The Attrition War, Summary and Conclusions
The Mariners suffer more serious arm injuries than other major league teams. This is indisputable. From Ryan Anderson’s multiple shoulder issues to Jorge Campillo’s one-inning debut-and-shutdown (“Hello!” “Goodbye!”) we’ve seen the Mariner system decimated in recent years. This is not a perception issue that’s a result of being too close to the problem.
For this work, I looked at every team’s pitching prospects, as ranked by Baseball America, from 1995-2004, and attempted to find which prospects had serious arm or shoulder injuries requiring surgery that cost them a year of playing time. You can read the methodology notes, or go to the index page for links to all the team pages.
In absolute terms, the Mariners tied with the Reds with nine serious injuries. As a percentage of prospects, they were tied with the Brewers for second place with 32%. The average team was at 20%. Standard deviation was 2.4 (8%). The Mariners were two deviations from the mean. That’s significant, but it’s not huge.
Team # Shldr Elbow Total Inj. % Reds 25 7 2 9 36% Mariners 28 5 4 9 32% Brewers 25 5 3 8 32% Braves 27 4 4 8 30% Dodgers 27 3 5 8 30% Rangers 32 3 6 9 28% Cardinals 36 5 4 9 25% Cubs 37 3 6 9 24% Mets 29 2 5 7 24% Orioles 31 3 4 7 23% Yankees 26 2 4 5 23% Tigers 32 4 3 7 22% Royals 24 2 3 5 21% Astros 29 5 1 6 21% Diamondbacks 20 0 4 4 20% Indians 36 2 5 7 19% White Sox 33 2 4 6 18% Angels 28 2 3 5 18% Devil Rays 17 1 2 3 18% Marlins 34 3 3 6 18% Giants 31 2 3 5 16% Phillies 28 3 1 4 14% Rockies 28 3 1 4 14% Pirates 22 0 3 3 14% Blue Jays 24 1 2 3 13% Nationals 32 1 3 4 13% Red Sox 32 1 3 4 13% Padres 28 0 3 3 11% Twins 22 1 1 2 9% Athletics 32 0 0 0 0% Average 28.7 2.5 3.2 5.6 20% Total 855 75 95 170
I looked at “expected injury rate”, figuring that 1/5th of the pitchers would get injured. The Mariners were four pitchers above that, along with the Reds, with the Brewers at three. You would expect the A’s to have six pitchers go down during this period. They had none.
Here are the questions that have come up repeatedly:
Is a pitcher in the Mariner system significantly more likely to be injured than a pitcher in a good system, like the A’s ?
Yes. In a sample of 50 pitchers from both organizations, all nine to be injured would be Mariners. That’s not really fair, though, to compare the best to one of the worst. So:
Is a pitcher in the Mariner system significantly more likely to be injured than any pitcher?
Yes. In the sample, the Mariner pitchers were injured significantly more than their peers.
Is a pitcher in the Mariner system significantly more likely to have a particular kind of injury than any pitcher?
Yes. They are a standard deviation above the mean in shoulder injuries. They are not outside a standard deviation in elbow injuries.
Could this be luck?
Yes. An entirely random distribution of pitching injuries across teams, if the chance of an injury for any prospect is about 20%, would turn out a distribution about like this. It’s perhaps a little suspicious, but you would expect that there would be teams on the high end as well as the low.
Is it likely that this is entirely luck?
No. While a random distribution produces something like what we see, that requires you make the assumption that the rate of injuries is 20% and constant. That no team engages in behavior that increases the risk or decreases the risk, or that none of those behaviors raises or lowers pitcher injury rates. Further, I find the explanation that someone has to be unlucky unsatisfying, but I’ll get into that in more detail later.
Given that you’re looking at a set of 30 with values between 0 and 9, is standard deviation really the best way to look at this?
There are likely better ways to look at this, and I’m sure they’ll be suggested almost as soon as I hit the “Publish” button. If there are particularly interesting suggestions, I’ll add them here.
In particular, standard deviation’s not the best way to look at this because of the A’s. They’re way better than even the next team, and that gap’s almost twice as wide than between any other two teams. So deviation from the mean may not be as useful as I wish.
So what else is wrong with this survey?
There a lot, though I don’t think any of them are serious. You can read the Notes on Methodology for a detailed description of flaws.
