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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:

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.