Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Tom Verducci and the Year of the Pitcher

One Tuesday morning in November 2006, Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci didn't know it yet, but he changed baseball. Possibly forever.

On November 28, 2006, Verducci published this article, which goes into the Year After Effect and its correlation with a lot of top-line young starting pitchers flaming out. This theory, which Verducci tracked with Oakland A's pitching coach Rick Peterson for over a decade, suggested that pitchers under 25 whose workload (including minor league, major league, and playoff innings pitched) increased by more by 30 innings in one season were at the highest risk of flaming out due to injury, fatigue, or general ineffectiveness.

The more hardcore sabermetricians have long disputed this effect, which is now named the Verducci Effect, by saying that on the aggregate, this effect is purely anecdotal.

Problem is, the anecdotes seem to be the flashiest ones. So people started to listen to the Verducci Effect after ten of his seventeen named players flamed out in 2007. This is the time that the "Joba Rules" took effect. This is the time that Clay Buchholz was shut down and Eric Gagne was put into the Red Sox' World Series bullpen instead.

The year 2008 happened and Buchholz, after the innings increase in 2007, flamed out big time and ended up in Portland, Maine on the one-year anniversary of his no-hitter. He was not the only one. And the names were big.

So in the last couple of years, there were teams other than the A's, Red Sox, and Yankees who started to protect their pitchers like prized assets. And now here we are in 2010 and people can't hit the baseball anymore. The young pitchers who have been babied through the minor leagues and the first few years of the major leagues are blowing up like nitro. Even the ones like Ubaldo Jimenez, Felix Hernandez and Buchholz who had flamed out at one point, have been babied back to health and dominance. Phil Hughes has been tremendous. And these are just a smattering of examples.

People can talk about steroids all they want, but steroids didn't only produce players like Barry Bonds and David Ortiz who could hit the ball a mile. They also produced guys like a certain 4A starter in the Dodgers organization who could suddenly throw the ball 105 miles an hour and save 83 games in a row. So don't say that the Year of the Pitcher is because the steroid era is dead.

Another factor in the Year of the Pitcher is along the same lines of the Verducci Effect being listened to. It's the fact that in the minor leagues, it's the pitchers who are being offered the foremost medical treatment, the ones whose plugs are being pulled at the first hint of an injury. Highly-rated position players might also get the first-class treatment, but it seems like the pitchers' workload is being monitored to a much larger extent. People aren't monitoring the number of ground balls Lars Anderson is taking, but people are certainly monitoring how many pitches Casey Kelly is throwing. Nature of the beast.

But whether or not you believe in following the Verducci theory strictly or if you're into treating every minor league pitcher like you treat a painting in an art museum, I feel like the dominance of pitchers will last for a long time. As silly and as over-the-top as I think it probably is, I feel like it has been effective. Nobody's throwing 225 innings at the age of 21 anymore.

Moving forward into the future and looking at the way baseball as a whole has followed the Verducci model, it should be supremely interesting to see what happens to pitchers with a Texas Rangers uniform on. This one organization, led by a guy who pitched for 26 years, is all alone in the pursuit of building pitchers by having them pitch a lot. Personally, I'm rooting for them because I'm pro-not being a baby. But let's face it: The people being treated like Phil Hughes are having a much better season than the people treated like Daisuke Matsuzaka.


Anonymous said...


This was the first post in a long while where it took me some time to figure out who wrote it. Don't know what that means, but thought it was worth mentioning.

As for the substance of your post, clearly, monitoring young pitchers has been all the rage in recent years and as far as I can see, when it's done right (not the way it's been done with Joba Chamberlain) it's effective. And if you think about it, it all kind of makes sense--throwing a baseball is a really awkward and violent physical activity. It's not natural. We should be more surprised when a pitcher doesn't get injured than when one does. I mean the fact that Derek Lowe and Mike Mussina never went on the DL (though that may have changed for Lowe, but I know he'd held that distinction for a long time), is amazing and is generally one of the qualities that people discuss about them. And I think that's a testament to the fact that arm, elbow, and shoulder injuries are the rule, rather than the exception, when it comes to pitchers.

--the Gunn

the gm at work said...

The use of the hyperlinks should have been an indicator that it was me. Pat claims they do not show up on his blogging user interface. I find it hard to believe.

The handling of Joba was incredibly unprofessional.

TimC said...

I think this type of thinking is becoming prevalent to all professional sports. It is saddening to see talented guys like Bynum and Yao go down with injury year after year in the NBA and I am curious if teams will start to treat these players with the same "kid gloves" that they wear for pitching prospects in minor league baseball. In football, the discussion of moving the season to 18 games is surely good news to guys like Chris Johnson who carry the ball around 500 times a season or big lineman who are already at the limits of the unnatural movements they subject themselves to.

Still, the argument on the other side is enticing. Dice comes up a lot in these parts, so I'll use him as an example. Does the fact that he is now struggling a bit for fitness and consistency mean he was mistreated in his youth? Sure, maybe his career would be longer now, but the ridiculous success he achieved in his young twenties would have been impossible had his high school team actually not thrown him for 300+ pitches over two days (OK, that's ridiculous) or the Seibu Lions not let him reach 150 pitches in every start (albeit, with an extra day of rest). I guess the question is, do you trade in those years where one is elite and pitches a lot for some later years where one is merely above average but is so for a long time? Would you rather be, essentially, Schilling or Pedro? And would the team rather have one or the other?

John said...

But would Dice be pitching here now if his high school heroics not been what they were? Maybe eventually he would have moved over, but to be less effective but to make that much more money because of what you did in your youth, is it worth it?