“If a major-league team or minor-league team has a hard pitch count across their whole organization, they can do better than that”

That’s Glenn Fleisig talking to Baseball Prospectus on pitch counts, innings limits, and how organizations maximize the health of their pitchers. The interview is republished on Deadspin. 

The relevant question-and-answer:

BL: So without commenting on any specific team or pitcher, would you say that a team that puts hard innings limits in place is just sort of going overboard with risk aversion or covering their own ass? I mean, I’m sure they must base it on some sort of research, but maybe they’re not looking at the right research.

GF: Yeah. I do say that. If a major-league team or minor-league team has a hard pitch count across their whole organization, they can do better than that. They should be using—because they have professional coaches throughout their major and minor leagues, and a professional medical staff—they should be using pitch counts as a feel, as a guideline for who has pitched a lot, who hasn’t pitched a lot, and then they should individualize it and know each of their pitchers, each of their athletes, and know who is a quick responder, who’s doing well on the physical assessments with the trainers and medical staff, who has good mechanics according to the pitching coach, things like that. And they should individualize it and they should say, ‘Oh, Rodriguez, he recovers quickly, but Johnson, he’s always in pain, so let’s keep Johnson lower than Rodriguez,’ and individualize it.

Plus, even within a person—even if they say, ‘Rodriguez, he seems to be healthy and doing well and good mechanics and very fluid and in good shape, all those things,’ they shouldn’t set a pitch count number for him; they should set a soft pitch count number—‘He can go to this level, 100 pitches or whatever”—but then game by game, they should monitor and take him out when he’s giving signs of being fatigued or if there’s a history of he’s been pitching a lot recently, or he’s stinking tonight, other things where you individualize it. But a hard pitch count is really for youth baseball and perhaps high school baseball, when you can’t assume the coaches are all experts.”

This is really a question about the Nationals and Strasburg (and Jordan Zimmermann). This isn’t just any yahoo they’re talking to, either–this is Glenn Fleisig, the leading scientific authority on pitching mechanics. And I don’t mean “scientific” in the 19th-century quack medical sense–I mean peer-reviewed. I have quoted his work debunking “inverted W” scaremongering before. So at first glance this looks like an indictment of the Strasburg limit. In 2012, the Nats had Strasburg on a hard innings limit, just as they had Jordan Zimmermann on a hard innings limit in 2011.

But before you grab your pitchfork and light your torch to storm Mike Rizzo’s office, stop and think for a minute. Rizzo refused to commit to a hard innings limit until Strasburg was finally shut down. At all times, Rizzo said that he was going to monitor Strasburg for signs of fatigue.

Here’s what Strasburg was doing in his last few starts of 2012:

  • August 21, 2012, vs. Brewers: 6 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 10 SO, 0 HR; 94 pitches.
  • August 28, 2012, at Marlins: 5 IP, 9 H, 7 R, 5 ER, 1 BB, 3 SO, 1 HR; 84 pitches
  • September 2, 2012 vs. Cubs: 6 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 9 SO; 97 pitches.
  • September 7, 2012 (“Shutdown Day”) vs. Marlins: 3 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 3 SO; 81 pitches.

What do we make of this?

I’m not really sure. Strasburg himself insisted and continued to insist that he was ready and able to pitch after Shutdown Day. On the other hand, his final appearance showed him laboring against the lowly Marlins.

What you make of this as a Nats fan is really a reflection of what you think of the Nationals and their management. If you tend to trust GM Mike Rizzo, then you will have to assume that the organization had been observing Strasburg’s rest and recovery cycles all season, and decided that those observations, plus the disastrous outing against the Marlins, led them to believe that the time was right to shut down Strasburg.

If you are disinclined to trust the organization, then you’re going to have to assume that there was a hard innings limit from the outset, and that the club refused to deviate from that limit even to the last. One disaster against the Marlins probably shouldn’t have been enough to convince the organization to shut Stras down.

Honestly, I don’t know what else to say about this.

The Illusion of Control

Image

Image courtesy Nationals101

I had scarcely posted my latest projection on Twitter when I got hit by a barrage of tweets asking me to adjust the relief pitching innings.

That led to another discussion as to whether I had too many innings in total. The revised model has a total of 1475.2 IP for the whole Nats staff. That’s a lot of innings.

But I’ve decided to freeze my projections at 98 wins, and 1475.2 innings, because, at this point, I feel like I’m tinkering at the edges.

The hard thing about doing this, I find, is that as I keep running the model, something else comes up that I think I can control for. Pretty soon, I’m drowning in complications.

The whole exercise reminds me of a flyer I saw once in the Old Building of the London School of Economics. The flyer was promoting a special lecture that was to be given on “The Illusion of Control in the Social Sciences,” and it had an illustration of a man, hunched over, buried in charts, graphs, data tables, volumes of historical statistics, adding-machine-tape, etc. The point was that we can model and predict, and in doing so, we may fall prey to the notion that we can actually control the universe we’re trying to observe. Of course, that’s not entirely true.

