Brandon Webb and Lessons We Know

The last time Brandon Webb pitched in the major leagues was Opening Day 2009, as the Diamondbacks hosted the Rockies on April 6. Webb lasted four innings, and via Brooks Baseball, here’s what his velocity chart looked like:

webb2009
Glance and you’ll just see a blue squiggly line. Look closer and you’ll spot the problem. Toward the end of the outing, Webb started feeling some discomfort in his shoulder. Fittingly, with his final pitch, he got Seth Smith to ground out.

Earlier Monday, news broke that Brandon Webb is retiring, with family now taking over as his top life priority. This is an era in which a number of players have retired and subsequently tried to un-retire, but Webb’s probably been through enough comeback attempts. He’s 33 and he’s finished, having seen his career effectively end before he turned 30.

Right now, it’s February 2013. In the summer of 2008, Webb and the Diamondbacks agreed to terms on an extension that would’ve locked Webb up through this next year, with a 2014 option. At least, they agreed on the years and the money; the Diamondbacks, though, pulled out over what Webb would refer to as small issues. Arizona was concerned about the future health of Webb’s arm. Over the course of the proposed extension, Webb officially will have thrown zero major-league innings.

Webb was reassured after the 2008 season that his arm was all right. If it truly was, it didn’t stay that way for long. From the Brandon Webb example, we can learn a few lessons. Perhaps more accurately, we can be reminded of a few lessons we learned long ago.

Shoulders are death
Not always, but often, maybe and probably too often. Shoulders aren’t elbows, in structure or recovery probability. If a pitcher hurts his elbow, he’ll probably be okay eventually. If a pitcher hurts his shoulder, oof. You take it one day at a time. Doctors will say all the right things, and modern medicine is constantly improving, but Brandon Webb’s career stopped on a dime because of his shoulder. Brandon Webb just retired now, so this isn’t a problem that’s gone away over time.

Webb, apparently, had shoulder concerns dating all the way back to high school. He made it as a professional, and he established himself as a professional. This is what he said after what would turn out to be his final start:

“You try to keep [the shoulder] loose as best as you can,” said Webb, who gave up six runs on six hits, including the two homers and two walks. “Sometimes you can do it. Sometimes you can’t. I tried to get some extra pitches in before the [fourth] inning and I felt a little better toward the end of it.”

Webb said he isn’t concerned at the moment.

“No, no, I think it will be fine,” he said.

From RotoWorld the same day:

Brandon Webb felt fine after playing catch Tuesday and declared himself ready for Saturday’s start.
It was revealed that his fastball had dipped to 83-85 mph during the fourth inning before he was removed, but Webb insists his shoulder now feels “great” and the stiffness is gone.

Then the setbacks, then, eventually, the surgery. Then there would be another surgery. When Brandon Webb’s shoulder went, it was gone. There were attempts to repair it, but the best of them were only temporary. Webb’s problem started as something fairly minor and it developed into something career-ending. He’s not the first pitcher to follow this sort of arc. There’s a reason why fans always hold their collective breath when they find out one of their team’s pitchers is getting his shoulder looked at. It’s in God’s hands from there, and I guess God doesn’t like pitchers a lot.

Reliable pitchers are unreliable
Pitchers, in general, are unreliable, and even sometimes the reliable ones. Brandon Webb topped 180 innings as a rookie in 2003. Over each of the next five years, he threw no fewer than 208 innings, reaching 1,135 in all, not counting 13 more in the playoffs. Brandon Webb was young, healthy, and an ace workhorse. This was all true right up until it wasn’t. Everything is steady in between the points at which it’s unsteady, and Webb was ruined before his 30th birthday. He didn’t know it yet, of course, but he’d already started down that path.

The Royals traded a ton to get James Shields because they see Shields as a steady, reliable front-of-the-rotation starter. That’s more or less what Shields has been, but there’s no such thing as a guaranteed baseball player and there’s certainly no such thing as a guaranteed starting pitcher. The risk with even the workhorses is probably underestimated, and though Webb is an extreme example of the downside, this sort of thing can happen, or something more gradual can happen. Prior to 2009, plenty of people would’ve identified Webb as one of the most reliable pitchers in the game. Webb would throw four more innings.

