October 21, 2014

A Lesson From Rick Peterson

February 18, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

I had the great pleasure of speaking with former Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson Saturday at the Strat-O-Matic 50th year anniversary. Before speaking with me, Peterson took the stage with Stats, Inc. founder John Dewan to talk statistics in front of hundreds of Strat-O-Matic fans. Of all the fascinating figures that these two men presented, one statistic particularly startled the crowd.

Peterson mentioned that, every year, over 25% of the money spent on Major League Baseball pitchers is spent on pitchers on the disabled list.

Stop for a second. What comes to mind immediately?

Maybe it’s Carl Pavano, who signed a four-year, $40 million contract with the Yankees in 2004. Injuries and a secret car accident prevented him from pitching any more than 145 2/3 innings in his four seasons in pinstripes. (CC Sabathia pitched almost 100 more innings in 2010 alone.)

Or maybe Barry Zito comes to mind, who signed a seven year, $126 million contract with the Giants in 2006. Don’t tell Giant fans, but the contract is still not over. Thus far, he has won just 40 games. And, oh, he missed out on their championship last year.

A startling statistic, yes. And the emotions that come with it are fierce. Almost every fan can relate in some way to this astonishing fact, and not one of those fans is happy with it.

But what are the implications?

Given that figure, that 25% of the total salary for pitchers is spent on injured pitchers, there are two possible explanations: 1.) a lot of low-paid, mediocre pitchers are often injured, or 2.) fewer, high-paid pitchers are often injured.

Looking at data from FanGraphs.com, 1.) is likely the answer. Since 2001, 39.1% of the 947 total pitchers have spent time on the disabled list. Because that number is higher than the 25% of total salary, that means that quite a few, low-paid players are on the disabled list.

Indeed, this is quite encouraging to hear. If 2.) was correct, if fewer, high-paid players were often injured, then we would conclude that being a good, dominating pitcher meant that you would be injured more often.

However, that is not the case. Rather, we find that the true cost lies in mediocrity. In other words, being a bad pitcher increases your chances of getting injured.

This makes sense. Bad pitchers usually have something wrong with their mechanics. If you throw a baseball 90 miles per hour even remotely wrong, not only will you be unsuccessful, but you will be destroying your arm.

There are other explanations as well. Maybe it is a matter of intelligence. Smart pitchers will usually be more successful, and will also be more likely to protect their arms and prevent injuries. If this were true, it would be seen across all positions, not just pitchers.

Nevertheless, this is good for pitchers to hear. Constantly, we hear about how unhealthy it is to be a Major League pitcher. But if you are a good Major League pitcher, it may not be all that dangerous. It’s the bad pitchers we need to worry about.

If success correlates with injuries, how should it be put into practice? Maybe when managers are looking at pitch counts and protecting young arms, they should take into account their level of success: bad pitchers get less pitches than good ones. In practice, that probably happens anyway, because who wants a bad pitcher to stay in the game?

So, why has this fallen through the cracks? Why haven’t we heard this before?

Simple: when Carl Pavano, Kevin Brown, or Barry Zito goes down after signing a lucrative contract, we hear about it. Those rare situations are so inflated by fans that we think they happen often. Conversely, when a young, low-paid, decent pitcher gets injured, nobody hears about it. But the reality is that the latter happens much more often.

Ultimately, the lesson is simple: the best defense against Tommy John surgery is not ice, or a good trainer, or fewer pitches. It’s a good ERA.

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