Pitcher Health and Team Wins

marc w · February 18, 2013 at 5:25 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Pitcher attrition is on everyone’s mind after the Mariners committed the GDP of a small country to right-handed pitcher/demigod Felix Hernandez. Two articles today examined pitcher injury from different angles.

The first is a statistical look at risk factors for pitcher injuries. You’ve probably all heard of the “Verducci Effect” wherein increasing the innings for a young pitcher portends ineffectiveness or injury, but this hypothesis turns out to be (oft-repeated) bunk.* Instead, the biggest predictor of injury is, erm, *injury*. That is, a trip to the DL in year 1 makes a pitcher much, much more likely to see the DL again in year 2. That’s not exactly a mind-blowing conclusion, particularly for fans of a team that employed Erik Bedard and Franklin Gutierrez at the same time. But the extent of that correlation is much stronger than I would’ve guessed. 43.7% of pitchers who were on the DL in one season went on the DL in the following season – but among those hurlers who WEREN’T injured in one year, less than 5% landed on the DL the next year. Call it the Erik Bedard principle: pitcher injuries cluster over time.

The pattern extends beyond just one year, of course. If a pitcher had any injury in some season (even if it didn’t require a DL trip), 55.6% of them had another injury 2 seasons later. But if those who made it through the season unscathed, only 2.7% were hurt two years later. 2.7%! That’s incredible, given what we normally think about the random, merciless arm of fate, dispassionately doling out labrum tears and tendon snaps to workhorses and DL-regulars alike and putting Frank Jobe’s descendents through college in perpetuity. You can probably guess where I’m going with this: the fact that Felix has been so durable in recent years really does have an impact on his chances of staying healthy for a while. It’s not a guarantee, and no one is counting on him to be completely healthy for seven years, but it’s the kind of data the M’s may have looked at before deciding that a contract of this magnitude and length made sense. That, and the fact that Felix is amazing.

The flip side is that the M’s have a few question marks in their rotation behind El Cartelua. Joe Saunders, Erasmo Ramirez and Hisashi Iwakuma have all made DL trips in the past two years (OK, Iwakuma’s took place in Japan and thus wasn’t an MLB DL trip per se). Extending that to any injury, and not just DL trips, picks up Blake Beavan as well, making four out of five. That’s somewhat worrying, though the impact is probably not as severe for the M’s considering the state of their high-minors pitching depth and based on what four-fifths of the rotation cost to acquire.

The second piece is Dave’s great article at Fangraphs about the White Sox ability to outperform their PECOTA projection.** One big piece of the puzzle appears to be, once again, pitcher injuries. Looking at DL databases going back 10 years, the White Sox have been the best in baseball at keeping their pitchers healthy. This means that they’ve needed fewer replacement-level fill-ins, and it’s allowed them to better the projection systems’ estimate of their playing time. Dave’s back-of-the-envelope estimate is that this, coupled with pitching coach Don Cooper’s excellent work with his pitchers, has added 2-3 wins *per year* to the Sox. They haven’t always been a great – or even good – team, but it really is shocking how few legitimately bad pitchers have suited up for Chicago, and how perfectly Mariners it is that Seattle managed to allow one of them to throw a perfect game against them.

Keeping pitchers healthy, or at least healthier than the competition, has meant a lot to the White Sox. It’s also something the M’s front office talked about when Jack Zduriencik was hired in 2009. So how’ve they done? Fairly well, actually. The M’s lost three players to the DL in 2012 – Ramirez, Charlie Furbush and George Sherrill. Ramirez and Furbush were on for relatively minor things, and pitched effectively after returning. Sherrill played a grand total of 5 minutes in an M’s uniform, and, technically, his second stint in Seattle ended before spring training did. In 2011, the M’s had six members of the 40-man hit the DL, the same number they had in 2011. Sure, this doesn’t prove much, as they had Erik Bedard in 2010-11 and not in 2012, but they lost very few starts to the DL in 2012, and it’s possible that the organization’s coaching and strength/conditioning/flexibility group has had a hand in that. The cynic would argue that the M’s were simply lucky in 2012, and that regression to the mean (along with the injury history stuff I mentioned earlier) indicates that the M’s are likely to fare worse than they did last year. But as the White Sox example shows, you can’t simply assume that every team regresses towards league average. There is skill mixed in with luck,*** and good teams are working very hard to identify and apply the skill portion of this equation.

* – in fact, Carleton’s model showed that a large increase in batters faced was correlated with a *lower* risk of injury in the next two seasons.
** – For what it’s worth, the M’s PECOTA projection is the most optimistic I’ve seen, pegging them just barely under .500 and within the margin of error not only of the Athletics, but of the Rangers as well.
*** – Holy crap, Texas. Kansas City’s been famous for poor handling of pitchers, but seriously, Texas’ 10 year history is mind-blowing. I understand that Thoracic Outlet Syndrome could be credibly renamed Texas Rangers’ disease. Also, as good as the White Sox have been, they stumbled in 2012, losing six pitchers to the DL, including three starters – one for the year (Danks) and one twice (Floyd).