Of course, the Diamondbacks had their concerns. Maybe they saw something like this coming. But they still proceeded to the point at which they were talking dollars, and Webb got himself checked out and cleared in the winter. Pretty soon, it could be time for Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, and Clayton Kershaw to sign long-term contract extensions with their current employers. These are examples — especially the first two — of dominant workhorses. It’s hard to imagine Justin Verlander coming apart, but that’s within the range of possible outcomes. Brandon Webb is kind of specifically why long-term contracts for pitchers are terrifying.

Brandon Webb was amazing
Webb isn’t glowing anymore, but when he glowed, he glowed bright. Over the FanGraphs Era, spanning 2002-2012, 249 starting pitchers have thrown at least 400 innings. Webb’s up top in groundball rate, at 64.2%. For every three batted balls put in play against Brandon Webb, two stayed on the ground. Webb’s career 72 ERA- is tied with Kershaw’s career 72 ERA-. Webb’s career 76 FIP- is tied with Josh Johnson‘s career 76 FIP-. Webb’s career 75 xFIP- is tied with Roy Halladay‘s post-2001 75 xFIP-.

For those six years that Webb was healthy and incredible, he was third in baseball among pitchers in WAR. He was third, too, in RA9-WAR. He was third in innings pitched, and he was better on the road than he was at home.

Like many sinker-balling righties, Webb posted a large platoon split. In more than 2,600 matchups against righties, though, he limited the opposition to a .250 wOBA, and a .210/.267/.292 batting line. Last year Brendan Ryan posted a .252 wOBA. No recent starter has been nearly so successful against right-handed hitters. Mat Latos, for his career, has allowed a .270 wOBA to righties. That’s second-best over the last decade.

The very best pitchers throw strikes, get strikeouts, and avoid home runs. Webb didn’t throw a ton of strikes, but he threw enough of them. Webb didn’t generate a ton of strikeouts, but he generated enough of them. And Webb stayed away from the home run, because he was as extreme a ground-baller as there has been in a good long while. For six years, Brandon Webb did it all, and that’s more than you can say about most. That’s more than you can say about almost everyone.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
JS7
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JS7
3 years 4 months ago

Webb was such a great pitcher when he was healthy and in his prime.

It is sad to see him retire at a relatively young age.

Warriors
Guest
Warriors
3 years 4 months ago

He just needs some deer antler spray.

F Off Warriors
Guest
F Off Warriors
3 years 4 months ago

That comment is obviously too smart for the Yahoo sports.

Jaack
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Jaack
3 years 4 months ago

The sad thing is that it actually is too smart for Yahoo Sports…

Josh
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Josh
3 years 4 months ago

God those sinkers are filthy, just pure disgusting filth.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
3 years 4 months ago

They look like changeups. Either they are changeups, in which case they are filthy changeups, or those are the sinkiest sinkers I’ve ever seen.

Atari
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Atari
3 years 4 months ago

2009 I had a rotation headed up by Webb, Santana and Peavy. That is when I learned of the fickleness of pitchers.

Kiss my Go Nats
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Kiss my Go Nats
3 years 4 months ago

Sorry you went bankrupt. i had Peavy in 2009 as well.

Hurtlockertwo
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Hurtlockertwo
3 years 4 months ago

Webb made about $31 million in his short career so he should be set for life.
He seemed to be well liked so coaching may be in his future.

BigR
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BigR
3 years 4 months ago

Great piece Jeff.

KCDaveInLA
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KCDaveInLA
3 years 4 months ago

Definitely on the all-time D-Back rotation (with Johnson and Schilling…too soon to put anyone else on yet).

RKKP
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RKKP
3 years 4 months ago

Funny that you make the Shields comp- he had shoulder surgery in the minor leagues.

fergie348
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fergie348
3 years 4 months ago

Sinkers and shoulders, sliders and elbows, split fingers and everything. God, being a pitcher must be a great way to get acquainted with painkillers and anti inflammatories of all kinds..

Tsunamijesus
Guest
Tsunamijesus
3 years 4 months ago

Just an IV of Ibuprofen

Dylan
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Dylan
3 years 4 months ago

I know the lineup he faced sucked, but I can’t remember a much more impressive pitching performance that I’ve watched live than this one.

http://espn.go.com/mlb/boxscore?id=230427221

He was just making guys look silly in only his second career start. The first 3 innings had 6 K’s and 3 ground outs. Got in trouble in one inning, but got Piazza to ground into a 5-4-3. I had no idea who this guy was, and he was just electric.

MikeS
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MikeS
3 years 4 months ago

Another thing we learned. Next time you think some per-arb kid “settled” for less than he could get by waiting for free agency, remember that tomorrow is not guaranteed.

jimbo
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jimbo
3 years 4 months ago

“…I guess God doesn’t like pitchers a lot.”