Projecting the 2013 Nationals: Extra Innings

When I projected that the 2013 Nats were going to win 94 games, I did so with a bit of trepidation. Not only did this mean that I was projecting a performance so good that it would have been literally unbelievable only a few years before, but because I have certain doubts about the construction of my model.

As you might have gathered from the title of this post, I think my model has been systematically under-counting playing time for pitchers and hitters. In the spirit of Top of the Inning/Bottom of the Inning nature of the Natstradamus projections, I’ll deal with the pitching issues first, and then the batting problems in the bottom of the inning.

EDIT: Astute readers noted that I should have reduced relief pitcher innings by as much as I increased starting pitching innings. I have amended the relevant analysis. This results in a 98-win total. 

Executive Summary for the TL;DR Crowd: Our earlier projection wasn’t as accurate as it should have been in counting playing time: A slight adjustment in innings pitched for starters–with a corresponding reduction in relief pitching innings– yielded a decrease in runs scored by 2—but a better/more nuanced look at plate appearances by the starting line-up yielded an astonishing increase in runs scored, from 692 to 725. This revises our win projection for the 2013 Nats to 98 wins.

Innings, Limits, and Other Stuff to Tear Your Hair Out With

First, pitching. If you look back at the projected innings pitched column in my pitching runs allowed projections, you will notice that I assume that pitchers in the starting rotation will pitch about 190 innings each, with Strasburg pitching only 180. How does that stack up with reality?

  • Gio Gonzalez (199.1 IP);
  • Jordan Zimmermann (195.2 IP)
  • Edwin Jackson (189.2 IP).

Looking at things like this, it’s starting to look like our 180-inning starting rotation baseline is off by a little bit. Is it really, though? None of the top three for the Braves (Minor, Hudson, Hanson) pitched over 180 innings last year. The Phillies had Hamels (215.1) and Lee (211.0), then a sharp drop-off (injuries). The Mets had Dickey (232.2) and Niese (190.1), and then a precipitous dropoff to Santana (117.0).

Things get a bit better when we look at the Reds, whose top five were remarkably consistent as far as innings, with Cueto (217), Latos (209.1), Bailey (208), Arroyo (202) , and Leake (179).  Likewise, the Giants got a lot of innings out of their starters, with Cain (219.1), Bumgarner (208.1), Vogelsong (189.2), Lincecum (186), and Zito (184.1).

In fact, it’s the rare National League team that gets more than 180 innings from all of its top five starters–only the Giants managed this in 2012, and we all know how that worked out for them, right?

Anyway, returning to our projections: is there a better way we can match the innings expectations for Nationals starting pitchers? Maybe we can. During the height of the Strasburg Shutdown hysteria last year, I wrote that the organization has a general innings-limiting principle:

The Nats have a policy–and a remarkably enlightened one, at that–of limiting starting-pitcher workloads to 120% of the innings a pitcher had pitched the previous year, wherever those innings happened (whether as an amateur, the minor leagues, or the majors). For pitchers returning from major injuries, the innings limit seems to be about 120% of the pitcher’s previous single-season career high total innings pitched.

The conventional wisdom is that this limit may not apply to pitchers like Gio Gonzalez (age 27) and Dan Haren (age 32). Jordan Zimmermann (age 26) might have arguably “aged out” of this system, too, since he pitched 195.2 innings last year. Detwiler (age 26) might have aged out, as well, but last year’s 164.1 IP represented his professional maximum, so let’s assume we’re stretching him out more carefully and put him on the limit. Strasburg (age 24), it should go without saying, is probably under this silent limit as well.

Applying those limits, and looking at last year’s performances, we get the following:

  • Stephen Strasburg. 120% of last year’s innings for Strasburg works out to 190.2 innings for Strasburg. Plugging that into our model, that works out to 54.23 runs allowed, an increase of 3.03 runs.
  • Jordan Zimmermann. JZ pitched 195.2 innings. It would be foolish to assume he would pitch any more. Let’s assume he pitches 195 innings, then. That works out to 80.38 runs allowed, an increase of 2.06 runs.
  • Gio Gonzalez. 199 innings is a lot, but he pitched over 200 innings in the two preceding years, so I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to give Gio 200 innings in 2013. Ten more innings of Gio than in our initial model yields 84.67 runs, an increase of 4.24 runs.
  • Ross Detwiler. Detwiler’s 151 innings in 2012 was a career high for him. Increasing that by 120% yields 181 innings. Fortunately, the old model pegged him at 180 innings to begin with. We’ll leave well enough alone, then.
  • Dan Haren. Haren’s a little harder to judge. He only pitched 176.2 innings in 2012, but before his back got balky, he pitched well in excess of 200 innings for seven consecutive seasons. Various projections have him pitching as many as 218 innings and as few as 170. Let’s say he recovers form and pitches 190 innings–which is what we had in the original model. Great.

After adjusting for an increase in innings pitched, we see that the Nats give up a few more runs– 9.33 runs. That’s enough to cost them one full game in the Natstradamus projection–so that leaves them with 93 wins, instead.

