Thursday, June 03, 2004

Jason Schmidt: Why Ptolomy Could Have
Sent a Mission to the Moon,
but Einstein Couldn't Have  

In the beginning, there was "Guts"
-- The Gospel According to Stan Williams

You see it in baseball history and it's just as common in government and corporate settings, too: An idea that's accepted as fact and rigidly adhered to gets questioned long enough to fall -- and gets replaced with a polar opposite that's equally untrue and hewn to just as rigidly.

In the primordial ooze that was Major League Baseball before sabermetrics, when Grover Cleveland was president and Grover Cleveland Alexander was too young to know how to break a curve, it wasn't surprising for a player like Kid Nichols to start 44 games a season, pitch 43 complete games for a season total 425 innings and to pitch around that much for 5 consecutive seasons.

The pitchers in the 1890s didn't throw as hard on every pitch as their contemporary fellow-hurlers. They didn't throw as many different pitches that required snapping a wrist or elbow in this direction or that (spitballs and other non-arm torquifications were legal, plus the median batter was less sophisticated, too). And unless you were facing Willie Keeler or Jack Crooks, you weren't duelling with a batter who thought fouling off a half-dozen pitches just to frell with your head was entertainment.

And for all that, the idea that pitchers completed what they started was a cultural given, an ethnological way of being. Because for every Kid Nichols who toiled for a decade or more that way, there were a few Toad Ramseys or John Montgomery Wards who too-quickly broke down from the effort. Over time, workloads went down, relievers became tactically useful, and the labor union movement shifted the cultural norm away from the idea that humans were useful machines you could run into the ground and then throw away (although all beliefs like that are cyclical and return).

Early sabermetric work by Craig Wright, perhaps stimulated by the blowing out of young pitchers through heavy workloads, such as the murderous mis-application of the wonderful Steve Busby by young Jack McKeon, questioned overuse of young pitchers. Wright and followup work by Bill James planted a cognitive seed, and many researchers, including the team over at Baseball Prospectus have investigated the number of pitches a starter throws and its effect on subsequent starts and more globally, career longevity.

Because of this work, pitch counts now appear in better boxscores. If you see someone keeping score at a ballpark, there's a decent chance you'll see her tracking pitch count on her scoresheet. Major league organizations try to use pitch counts as a way to reduce pitcher injuries, some perhaps going as far as imposing automatic limits on pitches thrown.

But guess what? The numbers don't "make" in the general case. And in some cases, like that May stretch by San Francisco ace Jason Schmidt, it appears to be the opposite, as written up by MLB.COM's Mike Bauman (well worth reading even if you disagree. His main assertion is that like a runner, you have to practice the distance to do the distance; you don't work yourself up to a 5K by sitting in a La-Z-Boy, but by working you way up to running 5K, and pitchers should work their way up in pitch count but that human endurance exceeds 100 pitches.). The Giants let Schmidt throw 144 pitches in one game, he came back in his regular spot in the rotation and pitched solidly for 110 throws and when the rotation came back to him, he came back with a solid 115 pitch performance.













May. 1 FLA W 6-3












May. 6 @NYM L 2-1












May. 12 PHI W 4-3












May. 18 @CHC W 1-0












May. 25 ARI W 4-1












May. 30 COL W 3-1












NOTE: As David notes in the comments, he got more than the minimum four-day rests because the Gigantes had some days off in their schedule and because of weather. But it was, regardless, a rather spectacular month on a full work-load for The Lewiston Lasher.


The challenge is we can see episodic data where a demented manager or pitching coach rode some arm into the minors or out of the game entirely.

Exhaustion breeds altered motions which decay mechanics which lead to stress which will lead to further exhasution and can lead to tissue damage. Sooner or later, an overworked pitcher will break down, but we won't know if it's because he was going to break down, whether he was going to break down someday but the overwork brought it on sooner (intuitively the most logical choice) or he was perfectly fine but the overwork alone did him in.

The challenge is there are too many counter-examples, enough that we just cannot draw conclusions clearly enough to apply as dogma or even strong tendency. But even if there were a clear mean average ideal pitch count, the spread of cases is not clustered close to that -- individuals are too different and there are too many variables to try to neutralize. If we were dealing with inorganic, insensate objects like circuit boards or airplane wings, we'd have available tools to examine the failures' causes and likely occurence. But variance among baseball-playing human organisms is just too broad to get a signficant enough sample to break down all the "rules".

That's not to say there are no tendencies. Younger pitchers have more problems than older, though it's not a continuous straight-line function. According to James, finesse pitchers (counter-intuitively) have more problems than hard throwers. And Don Malcolm argues convincingly that it's not so much the total number of pitches the pitcher throws as much as whether he's having a good or bad day -- that is, if let a pitcher who's having an off day toil through exhaustion when his form is off, it causes more damage.

The Jason Schmidt example dovetails with the logic of Malcolm's argument. When you look at the Lewiston Lasher's line, he was not struggling for long if at all in any of those games. The 144-pitch game was not one where he was letting batters on and then working out of it. He was just going deep into more counts and finishing the batters off with strikeouts.

There's a lot more to say on this issue, though I'm not going to address it in this entry. Let me just summarize my key point: The old gut-it-out model destroyed arms. The new 100- or 110 pitch model may or may not save arms, though the data is ambiguous at best. You don't get an advantage by overturning rigid knee-jerk rules based on cultural bias or superstition by merely replacing them with equally superstition-based antitheses. You get an advantage by thinking through your existing rules, examining their assumptions and clarifying the variations, that is, you make better guidelines but examine them continually.


It's chilling, though, how often you see the thesis/antithesis approach in non-baseball organizations.

The most amusing one I know (it wasn't amusing to me at the time) was when I lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I drove a overloaded car of fellow hikers up a brutally-rocky county road fifteen miles to a trailhead. My Chevy II bottomed out on a boulder that looked like a killer asteroid in one of those Bruce Willis Saves The Earth flicks, and my fuel tank ruptured with a slow leak.

When I got back to town, I took it into a shop to have the tank repaired. No go. Anywhere. Turned out there was a time when there was one welder in town who did jobs like this and the drill was the service station would drain the fuel and vent the tank for a while and after enough hours the welder would come by and do his work. I was told that a service station attendant assigned to drain the tank didn't, the welder never knew, and took out half a city block. So now the rule was that no-one would weld gas tanks. Period.

Of course, you say, a better guideline would be for the welder to drain the tank he was going to work on and double-check it later before lighting up. But this is knee-jerk to knee-jerk with no stop at logical.

How many of you work at companies that behave like that? They have an unquestioned rule. It triggers a disaster. A new rule appears, most frequently the polar opposite, that becomes as asburd (and unquestioned) as the tossed one.

Just remember, there's almost always a Jason Schmidt in the pile, a counter-example. Good rules are flexible and take variation into consideration. Bad rules pull out pitchers who are still pitching better & with less effort than the guy who has been called into replace him.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

free website counter