Innings Count Not the Answer for Young Pitchers

This year it’s Joba Chamberlain. Other years it was David Price, Mark Prior, Cole Hamels, and any other high-ceiling starting pitcher under age 25 making the jump from the minors or returning from injury. The innings count. That imaginary line in the sand baseball people draw that’s supposed to define how a pitcher builds long-term arm strength to prevent future injuries and develop the stamina to pitch a full MLB season.

Relying on innings count is the pitching version of using BA instead of OBP or OPS, it’s a misguided stat that obstructs too many details for teams to make crucial decisions based on it. Teams rely on innings count to monitor the progress of young pitchers, in hopes of protecting an asset over a long period and mitigating the risk of an arm injury. Many other factors contribute to the risk of injury – mechanics, freak events, types of pitches thrown, weather, etc – however, workload is something that teams can directly control. Some preliminary research shows that young pitchers whose innings pitched jumps a certain level year over year early in their career are more prone to suffer arm injuries or a drop off in performance stemming from lack of velocity. Case in point, a star pitcher from each World Series the past few years has suffered a decline or injury in subsequent seasons, which may or may not be attributed to the tremendous additional workload of carrying a team through the postseason – Cole Hamels, Josh Beckett, Justin Verlander and Chris Carpenter, the entire White Sox starting staff.

While it’s intuitive that this would happen, many examples to the contrary exist, calling for a deeper investigation. Using Joba Chamberlain as an example, in some games he has struggled with control throwing upwards of 100 pitches in 4 innings, while in others he has dominated finishing 8 innings with less pitches. The macro view of innings count treats the former as half as stressful as the latter, while in reality Joba incurred an equal amount of work, measured by pitches thrown, in each game, and arguably incurred more “stress” in the 4 inning start as he likely labored, threw more pitches under duress, overthrew, and threw more consecutive pitches without rest. Further, teams use pitch count as the barometer at a micro level, then revert to innings pitch at a macro level to measure season and year over year workload. However, from the Chamberlain example we see the two do not correlate, and provides further evidence that a straight IP count is not an accurate barometer.

To accurately control for workload requires further analysis. Perhaps baseball’s inner circle has access to a more advanced statistic that the public does not use. It should start by linking the micro measurement criteria to the macro criteria – mainly pitch count. This simple change should alleviate many of the inaccuracies and biases in using a straight IP. Delving further, teams want to manage duress, more than straight workload. This calls for incorporating pitches/IP and pitches/batter as a proxy to measure how hard the pitcher works during each segment of work (one inning). Other factors such as pitches thrown from the stretch and even some measure that incorporates the game situation and pitch selection will impact the stress load for a pitcher. Pitching with runners on base in a close game, deep into counts, may cause pitchers to squeeze the ball tighter or overthrow, while pitching with a 5-run lead allows a pitcher to throw free and easy, incurring less stress.

First we have to find an accurate way to measure capture these into a statistic, then perform a backwards analysis on a sample of pitchers that suffered injuries and those that did not using these additional criteria would help shed light on the situation. The point is for a stat that has such a direct impact on the game and that so many people rely on, its garnered an disproportionately low amount of research and scrutiny.

Hopefully, more to come in this column after further review.

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Baseball Defies Tradition with Late Season Rule Change

Instant replay is long overdue in baseball. The traditionalist customs of Americas pastime held the sport back from making the game better through technology long enough. All major sports take advantage of replay, even tennis. But if baseball waited this long, over twenty years after the NFL first attempted using instant replay, why rush to install it in late August, the most critical time of the season.

Baseball is the same sport that won’t allow teams to turn the lights on in the middle of inning because it could sway the equitable balance in the game. Why make a drastic rule change not in mid-season, but late in the season, without even testing it?

This rule change is an overreaction to a few highly publicized missed home run calls earlier this season and to constant media pressure. If the owners waited until after the season, tested it in the Arizona Fall League, used it next spring, then started the 2009 season with instant replay, media and fan perception would be no different. Instead baseball is rushing its implementation, leaving it open to intense scrutiny if any mistakes are made. Replay implementations typically have a few kinks to work out before perfecting. September and October are not the best times to work out the kinks in major league baseball.

One could argue baseball tipped slightly tipped the balance of power this season. What will they say to those teams who lost games because of bad calls earlier in the same season where teams will benefit from calls being overturned? Better yet, what happens if the umps have a problem reviewing a call, causing a fifteen minute delay, disrupting the delicate timing of a pitcher, causing a momentum shift. It could happen.

Baseball needs instant replay, they should have had it five years ago. But deciding to make a rule change mid season that could, not definitely but possibly, have an impact on a pennant race or playoff series after playing 130 games of the season without it is wrong. It’s against the tradition baseball lives by. Chalk this up to public pressure.

