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: SI.com

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.

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  • Bryan Allen

    All of what was said here makes sense.Myself, I think one of the reasons pitchers get treated the way they do is for 2 reasons actually. The first is how the game has changed over the years.But for me, the biggest reason pitchers are pampered is good ol money.Ya gotta admit, they didn’t make the kind of bucks in the early 1900s like they do now.And if owners are gonna spend the kind of money that they do these days, on pitching, you can bet your bottom dollar they are gonna protect there investment.And if that means cutting there work load each time out, then that’s what there gonna do.Try & take a pitcher out of a game in 1910.Then ya got a fight on your hands.Back in those days, players & not just the pitchers would take jobs in the off season.But if fans wanna see a starter log 300+ innings again, then lower there salary so if they blow out there arm, you as an owner don’t lose as much money.But we know that day will never come again.Which goes back to what I said earlier.That’s how the game has changed.

  • fireboss

    The reason pitchers get injured so young these days has more to do with throwing breaking balls at age 10, damaging the growth plates in the arm, a UCL that’s not finished developing and a rotator cuff that is worn before they hit 21 because all they do is play baseball instead of switching to basketball track or football in the off season. The younger Latin American pitchers have it worse than those born in the US. I suspect Terehan has thrown 15000 pitches and only about half of those as a pro.
    Bryan is right that the cost of pitchers causes owners to reach for bubble wrap. But I remember the day when Pitchers were the fittest players around. They were always running because their legs were their money. I don’t know how many times I was told as I tried to play ball that a pitcher pitched with his legs. Today’s pitchers are less drop and drive and more stand tall and fall, another reason they are hurt more often. It was not unusual for Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette to pinch hit and the rest were pinch runners.
    When a pitcher does on the DL for hitting or running it’s because they don’t hit or run enough. Now If I said would you rather lose Heyward or Teheran for 15 days I’m sure the Answer is Teheran. You can find a stand in starter who can give you five innings, getting a Heyward replacement is not so easy

    • Benjamin Chase

      Younger breaking pitches absolutely are a factor. That and sport specialization younger and younger. No one in my area played just one sport, no matter how good they were. If you were an athlete, you played 3 sports (all that were offered at my tiny high school). Now, a lot of players play baseball year round.

  • Lee Trocinski

    Pitchers also have to expend more energy per hitter, since lineups are much more potent. Even through the 80′s, there were a lot of teams where the 3-6 hitters were the only ones able to hit 10+ homers. Now that nearly every player has that power, pitchers know that missing bats is more important. To miss bats, you have to try harder, whether throwing hard or snapping off sharper breaking stuff.

    • Benjamin Chase

      I didn’t mention it, and there are more reasons even than what we stated here, but velocity has to be one of those reasons as well. There is such an emphasis on velocity that a lot of younger pitchers along the way are overstressing their arms trying to go from 92 to 94 and there simply isn’t the emphasis on controlling the zone. Heck, those who are very good control pitchers are minimized by prospect evaluators every year when we read their ranking lists.

      • Lee Trocinski

        Control pitchers who don’t strike out many minor league hitters generally have very little success in the majors. While you are right that pushing too far for a couple extra ticks is bad, the best pitchers have that velocity. 7 of the top 8 RA9-WAR guys had average fastballs above 92 MPH, with Iwakuma as the exception. When Maddux was at his best, even he was close to league-average velocity. Controlling the zone is nice, but if your stuff is hittable, your potential is limited, so that is why guys with better stuff get rated higher.

        • Benjamin Chase

          Oh, I’m not saying sacrificing “stuff” for control is best. Halladay had plenty of stuff, but he wasn’t a big velocity pitcher. I’m saying that the emphasis has moved from pitching to throwing at young levels, and while that’s always been true for the biggest of the big arms, it seems to be true for nearly every arm as they enter the professional ranks anymore. It’s rare that a guy comes into professional baseball with the ability to put the ball where he wants it how he wants it. It’s much more common that he could throw it how hard he wants it without the other two factors present.