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Making sense of Zack Wheeler

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Or: The diminishing returns of pitch counts.

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Pitchers can be a lot like dogs. Not in the sense that 'the Mets rotation was dogged by injuries,'' but literally like canine dogs.

Let me frame that: I am a dog owner. I am a happy dog owner. My dog is a cool guy and I almost always enjoy his presence. That said, he is a particularly messy dog and as such has left the interior of my car, and every other car he has access to, a furry mess. It's a pain, but in the grand scheme it's a small price to pay for the joy he brings, etc.

Still, my wife and I have brainstormed on many occasions about how to solve the riddle of our embarrassingly messy car. We've explored seat covers, doggy seat belts, something called a Furminator—and still the car is perpetually covered in fur and dirt and such. Further, this eternal struggle is not limited to any one dog. With dogs comes a messy car.

And somewhere in my odd brain this maxim has an analog to pitchers. Specifically, with pitchers comes injury.​ The following is a story about Zack Wheeler and the nature of pitch counts—and to a lesser extent, some biometric and statistical factors—as they relate to pitcher injury.

The Current Landscape

As we've all heard countless times, the act of throwing a baseball repeatedly is not natural nor is it beneficial to the health of the thrower's arm. This immutable truth has eaten countless careers—with a particularly heartless appetite for younger, budding ones—with precious little standing in its way for many years. Then came the Age of the Pitch Count.

Suddenly, around the early 1990s, the game had a viable strategy for young-pitcher injuries. What's more, this was something that did not involve any form of medical intervention. The idea that a pitcher's arm could be overused to the point of breakage was an intuitively simple—yet powerful—one.

Noted pitch-count facilitator and Pitcher Abuse Points progenitor Rany Jazayerli detailed this evolution better than I ever could in a 2012 piece for Grantland entitled "A National Mistake." It was his take on the Stephen Strasburg shutdown kerfuffle and perhaps the seminal reflection on the complicated relationship between pitch counts and Tommy John surgery.

Jazayerli recalls a baseball landscape where little by little, pitch-count theory became common practice. By the mid-2000s there wasn't a team in baseball that did not limit the number of pitches that their young arms threw—aside from maybe the Cubs—to dishearteningly measurable results.

In his words, "Major league baseball teams have dramatically altered the way they handle starting pitchers — and in doing so, they have significantly reduced the risk of injury to those pitchers."

And so the widespread dissemination and influence of pitch counts throughout Major League Baseball was a ground-breaking change. And it was good.

That brings us to today and, more specifically, to the latest crop of damaged UCLs. For Mets fans, that list starts and ends with the latest addition to the Tommy John pantheon, Zack Wheeler. And with the recent flurry of new reports detailing Wheeler's longstanding elbow pain culminating in the seemingly inevitable announcement that the 24-year-old will require ligament-replacement surgery, crosshairs are presently taking aim.

[Wheeler] threw the second-most pitches among those 24 and younger last year, behind only Madison Bumgarner.

There seems to be no shortage of culpability to go around as numerous team officials feel the heat from fans and media alike—none more than manager Terry Collins. Like most managers, the 65-year-old Collins is no stranger to being second-guessed with regard to pitcher usage. Critics often point to the old hobby horse of bullpen management, singling out the recent streak of left-handed relievers rode hard and put away wet only to experience subsequent arm injuries (a streak that continued this season with the news of Josh Edgin's own UCL tear).

But the most prominent of the manager's would-be misdeeds revolves around his seemingly aggressive handling of starting pitchers—with an emphasis on the greenhorns. Newsday's Marc Carig outlined this mindset in a recent piece wherein he walks through Wheeler's unrelenting 2014 workload, even amid internal reports of a balky elbow. Here's the money shot:

"Among pitchers 24 or younger, Wheeler led by a large margin with 13 appearances in which he threw at least 110 pitches, according to Baseball-Reference.com. He threw the second-most pitches among those 24 and younger last year, behind only Madison Bumgarner."

