Sunday, October 24, 2010

Myth, Hoax, Lie or Exaggeration?
Texas Starting Pitching & The Ryan Express Protocol  

The pitchers especially improved in their ability to stay in the game longer which benefits the individual and the team since you aren’t exposing your bullpen every night to four or five innings. The Rangers with Ryan at the helm are set for long-term success and don’t be surprised if many other teams follow suit with their pitching philosophy because of the 2010 Rangers’ success. - Buck Martinez

With the very well-run Texas Rangers team getting into its first-ever World Series, you are not going to escape a guh-zillion repeats of the assertion that the Rangers' pitching has been remade because Nolan Ryan has convinced the organization to have starters pitch longer.

A lot has been made all season of this. Nolan Ryan, starting pitcher extraordinaire, advisor and now part-owner of the Texas Rangers, has been driving the organization to remake itself, apparently, in his image. Well, the part of his image that could pitch 300 innings in a season and (I'm not making this up) in a 33-day period for a losing team throw consecutive starts with pitch counts of 148, 135, 147, 146, and 164. The 42-year old got 11 days rest after that final one.

Ryan's Protocol, described one main way and with several subtly-different variants, simplified is: "Get starting pitchers to go deeper into games, and not let pitch count automatically trigger bull-pen use".

Ryan's Protocol appears to have been deployed by the Rangers, but it's not what its being presented as. Before we're done with this entry, I'm going to show you which of the following, in reality, the Protocol is: a Myth, or a Hoax, or a Lie or an Exaggeration.

Here's the take of Bob Nightengale of USA Today:

Ryan, who won 324 games in his Hall of Fame career, preached along with (pitching coach Mike) Maddux the importance of conditioning for pitchers. They ran more than they ever have before. They exercised harder. They tossed aside the pitch counter. And the staff was conditioned to pitch deeper and longer into games, going until the opposing hitters let you know you were done.

RYAN AS (IMPROBABLE) MODEL Ryan, one must note, was an extraordinary outlier in several ways, but physically at least stands alone in the history of baseball since WWII. No other primarily power pitcher was a regular starter at 45 years old, and no other successful starter I can find consistently yielded less to hitters in their 3rd and subsequent plate appearances in a game against him than he did in their 1st and 2nd appearances against him in a game. Part of his extraordinary success was physical conditioning, part was extending his career by mastering a breaking pitch after a long career as a simple flamethrower, and part of it was mental toughness.

The main way observers and pundits have explained this is that starters have become soft in the years since the every-fourth-game, 300-inning-per-year guys, and that toughness or performance have suffered as a result. There are a lot of announcers and columnists who have turned this into a moral or even religious issue, and even very good ones miss the facts because for them, it's faith based, an issue of character or manhood. It's somewhat a BITGOD (Back In The Good Old Days) meme. It's more a television thing than a print thing, but among the print guys, its most intelligent advocate is Bruce Jenkins, who presents it as a character issue most tartly in an April 2009 blog entry, and in an well-written but naïve two-part feature I dissected with hard evidence here and here.

The BITGODs advocate not only no pitch count, but frequently a four- instead of five starter rotation as well. And sometimes pitching on shorter rest. This would give most every starter Ryan-type work loads. The math is roughly this. At 95 pitches per start average (not always getting to the 105-120 pitches a successful starter gets to because almost all good starters occasionally have a bad game where they throw only 60 or 70 before being pulled) and 32 games started a year, the typical contemporary starter would throw about 3160 pitches in a regular season. With a four-starter rotation that includes a spot starter for ugly rest-free stretches of the schedule, you're going to have about 39 starts, and at 115 average pitches per game (about another 1-1/3rd innings), about 4485 pitches in a regular season. That's a 42% workload increase, without occasional Lefty Grove or Walter Johnson-like occasional relief appearances or getting moved up a day to take on a critical game, which the BITGODs would love to see, too.

Ryan is a fantastic hero, but a lousy model, because almost all who model themselves on a once-in-fifty-years anomaly (in Baseball or Business or any endeavor) are going to fail...like the most successful of the kids getting Baby Mozart training will top out at being Baby Kenny G.

REALITY CZECH: HOW THE RANGERS STARTERS HAVE CHANGED UNDER THE PROTOCOL If Ranger starting pitchers are having longer outings as a rule, it shows up in the statistics. But it needs context. Let's look at the 2010 Rangers compared to the 2008 Rangers, the last season before pitching coach Maddux took over that position, and before Ryan was being officially acknowledged as a guru of the old school approach for the franchise.

