|OS Real Time|
|Mark Forums Read|
|Edit Your Details|
Gary Armida's Blog
The Arms Race 2012Posted on July 18, 2012 at 07:41 AM.
Major League Baseball teams are in constant search of an advantage. Teams develop their own statistical analysis studies in the hopes of gaining an advantage. There usually is just a small advantage gained–if at all– as every team does this. There isn’t much left to exploit in the game. There are very few market inefficiencies. The lone area that is sitting there for an organization to seize is pitcher health. The first organization to find a way to keep its pitchers healthy will be the next great Baseball dynasty.
How important is pitching health? Over the past three years, Major League Baseball has spent over one billion dollars on injured pitchers salaries. As teams continue to lose money on their investments and then have to reach deeper into their system to find a pitcher to take the mound, not only are they losing money, but they are losing games. Small market teams have it worse. With inherent salary restrictions, they cannot simply replace a pitcher lost for the season. The juxtaposition of pitching injuries to the deep understanding gained during this information age of Major League Baseball is simply astounding.
Information Age isn’t any healthier
“Progressive thinking is almost absent in baseball. There’s almost complete ignorance at the field level”, says Will Carroll, a columnist for SI.com who specializes in sports injuries, “In the front offices some, but this isn’t translating to the field. I know that a pitching coach doesn’t need to be doing calculus, but the last major change in pitching was the five man rotation in the late 60′s, early 70s. Pitch counts have come down, but injuries have gone up. Still, we’re doing less research. It’s sad.”
Rick Adair, the Pitching Coach for the Baltimore Orioles, believes that, “It is still this old school mentality. It was a mindset then that pitchers just threw. One time, while I was pitching in college, I threw over 200 pitches in a game that had three rain delays and lasted more than five hours. That mindset about pitching is still there.” Rick Peterson, the Orioles Director of Pitching Development, goes a step beyond, “People are scared of all this data. Not only that, they just don’t know what to do with it.”
How is it that two very talented pitching coaches with very specific plans can say that a mentality and fear overrule data when everything else in Baseball is scrutinized, monetized, and dissected? Surely, Baseball is slow to change, but even Baseball people should agree that the current development of pitchers just isn’t working. Yet, kneejerk reactions rule the day over data. The methods may have changed, but the decisions based on attitude and myth still prevail. 19 year Major League pitcher Al Leiter, now an analyst for MLB Network, saw both ends of the uniformed spectrum during his career.
Al Leiter and the Glimpse of the Future
Al Leiter pitched for 19 seasons, compiling a 162-132 record with a 3.80 ERA in 2,391 innings. Pitching for the New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays, the Florida Marlins, and the New York Mets, Leiter struck out 7.4 batters per nine innings while compiling a 1.386 WHIP. Leiter’s Major League career began in 1987 as a 21-year-old rookie with the New York Yankees. After making four starts during the 1987 season, Leiter showed promise in 1988 as he made 14 starts and finished with a 4-4 record and a 3.92 ERA in 57.1 innings. Having been educated about strength training for pitchers, the 22 year old was in the weight room doing basic shoulder strengthening exercises, something that is common for pitchers today. “I was in the weight room and in walks Billy Martin, puffing his cigar. He yells, ‘what’s wrong with you?’ After trying to tell him that I was strengthening my arm, he barked, ‘If you want to get stronger, go long-toss’. The truth is, there was no training regimen then. Everything was done on the fly”, explains Leiter. It seems that this is the case with many teams today.
The seminal moment in Leiter’s career happened early on during the 1989 season. He finally won a rotation spot for Dallas Green’s Yankees out of spring training. Leiter took the mound for his second start of the season at home against the Minnesota Twins. He did get his first win of the season, but didn’t pitch particularly well, giving up 5 runs (3 earned) in 8 innings of work. He did give up just 5 hits, but walked 9 batters while striking out 10. Although he got the win, the 23-year-old southpaw was allowed to throw 163 pitches. As a perfect summation of the times, Green explained that he was merely stretching Leiter out.