Costas Now Brings Out Stars, Lacks Controvesy

Hank Aaron and Willie Mays on stage with Bob Gibson in the audience. Few shows, or hosts, can attract baseball diety like Bob Costas. Wednesday’s second townhall format of Costas Now brought more star power, better timed panel discussions, but failed to replicate the controversy that Buzz Bissinger and Will Leitch stirred – though the two sat side by side, toasting beers, in the audience.

Costas opened with Dave Winfield, Jim Palmer, and Pete Rose via satellite, discussing the Hall of Fame. Removing Rose from the live show (illness) took away some potentially awkward moments on stage when debating his reinstatement. Can Winfield take a side? He’s not there to tell us what he hear’s other people saying – we hear those people too – tell us what you think, straight out about Rose, in or out. Palmer advocated Pete. As usual, Rose paraded for himself consuming more time than planned, leaving less time for other issues among the topic. Suspected and convicted drug users came up – Bonds, McGwire, Palmeiro – and stat accumluators like Jim Thome that have denigrated the meaning of 500 homers. Most agree drug users are out, so are are accumulators, but I wanted to go one by one through a list of about 5 players and get everyone’s opinion – in or out, including Costas. They didn’t even get into pitchers. What is the new 300 wins and new criteria? Is Mussina a hall of famer? The hall is about more than Rose and steroids.

Panel discussed baseball’s first half, yet I don’t think the word playoffs came up once. Evan Longoria, Jimmy Rollins, and Todd Jones are all in the playoff hunt still, which precludes them from any bold predictions. Who wants to hear more about maple bats? Give it a two minute answer and move on. Instead of the writers picking first half MVP’s, surprises, disappointments, and Cy Youngs, put the players on the spot. Ask these guys if they want Barry Bonds on there team – a major baseball 2008 question. How did the Sabathia and Harden trades change the NL race? THe panel is baseball’s first half, so discuss baseball’s first half.

Costas called out Arte Moreno, the Angels owner, about ticket prices, in a panel with Dave Winfield and Andy Van Slyke. Public tax funding of new stadiums followed by lack of affordable tickets received a big stir from the audience, who will certainly suffer from that dichotomy with the new Yankee and Met stadiums starting next year. The remainder of the panel, The State of the Game, was interesting, but lost in the shadows of anticipation of Hammerin’ Hank and the Say Hey Kid.

Mays and Aaron had a great dynamic – Aaron’s stoicism accompanied by Mays’ humor and passion. Priceless stories, great commentary. One valid point that arose from this discussion, and a comment by Jimmy Rollins, is how the Nego Leagues demise may have led to the disintegration of African-American players in the majors. The discussion evaded controversy, as it should with two older, living legends. Both players are anti-PED’s, as most older players are, but neither will go on a diatribe about how wrong it is. Aaron gracefully annointed Bonds the home run champ, handling it like he did last year, and like he always does, with class. This discussion was about the stories. Aaron breaking Ruth’s record, Willie asking for a raise then charging a Cadillac to his owner after the owner refused to give him a hgiher salary.

What started as five extra minutes for HBO.com turned into an entire half hour to forty minutes that will now air as an entirely separate Costas Now episode just about Aaron and Mays. I’ll never forget being in that room with those two guys and Bob Gibson, who looks like he can still knock down a hitter that leans over the plate.

Somehow an ad or link for this Costas Now show was nowhere to be found on HBO.com. The 5-minute turned half hour segment not available for streaming. This is rare stuff that baseball fans live for, get it on the home page. What’s new on Cinemax can wait a day. No excuses for not having the video up there either, those at home missed out. Mays went on a roll after the HBO segment stopped. Even though it will air as a separate episode, studies prove online video does not cannibalize TV, get the video on the website immediately, and make it a presence on the homepage.

Fox Ruins All-Star Introductions

Interleague play and free agency has robbed the All-Star game of many special qualities. It may mean something with home field on the line, but the game still feels different. Opening introductions are one of the few special moments that remain. What will the crowd reaction be? For the player, his one moment to bask in the spotlight and receive his deserved credit. Last night, with 40 Hall of Famers on hand at the baseball cathedral it had a chance to be special, then Fox jumped in.

At least Joe Buck acknowledged Bob Shepherd, the legendary Yankee PA announcer for over 58 years, who remains home sick. I was curious if he would do the introductions, only fitting. With Shepherd on the sidelines, long time fill-in Jim Hall, a ringer for Shepherd over the mic, should have stepped in. Everyone equates that voice with Yankee Stadium. Yet, we had the soothing tones of Fox’s own Joe Buck. Don’t we hear enough of him already. Something seemed amiss.

