload (and catcher ERA). He wrote the second book, The Man Who Stole First Base, with Eric Nadel. Wright and Nadel collaborated on a popular radio show, A Page from Baseball’s Past. Wright was the show’s primary researcher and writer, and Nadel was the producer and narrator.
So it was no surprise, given both his stature in the analytic community and his areas of expertise, that Wright was invited to write a chapter in The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2015. His contribution, “The Explosion of UCL Injuries,” traces the growth of ulnar collateral ligament injuries and the resultant Tommy John surgeries, noting: “Something is going on in the major leagues that is making the UCL more vulnerable to serious injury, and it is trickling down into the ranks of amateur pitchers.”
Wright noted that while sliders were originally thought to be disproportionate culprits in the rise of UCL injuries, it’s velocity that’s the major problem. Throwing harder, not surprisingly, leads to more stress on the arm. He also noted that high workloads create more stress, though Wright is not an advocate of strict pitch limits, except for young pitchers or those recovering from an injury. Instead, he supports a target average pitch count for pitchers, with variance allowed on either side of the target.
To this point, in describing Wright’s article, I probably haven’t told you anything you don’t already know, thanks to other writers on this and other sites, Jeff Passan's book The Arm, or any number of media personalities. High velocity yields more stress on the arm, resulting in more injuries. It also yields more strikeouts, another plague of contemporary baseball. But, as I said, you already know all of this.
To me, Wright’s article swerved into controversy when he proposed remedies for the UCL injury epidemic. Here’s his proposal:
“Obviously, the hardest thing will be getting pitchers to slow the heck down. … [W]e can work on changing the modern mindset that has so raised the value placed on throwing hard and has made pitching so much about speed. We can legislate changes to the professional game that would place an emphasis on staff durability over staff velocity."
What kind of changes does Wright have in mind?
- First, he proposes mandating smaller pitching staffs “by restricting the number of pitchers a team can have on its roster to nine rather than the 12 commonly carried today.” (Note that Wright’s article was published in 2014; there are several 13-pitcher rosters today.) He predicts "that will automatically curtail the growing philosophy of throwing as hard as you can as long as you can.”
- Second, he wants to discourage short relief appearances that emphasize throwing gas for a dozen or so pitches, by creating a penalty for pitching changes within an inning. “Say, the batter gets first base and every runner on base advances a base. Such a rule would likely eliminate 95 percent of partial-inning relief appearances.”
- Finally, in order to reduce the prevalence of the one-inning closer, Wright suggests: “If a team wants to start the ninth inning with a new pitcher, the first batter gets an intentional walk. This would get relievers, particularly closers, to develop skills for two-inning outings, roughly equivalent to requiring them to pitch through the whole lineup.”
I’m not sure about the latter two changes, because they’d alter the way baseball has always been played. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se—baseball had no rules against home-plate collisions until 2014 and we’re all here to tell the story—but it’d make the changes quite controversial. Automatically giving a batter a base and automatically advancing runners? Baseball Twitter might break.
But what about the first proposal? I can understand traditionalists (and others) being unhappy with runners automatically reaching base or advancing. But you don’t see people getting agitated over roster construction. I mean, during its protracted cold war with the union, major-league teams played with only 24 players instead of the limit of 25 for the first half of the 1978 season and every year from 1986 to 1989. Might forcing teams to carry fewer pitchers work? The idea here is that if teams have fewer pitchers, those on the roster would have to pitch more innings. That would require them to pace themselves more, sacrificing some effort/velocity for durability.
Over 37 percent of all starts this year have been for five innings or less. Under Wright’s proposal, they’d be unproductive, because assuming a five-man starting rotation, they’d severely tax a four-man bullpen. For that matter, over three-quarters of relief appearances this year have been for an inning or less; that’d have to change, too. As a result, pitchers would dial back the velocity in order to last longer. That, in turn, would result in fewer UCL injuries, fewer Tommy John surgeries, and fewer whiffs. At least in theory. All good outcomes!
But I’m sure you can imagine some of the problems here. Maybe additional workload would just lead to more UCL injuries, not fewer. Maybe the intensity of pitching to modern hitters is going to wear down arms no matter what we do. Maybe it’s too late for today’s pitchers, who’ve been developed in an environment of large pitching staffs and short outings, to suddenly lengthen their games. Maybe pitchers throwing less gas would lead to more offense that would make games even longer. Maybe owners, or general managers, or managers, or pitching coaches, or players would raise a vehement objection that I can’t contemplate. (See, I told you I was a moron.)
But what puzzles me is this: Why hasn’t this proposal gotten more of an airing? There are ideas galore regarding pace of play, rising strikeouts, and pitcher injuries. You’ve heard them, I’ve heard them. But have you heard anything like Wright’s idea? I haven’t, at least not lately. And when we’re seriously proposing lowering or moving the mound, limiting pitching changes, or other changes that’d ripple through professional and amateur baseball, it seems to me that Wright’s idea deserves to at least be on the table.
Even if I’m a moron.