12 May 2008

Napkin Scratches: Handle with too much care?

One topic that comes up time and time again is how strong and durable pitchers used to be. Gone are the days where a pitcher would finish half the games he started. Gone are the days that no one needed a LOOGY. These are things we often lament. Right in hand with that lamenting is a palpable anger toward today's pampered pitchers. These guys are given strict pitch counts in the minors right into the majors. Gone too are the days when it was common to hear about some obscure prospect in PCL who threw 255 pitches in a single game that lasted 18 innings. It just isn't done.

So . . . why?

The first culprit is money. In 1976, the Reserve Clause was shot down. This enabled free agency and it changed the way a lot of different aspects in baseball were handled. In terms of pitching, it affected a few things. First off, it increased the value of pitching. Not only did the current game or season matter, but also seasons down the road. You had to invest a significant amount of money into a pitcher and you would not want to take a loss on it. This may have been the main pushing force of the five man rotation. Although, the five man rotation was not unheard of before the ruling, it quickly became the norm after it. Of course, as you may remember, the Orioles switched to the five man rotation in 1983 when Joe Altobelli took over.

Now, what the five man rotation does is give the pitcher more time off between starts for rest. The idea behind this is that pitching is a violent action. It is also not a very normal way to use your body. Quite unnatural. It follows reason that chronic repetition would result in physical damage. More time off between starts should equate to allowing the body to recuperate. Others argue against this though because it results in an uneven workout schedule. In the 4 man rotation, you would take a day off, throw a side session, then take a day off between starts. There is really little reason to think an uneven schedule hurts performance for any athlete that is not obsessive compulsive about such things. In my opinion, the value of a 5 man rotation is only a plus if the amount of strain forced on a pitcher requires an extra day of rest. It should also be expressed that not all arms are alike.

After the five man rotation was cemented in, pitch counts started popping up on the horizon. As far as I can tell, concern about pitch counts emerged in the late 80s and early 90s as drafted pitching prospects began making serious mint. The philosophy seeped into the majors in order to help preserve oft-injured pitchers (i.e. Saberhagen) or with fresh faces (i.e. Josh Beckett). The number typically chosen is 100. The PAP system goes with that. Top tier pitchers usually throw about 100 pitches per game. Even guys who claim not to use counts (i.e. Oziie Guillien) still seem to have pitchers that hover around the 100 mark.

That is the weird thing. Coaches who believe in pitch counts and those who don't . . . they do not vary much in terms of when a pitcher should be taken out. Again, this is now a bright line criteria. There is variation from arm to arm, some seem to be able to handle more and some less. This is pretty much regardless of coach. It seems that either no one uses pitch counts or that pitch counts just don't vary from normal performance measures.

This got me to wonder some things:
1. Training and development is better now than it was in the past
2. Players are more athletic and stronger now than they were
3. Pitching, which is more reliant on tendons and ligaments, has less potential to benefit from improvements in other areas of training and sport medicine. For instance, you can strengthen a pitcher's legs, but you cannot strengthen his tendons and ligaments to withstand a higher degree of torque.

As technology and knowledge increases, so does the player's ability to perform, which is most likely to benefit a hitter more so than a pitcher due to the physical limitations placed on each activity.

That reminded me of this study. Read it. Seriously, read it. Good stuff. It is not perfect, but it provides a great approximation of how developed talent has increased over the years. Some interesting things pop out in that study. The ten best hitters ever in order from best to worst:
Bonds, Ted Williams, Aaron, Musial, Mays, Frank Robinson, Yaz, Ricky Henderson, Cobb, and Mantle.
Honestly, it makes sense. People often overlook how good guys like Ricky and Musial were. It is also interesting to think that Ted Williams would still kill in today's game.

Anyway, if players have gotten better . . . wouldn't pitching have gotten tougher if you assume that hitters will benefit more due to not being so reliant on tendons and ligaments? To this extent, we can use league quality as a coefficient to determine how today's pitching load per start compares to other eras. For this napkin scratching effort I am considering all starting pitching data in the AL from 1969 to 2007. I am predicting pitch counts based on the method I previously used. I am also normalizing the pitch counts based on the competition level of the league, taken from this graph.

The black line is raw SP Pitches per Game and the orange line is league quality adjusted SP Pitches per Game.

What is interesting to note here is that as pitch counts are reduced, the league quality coefficient somewhat accounts for it. This suggests that league quality is causing a decrease in pitching counts. Others have countered that it might just be a relationship with runs per game. So, I ran another one with runs per game and as you can see there is much more variability in the runs per game adjusted line (black) and the league quality adjusted.

League quality appears to be affecting the number of pitches a SP throws. This suggests that pitch counts are either not followed or are more complex than a single line. It appears as if pitchers are being used quite similarly to how they were back in the 70s even though IP/G has dropped from 6.2 in 1973 to almost 5.2 in 2007.

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