Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Hall of Fame Data Set

Russ Smith, in the course of an engaging and wide-ranging account of three generations of baseball fans taking in the Orioles and the Yankees over the weekend, reminds us to beware of observational selection:
It does seem inconceivable, by today’s standards, that great pitchers like Tom Seaver and Jim Palmer would end the year with a double-digit number of complete games, and that wasn’t deemed extraordinary. Seaver, in ’71, finished 21 games; Jack Morris was there from beginning to end 20 times in ’83; and Palmer went the distance a (now) astonishing 25 times in ’75. We needn’t even go back to guys like Warren Spahn. By comparison, the Blue Jays’ Roy Halladay, had nine completions in 2003, which gave him the reputation as a latter-day Ironman. In fact, as David Pinto wrote on his invaluable website baseballmusings.com on May 24, the Jays had back-to-back complete games last week, and Halladay’s five are more than the total of any other American League team.

On the other hand, when my son Booker and I riffle through a baseball card collection that dates back to the early 50s and, with a gap in the 70s, goes up to this year, it’s amazing to see how many players are lost to memory. “Who’s Greg Booker?” my son will ask, pointing to a card from ’86, and I’ll have no idea. Which got me thinking about how until recently so many players, after being groomed in high school, maybe college, and the minors, probably blew out their arms a few years into big-league careers and were tossed aside by owners and general managers. You gamble on a $5000 bonus signing and it’s no big deal: today, with upper echelon draft picks drawing an immediate million dollar check, no wonder there aren’t more complete games.
I have no idea why if Smith -- who is something of a traditionalist when it comes to baseball -- can see this, so many people who claim to be traditionalists can't. I love a complete game. I miss complete games. I totally understand, however, why we don't see that many anymore, and it has little or nothing to do with generational pansyfication. I mean, I used to grind the gears of my Chevy Cavalier until Hell wouldn't have it, but I'm a little more careful now that I have a car that cost more than four figures off the showroom floor.


themarksmith said...

I wonder how many pitchers threw 92-99 mph 20-150 years ago when they threw so many complete games. How many threw so many breaking pitches, especially sliders, so many times? I think one thing overlooked in this discussion are these two points. Pitchers like Maddux and Glavine could have thrown more complete games and have had long careers while throwing 85-90 mph fastballs. Look at Moyer. I think guys like Randy Johnson are the exception to that rule. I do want to see more complete games, and it drives me crazy when Bobby Cox takes Hudson out after 7 when Huddy's going great.

TK said...

Well, yeah, but. Sure Palmer cost less in real terms than, say, Johan Santana, but does it really follow that the Orioles thought of him as a Chevy Cavalier? I mean, the odds that they considered him either relatively cheap or relatively replaceable are about zero. Don't you think?

Craig Calcaterra said...

TK -- obviously they didn't think of him as cheap and replaceable when he was winning Cy Young awards, but I'm sure that, compared to a young pitching prospect today, the young prospect Palmer was treated with far less care.

The point is that, no matter who you were back then, the approach was not unlike a father throwing his son into a pool to teach him to swim. It just so happened that guys like Palmer and Seaver survived the plunge, whereas today pitchers are treated with greater care at younger ages.

The question in my mind is whether a pitcher who is treated gently when young today can be "stretched out" as it were, to become an innings eating complete gamer later. I'd guess that the truth is somewhere in between the olden days -- when a lot of guys blew arms out -- and what we have now, when no one pitches complete games anymore.

TK said...

Color me confused.

Is your point that 25 CG and 300+ innings is fine for a 29 year old (say, Palmer in '75) but not a 19 year old?

And is your further point that if Palmer could do it in '75 then more pitchers should be able to do it today?

I agree with taking it easy on youngsters but that still seems like an excessive workload even for a 29 year old. The fact that Palmer was able to do it doesn't really answer the question of whether it's workable today.

As the first commenter points out, we have to look at the quality or intensity of the pitching. There were many fewer specialist roles in the 70s, so guys presumably went out there knowing they had to last longer in games, and pacing themselves as a result. Thus, 300 innings in 1975 is a lot different than 300 innings today.

Given that, it's not really money that's driving this, is it?

Craig Calcaterra said...

All of this is premised with the disclaimer that I am no expert about pitcher use, injuries, or any of that. I'm just kind of opining here based on casual observation and horse sense, and I am totally willing to abandon these vague beliefs should the science of this stuff tell me I'm wrong about it. With that out of the way:

I think that 25 CG and 300IP is probably too much for anyone, though I'm guessing that there are a couple of older horses out there now who could do it. Not worth trying to find them though. It's unthinkable for a 19 year-old.

I do think, though, that there is a usage pattern in between what we see now and what guys like Palmer did that older guys could probably handle just fine. The usual league leaders in innigns these days fall between 220-230 IP or thereabouts. We sure they couldn't pitch a few more? Especially when one or two extra starts from your ace could be the difference between the playoffs and staying home?