In 2008, the average Ranger starter went 5.4 innings and 91 pitches, lowest in the league in both categories, and a half an inning and 4 pitches below the league average (5.9 innings, 95 pitches). Conceptually, it's better to remove Texas from the League composite (so it's Texas compared to A.L. without Texas, but it doesn't move either innings or pitches average off what you can see below.

2008 American League Starting Pitching

Tm R/G CG GmScA sDR lDR IP/GS Pit/GS <80 80-99 100-119 ≥120
TOR 3.77 15 54 6 66 6.3 99 16 54 86 6
LAA 4.30 7 51 0 94 6.2 100 8 62 90 2
CHW 4.47 4 51 11 76 6.1 97 12 70 77 4
CLE 4.70 10 50 1 89 6.1 95 20 77 63 2
TBR 4.14 7 52 2 84 6.0 96 15 70 77 0
BOS 4.28 5 52 2 89 6.0 96 17 70 74 1
KCR 4.82 2 49 1 78 5.9 98 11 65 84 2
MIN 4.57 5 49 1 70 5.9 92 26 83 53 1
LgAvg 4.68 5 49 4 77 5.9 95 20 71 70 2
DET 5.29 1 46 0 86 5.8 95 24 66 69 3
OAK 4.29 4 50 1 76 5.8 94 18 89 54 0
SEA 5.01 4 46 13 65 5.6 94 27 58 77 0
NYY 4.49 1 48 3 66 5.5 91 33 79 50 0
BAL 5.40 4 44 4 69 5.5 93 27 68 65 1
TEX 5.97 6 43 7 72 5.4 91 26 78 57 1
4.68 75 49 52 1080 5.9 95 280 989 976 23
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table Generated 10/24/2010.

Countervailing the general trend, 2008 Ranger starters were used more aggressively than the average AL team, though not by much. They had basically an average number of complete games (6 compared to the AL's average of 5). They delivered 7 starts on short-days-of-rest over the season compared to the AL's 4 start average (the column labeled "sDR") and 72 starts on longer-days-of-rest than the AL's average 77 ("lDR") which can be (and was here) affected by injuries to starters that pull them out of the rotation. But in further support of their shorter-than-league-average stints, they notched 104 starts of under 100 pitches (the "<80" plus the "80-99" columns) and 58 of 100 pitches or more, compared to the league average of 91 of under 100 and 72 of 100 and above.

It's clear the pre-Ryan/Maddux Ranger staff was putting up shorter starts, and if you glance at their R/G column (runs allowed per game), you can see one reason...they were getting their brains bashed out, about a half run a game worse than the next worst-performance staff (Baltimore).

I'll tell you another significant reason, but first I'm going to show you the much-bloviated-about "deep into games" Texas starters of 2010.

2010 American League Starting Pitching

Tm R/G CG GmScA sDR lDR IP/GS Pit/GS <80 80-99 100-119 ≥120
LAA 4.33 10 52 4 68 6.3 102 9 42 106 5
SEA 4.31 11 52 2 69 6.3 97 12 74 73 3
CHW 4.35 6 51 2 87 6.2 99 11 58 88 4
BOS 4.59 3 51 3 90 6.2 103 7 38 110 7
TBR 4.01 6 53 2 92 6.2 99 14 51 94 3
LgAvg 4.42 7 50 2 80 6.1 98 15 60 83 4
MIN 4.14 9 51 1 99 6.1 94 22 79 60 1
OAK 3.86 7 54 1 62 6.1 97 15 68 77 2
NYY 4.28 3 51 1 71 6.0 97 24 55 80 3
DET 4.59 6 50 5 79 6.0 100 14 59 74 15
CLE 4.64 10 48 2 79 5.9 97 12 64 86 0
TOR 4.49 5 51 2 89 5.9 96 17 74 70 1
TEX 4.24 7 51 3 73 5.9 98 19 54 84 5
BAL 4.85 3 48 2 80 5.8 97 18 59 84 1
KCR 5.22 7 46 1 80 5.8 97 16 67 76 3
4.42 93 50 31 1118 6.1 98 210 842 1162 53
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table Generated 10/24/2010.

The 2010 Ryan Protocol starters moved up to 5.9 innings per start, equal to the 2008 AL average, and up to 98 pitches, exceeding the AL's 2008 average. BUT the entire AL was moving up at the same time...to 6.1 innings and 98 pitches per start. The Express' expression of change in Tejas brought them to league average in pitches/start and still two-tenths of an inning below-average. They are not a beacon of innovation in using starters deeper into games, but in a league that's headed that way anyway, advancing somewhat more quickly. The assertions that Ryan has done something exceptional in pitch count or innings-per-game with Texas' Major League starters are just not true.