Huh?!

If I could throw THAT kind of stuff for just ONE MAJOR LEAGUE GAME? I’d think God was especially fond of me.

Eric R
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Eric R
3 years 4 months ago

…and you’d have lifetime Medical/dental/vision care :)

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
3 years 4 months ago

I wonder sometimes if it’s better to reach those heights to have them cruelly snatched away or to never reach them at all.

Webb was good enough for long enough that I’m sure he would never claim it wasn’t worth it. However, I think I wouldn’t ever want to be a top prospect who is primed to dominate in the majors only to get injured and lost my career. Some would probably say that to be a top prospect and get that attention, and to be able to play at near-MLB level would be worth it, but I think the disappointment would be too great.

James h
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James h
3 years 4 months ago

Pitchers can be reliable if they have good pitching mechanics. Brandon Webb did not have good mechanics (he really pulls his elbow and arm above his holder during windup) and it cost him his excellent career. Baseball people and writers for years have been discussing pitchers breaking down but they really get to the source of the problem. Pitching mechanics cannot be measured quantitatively, which frustrates sabermatricians on here. Until this problem is identified qualitatively, the problem will continue.

Balthazar
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Balthazar
3 years 4 months ago

So James h, that was my reaction also to Webb’s implosion and now the epitaph on his career. We don’t see his wind-up in the ‘gifs [thanks for the .gifs, btw Jeff], so it’s hard to envision his full motion. However, his arm does seem behind his body in all of them, an effect only exaggerated by Webb finishing his follow through down and away for the two-seamer and not a bit higher for a more typical four-seamer. Some guys with unhelpful mechanics manage to endure them longer, but mechanical flaws should always raise doubt. Too bad, ’cause Brandon was good with what he threw.

I’m old enough to remember Wayne Garland’s contract. Luckless Wayne is the name that I always flash on whenever these conversations (inevitably) come up again.

Balthazar
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Balthazar
3 years 4 months ago

“Catfish” Jim Hunter was an excellent, durable pitcher until *shred* he wasn’t; and then wasn’t even a pitching pitcher ever again. And everyone knows about Koufax. “Smokey” Joe Wood was called ‘the best pitcher in the game’ _by Walter Johnson_, and might have been, then *snap*, he was working on a (decent) comeback—as a hitter. The points being: a) pitchers blowing up is nothing new but all too old, and b) it happens to the best just like the rest. Everything can end on one pitch, and all too often does.

James h
Guest
James h
3 years 4 months ago

My point is more about how baseball and websites have tried for decades to reduce pitchers from injury but their problem is you can’t solve something when you don’t know what the problem is! When going to 5 man rotations failed they went to pitch counts. When that didn’t reduce injuries, they went to inning limits reducing loads on younger pitchers. Sabermatricians have come up with pitcher abuse points to try to quantify a cause. I know for years the guy who lead the league was mark buerlie. He still is pitching and not breaking down. But when you see his mechanics, you realize why he doesn’t break down. Greg Maddox had the best mechanics ever for a pitcher and threw 5000 innings and retired only when he lost effectiveness, but never broke down. I think what.has happened to Stephen Strasburg is a case in point. They did everything to hold him back and still blew out his elbow. They thought by doing this it would prevent him from over pitching and ending up like Kerry wood but they didn’t realize that Kerry Wood and Strasburg both got hurt cause their mechanics stink!

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
3 years 4 months ago

I have never seen anyone claim that mechanics are not important or that they aren’t a big factor. I don’t know who you’re responding to.

Sabermetrics people identify statistical causes because that’s their area of expertise. Pitching coaches identify mechanical causes because that’s their areas of expertise. The truth is undoubtedly that both are necessary to totally understand the problem.

CircleChange11
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CircleChange11
3 years 4 months ago

Greg Maddux’s mechanics are also not optimal to maximize velocity. He excelled because he had once in a lifetime command and control.

If more guys had his ability/skill in that regard, then maybe more guys could get away with having lesser velocity.

Given today’s premium on velocity, someone like Greg Maddux might get drafted really low as compared to where he actually did get drafted.

The emphasis on scouting, drafting pitchers is size, velocity, and the slider replacing the curveball.

Pitchers that emphasize the fastball-changeup combo (like King Felix) end up being more durable than those that rely on fastball-slider.