I think it's a totally different deal with young pitchers. Ideally there would be a way to tell which of them would eventually be able to handle larger workloads and which couldn't, but until the science gets better on that (if it ever does) you should err on the side of babying them.

When a guy has pitched a few incident and injury free years in the bigs, has good mechanics, and doesn't demonstrate any significant dropoff in effectiveness with larger workloads or when tired, think about expanding that workload a bit.

TK said...

I'm happy to agree that what we don't know about pitcher usage probably dwarfs what we do know.

Somewhere between horse sense and science lies the case of C.C. Sabathia last year. He threw 240 regular season innings last year - a career high and, I think, safe to say that he reached back for a little extra to help get his team over the hump. Plus 10 postseason innings.

He didn't get injured but judging by his first 4 starts this year he pretty much maxed out last season. And since he strikes me (again, not exactly scientific) as a pretty durable guy, I personally am willing to guess that anything above 240 is dangerous territory.

Pete Toms said...

So, should the Dodgers limit Kershaw's IP this season? Let's assume for arguments sake that they are in the hunt in September.

As for the larger IP / CG argument...the AAA pitching coach here last season - Rod Nichols - told me that it is a lot more difficult to pitch today because the hitters are / were? ( are they getting smaller for a change? ) a lot smaller. And I agree. When I think of baseball "back in the day" most positions were not HR positions. In this most recent era of Arena Baseball, most positions were HR positions ( relative to the previous era ). In a nutshell, I think back in the day with no runners on or with a decent lead you could more often throw it in the strike zone and say "ok hit it". Pitchers can't / couldn't give in during this era because they too frequently got pounded when they did. Nobody "gives in" anymore, it's more physically taxing to pitch today.

Is the era of Arena Baseball really ending?

Craig Calcaterra said...

Pete -- I think Kershaw should be limited no matter the Dodgers' status. He pitched 122 innings last year. 37 the year before plus whatever he did in high school (60 innings maybe?). I'm against hard and fast rules applied to all players in all circumstances, but if I'm running the Dodgers, I make it clear that the team's long term future rests on that arm, not it's short term future.

Pete Toms said...

I honestly don't know what they should do...this is a good example of why stability in management is important though. If Colletti thinks he's gonna get canned if he doesn't make the playoffs...and I assume Torre's goals are probably relatively short term given his age...should they care?

Crawdaddy said...

What I wonder is if it has something to do with increased level of competition. As time goes on, competition gets greater due to a narrowing of talent. What I mean is that the talent is much more central today than it was 20 years ago. This would mean that a pitcher throw more intense at bats, which kind of goes along with the modern day focus on striking guys out. Also along those lines in the whole weight training thing. Pitchers are held up against a physiological wall with speed, but batters gain a little bit more because they are not hampered as much by tendons and ligaments as a pitching motion is.

A few weeks back on my blog I took the competition curve from a study at the Hardball times and treated it as having a linear effect on effort per pitch. The weird thing is that when you do this over the past thirty years . . . you get a straight line. It may be a coincidence, but it certainly makes you think.

Craig Calcaterra said...

Pete -- should Colletti and Torre care? Yes. Will they? Man, hard to say. I think there is a sense of ethics about this sort of thing, but it's a bit vague. I'm struggling to think of anyone pursuing a scorched earth campaign with young talent in recent years, and all I have is Dusty Baker and Mark Prior, but that wasn't really a win-or-lose-your-job situation.

Really, the attention to pitch counts and innings is a relatively new phenomenon, so we may simply not have any data regarding what a desperate manager or GM may (consciously) do in such a situation.

Pete Toms said...

Crawdaddy, I'm not certain what you're on about but I am curious. Are you referring to what Zimbalist calls "talent compression"?

As for weight training, yes I agree. This is what I mean when I say the players were smaller....where you've got roids you've got weight training and vice versa.

Pete Toms said...

My memory tells me Hershisher & Foulke were abused for the "greater good". For that matter I think Myers was abused last season down the stretch. Having said that, don't know if the pitchers regret it. It commands respect in the clubhouse and despite all the bleating about the money, their goal is to win.

Crawdaddy said...

I am not familiar with the term talent compression, but I assume I am talking about the same thing. Basically, as your talent range narrows . . . competition will increase as more people are "on the same level." Compounding that, I believe is that as weight training, increase in player recognition and development (i.e. latin america, year round baseball for youths) . . . better players are emerging. Add this to the physiological wall pitchers hit . . . and pitching has gotten more and more difficult.

Ron Rollins said...

Here's my take on it. Pitchers are throwing fewer and fewer complete games and they are still blowing thier arms out at a high rate. Wood, Carpenter, Liriano?

Throwing fewer CG's is not saving arms. And we don't have great pitchers like Seaver and Carlton and Gibson anymore, because of it. Sorry, Santana doesn't quite cut it, yet.

Maybe 30 CG and 300+ isn't the answer for everyone. But I'm willing to bet more guys could throw complete games without hurting themselves. Guys hurt themselves because of the type of pitch they throw, or because they throw too hard. Not because of the innings. In my opinon.