Friday, August 27, 2010

Should We Have Seen This Coming?

By The Common Man

On Wednesday night, TCM took part in a massive, four-man podcast orgy that featured himself, Bill (the coauthor of The Platoon Advantage), Carson Cistulli of Fangraphs, and Lar of Out of the gate, the first topic discussed was Stephen Strasburg and Rob Dibble.

The Common Man wrote about Dibble on Tuesday and doesn’t want to belabor the point that Rob Dibble is an awful announcer, a stupid analyst, and probably likes to kick any friendly, adorable puppies he comes across. In a disappointing story, Dibble’s failure as a person even casually associated with the game of baseball is just a small part of that.

Stephen Strasburg, just 22 years old, who can hurl lightning from his fingertips is going to lose at least an entire season, perhaps more. Perhaps the terrific speed, location, and movement that made him a pitcher to begin with. Strasburg’s injury, despite the advances in orthopedic medicine, has the potential to be a career alterer, if not ender. That’s the point to take away from this.

But this wasn’t supposed to happen. Strasburg was special. He had “perfect” mechanics. He had a strong base. He had had no signs of injury. He was as perfect a physical specimen coming into the draft as anyone had seen. And the Nationals “babied” him, controlling his innings, his pitches. Watching for signs of strain and discomfort.

As Rob Neyer and Joe Posnanski pointed out earlier this week, Strasburg joins a long line of young stars, uber-prospects, that burned too hot and too fast. Prior. Wood. Avery. McDonald. Gooden. Norris. Nolan. Balor Moore. The list is virtually unending. It stretches all the way back to Monte Ward, Al Spalding, and Charlie Sweeney (sorry, Hoss).

As The Common Man discussed in the podcast (which you can listen to here), he wonders exactly how much velocity and movement the human arm can generate before it begins breaking down. Somewhere, there must be an upper limit to what a shoulder and an elbow can sustain. Each person has an unique physiology, obviously, but there has to be some kind of threshold, doesn’t there? After all, most cheetahs can run 70 MPH or so, but we’ve yet to find one that can run 100. The animal’s body would begin to break down. TCM guesses the same principle would apply to humans’ ability to throw a baseball. Injury experts like Will Carroll would know better what that limit might be, but TCM isn’t really sure anyone knows what that exact point is.* But it would seem that Strasburg is past it, that his hellacious cannon is too much for his arm to handle. At least for now.

If the Priors and Strasburgs of the world are, indeed, unlikely to hold up over a typical career length, TCM wonders what this may mean for them in the draft. If, indeed, these great pitchers cannot sustain their health, what good are they to the franchises that choose them? Isn’t a better strategy to take a marginally less talented, but far more reliable talent that has a much higher chance of being valuable for 6-10 years?  Perhaps our disappointment with the Strasburg injury (and the Prior injury...and the Wood injury.) is because of our own inability to comprehend that what they were doing was not sustainable.

Maybe it’s true, there’s no such thing as a pitching prospect. Or maybe, there’s such a thing as being TOO good a pitching prospect. Too talented. Too fast. Too baffling. Maybe we’re just not meant to soar that close to the sun. Maybe this is how the balance between hitters and pitchers is maintained.

*Carroll has pointed out that the injuries to Strasburg and Prior are vastly different. Strasburg’s is in his elbow. Prior’s was a shoulder injury. But TCM is not sure that that adequately explains away the question of why so many of these young hurlers (particularly the hardest throwers) have such a short half-life. If, indeed, the force with which these pitches are thrown does damage to a young arm, perhaps it does different damage to different arms according to mechanics and motion. Again, TCM’s not an expert in this field, so he’s reduced to speculating.

Update: via Tim Marchman, here's the list of under 22 pitchers with the highest K/9 rates.  Like him, I see a trend:

1 Kerry Wood 12.58 1998 21
2 Stephen Strasburg 12.18 2010 21
3 Dwight Gooden 11.39 1984 19
4 Mark Prior 11.34 2002 21
5 Oliver Perez 10.97 2004 22
6 Sam McDowell 10.71 1965 22
7 Mark Prior 10.43 2003 22
8 Scott Kazmir 10.14 2006 22
9 Oliver Perez 10.02 2003 21
10 Rick Ankiel 9.98 2000 20


Brien Jackson said...

As far as I can tell, it's mostly about two things Strasburg and Prior have in common:

1. Pitching in college

2. The "Inverted W" motion.

I'll have a post on this shortly.

Stuck_in_Lodi said...

I have always wondered how, given the young arms that have broken down in the last couple of decades, how to explain Dizzy Dean, who pitched and inordinate number of innings at a young age, but broke down in his later 20s for other reasons.