The narrative of Collins the harsh taskmaster rests principally on this penchant for 'pushing' his starters in particular via relatively high pitch counts. Similar to Carig's statistical findings, you'll also find Collins's handiwork atop the list of games started by pitchers younger than 25 years old that reached at least 120 pitches since 2010, when he took the helm as Mets manager:

Tm Gms
NYM 5
CIN 4
SFG 4
ATL 4
MIL 4
TBR 3
SEA 3
LAD 3
CHW 3
BAL 2
SDP 2
ARI 1
TOR 1
TEX 1
DET 1
COL 1
OAK 1

For the record, Wheeler tossed one of those five games—a 120-pitch effort last August. (statistics via Baseball-Reference.com)

The Smoking Gun?

But herein lies the rub: As Jazayerli himself points out in a Bleacher Report article written by sports-injury expert Will Carroll last spring, as effective as they have been (and continue to be in other regards), in the current context pitch counts are not the smoking gun for pitcher abuse that they once were:

"[T]he difference between 100 and 120 pitches is so much less meaningful than the difference between 120 and 140 pitches. It's not that pitch counts don't matter - it's that pitch counts at the level they are in 2014 hardly matter anymore."

pitch counts at the level they are in 2014 hardly matter anymore.

Why the sudden shift in effectiveness of a tool that has been, more or a less, a divining rod around baseball over the past two decades? The reason is the diminishing returns on subsequent pitch-count reductions. Bringing pitchers down from 150 pitches to 130? Huge returns. From 130 down to 120? Somewhat measurable. But below 120 pitches? That's when the results get murkier.

Jazayerli elaborates, referencing Strasburg though he may as well be talking about Zack Wheeler:

"Because the industry has already reduced the risk of pitcher injuries significantly, there is less to be gained by further reducing Strasburg’s workload. Strasburg, like every pitcher of his generation, has had his pitches monitored from the moment he signed a pro contract.

Strasburg is the product of an era in which a pitcher’s well-being already comes first. This approach has succeeded in reducing injuries significantly, but not entirely. There’s only so much risk that can be squeezed out of the equation, no matter how much you protect a pitcher’s arm."

Winston Churchill: However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.

There's a Churchill quote that goes, "However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results." These days—when even Dusty Baker has fallen into line—pitch counts, logical and elucidating as they once were, just don't tell us what they used to about pitcher abuse. Heck, PAP is now a mostly dead statistic—a victim of its own success. That being the case, what, if anything, are we truly learning by parsing the small number of pitches that separate Collins at the top of the list from, say, Bud Black near the bottom?

In a recent piece at Grantland, Jonah Keri spoke with Dr. Glenn Fleisig, the research director at the American Sports Medicine Institute and adviser to Little League, USA Baseball, and Major League Baseball—fresh off his presentation on "Tommy John Injuries in Baseball Pitchers" at the latest MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Fleisig theorized that because today's pitcher has become so specialized, so soon, the long-term damage begins long before he takes a major league mound:

"These Matt Harveys, Jose Fernandezes — this is the first generation that’s the year-round one-sport generation. So today’s young pro pitcher shows up with more damage in his ligaments and tendons because he didn’t play multiple sports. He just pitched, and he’s been getting little, microscopic, undetected injuries. Once he becomes a pro, it’s already slightly torn."

As this thinking relates to Wheeler, that seems to jibe not only with statements from the Mets that his MRIs this winter were clean, but also with statements from Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen in the aforementioned Newsday piece: "I think Zack has had this since he started, since he signed".

wheelergamelog

Interestingly, Wheeler's fastball velocity actually increased noticeably in the second half of the 2014 season. For the record, his strike rate (62%) and walk rates (10%) both remained static, half over half. (statistics via Baseball-Reference.com)

Additional Factors

To play devil's advocate even further, Wheeler certainly didn't look the part of an injured starter during the second half of 2014, the same period that, according to reports, he skipped side sessions and had occasional elbow pain. From the club's perspective, Wheeler's 2.71 ERA, strikeout per inning, and improved swinging-strike rate (11%) over his final 16 starts don't scream 'immediate shutdown required.'

