Do Teams Baby Their Pitchers Too Much?
Right off the bat, a disclaimer. In this post, I’m assuming that pitchers aren’t people. Pretend with me that they are robots that can be treated as we see fit. If that’s the case, do we baby the pitchers too much with all the five-man rotations and pitch counts? Let’s compare, say, Cy Young, Sandy Koufax, and Pedro Martinez. Three pitchers from three completely different eras. Pitchers were handled differently in each generation. Starting with Cy Young…
Cy Young pitched from 1890 to 1911. Starting in 1890, when he was 23, Young threw at least 400 innings for 4 of the next 5 years. In those years, he won 9, 27, 36, 34, and 26 games. At this point, he entered the “prime of his career” which I will assume to be ages 28-32. In those 5 years he pitched 370, 414, 335, 377, and 369 innings, winning 35, 28, 21, 25, and 26 games. For the next five years, he has another pretty good stretch. Ages 33-37 he pitches 321, 371, 384, 341, and 380 innings winning 19, 33, 32, 28, and 26 games. So, there we have three distinct time periods. Pre-prime (23-27), he threw 1853 innings, winning 132 games. Prime (28-32) numbers were 1865 innings and 135 wins. Post-Prime (33-37) he posted 1797 innings and 138 wins. Not a bad career. He pitched a TON of innings, even when he was a youngster. He was able to give his team just over 400 wins pitching during that time.
Koufax had a much different career. He was 23 in 1959. In his pre-prime years, he pitched a total of 1078 innings, with 73 wins. Compared to Young, he was just getting his feet wet during these years. In his prime, he pitched 881 innings and won 72 games before blowing out his arm, and leaving the game at age 30. So, Koufax had a good beginning. He pitched his arm off during his prime years, and it cost him.
Pedro is another story. He was 23 in 1994. So, his pre-prime period had him pitching 1028 innings with 74 wins. The prime period consisted of 932 innings with 82 wins. Compared to Koufax, he pitched only 51 extra innings, with two extra years. Post prime, Pedro amassed 703 innings and collected 48 wins. You can see a definite drop off in the later years of his career.
So, what exactly does all this mean? I have no idea. But, you have three pitchers handled differently, and reacting differently. You can look at Young’s incredible number of innings, and say he was the exception. Not all pitchers, even in his era, could handle that kind of abuse to the arm. Which would be true. But, obviously, some could. With Koufax, you can see the opposite. He was pitched and pitched until it ended his career. One could look at him and say, if he had more rest, or was handled differently, he could have pitched longer. And, that may have been true. Just like with Pedro. They had him pitch a little less often, and his career did go longer than Koufax. But, are the years that Pedro got at the end worth saving?
Look at the Red Sox. They had Pedro in his prime…1999-2003. It’s a toss up between Pedro and Koufax as to who had the best 5-year stretch in history. But, the Red Sox babied Pedro a bit. They spaced out his starts. And, it worked. Unlike Koufax, Pedro was able to pitch 5 years of “post-prime” baseball. The thing is…four of those years were with the Mets. That didn’t help the Sox. Four of those years weren’t very good because, lets face it, older pitchers aren’t as good as younger ones. So, really, what did the Red Sox save by holding Pedro back? What if they treated him more like Koufax? When Pedro was having the greatest three-year span in history from 1998-2000, what if the Sox had pitched him to death. What if they used up all his bullets when he was the best pitcher in baseball? Sure, he may have lost a few years of his career. But, those years didn’t help the Sox anyway. Do you think the Dodgers would prefer that Koufax had pitched a few hundred fewer innings earlier on so he could pitch a few more years for the Mets? I doubt it.
So, what if we just treated pitchers like expendable machines? Just pitch them like the old days. Pitch them until their arm falls off. When it falls off, get another pitcher and try again. You may luck out and get a Young (or apparently Sabathia), who can pitch forever under those circumstances. You may get a guy like Koufax, who is brilliant, but for a short time. But, in either case, it’s better than trading Pedro’s best innings for innings that won’t help you later. That doesn’t make much sense.
Would the Sox trade eight more starts of 1999 vintage Pedro for 20 starts of 2008 Pedro?
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