Flooring the WBC: How the World Baseball Classic Negatively Affects the Health and Performance of Pitchers

The World Baseball Classic is certainly a noble idea. I mean, what’s not to like about it on paper? You take the best players from each baseball-playing nation and have them battle it out to see which country reigns over the rest of the globe. Can anyone trot out a more thunderous lineup than the USA? Who has the more dynamic pitchers: the Dominican Republic or Venezuela? Does Japan really produce the most fundamentally sound players? Fans all over the world have shown their support for this, as have many players.

All of this would be fine if baseball were like basketball, hockey or soccer; sports where you could wake up, trip over your dog, tumble down the stairs into a pair of cleats, skates or sneakers and play. Those sports employ bio-mechanics the body was designed to handle like running, jumping, kicking and swinging. Baseball, specifically pitching, is not like that. The human arm was not designed to handle the stress and torque put on it by pitching. If you don’t believe me, then I have a few thousand shoulder and elbow scars to show you, including my own.

The lucky few who are able to withstand such actions and be successful are kept on a yearly routine: start throwing in mid-February, build strength and stamina through March before turning up the intensity at the beginning of April. But just like it isn’t wise to turn the ignition on a new Mustang and instantly floor it, it doesn’t seem right to take a pitcher conditioned to ease into a season during Spring Training and tell him to pitch with October-like intensity in March. Unfortunately, this is the case with the WBC.

After looking through the statistics of those who appeared in both WBC tournaments, it is my belief that pitchers who participate in the WBC, especially starters, are far more likely to see a regression in their performance, get hurt or both than pitchers who do not play in the WBC. I reason that the most likely cause is the tournament’s timing disrupts the normal routine of pitchers and their arms are not yet ready to handle the stress and intensity then. With data collected from various sources, I will demonstrate the stark differences between WBC pitchers and their counterparts who did not participate in the tournament, using spreadsheet data and graphs included in this analysis.

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The pitchers who were included in this study had to satisfy a few conditions. First, pitchers in the WBC group had to have pitched primarily in Major League Baseball in 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2009[1]. Players who played in one year but not another (spent one year in the minors or injured; or retired after a WBC) were not included. For the baseline of starters and relievers, a pitcher who made 10 or more starts for the year was counted as a starter while a pitcher who made 25 or more appearances with nine or fewer starts was counted as a reliever. The “all pitchers” category includes every pitcher who made an appearance during the 2005, 2006, 2008 and/or 2009 seasons.

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At the heart of it, the key to successful pitching is how good you are in preventing runs from scoring, with ERA and component ERA (ERC)[2] being the primary statistics used to measure this aspect. The MLB’s ERA usually falls between 4.25 and 4.45 in most years, with only small differences from season to season. The last four groups saw small-to-moderate increases in their ERA between 2005 and 2006, but WBC starting pitchers saw a dramatic jump, from 3.75 to 4.48 while the ERC inflated from 4.09 to 4.79. WBC relievers also saw a significant jump in their collective ERAs (3.15 to 3.51), but not only is that only roughly half of what starters experienced, WBC relievers saw their ERC drop from 3.86 to 3.41. Compared against the league-wide ERA/ERC jumps of 0.24 (4.29 to 4.53) and 0.25 (4.18 to 4.43), respectively, the WBC starters’ jumps look even more like one of Superman’s single bounds. A major factor for this spike may be the above-average rise in HR/9 ratios. The average MLB starter showed no increase in his HR/9 rates and all other groups had increases of 0.1, but the HR/9 rates of WBC starters rose by 0.2 (0.9 – 1.1).