It's worth noting that while the League average of games with under 100 pitches and 100+ pitches has moved to 75-87 respectively, the Rangers have surpassed the League average in that regard by moving to 73-89.

I promised you an other reasons the 2008 Ranger starters' outings were so short relative to the league and why this year's model is going a little deeper.

First, the 2008 Rangers used an above-average number of 22- to 26 year old rookies to start games. Younger starters tend to not have mastery of a large enough variety of pitches to face batters a third time (batters have already seen the full repertoire and can lock down the variables), and young starters are more likely to get blown out of games early.

Age GS CG GmScA sDR lDR IP/GS Pit/GS <80 80-99 100-119 ≥120
Matt Harrison* 22 15 1 43 0 7 5.6 91 3 8 4 0
Luis Mendoza 24 11 0 31 2 4 4.1 78 5 6 0 0
Eric Hurley 22 5 0 46 0 4 4.9 88 1 2 2 0
Doug Mathis 25 4 0 29 1 2 4.3 93 1 1 2 0
Tommy Hunter 21 3 0 22 0 2 3.7 71 2 1 0 0
A.J. Murray* 26 2 0 45 0 2 3.8 73 1 1 0 0
Warner Madrigal 24 1 0 48 1 0 3.0 46 1 0 0 0
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table Generated 10/24/2010.

None of the seven rookie starters met the team averages for Innings...and as a group they dragged pitches/start down as well. All teams have rookie starters, but the 2008 Rangers' 41 rookie starts was higher than normal

THE FACTS, RANGER PRIDE & WHY THE PROTOCOL IS, BEAUTIFULLY, A MYTH The facts vaporize the announcers' assertions, soon to be an unbearable and, throughout the next few months, inescapable cliche.

The fact is also that the Rangers coaching staff & Ryan never asserted their staff was going deeper into games. BITGODs simply heard what they actually said and translated the words to fit the BITGOD aspirations of A Glorious Time When Men Took The Ball Every Fourth Day And Pitched Until The Gods Alone Ordained They Stop.

ASIDE: The Ryan Protocol, though, may be (and I suspect, is) in play in their minor league system. The Rangers have an unusually astute front office now, and a history of innovative people staffing it (even when they have had exceptionally un-astute ownership). If they are making a big public display of their Protocol, it's likely that's part of getting a minor league system moved away from the status quo and towards accepting a major change (a classic Change Management technique).

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer's incomparable Jim Caple, now laboring for ESPN, heard and reported the actual words best:

Ryan twice topped 300 innings in a season and reached 299 in another. Obviously, it was a different game then, but one of Ryan's passions is working to get pitchers at least a little closer to that.

"I don't blame the pitchers for not pitching longer, I blame baseball and management for that because we produced that," Ryan said. "I mean that's the course we set and so that's what we have to deal with. And so we're going to change that course, and we have to start it and it won't be a process that comes overnight.

"What we're trying to do is get our starters to pitch deeper into the games, so we don't have to use as many people in the bullpen and then I would also prefer to not carry as many pitchers to give the manager an option to have another bench player. Will we get there? I don't know, but that's my hope."

Attempting to change a mindset ingrained in baseball over several decades isn't easy, but pitchers are more open to the idea when it's suggested by someone who pitched 332 innings one season without hurting his arm, than say, an owner who made his fortune analyzing stock derivatives.

"He just wants to get the best out of us; he wants us to push ourselves a little bit," Rangers starter Colby Lewis said. "I think that's the biggest thing. He doesn't want us to go out there and be satisfied with 95, 100 pitches, 105 pitches and feel like we've done our job. He wants us to go out there and feel like I can throw another 20 pitches and I can throw 130 pitches. That's his type of background, his motivation for pitchers."

The Ryan Protocol is not yet about the physical act of throwing more pitches per start.

It's about mental toughness that great pitchers have, the relentless focus that deflects self-doubt and mental fatigue when physical fatigue is starting to express itself in the small muscles. It's about engagement and commitment. It's about laboring on while the starter still has stuff and energy, not when the body is no longer able to deliver quality sequences.

Is it going to work? Even Ryan isn't sure...dealing with human emotions is a lot more unknowable than workout/fitness routines and even pitching "mechanics".

The Ryan Protocol is Mythic, in the sense that a myth is a truth presented in a compact clearly fictional story.

The Ryan Protocol is not a Hoax or a Lie or even, at this point, an Exaggeration. It's a Myth. And whether it's Cassandra, The Fates, Hercules Cleaning the Augean Stables & the Royals' Bullpen, or The Express, a myth is a beautiful, if not always happy, way to deliver a point and get it understood and acted on.

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