Not so fast. You will notice that we’ve increased Gio’s innings by 10, Strasburg’s innings by 10, and Zimmermann’s innings by 5. That means we need to reduce relief pitcher innings accordingly. If we reduce Craig Stammen’s 110 innings to 95 innings (-6.6 runs allowed) and Zach Duke’s innings from 90 to 80 (-4.8 runs allowed), we actually end up saving about 2 runs. That keeps us steady at 94 wins for now. But how about the hitting?

Batters: Up.

The crude assumption built into the model was that every one of the starting position players got 600 plate appearances each. This is, of course, false. The ever-astute David Huzzard reminded me that the number of plate appearances varies with position in the batting order. Fortunately, Baseball Reference lets us look at exactly how many plate appearances, on average, each batting order position got in the National League in 2012. As you can see, the lead-off batter gets, on average 750 plate appearances–125% more than our model assumed! What does it look like?

Split Pa
Batting 1st 750
Batting 2nd 732
Batting 3rd 716
Batting 4th 699
Batting 5th 684
Batting 6th 666
Batting 7th 647
Batting 8th 625
Batting 9th 606
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/18/2013.

In fact, we see that in the NL, the only batting average position that gets even close to 600 plate appearances is the number 9 batter–which is usually the pitcher’s spot! Safe to say, then, that the model is broken as far as runs scored. To fix it, we need to figure out what the batting order is going to be and award plate appearances in proportion to that player’s spot in the batting order. To keep things consistent with our defensive statistics, we’ll assume that each “every day” position player appears in 150 games. With that in mind, let’s assign some plate appearances to a hypothetical order:

Player PA
Denard Span 695
Jayson Werth 678
Bryce Harper 663
Adam LaRoche 647
Ryan Zimmerman 633
Ian Desmond 617
Danny Espinosa 599
Wilson Ramos/Kurt Suzuki 579
Pitchers 561

That leaves us with some 453 plate appearances to distribute among the other bench players. Let’s assume, crudely, that we distribute them evenly among Tracy, Moore, Lombardozzi, and Bernadina, giving them 113 plate appearances each. Let’s also further assume that the “Pitchers” spots are evenly distributed among all the starting pitchers, giving each of the starting five 112 plate appearances each.

The results are shocking:

Player Name 4-year total PA 4-year total wRC 4-yr moving avg wRC/PA Projected PA Projected wRC Team Total wRC
Jayson Werth 2803 425 0.151623260792009 678 102.80
Ryan Zimmerman 2844 426 0.149789029535865 633 94.82
Tyler Moore 171 26 0.152046783625731 113 17.18
Bryce Harper 597 86 0.144053601340034 663 95.51
Adam LaRoche 2622 361 0.13768115942029 647 89.08
Denard Span 2671 334 0.125046798951703 695 86.91
Wilson Ramos 613 76 0.123980424143556 290 35.95
Ian Desmond 1849 214 0.115738236884803 617 71.41
Danny Espinosa 1428 164 0.11484593837535 599 68.79
Roger Bernadina 1150 121 0.105217391304348 113 11.89
Chad Tracy 845 85 0.100591715976331 113 11.37
Kurt Suzuki 2703 274 0.101368849426563 290 29.40
Steve Lombardozzi 448 42 0.09375 113 10.59
Stephen Strasburg 83 3 0.036144578313253 112 4.05
Drew Storen 2 0 0 0 0.00
Dan Haren 240 19 0.079166666666667 112 8.87
Craig Stammen 90 3 0.033333333333333 30 1.00
Jordan Zimmermann 166 4 0.024096385542169 112 2.70
Zach Duke 226 1 0.004424778761062 0.00
Tyler Clippard 14 0 0 0 0.00
Gio Gonzalez 84 -5 -0.05952380952381 112 -6.67
Ross Detwiler 97 -9 -0.092783505154639 112 -10.39
Ryan Mattheus 1 0 0 0 0.00
Rafael Soriano 0 0 0 0 0.00
Bill Bray 0 0 0 0 0.00
725.252999244993

That’s a huge jump in runs scored, from 692 up to 725!

Putting it Together

Having adjusted our playing-time expectations somewhat, our revised projection has the 2013 Nats allowing 600 runs, while scoring 725 runs. Running that through the Pythagorean Win Expectation Formula gives us a revised win projection for the 2013 season of 98 wins, or four more than we had initially projected. The vast undercount of offensive plate appearances made a huge difference in terms of runs scored, and added two whole wins. The increase in starting pitching at the expense of middle relief yields two more wins.

There are a few caveats, of course. Naturally, this all assumes that every player involved will stay healthy all year, and that they all perform according to their four-year trailing average performances. A realignment of the batting order will affect runs scored in very real ways: this is particularly true in the case of Bryce Harper. The current line up puts two left-handed power hitters, Harper and LaRoche, back-to-back, which may be suboptimal in matchup situations. But moving Harper down in the order will deprive him of plate appearances and run-creating chances.

I have goosebumps just thinking about this.