The Undervalued Commodity of Pitcher Health: How Far Have We Really Come?

A few weeks ago, Gary Armida wrote an extremely interesting article for fullcountpitch.com titled Arms Race the Last Hope for Small Market Teams  (non-subscription). In this article, he tells the basic story of statistical analysis; started a few decades ago by Bill James, et al, and brought to the forefront of baseball with Billy Beane and the early 2000 Oakland A's.

He points out that statistics have become increasingly standard for all MLB teams, which puts the small-market teams right back in the same position they have always been: With teams like the Yankees and Red Sox using statistical analysis as well as their unlimited budgets, what chance does the rest of the league have?

The latter statement poses the biggest problem for small market teams as the Red Sox and Yankees, two of the biggest spenders in the game, are utilizing small market practices, the same practices that allowed Beane’s A’s to make the playoffs from 2000 through 2003 while winning at least 88 games from 2000 through 2006. There is just one problem with most teams pouring money into advanced statistical analysis and trying to find an undervalued skill. There simply isn’t anything left to exploit. The majority of teams understand the value of hitters getting on base; they now understand the value of defensive statistics. What’s left to exploit?

Armida offers one last undervalued commodity:

Just as Billy Beane did years ago, teams will have to eschew long-practiced philosophies and methods in order to find that last untapped resource. Teams may have to look towards science in order to find the answer rather than hold onto long-standing traditions. The last true unexplored area is pitcher health. The first team to find a system that can keep its pitchers healthy wins the race and becomes Baseball’s next great dynasty.

Why is it so hard to keep pitchers healthy? Why do MLB teams have much stricter pitching restrictions, regulations, and routines in this era than ever before, yet aren't making strides in keeping starting pitchers on the field?

And as Armida points out, this is especially troubling for a team like the A's, who don't have the depth (of talent or pocketbook) to recover from an ace pitcher (or two!) going down. And since we can probably classify the entire A's starting pitching staff as high-risk*, it is likely that the 2010 season could hinge on starting pitcher health.

Will Carroll pulls no punches with his analysis of the problem:

"Progressive thinking is almost absent in baseball. There’s almost complete ignorance at the field level", says Carroll, "In the front offices some, but this isn’t translating to the field. I know that a pitching coach doesn’t need to be doing calculus, but the last major change in pitching was the five man rotation, in the late 60’s, early 70s. Pitch counts have come down, but injuries have gone up. Still, we’re doing less research than it would cost to sign Kelvim Escobar now. It’s sad."

Armida quotes MLB pitcher Al Leiter, a player-turned-analyst for the MLB Network:

Leiter was always someone who looked to maximize his ability. Having been educated about strength training for pitchers, the 22 year old was in the weight room doing basic shoulder strengthening exercises, something that is common for pitchers today. "I was in the weight room and in walks Billy Martin, puffing his cigar. He yells, ‘what’s wrong with you?’ After trying to tell him that I was strengthening my arm, he barked, ‘If you want to get stronger, go long-toss’. The truth is, there was no training regimen then. Everything was done on the fly", explains Leiter. It seems that this is the case with many teams today.

After losing three seasons to injury early on in his career, Leiter turned his career around and went on to pitch 12 more seasons as a "durable, dominant" pitcher. Here's what didn't change:

Was it pitch counts? No, that certainly wasn’t it as Leiter always threw a high number of pitches. He famously threw 142 of them during game five of the 2000 World Series in one of the best post-season performances in recent history. His transformation wasn’t about pitch count, even though pitch count and innings limits are considered the preeminent safety nets for pitchers today. For Leiter, the transformation had everything to do with the science that Baseball seems resistant to adopt.

It wasn’t until 1991, after his second surgery, that Leiter found what he needed. "Dr. (James) Andrews invited me to have a biomechanical pitching analysis. He told me that they knew what ‘clean guys look like’. Listen, I was the perfect poster child for this. I was the 5th high school pitcher taken; I had plus-stuff and terrible mechanics. With the analysis, I saw my arm path and made adjustments to have a proper arm path. If I had one (an analysis) at 10 or 11 years old, a lot of things would’ve changed", Leiter passionately explains.

...

Leiter is just one of a many pitchers who used biomechanics as a key element to sustain his proper arm path and delivery, allowing him to pitch for another 13 seasons at a high level. Unfortunately for most pitchers, biomechanics was pushed aside for the importance of pitch counts and innings limits.

 

That should bring up the question: If the bio-mechanic data is out there, and the data supports mechanics over strict pitch-count limits, why doesn't that seem to translate to the field? But I guess why I want to know is why there are no set individual training programs for MLB pitchers laid out by their teams? Does baseball really expect 20-25 year olds with no medical training to come up with a routine that will make them a healthy pitcher? And is it too late to undo bad habits from high school/college/minor league ball? (I don't know, is it?)

From the science side of the debate:

The use of science is perhaps the only pitching program that comes with data from valid research. Pitch counts, as Will Carroll points out, are more of an end result. Teams are hoping that if a pitcher averages 92 pitches per game, he will stay healthy. The science of biomechanics and the research of Dr. Andrews remove that hope. Teams will know the flaws of their pitchers. They can be proactive in correcting those flaws and avoiding those injuries that sideline pitchers and cripple a team’s pennant hopes. There is momentum building towards this movement, but there is still the old school mentality lingering on the field. "The old school mentality would yell, ‘what are you talking about? Just pitch", explains Leiter. The same thing goes on today except they yell to stop pitching after 100 pitches.

And once again, the Oakland A's were right on the cutting edge of this undervalued commodity at one time. But what happened?

Rick Peterson was the first coach to bring his staff to the famed lab in Alabama. His Oakland A’s were the model of health. Shortly after he left and another program was put in place, pitchers broke down. As the pitching coach for the Mets, he brought the New York hurlers for an analysis. The Mets also had near flawless pitching health. Soon after he left, pitchers began to break down when a less stringent program was put into place. That health is attributed to the analysis and the proper delivery that results from data. "I am very fortunate to have been put in a place where I was able to be educated by Dr. Andrews. The data is there. We can pinpoint a pitcher’s flaw and correct it before it becomes a problem. None of my pitchers ever had a problem with getting an analysis", explains Peterson. Using that data, Peterson is able to construct an individualized pitching plan for each member of his staff. That includes delivery workouts, conditioning practices, and mental coaching. Rick Adair agrees about catering to the individual rather than a whole team approach, "Today, the individual gets ignored. Some training methods are not for everyone. They’re not clones. You have to take that into account when working with pitchers".

So were the A's a group of healthier pitchers back then? Did something fundamentally change in Oakland to raise the red flags on pitcher health? Are coaches like Peterson and the bio-mechanic data (he's now with the Brewers) setting the standard for future pitching health? How would you begin to change the look of MLB with this new data? How early would you start with a young pitcher? What would you do if your child wanted to pitch; what resources would you use?

*stay tuned for an analysis on the 2010 Team Health Reports from Will Carroll when they are published. Rumor has it that between Sheets and Duchscherer's obvious risks, and the Verducci Effect on the rest of the rotation, he already has four of the A's possible starting pitchers in red.

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