Is there anything else interesting here?
The Braves, who are regarded as one of the best organizations at developing pitchers and have an outstanding record at the major league level, appear near the top, with a 30% attrition rate. I’ll talk about this later.
No matter how you look at it, the Mariners farm system has seen more injuries to their pitchers than is normal and enough that it is statistically significant.
The question then becomes “Why do pitchers get injured?”
I will discuss several theories commonly floated
Power versus finesse
Do power pitchers suffer injuries more frequently compared to their peers, because thier deliveries put so much stress on their shoulders?
Do finesse pitchers who throw an outstanding breaking ball suffer injuries more frequently compared to their peers, because thier deliveries put so much stress on their shoulders?
Here are the Mariner top prospects by what Baseball America thought they were good at, pre-injury:
Ryan Anderson, shoulder: mid-90s fastball, working on breaking pitches
Cha Baek, elbow: mid-90s fastball, “slider”
Travis Blackley, shoulder: Changeup. Several good pitches, “88-92″ fastball
Ken Cloude, elbow: pre-surgery 90-94mph fastball, slider
Jeff Heaverlo, shoulder: slider, low-90s fastball
Gil Meche, shoulder: fastball
Rafael Soriano, elbow: mid-90s fastball, slider
Aaron Taylor, shoulder: mid-90s fastball
Matt Thornton, shoulder: low-90s fastball, slider
There is no clear correlation in the Mariners system or overall for all pitchers between what a pitcher throws and what injury they came down with. Pitchers who throw “slower” get shoulder injuries, and pitchers who throw fast blow out their elbow.
There is a correlation between throwing relatively fast and being rated a top prospect. Few players make a list without being able to at throw a fastball in the low 90s or higher. Even players who get sneak onto the bottom of top prospect lists because they have outstanding breaking stuff and command have fastballs that are at least 85 miles an hour. However, players who can throw 100, even if they have terrible mechanics and are known injury risks, will still be thought of as a top prospect (Craig House, for example).
Therefore, an assertion that slow pitchers are less frequently injured is untestable, because those pitchers are not top prospects, and therefore useless.
We can compare the A’s to the Mariners. What did they cultivate? Take their big three: Hudson, Mulder, and Zito. Hudson had a sinking fastball in the low 90s and a change. Mulder had a “92mph” fastball and a change. Zito threw the curve and a “89-91″ fastball.
Or take the last two years of top pitching prospects:
Blanton: mid-90s fastball, slider
Duchsherer: curve, high 80s fastball
Harden: low-90s fastball (hits 95), change
Rheinecker: low-90s fastball, curve
Sullivan: drafted with a low-90s fastball, slider
Wood: sinker, mid-80s fastball
Valentine: mid-90s, slider
The A’s have some low-list guys where they’re taking a chance on a mid-80s guy with excellent control or a breaking pitch, but by and large, they have attempted to develop the same kind of pitchers as every other system: fastball up in the 90s, enough of something else to succeed.
The teams that have fewer pitching injuries have the same kind of pitchers, repetoire-wise, as the high pitching injury teams. There does not appear to be a clear connection between what a pitcher throws and what, if any, injury they might come down with. (The exception is the extinct screwball, which is a horrible pitch no one should attempt, and almost certainly destroys arms. I wince typing this.)
Further, pitching 92, 93 is not dramatically different or safer than either 95 or 90. But I’ll get to mechanics later.
The theory that type of pitcher cultivated determines organizational success can’t be considered credible.
Pitchers today are too babied
Do pitch counts and inning limitations result in weaker pitchers more likely to be injured?
This is a commonly circulated belief. Pitchers in the old days, they say, regularly got up to 200 pitches and threw complete games every other day. By watching pitch counts and pulling pitchers early, they don’t get to build up strength that helps them avoid pitching problems later.
This is a stupid argument. Imagine this in terms of a World War 2 combat infantry division. The survival rate for any single soldier through the whole war was next to zero: they fought until they died or were incapacitated and sent home. However, even given those long odds, you could find a few in the service who were drafted or enlisted early, served continously, and lived through to the end without major injury.
