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Publication Date: November 13, 2001
Skeletons in the Closet
I love college baseball, for reasons that my usual readers should be familiar with by now -- the atmosphere, the youth combined with the chance to play for something that matters while they're still young enough to be affected by it, the tradition of college athletics filtered through the baseball experience. However, I'm the first to admit that the sport, and our branch of it, aren't perfect. Some of the problems are open and obvious, and lots of folks complain about them. Most of those are structural -- the usual problems with the NCAA and their RPI formula, which is a badly contrived bit of math used to suggest ranking to the people who select the postseason participants, for example, or the use of aluminum bats, which many people consider unaesthetic or downright dangerous. These things are discussed quite frequently among fans of the game.
On the other hand, there are also a couple of "dirty little secrets" that affect the game in the long run, and those are almost never mentioned, even though they're whispered about at times in pressboxes and in recruiting conversations. Part of the reason for that silence is that they're issues that, to some degree, don't have an impact during play; they have an impact at recruiting time and after the players are gone, so they're not something that you think about during the game. The first big issue is the effect of race on the recruiting process; there are lots of exceptions, but for the most part college baseball is more resoundingly white than most other sports. I'm fairly sure that's not due to any level of racism in the sport, but rather due to sociological factors outside the game, but it does affect who ends up on the field. I'm not quite ready to write in depth about race yet, though.
What I have been working on, though, is the common perception within the baseball community as a whole, both in the professional scouting ranks and in the high-school community, that top college pitchers are constantly overworked. My own interest in the subject stems from noticing, from back in the days when I approached the game more as a fan of one team than as on overall analyst, that pitching prospects from my school, guys that I had cheered for and emotionally sent on with the brightest of hopes for professional success, were all bogging down due to injury around the high A or AA level. Eventually, the connection between that fact and the fact that I had been cheering for a guy to break the school strikeout record in the eleventh inning of a regional game clicked, and I started looking for correlations.
More than any other sport, college baseball competes directly with the pros for players. Every year, hundreds of mid-round draft picks have to choose between going to the minor leagues or coming to college. The outcomes of those decisions have a major effect on the quality of play, so a common perception that college pitchers are going to be overworked can only be damaging to the game. The first question to be answered, then, is whether or not it is common for college pitchers to be overused, and that's where I want to start with this column.
Before I go on, though, I want to throw in one disclaimer. The most common term used in discussing this topic is "pitcher abuse", and I'll probably use it myself at some point. That is, to some extent, unfortunate, since it implies a conscious intent to do harm. I've met a couple of coaches, talked to others by phone or email, and seen dozens at work at their jobs over the years. In no cases have I seen any little red horns poking out from under their caps. I honestly believe that coaches fall into the same moral spectrum as the rest of us, so there are a few who are self-centered, but for the most part, they're good men with the intent of helping the youngsters that they coach to develop to the best of their ability. The problem comes in when you realize the constant tug-of-war that college coaches face between winning and player development. When you add to that the fact that the line between pitching enough to help the team and pitching too much is hard to find, and it's easy for a coach to just throw up his hands and turn the guy loose. That's especially true in the postseason, when the stakes are higher. I'm hopeful that, in the long run, maybe actually giving these guys a more solid feel for what constitutes too much use will help some.
Even by baseball statistical research standards (and we're only talking about a field with a twenty-or-so year history there), the study of pitcher abuse is a fairly new subject. It's only really been in the last five years that some numeric work has begun to be done.
This is, of course, a difficult subject to handle statistically, because it occurs at the intersection of athletic performance and human physiology, so there's an almost infinite amount of variation in individual response to the stresses of pitching. This means that there's a large amount of counterexamples to any hard limits. However, it is possible to find large-scale trends -- to identify that more pitchers who matched this workload profile were later injured than those who matched this other profile, and that's where useful information comes from.
To date, the best work that's been done, and the only work I've seen that actually attempts to tie pitch counts to actual performance and injury rates, has been done by the folks at Baseball Prospectus. The Baseball Prospectus, is, more or less, a baseball think-tank -- a bunch of guys who started off writing about baseball online, found they were good at it and filled a niche that no one else was filling well, and ended up producing the best annual book about professional baseball coming out today. They add authors as new talent is recognized, so they tend to get the best of the online baseball research community.
It's not on their Web site as far as I can tell, but in the 2001 annual, they extend their previous work on pitcher abuse to create a new formula known as PAP3. "PAP" stands for Pitcher Abuse Points; the three refers to the cubic element of the formula which we'll get to in a minute. On their Web site, they do have a report containing PAP3 scores for all major league pitchers for 2001; in that, they tend to shorten the name to PAP, a trend I'll follow here.
The basic formula for PAP is a counting stat where, for each appearance,
the pitcher is credited with the number of pitches over 100 cubed --
PAP = (NP - 100) ^ 3, where NP is the maximum of the number of pitches or 100. In the essay in the book, they go on to successfully correlate this measure with two different outcomes -- pitchers with higher PAP counts are likely to be less effective later in the season (something which should get every coach's attention), and they are more likely to lose significant time to injury at some point later in their career. The plot of reduced effectiveness with the cubic formation of PAP3 is especially striking.
For comparison purposes with the college scores to come, the Major League leaders in PAP for the 2001 season were Randy Johnson, with over 400,000, and Bartolo Colon, with almost 250,000 (the one aesthetic down side to PAP is that the numbers get pretty big). The two pitchers nicely illustrate the physiological differences that I talked about earlier, so I'll go into a little detail about them for the college fans who don't follow the pros as much.
