For the second straight year, it’s my pleasure to present a guest post from Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus.
Will has done groundbreaking work for BP reporting on injuries. His Under The Knife column is must-reading for executives, the media and fans who want the latest information. Will also writes about injuries and medical issues for Sports Illustrated and Football Outsiders.
Will has been a friend of this blog for a long time and it’s a great privilege to have him as a contributor. Here is his post:
“Past performance does not indicate future results.”
Maybe using a financial phrase isn’t the best idea in this economy, but it’s one that many hold true in baseball. With free agency, teams turn over their roster so quickly that the common players over any period are small enough that it’s tough to suss out any sort of knowledge based on consistency. Worse, there’s a mental perception of players that takes hold, making it easier to see their future or past than their present. Mariano Rivera is still Mariano Rivera – the metaphor isn’t that existential – but Rivera ’09 isn’t Rivera ’99 or even ’08. Projection systems around the game are all using past performance and maths to figure out what comes next. It works, sometimes with deadly accuracy, because when it comes to judging a player, I’d point to that phrase up there and say to throw it out.
Jay-Z is the more accurate in this case – “You was what you was before you got here.” The Yankees in ’09 are going to be a great test case for whether a hip-hop truism applies to baseball. The 2009 Yankees will be relying on two pitchers – Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes – to fill slots in their rotation. Yeah, yeah … I’ve heard the talk of moving Chamberlain back to the pen and I’m sure he’d be good, even great, as a setup guy, but you don’t hear the Rays talking about keeping David Price in the pen, do you? Both young Yanks have had some health problems, but their past results tell you a lot about what you can expect from them in ’09.
Chamberlain was in much this same position in 2008, with an ongoing debate about whether to move him out of the pen and how to do it, if the team so chose. The method, starting him in the pen and then shifting him to the rotation, seemed the tougher road to me. I didn’t think the Yankees would have the institutional will to send him down in order to “stretch out” his arm nor the creativity to use him in ever longer stints to do it at the major league level. I was wrong. There’s still some question about whether it was the best way, but let’s give credit where due. That Chamberlain ended up the season with a sore shoulder – and please note it was sore, not torn, sprained, frayed, or any other nasty words you hear Jim Andrews say – at just about the point we’d expect.
There’s not enough evidence to come up with a real conversion factor for pitchers that are relievers one year and starters the next, but if you take innings as innings (a simplistic way to do it) and look at where he got sore, you’ll see shades of the Verducci Effect.
Chamberlain’s ’09 then would seem equally limited, but here’s where I think a change in his preparation is going to factor in. He threw about 60 innings as a starter and 40 more as a reliever. Some work on “leverage” in relief innings has indicated that it may have significantly more stress on the arm, allowing us to make a simple doubling conversion factor for those taking a year to year role change. (If you don’t think it works, take a look at Adam Wainwright’s stat line and where he came up lame after crossing the converted Verducci line.) Giving Chamberlain this credit gives us an equivalence of 140 innings and lets him go up to around 170 “safely.” Using smart pitch counts, skipping his turn now and again, and perhaps returning him to the pen as he nears the limit makes it very easy for the Yankees to maximize their young ace. There’s also a strong argument that allowing him to prep for the season as a starter will allow him to build up even more stamina in his shoulder. I’ll still say that I’d err on the side of caution with him.
On the other hand, we have Phil Hughes, the can’t-miss kid who thus far has due to injuries. Hamstring and rib injuries have cost him nearly two seasons, leaving many to wonder if he can stay healthy. There’s some who say “it wasn’t his arm” and maybe missing out on big workloads as a 21 and 22-year-old might end up helping in the long run a la Nolan Ryan and Josh Beckett. But the issue is that he’s never stayed healthy at the major league level. Freak injuries? Sure, but so far, all the evidence points to the fact that Hughes might not be able to stay healthy at this level. Someday, doctors will be able to wave a wand and tell you the genetic tags that make or break a pitcher, from flexibility, tensile strength of ligaments, and humeral retroversion, but we don’t have those quite yet. What we have is more a Missouri approach; Hughes has to show me he can stay healthy before I believe he can. He’s never gone 150 innings in any season at any level. If you say he can, you have faith, not facts.
The Yankees have some things on their side, including depth, a big checkbook, and new facilities. They’ve shown themselves to be able to develop solid pitchers in both the rotation and the pen, to rehab players effectively, and to at least be average in the number of injuries suffered by pitchers. They’ve been both cutting-edge and creative in the way they’ve dealt with a number of players. Of course, they may need all that since every one of their pitchers in slots one through five have injury concerns. You might not need to look at the standings next season to figure out how well the Yankees are playing. You might just need to check the disabled list.