Would you then point to those few and say “Look at these fine men. It’s obvious that what we should do to young soldiers is put them through a pitched 4-6 year war. And if you want to find the really good ones, first you send them to Africa for a couple years to fight Rommel, then land them on a heavily-defended French beach, then…”
Of course not. But this argument is commonly used on pitchers. Anyone who wants to seriously look at literature of the time will see that pitcher injuries were far worse in those good old days. Pitchers went down all the time with “dead arm” or became ineffective for unknown reasons and left baseball. Some pitchers went through unintentional “rest-and-rehab” where they couldn’t pitch for year or so, but worked themselves back into the game later. The survival rate in general for the pitching population was horrible and undocumented. There was no diagnosis of tears, and shoulder injuries were entirely mysteries.
This theory is flawed even beyond the obvious error in reasoning. There is much anecdotal evidence that pitchers did not expend their full effort throwing normally. They would only crank it up against good hitters and when they were in jams. Modern pitchers will talk about how much it takes to “reach back” for a little extra velocity — a pitcher in the 1920s might only do that a few times a game, and work as hard as a modern pitcher does on almost every at-bat for a handful of at-bats a game. With the number of stressful pitchs far lower, it didn’t matter so much that they might throw 150 a game.
This raises an obvious question: why would that be true?
This deserves a short answer. Baseball players today are far, far better than baseball players once were, no matter what you might hear. This can be seen in the decline in variation of averages across baseball through time. The best hitters are not as good, compared to the league average, as their peers, and the worst hitters are not as bad. Teams once carried useless players on their rosters as mascots, but even the worst player on a major league roster today is an outstanding athlete in one way or another.
It is harder to detect, compared to sports with absolute barriers, like track and field, but baseball today draws from a far greater pool of talent than it ever did, it selects from that pool more efficently, it is better at keeping those players healthy, it is better at identifying promising talents, coaching them, and it’s better at advancing players who can succeed to the majors.
It is possible that if every major league team took the gloves off and ran their minor leaguers out to the mound every fourth day with instructions not to go to the clubhouse until they’d gotten at least 27 outs, there would be more pitchers who could go longer in their starts and more frequently. But at what cost would this be? If it meant that the injury rate went from 19% overall to 99%, revealing nine super-starters and destroying 846, is the game better or worse off? How many need to turn up to make it worth destroying the rest?
Are tall pitchers more likely to be injured than shorter ones?
Are bulkier pitchers more or less likely to be injured than taller ones?
This is an area ripe for further study, but my preliminary research found that there is no clear correlation between pitcher height, weight, or body-mass index and injury. I may eventually look at all 855 pitchers in this study for more information, but this approach is severely limited by the nature of the data:
First, pitchers can put on a lot of weight over their development. This is not accurately reflected in press guides and other publically-available information. For instance, Felix Hernandez is listed at 170, which is laughable. Without accurate information, we would be measuring injuries against an hazy set of data that could impede our ability to draw conclusions.
A similar problem exists for height, as few pitchers below six feet fail to be measured at six feet, because of a long-standing and well-documented scouting quirk.
Second, setting up the criteria for survival/injury measurement starts to present problems of its own, which I’ll omit here.
If you hold that the few pitchers that were able to shoulder incredible workloads for long periods of time did so not out of luck but because they were physically superior, then this will strike your fancy.
Some players will, by gift of Nature or God, be better equipped to pitch longer and harder. They have super-tough labrums, and their ligaments are extra-durable. Every pitch does no damage to anything. They’re not going to get injured unless they endure some kind of severe trauma.
If you believe this, and there’s no way to disprove it without cracking pitchers open at a draft combine and looking at their ligaments and labrum for who-knows-what, then it’s all luck of the draw. If anything, you should draft pitchers who have been badly abused in high school and in college without being injured, believing that they’re able to take that abuse rather than worrying that the cumulative effects of so much pitching has brought them closer to an injury.
This view is undercut not only by what we know about physiology but also about pitching. Many pitchers thought to be superhuman prove only to have a much higher breaking point than others. Once we acknowledge that pitching does some kind of damage, no matter if the severity and when that damage is worst differs, then we must also acknowledge that we are again in a terrible dilemma, where while we know that the overly fragile will drop out, discovering the difference between a normal pitcher and a super-durable one, if they exist, would require you to drive all normal pitchers until they get hurt.