Leiter made two more starts before being traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for veteran outfielder Jesse Barfield. He clearly wasn’t the same pitcher after that 163-pitch performance. “I made one start for the Blue Jays on pure adrenaline; I don’t know how I pitched to be honest. A couple of days later, I was trying to throw a side session, but I turned to my pitching coach, Al Widmar, and told him that I couldn’t reach”, tells Leiter. It would be the first of two surgeries for Leiter who would essentially lose the next three seasons due to injury. Obviously, Leiter recovered well enough to be a frontline starter for the Marlins and Mets for the next 12 seasons. Something turned Leiter into a durable, dominant pitcher. Was it maturity? That’s surely part of it. Was it pitch counts? No, that certainly wasn’t it as Leiter always threw a high number of pitches. He famously threw 142 of them during game five of the 2000 World Series in one of the best post-season performances in recent history. His transformation wasn’t about pitch count, even though pitch count and innings limits are considered the preeminent safety nets for pitchers today. For Leiter, the transformation had everything to do with the science that Baseball seems resistant to adopt.
It wasn’t until 1991, after his second surgery, that Leiter found what he needed. “Dr. (James) Andrews invited me to have a biomechanical pitching analysis. He told me that they knew what ‘clean guys look like’. Listen, I was the perfect poster child for this. I was the 5th high school pitcher taken; I had plus-stuff and terrible mechanics. With the analysis, I saw my arm path and made adjustments to have a proper arm path. If I had one (an analysis) at 10 or 11 years old, a lot of things would’ve changed”, Leiter passionately explains. Once his delivery was fixed, the transformation from promising, yet wild and injured pitcher to top of the rotation pitcher was almost immediate. Upon returning to the rotation on a full-time basis in 1995, Leiter began a decade-long stretch as one of the better pitchers in the game. He compiled 133 wins against 99 defeats. He pitched 1,909.2 innings, allowed just 1,670 hits with an ERA of 3.46, a WHIP of 1.327, and an ERA+ of 123. Leiter is just one of a many pitchers who used biomechanics as a key element to sustain his proper arm path and delivery, allowing him to pitch for another 13 seasons at a high level. Unfortunately for most pitchers, biomechanics was pushed aside for the importance of pitch counts and innings limits.
Once and For All: It’s not the Pitch Counts
Leiter’s early career is quite similar to literally thousands of pitchers. There are so many talented pitchers whose careers are either derailed or ruined because of injury. Rick Adair’s pitching career ended with an elbow injury. He laments about the lack of knowledge in the mid-1980’s, “With what I know now, I would’ve done a lot of things differently then.” The problem is that most teams aren’t doing anything different. “The technology is there for a pitcher to get an analysis of 14 different risk factors in a delivery”, states Peterson, “If there is even one flaw in a delivery, you are essentially a car with a leak in the oil pan. Eventually, you will run out of oil.” If the technology and the supporting data are available, why are organizations still paying close attention to pitch count and innings limits?
The short answer is that they still matter to some degree. Too many pitches or too many innings can lead to fatigue. Fatigue is another cause of injury. A pitcher who was not conditioned to make 100 pitches a game will get hurt if he exceeds his limit too much. “Pitch count is important in that the pitcher has to be conditioned as well as have adequate recovery time”, says Rick Adair. Many often wonder how the 100 pitch limited came about. Leiter has a theory, “If a quality inning is about 15 pitches, you can do the math. Seven innings gets you around 105 pitches.” However it came about, one thing is certain; pitchers from the supposed golden era of pitchers didn’t throw any more pitches than they do today. Yes, Sandy Koufax once threw 205 pitches in a game during the 1961 season and other pitchers did have those 180+ pitch performances. But, on average, pitchers were throwing about 105 pitches per start*. The durable pitchers from yesteryear were not throwing more pitches. If a pitcher isn’t conditioned to throw 100 pitches, he will breakdown.
