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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.

Wright remains focused on baseball history, curating the website Pages from Baseball’s Past and publishing, in 2013, a book by the same name. (He expects a second volume later this year.)

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.”

Phew.

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.

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Junts1
8/17
I think the answer to your question of why it doesn't get more of an airing is simple, really. We already know what happens to pitchers who can't throw gas. We have them in the majors now. And they have to have elite, elite command to be really successful. Baseball players, like every other modern athlete, are in an arms race to the pinnacle of human physical ability. Basketball players are faster, stronger, and taller than ever before. In the NFL, there are 300+ pound linemen who can run faster than most adults. Look at the results you get from the guys who don't have elite velocity and have a lot of 'pitchability'. These guys are 4th and 5th starters unless they have elite command, highly deceptive deliveries, etc. If every pitcher took 2 or 3 mph off their stuff, every game would look like it's played in Coors Field. Hitters keep improving to keep up with the velocity. They would destroy 1980s-era fastball velocities. Besides, we already have a lot of pitchers who go it easier. They're starting pitchers. Look at the all-star game, where we saw some truly hilarious outcomes from starters who got to dial it up in relief. Carlos Martinez hit 101 several times. Chris Sale was nearly throwing 100. Do you think its fair when Chris Sale also throws 100? It wasn't. In the other major sports you also see this trend, which is away from muscular injuries and towards tendon and ligament injuries. As athletes reach the pinnacles of human strength, the weak points in their mechanics and bodies become the tendons and ligaments that can't be strengthened. Its likely that those kinds of tissues are the inevitable limiter on human physical achievement. What's most interesting to me is that position players largely haven't yet reached that stage and still get primarily muscular injuries. I suspect this has to do with the stand-around-and-then-accelerate nature of athletic behavior in baseball. I think that in this proposed world of 9 man pitching staffs, you'd simply see gigantic differences in outcomes on offense, and the later half of pitching staffs would get routinely shelled. This is exactly what happens to a lot of guys who have basically major league skills in every area but not the level of velocity required. They turn into AAAA pitchers and we cringe when they enter games. You can't take the arms race away from pitchers while allowing hitters to continue it and expect baseball to look the same; run scoring would improve dramatically.
mainsr
8/17
Thoughtful reply, Mike. Thanks for it. You may be right about nine-pitcher staffs. I'm not so sure if we limited pitching staffs to eleven. I'd be interested in that. It's been a LONG time since teams have carried nine pitchers, but--I'm going off the top of my head here, so I may be wrong--it seems that 13-pitcher staffs starting being a thing just in the last couple years, which means we're not that far removed from eleven. I know, not going to happen, but I'd be in favor of capping pitching staffs at 13 in 2018, 12 in 2019, and 11 in 2020, and seeing how much offense takes off. We're at 4.66 runs per game now, the 34th most in the 117 seasons since the AL was established--70th percentile, not 90th, and almost half a run a game below the recent high of 5.14 in 2000. I'd take the trade.
Junts1
8/18
I dont know if that would fix the injury problem. The injury problem is a cumulative thing that begins at the amateur level. It comes from year-around travel teams and how strong these kids get when they aren't entirely done growing yet. I also wonder, and this is a purely speculative question, how much pitch limits at lower levels have simply induced many amateur pitchers to throw harder for less pitches since they don't need to hold anything back. I don't think there's a way to keep pitchers from trying to throw harder and harder. Its so fundamental to athletic achievement. I think the biggest answer to start is to ensure that kids have offseasons. A lot of professional pitching injuries stem from overuse that has accumulated over a long period. You see how many kids these days get surgery before they are even professional, or immediately after. The Dodgers top pitching prospect, Walker Buehler, is a kid they drafted out of college without a UCL - his first act as a professional was to get surgery. He's now recovered and is in fact better than he ever was as an amateur, and hes going to go from having never thrown a professional inning until the fall of 2016 to pitching in the bullpen of one of the best teams every in the fall of 2017. He probably played on a frayed and damaged UCL for his entire collegiate career. He now throws 97-99! I think to a larger degree these guys are safter once they are professionals. Its the amateur levels that lack highly skilled training staffs, endless resources to do regular diagnostic and baseline imagery, and most importantly, baseball for no reason except to improve and get ready for the major leagues. No one gives a shit who wins the AAA championship in the Pacific Coast league. And they shouldn't. But kids try really hard to win the College World Series. There was research on Fangraphs back at draft time showing how UCLA pitchers are consistently overworked and they have consequently lower track records as professionals. UCLA is a hyper competitive program and they want to win the championship every year. They use their best pitchers more than they should. If you want to solve pitcher injuries, it isn't going to be solved by MLB rosters.
Junts1
8/18
I remember reading somewhere this summer an interview by Dr James Andrews where someone asked him what he would do if he had a kid who wanted to be a pitcher, and whether he would let him. And he said yes, but only with both pitch limits and with a defined offseason where he played other sports, and no year-round travel teams, because the arm needs offseasons to recover.
mainsr
8/18
Yes, year-round pitching is one of the culprits noted in Jeff Passan's "The Arm." Re pitching injuries, I won't claim to know much, but that's an area where Wright does have expertise. The collateral benefits of his proposal--faster pace of play through fewer pitching changes and less time between pitches, fewer whiffs, more balls in play--are just that, collateral to his interest in reducing UCL damage. Whether it'd work, who knows. Your point about college pitchers is a good one, though it doesn't apply to kids drafted out of high school and foreign-born draftees. Year-round pitching does.
Junts1
8/18
Yeah, I know you've written some pieces where you regard the rise in K rates/BB rates/HR rates and reduction in balls in play as an objectively bad thing. I don't really agree so I focused more on the pitching injuries part of it. Will Carroll used to write a lot about some of that here a long time ago. While collegiate usage doesnt apply to everyone, I suspect that the reasons do. Minor League Baseball is about developing and protecting players so they will make MLB. Nothing below is like that. The temptation to throw too much and too long in pursuit of a championship may be most obvious or trackable with the College World Series, but I bet its equally present for competitive teams at lower levels, when major league careers are very far away and likely nonexistent for nearly all players, and the best thing they have to get out of their baseball career is this HS state championship or similar achievement.
MikePemulis
8/17
OOOhh, a cool side effect would be a rise the the Waxahachie swap!
mainsr
8/17
OK, I had to look that up, Mike. But you're right: It would be cool! For those of you who have to look it up too: http://www.foxsports.com/mlb/story/bo-porter-managers-astros-tony-sipp-waxahachie-swap-paul-richards-061114
mainsr
8/19
Ah geez I'm a dope. Russell wrote about this on Tuesday! Good article! I'm entertaining visiting guests this week so am behind on my reading.