The problem, for pitchers, is that the fastball slider combo at high velocities is just so darn effective.

Justin Verlander was another that was viewed to have less than ideal mechanics (by some … I don’t agree). He’s a heel lander and has a some timing issues.

He’s been pretty darn durable despite heavy workloads and high velocity.

It’s time to view pitchers like we do running backs. They ARE going to get hurt. So you get out of them what you can, while you can … and you try not to give them mega-money long-term contracts if you don’t have to.

What I would like to see are pitchers that have “good mechanics” by some set, measurable standard and then check their injury rate as compared to others … perhaps even place pitchers into 3 or 4 groups based on their degrees from optimal.

But, what we tend to do now is look at pitchers after the fact and note their IP workloads and injury rates and THEN deem them as having good/bad mechanics.

Dan haren is a good example … for years touted as a good mechanics guy, now that he’s been on the decline and had some nagging arm problems he’s in the “maybe not so good” group (not fair).

Does Jared Weaver have good/bad mechanics? What about Kershaw? King Felix?

Tim
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Tim
3 years 4 months ago

“Pitching mechanics cannot be measured quantitatively”

If you really believe this, you should probably find something to call them other than “mechanics.”

Edwin
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Edwin
3 years 4 months ago

Mechanics might have something to do with it, but keep in mind, Webb’s mechanics did get him to the bigs, and let him pitch 6 seasons in a row over 180 innings at a very high level.

Every time a good pitcher goes down with injury, people are so quick to yell “mechanics!”, but it’s foolish. We don’t know if “better” mechanics could have prevented the injury, we don’t know if “better” mechanics would have allowed the pitcher to still pitch effectively, we don’t even know what “better” mechanics truly are.

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11
3 years 4 months ago

Better = Safer in the minds of many people.

What they don’t understand is that the same pitcher with “safer” mechanics may not throw as hard, or be as deceptive, or get as much movement, etc.

Many people are ignorant about such things and getting them to recognize it is nearly impossible.

HollywoodDodger
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HollywoodDodger
3 years 4 months ago

I was glad to see him go.

You’re next, Timmy.

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11
3 years 4 months ago

What’s going to be frustrating is that when TL55 gets injured. FINALLY, all those questioning his mechanics are going to throw themselves a parade. “See I told ya those crazy mechanics were going to lead to an injury” … completely ignoring that a 5’11 175 (soaking wet with rocks min his pockets) pitcher dominated baseball for years and was pretty good for 2 more years, throwing pure gas and teaching us more about mechanics than perhaps any other pitcher in baseball.

The problem with pitching injuries is that we don’t have a good % of what % is mechanics and what % is workload.

So, in regards to TL55, we could say …

1. Small build pitchers are not typically durable.
2. He had huge workloads early in his career.
3. He’s starting to decline and/or breakdown.

There are also questions regarding his conditioning and off-season routines.

Dan Ugglas Forearm
Member
Dan Ugglas Forearm
3 years 4 months ago

Thank goodness the Braves unloaded Tommy Hanson. He’s exactly like Brandon Webb, except will never have 6 years of being remotely good, and will likely retire within the next 4 years, before he turns 30.

Muggi
Guest
Muggi
3 years 4 months ago

I recall seeing a behind-the-scenes thing when Webb was in his prime, where he talked about not needing to ice his arm after games, about how he felt he could pitch more than every 5th day…sucks.

Good luck to him.

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11
3 years 4 months ago

Pitching mechanics are risk-reward.

There are things that pitchers intentionally do, like “cock the gun” and “rely on sliders” (not mechanics, but a conscious decision), which they know come with increased risk, but also increased reward.

If you had the choice of being a pitcher with risky mechanics that makes it to the ML’s or a pitcher with less risky mechanics that doesn’t, what do you choose?

I say that because we have to stop acting like these pitchers would be the same quality pitchers if they changed to more efficient mechanics. They might be more durable, but they also might throw 2-3 mph less, or have less deception, etc.

Durability is not the ONLY important characteristic of a pitcher. People often claim to want consistency and durability and act as if they are the end goal. Believe me, no one touts the consistency and durability of a player that puts up -1 WAR seasons every year while playing every game/start.

Purple
Guest
Purple
3 years 4 months ago

AVERAGED over 5 WAR per season over his way too short career.

Could have been an all-time great. Loved to watch him pitch.

Talihina89
Member
Talihina89
3 years 4 months ago

The late movement on that pitch to Pujols was a thing of beauty.

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