But, that can’t be the reason for over one billion dollars worth of pitching going on the disabled list. Fatigue and overuse aren’t the direct causes of injuries. They are merely conduits to the real problem. Fatigue causes alterations in the pitching delivery, which is the direct cause of injury. Pitch counts don’t take into account the individual at all. Some pitchers may be more physically able to throw 120 pitches a game. Rick Adair agrees, “Pitching programs and philosophies don’t work if they don’t take care of the individual. Every pitcher is different; some can handle high pitch count. Others might not”.
Pitch count is obviously not the reason for pitcher health nor is the cause of the problem. If that were the case, injuries would already be virtually extinguished. Yet, most teams have strict pitch count limits and look to that as their guiding principle. Will Carroll asserts that those beliefs are simply misguided as the focus is on the wrong area. He states, “I think that researching the methods, finding what works is huge. I’d say guys like Rick Peterson and Mike Maddux, a couple others, are well ahead of the curve. There’s almost no emphasis on process, just results, and that’s the wrong way to get long term success.”
Focusing on the Process
Dr. James Andrews is the preeminent physician and authority on pitching injuries. His years of research has led to the creation of a biomechanical pitching analysis system with over 1,300 pitchers’ deliveries and resulting data used to derive normative ranges. It is with this data that Rick Peterson believes he can greatly reduce pitching injuries. “A biomechanical pitching analysis allows us to see a pitcher’s delivery and to pinpoint any red flags in the 14 delivery points. Without this information and the ability to correct a pitcher’s delivery, injuries will still happen. Why wouldn’t someone want this information?” asks Peterson. Leiter agrees on the importance of an analysis, “It absolutely is important. One of the most important aspects to a pitcher’s delivery is the arm path. If a pitcher doesn’t have a proper arm path, even if he is just a fraction of a second late, he’s going to get hurt. They may get five years out of the pitcher before something happens, but it will happen.”
Peterson is even more passionate about biomechanics. “We’ll boil it down very simply. If a pitcher doesn’t have his arm in the proper place when he is about the deliver the ball, he is hurting his shoulder and elbow. If he doesn’t have a proper arm angle when your foot hits the ground, you are at a great risk for injury. Look at the great ones, the Tommy Glavine’s, the Nolan Ryan’s of the world; their arm angle was perfect at the time of delivery. That’s why the great ones last so long. They have a proper delivery. Coaches will say that the pitcher was late with his arm. Being late puts you at risk for injury. An analysis lets us see the data and correct the delivery flaw to prevent injuries.”
Dr. Glenn Fleisig, the Director of Research for ASMI, also has strong feelings about the importance of the analysis. ”It is important for all pitchers – from youth to professionals – to take all of the steps possible to prevent injury and maximize performance. This includes workload (pitch counts, etc.), mechanics, exercise, nutrition, and mental approach. Today pitchers of all levels come to ASMI for biomechanical analysis,” states Dr. Fleisig. If an analysis is that important and it has been validated by years of research, why aren’t all teams using this? It would be wise of organizations to know all of their risk factors when committing this money.
The use of science is perhaps the only pitching program that comes with data from valid research. Pitch counts, as Will Carroll points out, are more of an end result. Teams are hoping that if a pitcher averages 92 pitches per game, he will stay healthy. The science of biomechanics and the research of Dr. Andrews remove that hope. Teams will know the flaws of their pitchers. They can be proactive in correcting those flaws and avoiding those injuries that sideline pitchers and cripple a team’s pennant hopes. There is momentum building towards this movement, but there is still the old school mentality lingering on the field. “The old school mentality would yell, ‘what are you talking about? Just pitch”, explains Leiter. The same thing goes on today except they yell to stop pitching after 100 pitches.