Origins of pitchers
Are pitchers from high school more likely to be injured as they advance?
Are college pitchers safer bets to remain healthy?
What happens to a player before they join an organization is an important factor in whether they’ll be an injury risk or not. However, evaluating responsibility is nearly impossible.
For instance, Jorge Campillo spent years in unaffiliated leagues. In his first season with the Mariners, he blew out his elbow. It seems unfair to credit such an injury entirely to the team. Even if the Mariners gave him a good medical work-up and determined his arm was sound — and suppose they were wrong to do so, misreading the elbow pictures or whatever — Campillo will have pitched more than half his life outside the Mariners organization. Unless he banged his elbow up in an accident this year, it seems the most you could blame the team for is poor scouting work.
Similarly, players are exposed to abuse by aggressive coaches from Little League through college. Almost all organizations are taking steps to limit pitcher usage, but for a lot of these guys reform comes too late. No team can have a scout at every game for the vast majority of the pitchers they’ll acquire, so every team to some extent looks for kids out of programs known for not running pitchers into the ground, and cross their fingers.
To this end, it does not follow that drafting high school pitchers is for certain better or worse than college pitchers. High school pitchers are young and may be coming off abuse, but a team is then able to watch them closely and control their workload. College pitchers are older and closer to being in the clear, but they will have spent those years with teams less concerned with the long-term possible effects of heavy workloads than a drafting organization would be.
International recruits face the same problem. Hopefully in the Dominican and other countries a young pitcher wanders into an academy young and has a major-league team looking after them, but the professional leagues in other countries can ride their best pitchers far harder than a major league team would push a prospect. International professional players, like those coming from Japan, potentially have much more milage on their arms. Japanese pitchers in particular go through training regimes that border on the insane (see Kazuhiro Sasaki, among many others) and regularly rack up very high pitch counts.
A good follow-up would be to look at injury by method of recruiting:
- Drafted from college
- Drafted from high school
- Undrafted free agent
Even this would potentially confuse the issues, mingling good programs with bad ones. College may look good on the whole even as individual universities may have a horrible attrition rate.
Take the Mariner injuries:
High school draftees
Ryan Anderson, shoulder
Ken Cloude, elbow
Gil Meche, shoulder
Aaron Taylor, shoulder (by the Braves)
Jeff Heaverlo, shoulder
Matt Thornton, shoulder
Undrafted free agents
Cha Baek, elbow
Travis Blackley, shoulder
Rafael Soriano, elbow
There’s no clear pattern here either. However, this is potentially rich research.
Organizational pitching philosophy
Do teams teach their pitchers to throw in a certain way which encourages a certain kind of injury?
It is possible we could measure this. We would need to find a team that, from rookie ball through the majors, taught only one kind of throwing from 1995-2004 for all pitchers in the system, and compare it to all other teams. We could then group similar schools.
I don’t know of any team that does this. Without being able to measure and evaluate systems in such a way, evaluating organizational philosophy is beyond us.
Similarly, we can’t evaluate any one coach, or manager (and this also gets into the issues of shared responsibility) for the same reasons. These issues are tied together with many threads that make simple explanation of seeming contradictions hard to explain.
For instance, take the Braves. Are the Braves helped in general by the general Mazzone “throw-more but not full-speed” philosophy, and how deep is its adoption in the system? Does the team’s perceived reluctance to trade prospects they know will turn out to be something tie into the flaw, mentioned above, that punishes teams for holding on to listed pitchers? Or does their high-school-centered draft have something to do with it?
Organizational injury philosophy
Does an organization’s approach to player injuries affect their players’ suspecptability to injury?
I believe the data is clear that it does, but also that this is unprovable.
The Mariners have for many years had a “pitch through the pain” philosophy, the failure of which is likely best exemplified in Gil Meche’s struggles and the organization’s dim view of his complaints. They have in general seemed reluctant to shut a pitcher down and slow to diagnose serious problems, as with Rafael Soriano’s rest-and-rehab, the push to have him return early, and the eventual surgical outcome of that course. The Mariners have one of the worst records with keeping their pitchers healthy.
Contrast this with the Athletics, who take nearly the opposite approach, it could not be more stark. The A’s have experimented with different pitcher development approaches, they attempt to apply advances in medicical research, do “prehab” and invest what little money they can on aggressive work to prevent injuries. The A’s have the best record keeping their pitchers healthy.
