On Friday, Travis from Yankees, Etc. wrote a guest post for this blog about how many innings Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy could give the Yankees.
Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus was reading and asked if he could give his views on the subject. For those of you who don’t know, Will is an expert on pitching and the author of “Saving The Pitcher.”
I can’t tell you how thrilled and honored I am that Will was willing to write for us. Here’s his post:
Imagine climbing a mountain only to find someone else standing at the summit. That’s a rough approximation of the feeling I got last year when I learned that my “Rule of 30″ work was a mere duplicate of Tom Verducci’s near-decade long tracking of what he calls the Year After Effect. In deference, I’ve begun referring to the “rule” that a younger pitcher struggles with jumps of 30 innings or more, year over year, as the Verducci Rule. Only Friday, ‘Travis’ posted a piece in this space using the Verducci Rule to take a look at the Yankees pitching staff. It was well-written and well-researched . . . but wrong.
Travis did something that I’ve been trying to do for a couple years and have yet to figure out. Travis is probably smarter than me and may figure out a way to do it yet, but he hasn’t yet and it’s very important, especially for the ’08 Yanks. The problem is that the Rule is based on Major League innings only, not a combination of Major and Minor League innings. I wish I could explain why this is so, but my best efforts to find a translation for minor league innings remains just a dream. Using the best translation in the business, the Davenport Translations, the ones that are at the heart of Baseball Prospectus’ efforts over the last 13 years, doesn’t work for translating workload. Adjustments to the translations haven’t come up with consistent results either, leaving me with this corrolary to the Rule: Minor league innings are somehow not the same as major league innings.
This is an important point. Why are minor league innings any different than major league innings? There are only theories, but the best and most testable center around a selection bias. A pitcher good enough to go over 100 innings in the major leagues is almost by definition a quality pitcher. We know that major league hitters are harder to get out than minor league hitters, not to mention the stress of pitching in front of big crowds. The type of pitcher that can get over 100 innings in the majors is likely to be coasting through the minors on less than his best effort. He’s seldom taxed. He’s seldom forced to bear down or throw long innings. Granted, we don’t know this is the reason why and mathematically and physiologically, it shouldn’t be the case, but until someone can develop a working model for translation, we have to simply ignore those minor league innings. It should be noted that Verducci includes minor league innings in his formula.
So knowing what we’re working with, we then have to take a look at whether there’s anything more in play. Nate Silver and I did a piece in 2003 for ESPN that unfortunately doesn’t seem to still be available. In it, Silver was able to pinpoint a spot where injuries seemed to go down. It was a survival marker for pitchers where the chance for injury begins to rapidly descend. This “injury nexus” as Silver named it appears to come into play. Looking at Verducci’s 2007 list, the survival happens at the upper ages, the ones that exceed the age-23 nexus described by Silver. I think this may be important.
So who’s on this year’s list? Surprisingly, you’ll see a couple names on my list that you saw on Verducci’s last list:
Scott Kazmir 23
Cole Hamels 23
James Shields 25
Jered Weaver 24
Boof Bonser 25
Chad Billingsley 22
Fausto Carmona 23
Scott Baker 25
Kyle Davies 23
Tom Gorzelanny 24
Matt Garza 23
Adam Wainwright 25
Dustin McGowan 25
Kameron Loe 25
So Hamels, Weaver, and Bonser made it through the season, more or less. Hamels had some noted elbow problems, but was pitching when the season ended, avoiding the fate of those such as Anibal Sanchez, who may not make it back for the start of 2008. There’s also some note that there’s some “pre-injury” issues. Kameron Loe and Kyle Davies both saw their years end with injuries. The biggest increase belongs to Fausto Carmona, someone who will be a big test. The Indians knew about the Verducci Rule and noted to me in an interview that they wouldn’t take him beyond the 30+ rule, but they were including not only minor league innings but also innings thrown in the minor league playoffs in 2006.
Looking at the list, I think the younger players – Kazmir, Hamels, Carmona, Davies, and Garza – are at the highest risk, making Chad Billingsley the top candidate for problems. I think we may have started to see this at the end of the season when his control began fading. That’s often a precursor of elbow problems.
So with 3/5th of the Rays rotation on the list and a couple Cy Young hopefuls in the mix, is there any chance for escaping fate and a date with Jim Andrews? Yes and we can also find this on last year’s Verducci List. Justin Verlander showed that a small increase, paired with excellent conditioning and a top-notch medical staff, can make it through. Moreover, it’s as notable that these lists serve as an “ace filter” as much as they serve as a risk assesment. Players that make it through, such as Verlander this year, often go on to long, consistent careers at the 200 inning level.
The Yankees face seeing a Rays-like list in 2009. With Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, and Joba Chamberlain all likely to see increases, their handling will be one of the key tasks facing Joe Girardi, who it should be noted was responsible for two of the injured players (Sanchez and Scott Olson) from the Verducci list. Hughes was limited by injury to just 72 innings. The 100 inning threshhold is a minimum expectation for the Yankees No. 3, making him a very high risk player for the future, especially when he starts the season at age 21. The usage of Hughes is almost impossible to avoid, so the options seem to be use him and hope he holds up — or include him in a package for Johan Santana, who’s proven he can handle that kind of workload.
Granted, Santana will cost about $20m a year more over the next few years, but he’s also a known risk. Kennedy is easier to deal with. Ideally, he won’t make the rotation, letting that slot be held down in much the same way it was last season in Hughes’ absence. A combination of 6,7, even the 8 starter could serve to save Kennedy until June 1.
Chamberlain’s usage is more difficult and there’s little precedent. Adam Wainwright, who had a giant increase in innings shifting from World Series closer to ace starter, is likely the best comp, though they’re hardly similar players in build, style, or perhaps most importantly, age. We can also take a lesson from Jonathon Papelbon, who conditioned in the spring to start, then shifted without issue back to the bullpen. I’d suggest a similar usage with one important twist. If the Yankees ask (and they haven’t), I’d use Chamberlain in the four starter slot for the first half of the season (15 starts or so, or about 100 innings), then shift him to the bullpen. Ideally, there would be someone of comparable quality to shift in there. Perhaps someone from that 6/7/8 usage steps up and earns a slot or perhaps Brian Cashman has to make a trade. And perhaps you throw caution to the wind and risk Chamberlain’s future on the hope that he can beat the odds and stay healthy.
Once we get the PECOTA projections – which should be in the next couple weeks – we’ll be able to take the next step. We can get some indication of which players figure to be on next year’s list, something you’ll want to know before signing someone to a long term deal or putting them on the keeper list. The Verducci Rule is an interesting tool, one that bears further research. The parameters are limiting and it’s power of prediction is hardly sure enough to put much faith in it as more than an indicator. It’s far from perfect, but if the goal is to assess risk and probability, seeing your young ace on the list should get your attention. We’ll see who’s taken note soon.