Science into Smart Decisions and Winning
Rick Peterson was the first coach to bring his staff to the famed lab in Alabama. His Oakland A’s were the model of health. Shortly after he left and another program was put in place, pitchers broke down. As the pitching coach for the Mets, he brought the New York hurlers for an analysis. The Mets also had near flawless pitching health. Soon after he left, pitchers began to break down when a less stringent program was put into place. That health is attributed to the analysis and the proper delivery that results from data. “I am very fortunate to have been put in a place where I was able to be educated by Dr. Andrews. The data is there. We can pinpoint a pitcher’s flaw and correct it before it becomes a problem. None of my pitchers ever had a problem with getting an analysis”, explains Peterson.
Using that data, Peterson is able to construct an individualized pitching plan for each member of his staff. That includes delivery workouts, conditioning practices, and mental coaching. Rick Adair agrees about catering to the individual rather than a whole team approach, “Today, the individual gets ignored. Some training methods are not for everyone. They’re not clones. You have to take that into account when working with pitchers”.
The two coaches agree about the catering to the individual. That quality also shines a light on all that is wrong with the current state of pitcher development. Teams are employing the same methods for an entire organization. That type of program doesn’t take into account a pitcher’s body type, genetics, and, most importantly, his delivery. It also doesn’t help when deciding to acquire new pitchers or to commit long-term deals to their own pitchers. Wouldn’t a team like to know if the pitcher they are committing $70+ million dollars for the next half-decade has any significant risk for injury?
Teams have statistical analysis departments devoted to finding a player’s on base percentage in day games when the weather is 72 degrees. They crunch numbers to find the best defensive player or the most valuable hitter. Why wouldn’t a team devote resources to finding and fostering pitching health? It seems like a natural thing to do. Most teams have removed subjectivity from its decision-making processes by relying on data to supplement their scouts. Yet, the most important area, pitcher health, still remains subjective for most teams.
The Race Begins
The race for pitching health begins as teams have uncovered every undervalued aspect of a baseball player. Now, it is time to move forward with pitching development. Rick Peterson and the Orioles had each pitcher on their 40 man roster get an analysis this spring. He and Adair are implementing a program that, according to the scientific data, will greatly reduce injuries throughout the organization.
It may seem that incorporating the science and research in everyday Baseball practice may never happen. Change in Baseball is always slow. With money at a premium, teams will soon be looking hard at a sustainable program. The old school mentality that mocked the Oakland A’s for valuing on base percentage no longer exists. The old school mentality of ignoring advanced statistics is slowing dying into a marriage of tradition and new wave. That’s all happening in Baseball. Eventually, this disregard for science will melt away. In the meantime, most teams will continue to waste millions of dollars on injured pitchers. And, during that time, the Baltimore Orioles will benefit from the years of research. They are the frontrunners in the development of sustainable pitching excellence. Teams will copy; they always do. It evidently just takes time.
Practically speaking, this is the final chance for small market teams to compete. Once teams adopt this science, their pitchers will remain healthy. Injuries will still happen, but they will occur at a dramatically lesser frequency. This will allow the teams to have their top five or six starters in the organization pitch. It is when the number seven or eight starter is forced into action that a team really gets in trouble. Sustained winning in Baseball is difficult enough, especially with some of the economic disparity. This science of biomechanics gives those small market teams one last chance to win consistently and get the most out of their draft picks.
*Pitch data taken from retrosheet.
Gary Armida is a writer for Operation Sports and has been published in other outlets. Talk with him on twitter @garyarmida
BORN: April 17, 1975 (38)
JOINED: Oct 26, 2003 (9 years, 210 days ago)
MEMBER # 13,930
JOINED: Oct 26, 2003 (9 years, 210 days ago)
MEMBER # 13,930
2,669 Forum Posts
0.76 Posts Per Day
147 Blog Entries
284 News/Blog Comments
2 Reader Score Votes
0 Chalkboard Messages
233,380 Arena Visits
Gary Armida's Blog Categories
More Gary Armida's Friends