Thursday, December 21, 2006

The 7'-Tall Pitcher: When Whatever Makes You Stronger Kills You  

In the earlier part of this millennium, I did a lot of process-redesign work, and it never ceased to amaze me how frequently intelligent managers fell into an intensification pattern as a reactive, twitch response. 

Intensification is the choice of amplifying what you're already doing that seems to have short term advantages. This is different from what I call "Nixon Bombing Haiphong", which is redoubling your efforts when your plan isn't working. Intensification is when you do more of what seems to yield immediate gains but those gains in turn undermine the long-term returns. 

Beyond baseball, you frequently see this with pricing. If price cuts generate more volume which produces lower production or distribution costs, then why not cut prices more? If increasing ad buys boosts sales, why not buy more? Well, you may get straight line improvements in net for a little while, but usually the growth flattens, then, if you take it far enough, actually crashes. You can work people 20% more, say 9.6 hour days instead of 8.0 hour days, and get roughly 20% more production out of them and a somewhat diminished cost relative to hiring more staff-- but you won't get 35% more production if you work them 35% more hours...you'll get less productivity that you did at 9.6 hour days.

Most systems crash when subjected to intensification (which is why those elegant Aztec pyramids were designed to optimize their meat-tenderizing attributes -- for prepping cannibal feasts). And we have all been subjected many times to the engineering proofs that the giant ants from the movie "Them!" could never have done the hokey-pokey down the Los Angeles River as shown in the flick because their design wouldn't scale to that size and they would have collapsed from their weight/strength ratio.

Which brings us to Johnny "Whiz" Gee. Well, not exactly. But we'll get to him in a second. Because Baseball Prospectus' David Laurila had a brain-candy interview with minor-league pitcher Craig Breslow (it's here, but you need to be registered to read it, including the section I'll quote below, courtesy of BP). And Breslow, who has a degree in either molecular biophysics or biochem, asserted a thesis about why pitchers could throw 200+ pitches per game and thrive back in the 1950s and 1960s, but not now. Breslow's thesis is about intensification, and I'll add to his pitch after the call-out.

Laurila: If Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal can combine to throw over 400 pitches in a game, why can’t today’s pitchers do the same? Shouldn't advancements in training and sports medicine make it easier to throw a lot of innings?

Breslow: This is obviously a heated debate. Unequivocally, the pitchers of earlier eras threw more, far more, than today's pitchers do. I think that the effects of the advancements in sports medicine and training are somewhat ambivalent. On one hand, pitchers are bigger, stronger, and throwing harder than ever before. However, for this reason, I think they are putting increased strain on the body as well. Perhaps because of strength training and an increased understanding of the anatomical demands of pitching, I can throw 90 miles per hour today, but along with that comes the stress, torque, and wear of a 90 mile per hour fastball. Additionally, I think that kids are pitching, not throwing, more at an earlier age, and athletes are specializing in one sport at an earlier age -- two factors that could lead to injuries.

Breslow's view is that the very processes that make higher velocity possible trigger more stress on the body. I always thought Mark McGwire's career appeared to be shortened by injuries he suffered as a result of building up muscle that overwhelmed other kinds of tissues you can build up (tendons, bones, cartilage) as much through work outs and dietary supplements. Strength disproportionately applied undermines structural integrity.

Breslow's insight suggests the possibility that while you can study and optimize mechanics so that you can throw at higher speeds, the methods for building up structural integrity a lot more to account for the extra force may not exist yet.

To that, I add the passion for tall pitchers. Height contributes to the downward angle a pitch gets thrown on, so, logically, a 6'8" pitcher should be able to get more angle and throw faster with the same effort or the same speed with less effort. Logical, but not a strong enough tendency to make up for, I suspect, associated health problems. For every Randy Johnson or Don Drysdale who has a great career relatively free of injuries, there are a handful of Johnny Gees, Eric Hillmans and Jeff Judens who either get broken or can't keep their mechanics precise enough to succeed.

Like the giant formic acid belchers in "Them!", growing organisms arithmetically requires a steeper growth in strength. The passion for stronger, bigger, more precisely-trained players may be a self-limiting move beyond a certain point.

What methods and practices have you seen at work that work well, get pursued as though they can continue with a straight-line increase and yield, only to stutter or crater? How readily can managers at your shop shift to another set of tactics, and how much resistance do they face when they try?

I thought so.

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