Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Are Pitchers Babied?

Credit: David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

Roy Halladay retired yesterday.  While I’m grateful that I don’t have to watch 2011-esque Roy Halladay mow down the Braves (and then be burned for a Cy Young he deserved), I am sad that I won’t be able to watch his closed-together pitching motion that allowed for deceptiveness and movement on his pitches for all these years.  Halladay was a true Ace – a “give me the ball, send the relievers home for the day, and let’s win this ballgame” sort that was a throwback to the days where a starter didn’t have a 99 mph fastball to lean back on in the late innings of a ball game.

You will hear many former pitchers and long-time members of the game talk about how pitchers today are handled with kid gloves and overly protected.

First, some numbers:

The last to reach certain milestones, since 1900:

250 innings – Justin Verlander, 2011
260 innings – Roy Halladay, 2003
270 innings – Randy Johnson, 1999
280 innings – Charlie Hough, 1987
290 innings – Bert Blyleven, 1985
300 innings – Steve Carlton, 1980
340 innings – Phil Niekro, 1979
350 innings – Wilbur Wood, 1973
370 innings – Wilbur Wood, 1972
380 innings – Pete Alexander, 1917
390 innings – Ed Walsh, 1911
460 innings – Ed Walsh, 1908
The innings seem to get higher and higher as you go back in the game, and there’s no doubt that the numbers are higher, but here’s some interesting note.  The 1970s were the last decade to have every single MLB single season innings leader eclipse 250 innings in their leading season.  That said, the 1970s were also the first decade since the 1910s to have back to back 370+ inning MLB leaders.
So what changed?
1. Pitching rotation size
People may find it interesting, but the 5-man rotation actually became the majority model in 1925.  The difference is how the role of that fifth starter has changed.  Until the early 1980s, the 5th starter on any given team made roughly 50% starts because of many factors, the strongest of which was that the 5-man rotation, while still the majority used rotation model from 1925 on only reached super majority (2/3 of teams using it consistently) after the strike in 1981.  This could have to do with many things, including the costs of pitchers and protecting investment, but since 1980, we’ve never again seen a 300 inning pitcher, and the 5-man rotation was over 90% usage in 2011, so it has become the dominant model for teams.
2. Pitching specialization
In the “glory days” of Mantle, Aaron, and Mays, you rarely knew of a LOOGY.  Saying such a term in the 1960s may have led some to assume you were discussing spitting.  Now, every team has one or two specialists, and it means that a starter is being pulled.  It’s only logical (Spock reference!) as bringing a left-handed slugger to the plate in the 8th inning of a 1-run game to face a right-handed starter who is wavering around 65% of his best stuff could mean major trouble for the pitching team, so why not utilize a fully rested left-handed reliever who can expend all his energy on that one batter?  I remember (and I’m not THAT old) when most teams carried less than 10 pitchers on their active 25 man roster.  Now, many teams carry 13 pitchers!
Mark Prior, Credit:

3. Tom Verducci?

Lost in the shuffle of yesterday’s Roy Halladay announcement was the announcement of Mark Prior’s retirement to take a job with the San Diego Padres.  Prior became a poster child for what is known as “the Verducci effect”.  What is this, you may ask?  Tom Verducci is a writer for Sports Illustrated who years ago put forth a theory that increasing a young pitcher’s workload by more than 30 innings over his previous season’s workload drastically increases his risk of injury.  The theory has been wildly debated, proven, debunked, and if nothing else, led to a lot more scrutiny over HOW a pitcher gets injured.  What teams have found is that overloading their young starters does lead to more risk, but that there really isn’t a magical number.  Mark Prior in his early career was a significant example of a pitcher whose workload was significant very early in his career, and his once-brilliant career was all-too-short because of this heavy load, most likely.

What does this mean for the Braves?

The Braves are sitting on a large number of young starters with upside.  They’re also looking for someone to eat some more innings to fill out their rotation and keep innings off of their young arms and their bullpen.  Halladay is definitely the best-case scenario of a pitcher who took a huge leap forward in innings, got hurt, and then came back.  Prior is near to the worst case scenario.  The Braves would be wise to look deep into each pitcher to see what can be learned from each.

Tags: Braves Tomahawk Take

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