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The Verducci Effect: Are Our Pitchers at Risk?

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I need to talk to nickatt7 ASAP. Can you email me at baseballgirl1976 at hotmail?

A few weeks ago, we discussed Will Carroll's Team Health Reports, which labeled both Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson as "red" health risks. We did some speculation at the time as to whether or not the young pitchers would fall into the "Verducci Effect" (which says that pitchers under the age of 25 who have 30-inning increases year over year tend to underperform).

Tom Verducci himself actually addresses the A's pitchers specifically in this article for SI.com, which was written a few weeks ago, but I think is very relevant to the upcoming season.

A wave of young pitching has washed ashore. Last year more 25-and-under pitchers made at least 10 starts than any time in the history of the game (71), including a 69 percent increase from five years ago. In just the past 13 months teams have handed out contract extensions that bought out free agent years of young homegrown stars Zack Greinke, Jon Lester, Josh Johnson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander.

Verducci's concern is that young pitchers can be overused when they are not yet a) physically matured and b) fully conditioned. Verducci has been studying this effect for more than a decade, and as many of you know, the A's pitching coach Rick Peterson was right at the forefront of some of this research. Verducci explains: 

I defined an at-risk pitcher as any 25-and-under pitcher who increased his innings log by more than 30 in a year in which he pitched in the big leagues. Each year the breakdown rate of such red-flagged pitchers -- either by injury or drop in performance -- was staggering.

I called the trend the Year After Effect, though it caught on in some places as the Verducci Effect. As I was tracking this trend, the industry already was responding to the breakdown in young pitchers. The Yankees instituted the Joba Rules. The Orioles shut down pitchers late in the year. Teams set "target innings" for their young pitchers before camp even began. Clubs sent underworked starters to the Arizona Fall League to build their arms to better withstand regular work the next year.

Still, by oversight, circumstances or old school "take-it-as-it-comes" thinking, teams continue to overload young pitchers, which is why the Verducci Effect is still in business, with 10 pitchers red-flagged for 2010.

The first time Verducci ran the numbers, he came up with two pitchers on the Oakland A's: Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill. No surprise there, right?

Actually, he was surprised, considering what the A's should know--better than anyone else--about pitcher health. 

How could they of all teams, I wondered, let Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill take jumps of 55 and 54 1/3 innings in 2009?

The short answer is: They didn't.

The A's may not be able to explain why Geren and Duchscherer communicate through the media. They may not be able to explain why Chavez will stay healthy this year, or why Travis Buck will do his best work in Triple-A. But if there's one thing the Oakland A's are careful about, it is statistics, and in this case, Verducci metrics.

"Oh, no," Oakland GM Billy Beane told me. "We didn't. We always keep an eye on the Verducci metrics.

What we didn't know at the time of the health reports (and may account for some of Carroll's numbers?) was that both Anderson and Cahill pitched for the 2008 U.S. Olympic team, so although their professional statistics show a large innings increase, their actual innings pitched do not. As Verducci puts it, "Goodbye red flags." So there you have it, straight from the source; Anderson/Cahill actually do not fall into the Verducci Effect.

Beane explains further:

"We always keep an eye on that, especially when we get to September," Beane said. "In fact, we backed off them in September [with extra days of rest and lower pitch counts] just because of that. They each wound up in the 170s in innings, which was perfect. They're right on track this year to go out and make 30 to 35 starts and throw right around 200 innings. We think that's the natural progression."

Verducci goes on to talk about the care that Beane took during Hudson, Mulder and Zito's careers with the A's; he says that Beane has always been an advocate of the theory that pitchers only have so many throws in their arms, which made him a easy sell for Peterson's hard data.

"One thing I told Rick was, 'I can be sold if you give me information,'" Beane said. "I don't pretend to know the answer. Nobody knows. But this just makes sense. Given a choice between too much throwing at too young an age and being conservative, we'll always take the conservative route. Look, Hudson, Mulder, Zito . . . we took good care of those guys."

This not to say that Anderson and Cahill are at no risk of injury; obviously, Carroll believes there is some risk with our young pitchers, but it might not be as bad at it initially appeared. Or in other words, we can now go back to worrying about Duchscherer and Sheets.

Today's game is vs. the Brewers at 12:00. I will be at Spring Training tomorrow!