Johnson is probably the best pitcher in the game right now, and he's been quite a workhorse, carrying absurdly large workloads for the last few years with no problems. He's 38, and, like Nolan Ryan before him, suffered from control problems in his younger years, which kept him from racking up large numbers of innings until after he turned 30. Colon, on the other hand, is younger, and has already suffered several time-lost injuries during his career.
I'd also like to point out that mentioning that there are individual differences in workload capability is not intended to encourage coaches to try to guess about which pitchers will be able to carry heavy loads and act on that. There are very few absolutes I'd be willing to state in these cases, but one of them is that no one can tell if a pitcher is capable of being a workhorse at age 21, so no college coach has any business trying.
Some NCAA PAP Counts for 2001
There's just no way to do a comprehensive study on this for the college ranks; there are too many teams and too many games, and many of the schools don't track pitch count data. What I was able to do, though, is to gather pitch count data for a few of the top pitchers from this past year -- I identified about two dozen top pitchers and was able to get numbers, either complete or almost complete, on a dozen of them. The results are truly frightening in some cases:
Pitcher School PAP Baugh, Kenny Rice 550383 Montrenes, Pete Mississippi 390723 Switzer, Jon Arizona State 265076 Mestepey, Lane Louisiana State 178046 Prior, Mark Southern California 149549 Pope, Justin Central Florida 103285 Ungs, Nic Northern Iowa 89248 Currier, Rik Southern California 83894 Heilman, Aaron Notre Dame 74953 Skaggs, Jon Rice 74740 Arnold, Jason Central Florida 10989 Paz, Matt Long Beach State 8562 Speigner, Levale Auburn 5284
Now, before I go into profiles of a few of these guys, I want to point out that there may be some differences which might keep PAP from transferring perfectly from the pros to college:
Even with these things in consideration, it appears that the answer is, "Yes, it's fairly common for top college pitchers to be overused." When you add in the continued workload from short-season A ball after this, some of these guys may not turn out as well as they could have.
It turns out that Randy Johnson wasn't the most abused pitcher in the nation this year; that title goes to Kenny Baugh so far. That's right, Baugh racked up more pitcher abuse points at age 22 or whatever than Johnson did at age 38. The truly frightening part about Baugh's season is that those are not his complete numbers; the Rice SID was missing information on around five of his late-season starts due to the shutdown in April of their Web hosting company. The single worst start of the year that I've found was Baugh's 171-pitch outing against Nebraska in the super-regional. Significantly, both Baugh and his Rice teammate Jon Skaggs had to be shut down early from the minor league season due to arm problems, although Baugh, who was drafted by the Tigers, had started off in high A ball and been jumped to AA, probably not the wisest course of action by the Tigers.
Pete Montrenes didn't quite catch up with Johnson and couldn't keep Baugh in sight, but that's sort of like not being able to cut your arm quite all the way off -- almost 400,000 PAP at age 21 is disturbing. When you add to that the fact that Montrenes chose not to sign and is going to return to Ole Miss for his senior year, you've got to worry about his future.
Lane Mestepey was a freshman last season. Let me restate that: The boy was 18 years old. Now, adding to the 178,000 PAP, let me point out one of the limitations of PAP -- it assumes rational rest patterns. Mestepey, during the regional, was allowed to start on both Friday and Sunday, going around 100 pitches each time (106 and 97, respectively). That doesn't show up in PAP, but it has to have the equivalent of at least a 150-pitch start. Add that to his 153-pitch appearance against Tulane in the super-regional, and you have bad news.
Mark Prior had what may have been the best college pitching season in history last year, and he's already being pencilled in for the Cubs' rotation in 2003. He also had more PAP this year than all but four Major League pitchers (Johnson, Colon, Livan Hernandez, and Curt Schilling) in just his college appearances. Fortunately, he chose not to pitch in the minors this year due to a combination of signing difficulties and the desire to finish up some schoolwork in the fall; hopefully, the extra time off will do him some good. Prior's high mark was 133, he also had starts of 129, 128, 125, and 120 twice. In his case, it appears that there was probably an attempt to manage his workload (I've actually spoken to his pitching coach and know that to be the case); it may just be that more knowledge is needed here.
Aaron Heilman may be the luckiest kid in America. Heilman pitched twelve complete games this year, and there's no sign that he was coming out of any of them at any point, based on the team's bullpen usage patterns. Fortunately, around half of those were seven-inning games, due to the way the Big East schedules double headers, so he was able to keep his PAP down to high but not really high levels.
Anecdotally, Jason Arnold may be a positive sign. One of the lowest totals on this list, he also had what was probably the best pro debut of any college pitcher this year, with a 1.50 ERA in 66 innings in short-season ball, including a no-hitter. The PAP total above isn't quite complete, since I'm missing numbers on a couple of early-season starts, but his usage patterns around that time look like he probably didn't go over 100 in those starts.
Obviously, I don't have any specific proof at this point. I have a formula which seems to work well in a similar context, and I have results from that formula which suggest that quite a few top pitchers were overworked this year. In the long run, all we can do is watch these guys to look for injury patterns and gather data over the years to come to see what develops. I would, however, suggest that some of the more extreme data here would indicate that a few coaches might need to swing that winning-development balance a bit more back toward the development side, or the game as a whole will lose out on some great recruits.
I realize that this is quite a bit longer than my usual columns. I didn't want to break it up because I want to try to push it out to a larger-than-usual audience and didn't want newcomers to have to run through multiple weeks of columns, and I appreciate your indulgence in reading this far. I'm taking next week off from the column for the American Thanksgiving holiday, but I want to hear your thoughts on this, so let me hear from you.
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