Home runs aren’t so bad, just as long as there isn’t anyone on base, but WBC starters were putting more and more runners on in 2006. Starting pitchers saw the highest rise in WHIP out of the five groups. The major league-average increase in WHIP between 2005 and 2006 was 0.04 (1.37 to 1.41), but the average WBC-participating starter saw his WHIP rise double that amount (0.08) from 1.29 to 1.37. Part of that increase was fueled by an up-tick in their BB/9 rates, which climbed from 2.9 to 3.1 (0.2). The most startling changes, though, were with the starters’ rising H/9 rates and falling K/9 rates . While all other groups saw a 0.2 increase in their H/9 ratios, WBC-participating starters’ ratios shot up by 0.5, going from 8.7 in 2005 to 9.2 in 2006. This may be attributed to a pitcher’s prematurely tired arm or improper mechanics from being rushed along during what normally is Spring Training. Either way, the pitches became more hittable, which also showed a decrease in these pitchers’ ability to strike batters out.

Every group I collected data on showed an improvement in their K/9 ratios by 0.2…except for WBC-participating starters. Their K/9 ratios actually fell, going from 7.0 in 2005 to 6.7 in 2006—a drop of 0.3 whiffs per nine innings. A good K/9 ratio shows both how good a pitcher is at retiring a batter without the help of his fielders and how dominant his repertoire is. The higher, the better. When I see that one group’s ratio is regressing while all others are improving, that would make me a little curious as to what may be causing such a downturn, especially with a group as valuable as starting pitchers. If I were in a team’s front office, it would make me wonder if this little event that is supposedly good for baseball is actually harming my pitcher and my team’s playoff chances.

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Now, this wouldn’t so much of a concern if the pitchers who saw this decline in performance were just hurlers on the wrong side of 30 and/or at the tail-end of their contract, but that’s not a case. Pitchers like Jake Peavy and Dontrelle Willis saw their performances take a dive after participating in the 2006 WBC, while promising up-and-comers like Francisco Liriano and Gustavo Chacin suffered major injuries that year. Two of the more alarming examples are Peavy and Willis, two National League hurlers from pitcher-friendly ballparks who use complicated or violent deliveries.

Peavy seemed out of sorts during the first half of the 2006 season, posting ERAs of 5.17 or worse in three of the first four months. It was during this time that Peavy was also prone to the long ball, serving up 14 of his 23 home runs in April, May and June. The “gopher-itis” lessened once July hit, but then Peavy had a little more trouble finding the strike zone. After issuing no more than eight free passes in each of the first three months, Peavy walked 12 or more batters in every month during latter half of the season. Peavy eventually straightened himself out in 2007, but the same cannot be said for Willis. After nearly winning the Cy Young in 2005, Willis never could establish any consistency in 2006. His WHIP climbed an astonishing 0.29 points from 1.13 (sixth in the NL) to 1.42 (outside the top 30). At the same time, his HR/9 rate doubled from 0.4 to 0.8 while his opponents’ OPS climbed from .644 to .745. Since then, Willis’ regression went from bad to worse and is now viewed as little more than a reclamation project for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

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Whereas 2006 saw a decline in WBC pitchers’ performance, the 2009 tournament participants saw an even more disturbing trend: a steep drop in their time on the mound. There were only negligible decreases in innings pitched following the 2006 WBC—10.1 percent for starters, 2.6 percent for relievers—but those figures worsened dramatically following this past tournament. WBC starters pitched, on average, 21.1 percent fewer innings in 2009 than they did in 2008 while relievers saw their innings totals drop by 27.2 percent. Houston ace Roy Oswalt saw his streak of five consecutive 200-inning seasons come to an end due to chronic back problems. Cincinnati’s Edinson Volquez appeared in one WBC game, then made only nine starts during the regular season before undergoing “Tommy John” surgery[3].

A second trend I noticed involved those pitchers who were in the playoffs the previous season. Out of the 11 pitchers who appeared in both the ’08 playoffs and the ’09 WBC, eight of them missed time due to injury (or, in the case of Javier Lopez, demotion) or saw an overall regression in their performance. The pitchers from this group who spent time on the disabled list pitched anywhere from 13.5 percent to 80.3 percent fewer innings than they had in ’08. Some of the more notable examples include Red Sox right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka, whose 59.1 innings in ’09 were the fewest he’s pitched in either Japan or America, and Angels set-up man Scot Shields, who had never been on the disabled list for his entire nine-year big league career.

