Disclaimer: This post is by DodgerRick. The opinions in this post are not necessarily those of Mark Timmons (it was fun to say that). However, you have to consider what he says. It is well-reasoned and thoughtful. Enjoy and praise him if you want more. Here’s Rick:
I am a skeptic when it comes to the current age of the tissue-paper arm. Baseball babies pitchers like never before but there are more serious arm injuries, not fewer, than ever before. Why is that?
A little trip down memory lane is not only nostalgic but informative. The 2016 Dodgers infamously used 15 different starting pitchers who pitched an average of 5.3 innings per start. Their top 5 starters (by number of starts) started only 108 of the Dodgers’ 162 games in 2016 (67%).
By comparison, the 2016 Cubs’ top 5 starters started 153 out of 161 games (95%) and averaged 6.1 innings per start and the Indians’ top 5 started 139 out of 161 (86%) and averaged 5.8 innings per start (even with all of the injuries suffered by Indians’ pitchers last year.)
Now, down memory lane. The last 3 Dodgers teams to go to the World Series were 1977, 1981 and 1988. What were their numbers like? In 1988, the Dodgers’ top 5 starters started 133 of 161 games (83%) and averaged 6.4 innings per start (numbers brought down by 43 year old Don Sutton who started 16 games for the Dodgers in what was his swan song).
In 1981 (a shortened season) the Dodgers top 4 starters started 103 of 110 games (94%) and averaged 6.5 innings per start. In 1977, the top 5 started 158 of 162 games (98%) and averaged 7 innings per start.
The point is that if you want to build a winning team it has to start with starting pitchers who pitch ever 4 (or 5 days) and pitch deep into games. I acknowledge that there have been teams with poor starters but great bullpens, usually, but not always, with great offenses, that have won without good starting pitching but that is the exception and not the rule.
I have been reading Jeff Passan’s outstanding 2016 book The Arm and it has quite the story to tell. Ask yourself – where did the idea of a pitch count of 100 come from? Is there any evidence supporting the supposition that a pitcher turns into a pumpkin after 100? What about the 5 man rotation instead of 4? It turns out there is absolutely none. From page 97 of The Arm:
“If doing something is bad, the thinking now went, doing less must be better. The widespread adoption of the five-man rotation gave starting pitchers an extra day of rest but didn’t demonstrably help keep pitcher healthier. When Russell Carleson of Baseball Prospectus studied every start from 1950 to 2012 to learn whether an extra day of rest helped a pitcher perform better the answer surprised him. “There was no indication that pitchers did better or worse based on how many days of rest they got” he wrote. “ What was significant was the number of pitches that the pitcher had thrown in his previous start.”
The magic number? 140 pitches.
It turns out that a dermatologist (skin doctor) named Rany Jazayerli wrote an article for Baseball Prospectus in 1998 called “Pitcher Abuse Points” that suggested as an hypothesis, without any study, that more than 100 pitches was abusive to pitchers’ arms. Baseball bought it without a second though. As Passan wrote
“The upper boundary on a modern pitcher is around 4,000 pitches in a season. Four thousand plus pitch season were prevalent in the 1920s and ‘30s, dipped in the 40s and ‘50s, made a comeback in the ‘60s and peaked in the ‘70s. An estimated 22 pitchers exceeded 4,000 pitches 1970 (alone). It’s almost as many as the entirety of the 1990s…Since 2000, only Randy Johnson (twice) and Livan Hernandez have thrown 4,000 pitches in a season. Nobody in baseball crack 3,500 pitches in 2015. Baseball took a well-intentioned idea- limit young pitchers’ workloads to prevent them from getting hurt because of overuse – and applied the doing less must be better philosophy to every pitcher, as though handed down on Mount Sinai by the baseball gods.”
Pasasan points out that there is little relationship between pitch counts and injury (or effectiveness), or days between starts and injury (or effectiveness), or innings pitched and injury (or effectiveness). He even notes that there is no evidence supporting the so-called Verducci effect (which suggests that young pitchers shouldn’t increase their workload by over 30 innings in a given season). In short, in the face of increasing limits on a starting pitcher’s workload, the number of injuries goes up and not down.
So, you ask, how does this apply to the Dodgers? A few points. First, Dodger pitchers from past seasons prove the points that more innings in a season don’t mean arm disasters – just the opposite. The Dodgers’ ’77 rotation included Don Sutton (5282 innings in his career over 23 seasons), Tommy John (4710 innings and 26 seasons), Burt Hooton (2652 innings and 15 seasons), Rick Rhoden (2593 and 16) and Doug Rau (1261 and 9). In ’81 it was Hooton, Bob Welch (3092 and 17) Jerry Reuss (3069 and 22) and Fernando Valenzuela (2939 and 17). In ’88 they had Orel Hershiser (3130 and 18), Tim Leary, (1491 and 13), Tim Belcher (2442 and 14), Valenzuela and Sutton. So 7 innings per start and 250 innings don’t necessarily hurt the arm or shorten the career.
What about the 2016 Dodgers? It’s a perfect example of signing the injured or injury prone. Other than rookies like Maeda or Urias, and other than Kershaw, (1767 innings in 10 seasons), the ’16 Dodgers featured the likes of Scott Kazmir (1699 and 12), Brandon McCarthy (1052 and 11), Rich Hill (610 and 12) and Brett Anderson (685 and 8). So – more use isn’t linked to injury or ineffectiveness, obviously, from looking at recent Dodgers’ history. What does all of this data tell us?
As Passan and other have pointed out, the best predictor of pitcher arm injury is a prior arm injury. The Dodgers of Seasons Past (Dickensian, isn’t it?) were comprised of pitchers who took the ball every 4 or 5 days for many years. This year’s group? Not so much.
We are told that it will all be OK – that it doesn’t really matter how likely a Dodgers’ starter is to be injured, that the Dodgers have depth! Depth will make everything OK. Forget about Don Sutton and his 5000+ career innings, we’d rather have a Rich Hill type because when he gets hurt we have depth!
Face it – the Dodgers haven’t developed a workhorse-type pitcher other than Kershaw in many seasons. (The closest thing to a workhorse other than Kershaw, Chad Billingsley has thrown 1212 innings in 9 seasons.) For all of the babying of pitchers’ arms, the Dodgers have largely failed to develop pitchers for the past couple of decades. We hope that the likes of Urias and others will break this trend, but the recent history doesn’t look good.
Perhaps the failure of the Dodgers to develop starting pitchers and the failure of the recent experiment of signing the old and infirm is the reason that Dodger fans keep hoping that the team splurges on a big time free agent pitcher signing. Say what you will about Zack Greinke – he was great while he pitched for the Dodgers. Brad Penny and Derek Lowe were efforts to supplement the poor pitching that the Dodgers were bringing up from the minors. Their effectiveness was perhaps not as good as desired, but was still better than anything coming from the farm.
The plus side of all of this is that the Dodgers have been focused on developing pitching talent, and Urias is certainly promising. Interestingly, they have recently traded away 4 of their top pitching prospects, but still don’t sign blue chip starters from elsewhere. (I assume that the Braintrust has kept what it views as its best prospects and has traded from a surplus of prospects.)
The downside? The Dodgers’ staff of walking wounded is not designed to win a title. And the Dodgers still haven’t developed starting pitchers good enough to make a difference, other than Kershaw in decades. I don’t believe that the Dodgers’ strategy of babying its homegrown pitchers and then signing the injured or injury prone is designed to win. — DodgerRick