Pitcher Development: A Modern Mystery

One-hundred thirty years removed from Alexander Cartwright, the Boston Beaneaters, infielders without gloves, and local members of the Church acting as umpires, baseball has evolved into a game that we — with over a century’s worth of data in front of us — can both analyze and evaluate with a surprising degree of proficiency.

By looking at a player, we’ll call him “Andruw,” and seeing that he draws a good number of walks, hits for an encouraging amount of power, and does so at the tender age of 20 — we can predict that somewhere down the line he will eventually develop into one of the better hitters in the game. And you know what? Most of the time we’re right. Hitting is — for lack of a better word — easy to predict, as long as you understand what statistics correlate best, from season to season, along the traditional growth curve.

Nevertheless, for as much as we seem to know about predicting a batter’s success — or a lack thereof — pitching, and the ability to evaluate which pitchers predict best for the future, is something that few seem to understand here in the 21st century.

Why is this, you ask? Why is it that pitchers are so hard to project, especially at a young age? The answer lies in one word, my friends: Injuries. The sheer abundance of injuries.

And what consistently causes injuries, within the life of a pitcher? Well, to tell you the truth, we’re not quite sure. There are a number of complex factors that go into every pitcher’s decline — workload being one of the more discussed issues as of late — but the fact of the matter is that the level of knowledge, the sheer accumulation of data, we have at this point is far too small to draw any worthwhile conclusions on the subject. For every Kerry Wood, it seems, there is a Randy Johnson or a Curt Schilling to make us reconsider our argument.

With that being said, the one thing that analysts have been able to recognize over the past few years — in regard to pitcher projections — is the continuing lack of long-term success for those who enter the majors before the age of 21.

You want evidence? Consider this: Since 1980, only 14 pitchers — younger than 21 — have made more than ten starts at the major-league level. Eleven of those 14 pitchers, or 78.5%, have suffered through at least a career-threatening injury — with most of them losing effectiveness in their mid-to-late twenties. That’s roughly five to seven years before “normally” successful pitchers decline, for those of you scoring at home.

Pitcher Team Year Starts

Oh, and the other three pitchers who didn’t suffer through career-threatening injuries? Well, you may have heard of them: their names are CC Sabathia, Rick Ankiel, and Jon Garland — pitchers who, at the time of this writing, are just 21, 23, 21 years of age. And does anyone want to tell me that they think these three are completely immune from a similar fate? I didn’t think so. Even with such a small sample size as 14 pitchers, when the evidence is clearly pointing in one, definitive, direction — such as this — heed must be paid to what undeniably appears to be a trend.

“But why,” you might ask, “does this happen? And what can be done about it?”

Well gang, by asking that question, I have to say that you’re definitely getting to the heart of the matter.

You see, for as much as we seemingly know about the development of major league hitters, very little of that knowledge can be applied to what makes a successful pitcher — let alone a successful pitcher who stays healthy.

Beyond avoiding heavy workloads for youngsters, and not forcing relievers to pitch on back-to-back nights on a regular basis, modern methods of pitcher-development have made very few advances — in comparison to hitting — since the early 1980s.

Take Ryan Anderson for example. Anderson, once the crown jewel of the already-stacked Seattle Mariners’ farm system, was told last Thursday — for the second consecutive year — that he will miss the coming season with a torn lambrum in his pitching arm. Despite being handled with “careful” workloads — according to the Mariners’ pitching coaches — the ‘Space Needle’ (as he is known) will spend yet another season on the sidelines: working with Dr. James Andrews and a medicine ball while his teammates fight to defend their division title.

What could have prevented this? I doubt that anyone is particularly sure. Assuming that the Mariners’ are telling the truth about Anderson’s workloads, it seems unlikely — with the meager knowledge we have about keeping pitchers healthy — that much of anything could have been done. Under the current system, these things just tend to happen.

And that, I suppose, is probably the biggest point I’d like to make about pitching at the major-league level — or, heck, any level for that matter: Taking a five-ounce ball of horsehide, hurling it as hard as you can for hundreds upon hundreds of repetitions per outing, and expecting to maintain a certain level of consistency is patently ridiculous. Throwing a baseball could be the single most unnatural act in all of professional sports — and to expect that one should be able to do this without injury is purely a case of ignorance.

Granted, this is not to say — in any way — that pitchers should stand for being abused, simply because the outcome is “inevitable.” Not in the least. But what I am saying is that until newer methods of both evaluation and preparation are developed — until major-league teams are willing to admit that the way in which they are caring for their pitchers now is a seriously flawed system — we’re destined to a see a lot more Steve Averys, Doc Goodens, and Jaret Wrights than Randy Johnsons. That is for sure.

As Joe Sheehan, of the Baseball Prospectus, likes to say: “There’s no such thing as a pitching prospect. There’s only pitching talent.” Try to keep that in mind, won’t you, when watching Josh Beckett pitch for the Florida Marlins this year? After all, regardless of whatever hype you may have heard — and there’s been plenty — the odds are distinctly against him becoming the next Big Thing to dominate the majors.

Ryan Wilkins is card-carrying member of the Baseball Junkie Staff and Sports-Central.org. You can email him by clicking here, or simply post your comments in the field below.