Crowd reactions help create the special atmosphere in pre-game introductions. Match-up a good story with a hometown hero, the crowd can send shivers up your spine and goose bumps down your arm. However, right from the start, Fox drowned out the crowd noise for viewers at home with its intrusive background music and overbearing PA microphone. Marionao Rivera’s thunderous applause, the only time he’ll ever be an All-Star at Yankee Stadium lost that edge that Yankee fans always bring.

One other possibility is the decidedly corporate crowd that took over Yankee Stadium for a night. Outside of a few “Derek-Jeter” chants, we had no sign of the Bleacher Creatures. Thanks to MLB for taking the event away from the greatest fans in the world. Baseball has to take care of its sponsors, but find another way. Make sure at least half the stadium is filled with regular fans, not suits from Pepsi.

When was the last commercial break during player introductions? Welcome to Fox, 2008, commercials at every opportunity. First they drag the game to 4+ hours with the longest comemrcial breaks in sports history, now they host a 45-minute to one-hour pre-game introduction. Get serious. Fans at the stadium must have loved that. Terrible job. Why break up the momentum right at the pinnacle? Forget the rules of TV for a second, and treat the viewer with respect.

Numerous options exist for how Fox and MLB could have introduced the All-Star’s and Hall of Famers. They handled it fine. But I really wanted to hear the thunderous reaction for Derek Jeter, drowned out by the poor audio job and the lack of “real” fans in the stands.

I’ll never forget the 2008 All-Star game introductions, and how I couldn’t enjoy it the way I wanted to.

Inject Interest Back Into The Derby: Integrate Community and Sponsors

News circulated late this week that batches of empty seats remain on sale for Monday’s Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium, despite baseball stating that the event is sold out. Especially with the ultra-inflated prices of this year’s All-Star week festivities, why would 55,000 people want to buy through the roof to watch a handful of players the casual fan needs an introduction to.

Star players shun the Derby, of the 7 confirmed participants only two are repeat All-Stars. What happened to the days when the stars came out, Junior Griffey off the warehouse in Baltimore, McGwire bombing away at Fenway, Bonds with his walk-off win, Giambi back in his hay day. All memorable moments. ESPN says its the highest rated event of the year outside football season. Ratings aside, the event needs fresh blood or it’s at risk of hitting a downslide.

State Farm currently sponsors the entire event, however with 8 individual players hitting, additional marketing and sponsorship opportunities exist. One idea that may entice more players to participate is allow them to play for their chosen charities. Most players already work with a charity or run a foundation, the opportunity to publicize their message and earn corporate dollars could bring more stars to the table.

Taken a step further, get a sponsor for each player. Talk about valuable marketing. The five or ten minutes that a player bats, then gets interviewed, is valuable advertising time. SInce most players already have marketing deals, using one of their pre-existing sponsors would make the most sense, and an arrangement must be made with State Farm to not infringe on their sponsorship of the event.

Tying the two ideas together, the sponsor for each player can donate a set amount of money per homerun to the selected charity or foundation. Another twist on this is to select a team from 8 local Little Leagues to be on the field, each supporting one of the players. That player could play for the Little League supporting him. A great community outreach opportunity. Baseball can’t provide on-field incentives for home run derby, as they do for the actual game to entice players to play hard, however a few other ideas could help generate interest.

My mantra with sports is always interactivity. Fantasy games are everywhere else, why not integrate the in-stadium and home viewers with the event. Start fantasy homerun derby game, pick the winners, pick a team with the most home runs given a set salary cap (obviously each player will have a fictious salary number attached based on home run prowess). Play against your friends, play against all fans, or play against other All-Stars not participating. They always sit on the field and cheer for fellow All-Stars, have them involved online with the fans. Perhaps even a live blog by a player sitting on the field.

A lottery promotion could be interesting. Fans submit a set of numbers as their guess for either the home runs by round of the champion, or total home runs hit in each round, or most home runs hit by an individual in each round, possibilities are countless. Of the winners, pick a grand prize winner to get a signed bat from the champion and a promotional gift from one of the sponsors.

Home run derby needs an infusion of energy. While it’s great to introduce Evan Longoria and Ryna Braun to the world, the fans want to see A-Rod go head to head with Pujols, get Ryan Howard against Prince Fielder in a heavyweight battle – that brings up another point, throw out the rule that only All-Stars can participate. If the big names don’t want in, open it up to the best home run hitters period. Fielder and Howard are names that draw interest.

Now that I think of it, one-on-one matches, like the old school home run derby show from the ’50’s and ’60’s would add spice to the event. Set it up tournament-style, AL players face off against each other, NL players likewise, then winner of each league in the Derby Series. It opens a whole new world of outside interest. Heck, Vegas can even put a line on each matchup – not that gambling spurs any interest.

