For fans wondering how new Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine will run the team, his recent comments on pitch counts and pitcher health could make fans of the Red Sox and/or logic cringe and make Red Sox pitchers fear for the health of their pitching arm. In a recent interview, Valentine made it clear that he was neither a fan of pitch counts nor innings limits on his pitchers. On the topic of pitch counts, Valentine offered:
The one thing that doesn’t compute is less is better. It doesn’t match. More is better.
Valentine is partially correct that there is little evidence to demonstrate that strict adherence to a pitch count prevents injuries to adult pitchers, but at the same time I am not aware of any studies that demonstrate that having a higher pitch count actually reduces the risk of injury.
Though the use of the word “compute” in the quote above may signal someone who has analyzed a sizable amount of data on the topic, this does not appear to be true of Valentine. Instead he seems to be drawing his inferences based on a very small sample of cases. In his own words:
No one has ever been monitored more on the pitches he has thrown than Stephen Strasburg … They monitored every pitch, they limited what he did when he was out on the mound. You know what happened? His arm broke and he had Tommy John surgery. So is limiting the amount of pitches you throw the end-all for the health of the pitcher’s arm? The answer has got to be no.
As noted above, there is some truth in the last part of that statement, but the rest of the quote is cringe worthy. First of all, there have been no reports that Strasburg suffered a broken arm, and if even if he had I’m not aware of a case where Tommy John surgery was the prescribed remedy for an arm fracture. Factual errors aside, it is next to impossible to learn anything systematic about pitcher health –- or anything else for that matter — by focusing on one case.
Yes, by all accounts Strasburg’s workload was limited in college and by the Nationals and yet he still had a serious arm injury. But we know that throwing a baseball in the way that Strasburg does is in many ways an unnatural act. We’ve only begun to understand the forces placed on various body structures when a ball is thrown at great velocity, but at this point in our scientific understanding, we simply do not fully understand how to prevent all injuries to pitchers. However, Valentine seems –- as per usual — quite sure of himself:
Valentine also noted that none of his pitchers from Chiba Lotte Marines had arm injuries despite 200 pitch bullpen sessions.
Again we see a small sample size argument akin to saying that if you know one person who smoked a lot and never got lung cancer and another person who never smoked but was stricken with the disease you could ignore the scientific data connecting smoking and lung cancer. The fact that Strasburg was injured despite being carefully monitored, while “old-timers” like Nolan Ryan survived despite punishing workloads only proves that there are differences in how factors such as mechanics, genetics, and luck affect each individual pitcher.
The comparison that Valentine makes between pitching in Japan versus in MLB is interesting, but unfortunately we cannot infer from this example that “more is better.” It may well be true that longer bullpen sessions help build arm strength. In fact, former Altanta Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone was an advocate of what he called the “throw strong” program whereby his pitchers threw the ball a lot more than was the norm in MLB, but they threw at less than maximum effort with the hope of building more arm strength. However, by equating pitching in Japan to MLB, Valentine ignores other major differences between the two games that may affect pitcher health, including days of rest between starts, the quality of lineups faced, and size and texture of the ball itself. There may be important relationships between all these variables and pitcher health, but Valentine’s “analysis” does little to illuminate them.
Valentine is similarly dogmatic about innings limits, which will be worth following this season if the Red Sox move forward with their current plans to have both Alfredo Aceves and Daniel Bard move from the bullpen to the starting rotation. It has become customary for major league teams to show restraint in increasing the number of innings a pitcher throws from one season to the next. Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci has presented data showing that pitchers who have a jump of more than 30 innings from one year to the next are more susceptible to injury and/or ineffectiveness in the following year. This could be tough to manage for the Red Sox in 2012 as Bard has never thrown more than 75 innings in a season and Aceves’ previous high is 114 innings. Valentine, however, seems totally unconcerned about the difficulties of two of his pitchers making this transition:
It’s not a tough physical transition. There’s a lot of talk about this tough physical transformation that relievers have to do to become a starter. Well, the majority of pitchers in history did it. So how tough could it be?
It is too early to tell if Valentine’s comments are actually reflective of a change in the Red Sox philosophy on pitcher usage, or simply cheap talk, but it is noteworthy how drastic Valentine’s philosophy is from what the Red Sox have been doing. There is no evidence to suggest that the Red Sox have been employing a hard pitch count on their starters as most have been allowed to get into the 120s on occasion, but by most accounts they have been on the cutting edge of attempts to measure pitcher fatigue, which is often a precursor to injury. In past seasons the team has limited the innings of many of its starters by managing their rotation in a way that gives pitchers more than five days of rest between starts on occasion. They also reportedly regularly measure fatigue in the arm muscles of their pitchers and compare to baseline measurements. Yet, despite these measures, all five original members of the Red Sox 2011 starting rotation spent time on the disabled list last season. This does demonstrate that there is still a lot we do not know about how to keep pitchers healthy, but few would take this as evidence that we should ignore the things we do know. Valentine is known for being a bit of a loose cannon, so it may be that his comments do not reflect a change in organizational philosophy, but if they do it the next few seasons could be tough for Red Sox pitchers and fan alike.