However, defining and measuring this presents the same problems we have with organizational pitching philosophy. If an organization had a pitcher who was both injured and a whiner, they would look bad instead of the kid who cried “tear!” Similarly, a team that opted for rest-and-rehab frequently may not be dumb to make surgery a course of last resort.
There is work that could be done in this area:
- measuring time from initial shut down to a decision on a course of action
- how often are pitchers shut down, and for how long?
- how often does the team opt for rest-and-rehab against surgical options?
- how often is rest-and-rehab successful, and how often does it end up in surgery anyway?
Further research into this area could yield interesting results.
What do we know?
“All I know is that I don’t know nothing.” — Operation Ivy
We know little for certain about what causes pitching injuries. Here’s what we know that’s supported by current research, especially Woolner’s 2001 work:
Throwing over a 100 pitches in a game is associated with a short-term decline in performance by that pitcher.
Arm injuries are correlated with the number of stressful pitches a pitcher throws — that is, pitches in a start over 100.
Additionally, we know that trauma like a blow or a fall can cause both tendon and rotator cuff tears. Cumulative wear is not the only cause.
Players conceal and lie about their injuries when they believe it is in their best interest.
What is highly likely
Given the risks involved with disclosure of injuries (don’t want contract voided) it is almost certain that some injuries are due to activities outside of baseball though no definitive diagnosis can be made.
Similarly, given the rewards for a player when they make the major leagues, and organizations that punish players who are perceived not to be “gamers” by not promoting them or giving them the opportunities to play, it is almost certain that player concealment of injuries is responsible for some preventable injuries, the strange course of treatment taken by teams in some cases, and other odd events.
It appears that the years before 25 are particularly critical. Serious abuse of a pitcher before they’re 25 is where careers are cut down before they begin.
Stressful pitches are bad. The 100+ pitch game research finds this. It follows that there may be another source of stress we haven’t seen enumerated yet (and I’ve argued for this for years, along with a lot of pitchers): inning pitches. If, as almost everyone agrees, it is pitching tired, when a pitcher’s mechanics deteriorate, that is the cause of most wear-and-tear, then it follows that if a pitcher throws many pitches within an inning and grows tired, that can be as harmful as the end-of-game tired pitches. No research has been done on this that I’m aware of.
Mechanics play a large role in a pitcher’s durability. While definitions of what an ideal delivery should look like differ, and there is still much debate about what different parts of a delivery even mean (though the biomechanical work of teams like the A’s helps)
It is folly to predict than any pitcher is injury proof. Any time you read a statement like “There’s no reason to worry about Pitcher X because his mechanics are so smooth” you should stash that away. No one knows. No one can predict any of this.
What do we do?
The Mariners have, as an organization, looked into this. Their conclusion was that it was bad luck. I disagree entirely. Even if you believe their high injury numbers aren’t the team’s fault, the success of others at driving their rates down means that no team even at the average should be complacent. Average luck and good luck aren’t enough — there is much to be done to ensure that your organization is lucky as the result of hard work and investment.
The Mariners must make an organizational commitment to prevention before they can improve. To even say that it is luck and only luck, to not look for root causes and try to find things that can be improved. Good luck might get the Mariners to a respectable injury rate, like the Angels, say, to pick a divisional rival. Why should that be enough? Why is “luck” an accceptable answer?
The Mariners have immense resources. There is nothing any other team can do that they cannot. The A’s have enjoyed immense success in this area as the Mariners have failed, but there is nothing in Oakland’s approach another team cannot steal and use for themselves. The Mets, who had only a run of elbow injuries outside the realm of luck, have former A’s pitching coach Rick Peterson making over their system. The Brewers, who have gone through much the same problems the Mariners have, are looking inside and out for ways to improve. The Reds have made tremendous investments in facilities and medical care even on their modest budget. The Mariners are one of the only teams at the top of this list not making great efforts to rework themselves to address their problem.
The Mariners run a smart and ruthless business, one of the finest in all of baseball at extracting money from fans. They’re building a massive scouting operation, and they’re at least consulting a stathead. I don’t understand why they would not invest money and effort in the kind of injury prevention work that so clearly has paid off for other teams.