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There are more examples of pitchers seeing their fortunes change for the worse after either of the two WBCs, like Bartolo Colon’s shoulder falling apart after rushing through rehab and Esteban Loaiza’s collapse in Oakland in 2006 or how Volquez’s elbow went kaput in the middle of 2009. I won’t list every pitcher who suffered, but my point is clear: the WBC increases the chances for pitchers to suffer injuries, see an across-the-board decline in performance or both. As I stated earlier, I feel the biggest reason for these unfortunate trends is the timing of the tournament. Holding this tournament in the early spring can only damage the health and careers of the players who wish to represent their countries and, in turn, hurt the player’s team both on the field and their long-term organizational plan. I feel the best possible resolution would be to hold the tournament at two different times: have the preliminary rounds during the week of the All-Star Game—while giving MLB, the Japanese leagues and all other leagues a mid-season break—and the final two rounds shortly after the World Series. This way, not only would the careers and health of the pitchers be better preserved, but it would also be highly beneficial to MLB as a whole.

Under the current scheduling, the WBC and MLB has to battle against the NCAA men’s basketball championship tournament for ratings and coverage. Since all other major professional and collegiate leagues are inactive in July, it would allow MLB a better opportunity to drum up interest in the tournament and give less well-known baseball-playing nations a bigger platform to perform. The week off would also benefit the players who are not in the WBC, as they would have had time to recover from injuries and spend invaluable time with family and friends. Lastly, the buzz over a recently completed World Series could carry over to the final stages of the WBC, with story lines from the first phase being built up prior to the resumption of the tournament. Playoff-participating players could have the option of continuing in the tournament or allow other players, who spent most of October resting and re-energizing, to go in their places. Those fresh bodies would also improve the quality of play seen by the fans.

The bottom line is this: the World Baseball Classic is an excellent idea, but is poorly executed in its current form, with pitchers suffering the most damage. Pitchers are the most valuable and volatile commodity in baseball and MLB should do its very best in order to protect that commodity. Even though there have been only two tournaments to study, the numbers are very clear and the logical decision to change should be made.

Michael Echan is a freelance sports writer from New Jersey. Please contact him if you would like to see the compiled spreadsheet data and graphs. He may be reached at mcechan@hotmail.com


[1] Francisco Liriano spent most of 2005 in the minors, but was included because he spent most of 2006 with Minnesota before a season-ending elbow injury in August. Luis Ayala was on Washington’s roster in 2006, but injured his elbow during the WBC.

[2] ERC is a statistic created by Bill James. It takes the number of hits, walks, home runs, hit batters and total batters faced by a pitcher to give an “alternate” ERA that better reflects his performance.

[3] Volquez did pitch a career-high 196 innings in 2008, his first full season in the big leagues, but has had his workload gradually increased during his career. His combined innings progression: 140 in ’05, 154 in ’06, 178.2 in ’07, 196 in ’08.




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18 Responses to “Flooring the WBC: How the World Baseball Classic Negatively Affects the Health and Performance of Pitchers”

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  1. nangstman says:

    Is it possible that the reason a pitcher is participating in the WBC is because they performed exceptionally well in the previous year, and thus decline in statistical performance is a result of regression to their usual performance? Along the same lines, if a pitcher is injured in the year before the WBC (and thus pitched less innings), wouldn’t they be less inclined to participate in the WBC? That could skew the data into making it look like WBC participation contributed to lesser innings. Just throwing out another potential argument for the statistical differences, I think you’re definitely on to something.

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  2. MCEchan36 says:

    If you want, I would be more than happy to share the spreadsheet data I compiled. It goes through every single pitcher who participated in both WBCs, along with baseline stats of all pitchers, including starters, relievers and all appearances. I wanted to include the graphs from my Word document, but I couldn’t figure out how to transfer them.

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  3. cpebbles says:

    World Teeball Classic anyone?

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  4. evo34 says:

    What is the sample size here?

    Also, there is going to be some selection bias since pitchers performing exceptionally (unsustainably) well are more likely to be selected to the WBC. I am not saying this accounts for all of the findings, but it may be a factor.