16 Responses to “Pitcher Health and Team Wins”

  1. gwangung on February 18th, 2013 6:53 pm

    Wow. This is interesting.

    Not sure what to conclude from all this (except it’ll generate a lot more hot air and heat than light), but there’s some genuinely unexpected bits of data here. At the very least, we’ll get NEW gusts of hot air and heat instead of the same ol’, same ol’…

  2. Slats on February 18th, 2013 7:23 pm

    Very interesting information – thanks for posting.

  3. PackBob on February 18th, 2013 7:31 pm

    It seems that part of this has to be just exactly who the pitchers are for a team. Switch the White Sox Buehrle for the Mariners Bedard and trips to the DL for the teams get closer. It may be that the White Sox were better at keeping their pitchers healthier than everyone else, but it also may be they had pitchers less prone to injury than everyone else. Or a combination.

    Team management’s choice of pitchers may have a lot to do with it, and there may be some skill there as well. Or a choice of selecting a pitcher that profiles to stay healthy over a pitcher with more talent but profiles to get injured.

  4. Westside guy on February 18th, 2013 7:34 pm

    I prefer to simply accept that Felix, as he came from the gods, is not subject to the toils and trials that affect mere mortal men.

    (Thanks for another great article Marc)

  5. MKT on February 18th, 2013 8:50 pm

    Yeah great stuff. Has anyone done a thorough study of pitcher injuries, using game-by-game data? I’ve always felt that Rany Jazayerli’s Pitcher Abuse Point system was based on little more than thin air and assumptions. BP made some modifications to it, but I’m leery of them as well. Most baseball teams now seem to track their starters’ pitch counts and generally keep them below 100 or not much above it — but have pitching injuries been reduced?

  6. benthic on February 19th, 2013 9:45 am

    Wow, nice use of “Mariners” as an adjective to describe sucking offensively…depressingly funny.

  7. Paul B on February 19th, 2013 1:28 pm

    My misunderstanding of overuse causing pitcher injuries was based on 3 things:

    1. The Rangers (which you mentioned) and Ryan’s throw until your arm falls off influence
    2. Dusty Baker
    3. Times I have seen a pitcher throw a lot in a start and then be ineffective in the next start (I know, this was effectiveness and not injury, but I said this was all my misunderstanding!)

  8. Paul B on February 19th, 2013 1:29 pm

    Oh, 4. Billy Martin and the Oakland A’s.

    Obviously, another example where anecdotes are not proof.

  9. wilchiro on February 19th, 2013 4:10 pm

    I know it is late in the offseason to be pursuing trades, but is it worth going after one of the Dodgers’ extra SPs just so we can upgrade over Beavan in the rotation? This front office seems intent on keeping the first round pick, so that pretty much rules out Lohse.

    Kershaw and Greinke are obviously staying. Beckett and Lilly are going to be way too expensive for us. Hyun-Jin Ryu just signed this offseason and isn’t going to be traded. Billingsley is probably the fourth pitcher in their rotation and would probably require a pretty solid return.

    That leaves Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang. Even if they wanted to keep one of them in a long relief role, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for them to keep the other. Both have one-year deals with an option for 2014, with Capuano costing $6 million and Harang costing $7 million. I have to think even with the Felix extension, we’d be able to take on that cost, considering we were able to throw $25 million a year at Hamilton this offseason.

    Both present a 1.5-2 WAR upgrade over Beavan, which I believe is worth the $6 or $7 million price.

  10. wilchiro on February 19th, 2013 4:31 pm

    If we’re not going to use Casper Wells, we might as well turn him in to something useful in Capuano.

  11. stevemotivateir on February 19th, 2013 6:02 pm

    Why would the Dodgers want Wells? You’d think they could do better for a solid starter.

  12. Paul B on February 19th, 2013 6:07 pm

    The Mariners don’t have players that make enough to interest the Dodgers.

  13. wilchiro on February 19th, 2013 6:55 pm

    LAD could use Wells as a platoon partner to Ethier.

    Wells against LHP in 2012: .891 OPS
    Ethier against LHP in 2012: .606 OPS

  14. Paul B on February 19th, 2013 7:26 pm

    I wonder, in the linked study, if the study controlled for injury history (or stratified on it) if some of the metrics like number of pitches thrown, batters faced, etc. Would be meaningful.

    Wish I had that database.

  15. gerrythek on February 19th, 2013 10:53 pm

    So…it’s relatively rare for pitchers to get injured the first time. Or to put it another way. The number of pitchers who were injured the year following an injury were also those who were not injured in the year preceding their injury (otherwise they would be in a class of pitchers who went on the DL three years in a row).

  16. Westside guy on February 20th, 2013 7:29 am

    Mike Carp to the Red Stockings for the ubiquitous PTBNL or cash.

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