Even to the naked eye Wheeler looked a lot better than just fine; from his final pitch in his 111-pitch shutout against the Marlins last June:

wheeler1

95. Here's the final pitch from his start in Oakland last August:

wheeler2

94. One more, as he approached his career-high in pitches on August 15:

wheeler3

Late in the game, even late in the season, Wheeler was throwing hard. Really hard. Perhaps too hard? Last spring Ted Berg penned a piece for USA Today on the idea of maximum-effort pitchers—especially the high-velocity type—and their propensity for UCL tears. Based on pitcher-health trends as well as the aforementioned ASMI study, he stated that "it seems safe to say that throwing at something less than 100-percent effort will help pitchers avoid elbow injuries."

The alternative is that you manage somebody to the point where he's not useful to you.

In fact, using some back-of-the-envelope math Berg determined that a good goal for the differential between maximum fastball velocity and average fastball velocity is somewhere around 4.8 MPH. Well, Wheeler's fastest pitch of 2014 was 99.5 MPH (on May 2) and his average four-seam fastball velocity was 94.7 MPH, the fifth-highest mark in baseball (according to Fangraphs). That gives us a differential of... 4.8 MPH.

What does this all mean for Wheeler? Was there truly anything that could or should have been done differently here? Was there any way to prevent injury, apart from taking him off the mound and preserving him in a controlled state of suspended animation? According to ESPN New York, Mets general manager Sandy Alderson doesn't think so:

"Let me just ask, why would we treat somebody like [staff ace Matt] Harvey with the kind of caution that we did and then throw somebody else under the bus—somebody of essentially equal value to us as an organization?

[W]hat's the alternative?...The alternative is that you manage somebody to the point where he's not useful to you. ... And so the question is: OK, was the tear inevitable? Or is this a function of how he was used? From my standpoint, it's inevitable given the practicality of how somebody is used in the course of a major league season."

The Verdict

Alderson's opinion aside, the data—qualitative and quantitative—seems to point to one ceaseless, unfair truth: Pitchers break. No matter what we do, they break. It's an adage so well-worn that I don't even know to whom I should credit that quote. The usage tendencies, the fastball velocities, even the tried-and-true pitch counts didn't lend much, if any, aid to the idea that the Mets or anyone else could have forestalled this outcome. It's frustrating—scary, even. But them's the breaks.

I realize that this isn't an overly gratifying outcome. I don't point all this out solely to provide an unwanted, unneeded glimpse under the hood of a universe whose nature is as fickle as it is violent. Rather​, consider this a reminder—a pass, even—that the role of orthopedist, pitching coach, most of all blame-layer is our mantle to pick up not always (even though it can be so damn tempting to do so!).

Don't misunderstand, this doesn't mean we should stop trying to make sense of and/or provide order to that violent randomness. Those efforts are always worthwhile and sometimes fruitful. But at a certain level, stuff just happens.

Some pitchers will get hurt no matter how well you protect them.

To go back to the Jazayerli well one more time, "Some pitchers will get hurt no matter how well you protect them." And we've done a pretty darned good job of protecting them while at the same time (impressively) pushing the boundaries of performance. But these two factors cannot coexist peacefully. And I am not breaking any news by declaring that the latter will always outweigh the former.

As such, there will always be injured pitchers. And there will always be many more pitchers trying to outpace that attrition. Such is the beautiful, dark, twisted cycle that is the backbone of our game. But it is not the pitcher's fault. Nor the owner's, nor the handler's fault. To me, it boils down to the basic premise that pitchers by their very nature will always have things about them that we as fans won't always like but must accept—and enjoy them just the same.

In that way, pitchers can be real dogs.