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  5. edxs says:

    Shields, who you mentioned by name, threw 75 pitches over the 15 days USA had in the tournament. He had one 30-pitch outing but that doesn’t exactly scream “abuse” to me.

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  6. MCEchan36 says:

    It’s not necessarily the number of pitches thrown, but the total disruption of a time-tested routine. I’m more concerned with the mere fact that Shields, let alone any pitcher, is either being asked for feels that he must pitch with maximum intensity and effort during a time of year where he is normally just building up strength and maintaining/improving mechanics. Follow?

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  7. edxs says:

    I’m not saying it isn’t something a player needs to think about. They certainly need to consider how it’s going to fit in with their other baseball obligations.

    I just have a hard time believing Scot Shields’ 2009 injury had anything to do with the 2009 WBC especially after he had no problems after the 2006 WBC.

    If the WBC is a huge risk I can only imagine guys who play winter ball must be walking around with a noose around their neck just waiting to catch a tree branch.

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  8. kardo|afk says:

    If too much playing time is really the concern then reducing the 162 game regular season to roughly 146 would be sufficient to compensate for the WBC.

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  9. MCEchan36 says:

    Winter ball is different because it occurs prior to spring training. Once again, I go back to the analogy of trying to max out a high-performance car without warming it up. Winter ball is over a longer period of time (at least two months, correct?) and the players have a sense of when they will be playing next. The WBC under its current format is just thrown at the players and asking them to perform at a high level at a time, physically and mentally, they aren’t used to. THAT is the crux of my argument.

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  10. Derek says:

    This really seems to be more of an issue of fatigue than timing. I really don’t think getting kicked in the shins 10+ times a match or jumping around on the hardwood “employ bio-mechanics the body was designed to handle” in a way that is that different than the pitching arm. Take the World Cup for example, guys like Rooney and Messi have spoken about how playing such a huge number of matches (from the various club tournaments to the World Cup) have really stressed their bodies. And don’t pitchers adjust their offseason routines to account for the WBC? From your data, it’s just as likely to be the extra innings that are stressing their arms, not the timing of those innings.

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  11. PatsNats28 says:

    It seems as if the premise of your argument is that the problem is that the tournament is in March, when pitchers aren’t as ready for it. What about the July plan then? If you’re not familiar with it, every three or four years (IIRC they changed it to 4 years from now on), stop MLB play on July 1st, do a fairly quick tournament (not a ton of rest days), ending before the All-Star break. Then you have the ASB, another marquee event, and then back to baseball. Of course, you have to put the two weeks somewhere… so you go with a shorter spring training (start the season a week earlier), and end the season a week later… and then get rid of the pointless playoff off days, and you can still finish the WS before November.

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  12. Jon says:

    One problem is that it pushes back the finish of the MLB season further, which is already an issue with it sometimes crawling into November. MLB owners would have to give up that 1 week – 2 weeks of the schedule to accomodate the WBC. That’s a lot of missing revenue.

    Not to mention I’m sure they don’t want their players, who they have under contract, being managed by someone else and playing for another team during the contract.

    I would like to see the WBC played during the summer, it’s just not going to happen without a strike or something

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  13. Steven Gomez says:

    Isn’t there also a very low and required pitch count and days off between games?

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  14. [...] Ryan Vogelsong here, and while I’m not wild about him pitching in the tournament (especially considering studies like this), there’s a chance that Vogelsong could be pitching in front of a rabid AT&T [...]

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  15. [...] to make sure these pitcher’s aren’t overworked during this International Tournament. As Michael Echan wrote for Fangraphs back in 2010, “the World Baseball Classic is an excellent idea, but is poorly executed in its [...]

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  16. [...] are afraid of getting hurt, or something. Right? Huh. I wonder if @MLB_PR will be re-tweeting this FanGraphs study: After looking through the statistics of those who appeared in both WBC tournaments, it is my [...]

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  17. [...] Jayson Stark did a recent study in regards to injuries and the WBC, Neyer also references a 2010 post from Fangraphs authored by Michael Echan which notes some contrast to Stark’s more current [...]

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