Lay Off Willie

Forget yesterday’s reprieve, Willie Randolph is managing his last games for the New York Mets. Omar Minaya and ownership are using Randolph as the primary scapegoat for last season’s collapse, and the disappointing start this year. Few players have come to his defense, contrary to the Yankees treatment of Joe Torre. All Mets management did yesterday was hang yet another distraction over a team that struggles to handle adversity. The team is a ticking time bomb set to explode, the only question is where and when.

Randolph certainly deserves some of the blame. He is the manager, the team is underperforming, and appears unmotivated, that has to reflect on the job he’s doing – to an extent. However, this season’s demise started in the offseason. Minaya had a chance to fix an old, inconsistent pitching staff that collapsed in September. Johan Santana solved the big problem, an ace starter, but he stopped there. Minaya counted on Pedro Martinez to return as his #2 starter after missing over a year. He projected El Duque as the fifth man, someone who is known to take lengthy in-season sabbatical. That left the mind-bogglingly inconsistent Oliver Perez and still young John Maine to shoulder the load when the other two broke down. Inevitably, both Martinez and Hernandez broke down – even quicker and less productively than I imagined – leaving Maine and Perez to shoulder the load. Disappointing Mike Pelfrey has performed poor in taking over the fifth spot. Minaya created this mess, or should I say, left it.

Look at the position players, same story. Moises Alou is a top tier hitter, even at his advanced age. However, he’ll never be mistaken for Cal Ripken. Last season Carlos Delgado’s imminent demise was obvious to anyone watching. Luis Castillo is a questionable contract. Maybe he’s good for this year, but four years at that money?

You expect Wright, Reyes, and Beltran to play at an All-Star level. Outside of that core, Minaya handed over a team with a number of question marks, filled with inevitable problems. Outside of Ryan Church’s emergence, every question mark has become a resounding negative. The core players, who are supposed to carry the team when they struggled, need carrying themselves. Minaya and Randolph can’t do anything about those three, the rest of the issues come back to Minaya, the real fall guy here.

Randolph is not the best in-game manager, he’s certainly not Joe Torre off the field, nor is he a fiery personality like Lou Piniella. Still, I ask you to find a manager that would do much better with this crew. The team had unrealistic expectations. They are not a 100-win team, maybe 90 wins if everything broke right, which it hasn’t. The Mets are better than their current record, just not as good as people think they should be.

I heard a good point, Wilpon may hold off the firing because Randolph is a coach on the All-Star team at Yankee Stadium. If that actually played into the decision, it’s a disgrace since the team should come first, but I’m not counting it out. Odds are Randolph does not finish the season because this Mets team is not going to markedly improve.

Let’s Go to the Video Tape Baseball

Three missed calls on would be home runs within four days forced baseball to act on the age-old instant replay question this week. Reports say MLB will trial instant replay during the Arizona Fall League, then continue in the World Baseball Classic and spring training next March, before deciding to implement during the season. Talk about sticking your toes in the water before jumping.

Instant replay is long overdue in baseball, the last major American sport not using technology to correct calls. The commissioner and many purists still oppose instant replay stating a myriad of reasons, most of which boil down to tradition. America’s pastime is as old-fashioned as sports get, yet a line exists where tradition can impede progress and hurt the sport. It should not take three bad calls in one week to realize that.

Contrary to popular belief, using instant replay for select calls will not noticeably lengthen games. In fact, it may shorten games. Umpires routinely have to huddle up on questionable calls, followed by a visit from the dugout by each manager, an explanation, and potential argument. Managers have the right to argue, what could these umpires discuss on the field? It’s not a judgment call, where they interpret and analyze what they see, balls are either fair or foul, home runs or not – it should be black and white. They either saw it or they didn’t, no need for a group presentation to figure it out.

With replay, managers have nothing to argue, no reason to get ejected, the video will never lie. In a worst case scenario, if baseball decides to have umpires on the field review the play from a camera well, it will take the same time it does for their meaningless on field meetings. Best case, a replay official from MLB offices will have the decision in under two minutes.

Tradition should not stand in the way of integrity. Changing the height of the pitcher’s mound affects play on the field more than using instant replay to get a call right. Replay will have no affect on the balls and strikes, which varies for each umpire, and the bang-bang safe or out calls on the bases. Those calls are subject to human error, they help make baseball what it is. Everyone has a different interpretation of the strike zone, it makes for great debate.

To be fair to umpires, home run calls and fair-foul calls are difficult to make from over 200 feet away at times. Throw in the various nooks and crannies of the new ballparks, sometimes it’s just impossible to get a good view. These are non-judgment calls, the goal is to get the call right, reward the right team. If today’s technology can do that, and do it quickly and accurately, what are we waiting for.

If baseball ever considers using replay on the judgment calls that umpires make then we have problems. That infringes on tradition, that changes the dynamic of the game.