Concerns about workloads
July 24, 2012
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Greetings, dear readers! Tristan H. Cockcroft is getting a well-earned week off after tirelessly covering things from all angles while the players took some time to recharge their batteries. Once again he has asked me to "take the conn" and steer this ship past the second star on the right and straight on 'til morning. So let's get the U.S.S. Starting Pitcher up and running.
Last week's 60 Feet, 60 Inches focused on whether it made sense to start pitchers on their first outing back after being on the disabled list. Part of the reason for the concern whenever a pitcher gets out on the mound for the first time after a lengthy stint away from the game is the fear that it might be "too much, too soon." A pitch count or innings cap is typically in place to help minimize the risk of re-injury.
Terms such as "pitch counts" and "innings caps" are all the rage in the baseball world in 2012, but it wasn't always so. This may come as a surprise to some younger readers, but back in ye olde days, pitchers were actually expected to finish every game they started. Crazy, isn't it?
Today, once a pitcher reaches that "magic" 100th pitch, the manager is already halfway to the mound to make a change, but back in 1989 Nolan Ryan threw 130 or more pitches 16 times. Since 2005, one pitcher (Tim Lincecum in 2008) has been allowed to reach that plateau twice in a season.
Managers are constantly afraid that too much strain on a pitcher's arm in one game will lead to end-of-the-year slumps or other health issues later on. You may be hard-pressed to convince Terry Collins that the reason Johan Santana has gone 3-5 with a 6.54 ERA and a .305 batting average against since throwing the New York Mets' first no-hitter isn't because he let his ace throw 134 pitches in the effort.
The key to identifying which pitchers might be headed in that same direction because of overwork -- and therefore which pitchers to start shopping now while the going is still somewhat good -- is not, however, simply counting pitches, but rather taking a look at who is throwing more pitches than he should. If we can find the pitchers who are under constant stress by working too hard inning after inning, start after start, it will be far more predictive of a late-season decline than a simple pitch count could ever be.
To that end, I will once again trot out a stat that I like to call Work Factor: the difference in the expected number of pitches and the actual number of pitches thrown. Based on Tom Tango's work with estimating historical pitch counts, what Work Factor does is figure out the expected number of pitches a pitcher "should have thrown" so far this season, based on his innings pitched, strikeouts, walks and hits allowed.
It stands to reason that if we have a solid formula for predicting the expected number of pitches based on actual game outcomes, which Tango's work does provide us, then any variance between that number and the actual pitch count is likely the result of a pitcher working harder than he needs to. That's where we can plant our red flags.
Cruise Control
Here are eight pitchers who Work Factor indicates have put less stress on their arms this season than what is historically expected of pitchers who have faced the same numbers of batters with the same statistical results. Additionally, all of them have an overall P/IP (pitches per inning pitched) of 15.0 or under, which typically signals an even workload throughout the season and less of a likelihood of the development of "tired arm syndrome" as the end of the season approaches.
Name P/IP IP H BB SO Pitches Exp Pitches Work Factor
Felix Hernandez 14.7 140 2/3 128 36 143 2070 2227 -157
Bartolo Colon 14.0 118 129 19 73 1655 1808 -153
R.A. Dickey 14.2 133 1/3 106 29 132 1890 2027 -137
Tim Hudson 14.5 97 1/3 93 28 61 1410 1516 -106
Cliff Lee 14.7 111 1/3 107 22 106 1634 1735 -101
Clayton Richard 14.5 140 1/3 140 30 75 2037 2129 -92
Mike Leake 14.9 110 121 24 72 1642 1728 -86
Josh Beckett 15.0 101 1/3 100 27 79 1522 1600 -78
What is interesting to note in this group is that since 2008, Felix Hernandez, Bartolo Colon, Tim Hudson and Cliff Lee have not had even one season (that they played) in which they threw more pitches than the expected total, so there's a track record here of being somewhat more efficient, even as the innings add up.
R.A. Dickey and his knuckleball seem to be immune to the same kind of arm issues that plague many more traditional pitchers. In fact, his Work Factor number has improved steadily over the past five years, to the point we have little to no concern about the possibility of his second straight 200-plus-inning season.
Working Overtime
Conversely, if you're looking for reasons to worry, here are eight arms that Work Factor indicates have faced far too many deep counts and may well run out of gas sooner rather than later. Additionally, all of them have an overall P/IP well over 15.5, many dramatically so, which typically signals a pitcher who may tend to work harder than his peers to get through the same number of opposing hitters.
Name P/IP IP H BB SO Pitches Exp Pitches Work Factor
Phil Hughes 16.8 114 1/3 115 28 102 1923 1818 105
Bruce Chen 17.0 113 2/3 129 27 86 1927 1828 99
Johnny Cueto 16.1 133 1/3 124 32 103 2151 2060 91
Max Scherzer 18.0 109 1/3 114 39 134 1963 1874 89
Jeremy Hellickson 17.1 99 94 40 63 1692 1605 87
Felix Doubront 17.6 107 109 41 105 1884 1802 82
Aaron Harang 17.2 112 106 48 87 1928 1853 75
Randy Wolf 17.4 112 135 38 76 1952 1877 75
Johnny Cueto has been phenomenal and is 7-2 with a 1.88 ERA since June 6. However, he also has thrown over 110 pitches in five of his past nine starts with his low total being 106 in that stretch. Take a look at his career ERA splits by month and you'll notice a disturbing trend:
April: 3.63; May: 2.98; June: 2.96; July: 3.82; August: 4.20; September: 4.61.
By working way too hard consistently throughout the season, there typically ends up being little left in Cueto's tank as the schedule runs out of dates. The same fate can easily befall a pitcher like Max Scherzer, whose high strikeout totals often cause him to burn through at least 100 pitches before the time the sixth inning is through.
Felix Doubront has been slowly but surely deteriorating since the start of June, when he was 6-2. Since that time, including Monday night's six runs in five innings versus the Texas Rangers, he has gone 4-3 and only managed to see the seventh inning twice. The rest of the way may see his ability to work deep into contests slip even further.
Certainly you don't want to use Work Factor as the only reason to consider getting out from under these potential problems before it's too late. But if you're already seeing smoke, throwing another stick on the pile isn't going to make things any better.
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