Rebuking Rany’s Rebuke of the Nationals
There is no more divisive topic in sport at the moment than the Nationals’ decision to shut down ace starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg as they chase the NL Pennant and their first World Series title. Scouts and orthopedic surgeons have opined utilizing their unique insight but it wasn’t until Rany Jazayerli’s latest piece at Grantland entitled “A National Mistake” had an argument been advanced relying on historical statistics.
Jazayerli’s piece relies on several premises, the first states that by monitoring pitch counts organizations have reduced the risk of pitcher injuries by overuse significantly. Rany implicitly defined overuse in this piece to be when a pitcher consistently threw a lot of pitches within a single game. The next is that because of this significant reduction in the risk of pitcher injuries significantly, there is less to be gained by further reducing a pitcher’s workload.
The first premise superficially feels intuitive and Rany coaxes the unassuming reader into buying into it by presenting several anecdotes that illustrate his premise. It’s important to recognize that the anecdotes are merely illustrative and are not, in fact, evidence that proves his premise to be true. To provide evidence supporting the validity of his assertion, Rany would have to show that at the beginning of his sample the average young pitcher threw X pitches and Y injuries occurred and as the sample wore on, when and how teams controlled the amount of pitches, X, and we saw a correlating drop in injuries, Y.
Of course, even if that information was presented and accurate, a reasonable sabermetrican would then explain to his or her audience that other variables existed over the same time period both within the game and in our culture. She would point to advancements in Tommy John surgery; the evolution of relief roles; the promulgation of new philosophies about pitching mechanics, weight training, diet, and nutrition; and the explosion of player salaries, just to name a few. She would recognize that number, or more specifically the data included her study, do not paint the entire picture.
However, Rany does not present a statistical analysis of his aforementioned definition for overuse. Instead he analyzed whether young pitchers who made over 24 starts in a season made over 24 starts five years later from 1984 to 2006. It’s difficult to see how games started relates to his definition of overuse unless you’ve paid close attention to the anecdotes mentioned in the piece. Rany assumes the earlier within the sample one pitched, the more he was overused. Therefore we should see an increase in the amount of pitchers who made over 24 starts in five years the later in the sample we look. In other words, we should see a decrease in injuries due to overuse over time.
Of course, superficially this assumption feels right. Doesn’t it? But it isn’t supported. We don’t know whether or not the earlier pitchers were overused. We don’t know if those who were hurt were hurt directly due to overuse or another unrelated injury. And finally we don’t know whether not a perceived decrease in injury risk is due to pitch count control or another variable. Again, the reasonable sabermetrican would at least mention the discuss the other variables. She is wise and not only notes variables’ potential impact but downgrades her findings because of them.
The study’s overarching assumption – that earlier pitchers were overused – is intuitive. It’s not far fetched. One could say it to a friend and she would not bat an eye. Should Rany cite his work? Of course. Peer review has walked hand in hand with sabermetrics. But, the assumption is harmless. An issue arises, however, as he applies this assumption to his study. Rany segregates the years he studied into two segments, 1984-1998 and 1999 – 2006. The result is that 50% of the pitchers in the earlier segment “survived” to make over 24 starts give years later whereas 66% of pitchers in the later group survived. Unsurprisingly, Rany concludes that organizations have significantly reduced the risk of pitcher injuries due to overuse.
Step back a moment and consider how Rany decided to delineate these two segments. He points to the Tigers’ use of Jeff Weaver as his cut-off point. He writes, “You’ll notice that starting in 1999, the year the Tigers limited Jeff Weaver’s pitch counts [to 110 pitches] and other teams quietly followed suit (like the Expos with Javier Vazquez), the number of pitchers who “survived” to pitch five years later ticked upward.” Again, whether teams followed the Tigers’ lead is unsupported, but Rany notes that the pitch count manipulation started with Weaver and the Tigers. One has to question why teams mimicked the Tigers and abandoned decades of past practices without seeing whether Weaver succeeded. In fact, Rany seems to question this too.
“In its own way, the Tigers’ decision to limit Weaver was as radical as anything the Nationals are doing with Stephen Strasburg. Pulling a starter when he reached his pitch limit, regardless of the situation in the game, was just as unprecedented as shutting down Strasburg when he reached his innings limit, regardless of the situation in the season. But the Tigers sucked, pitch counts were just entering the baseball consciousness, and no one really cared.” (emphasis added)
That’s a major contradiction. Was the Tigers’ decision to limit Weaver “radical” and “unprecedented” or were other teams “following suit”? Nevertheless, did team actually follow suit in 1999 as Rany suggests they did? Vazquez went over the Weaver mark (110 pitches) in 7 of 26 starts. Freddy Garcia went over 110 pitches in 16 of 33 and went as high as 141 pitches against the Orioles and was often above 120 pitches. Ryan Dempster went over 110 pitches in 11 of 25 starts. Sidney Ponson went over 110 in 11 of 32 starts. Weaver? Never above 110. Rany said team’s followed the Tigers on Weaver in 1999 and limit their pitches to 110 pitches. None of these teams did.
But, Rany decided to include the “radical” and “unprecedented” Tigers and 1999 into the later pitch count conscious grouping. Again, his result is 50% of the pitchers in the earlier segment “survived” to make over 24 starts give years later whereas 66% of pitchers in the later group survived. Put 1999 into the earlier grouping and the numbers change to 53% and 60% in a 69 pitcher sample. An increase in survivor rate by 7% is hardly significant given the relatively tiny sample and the aforementioned variables.
It’s understandable that Rany’s survivor rate study doesn’t accurately analyze overuse as the term is defined in the piece even if you buy his assumption about pitcher use in different eras. But including 1999 in the later sample based on the aforementioned rationale is, simply put, intellectually dishonest.
With that said, the worst is yet to come.
It’s what Rany refers to as the “sabermetric argument.” Allow me to digress for a moment, but last I checked sabermetrics is still “the search for objective knowledge about baseball,” and there never is one sabermetric argument to a complex issue. Of course, a reasonable sabermetrican’s “sabermetric argument” would be founded in objective research. The “sabermetric argument” – because there is only one and Rany speaks for the entire discipline - is:
“That precisely because the industry has already reduced the risk of pitcher injuries significantly, there is less to be gained by further reducing Strasburg’s workload.”
Let’s assume it is fact for just a second that the industry has already reduced the risk of pitcher injuries significantly, as Rany claims. Even if that were true his assertion that the 34% risk of injury has been reduced enough that no further workload related precautions need be taken is entirely unsupported. He provides no objective research. This is not a true sabermetric argument.
Rany goes on to state, “There’s only so much risk that can be squeezed out of the equation, no matter how much you protect a pitcher’s arm.” That that’s true. At some point there will be nominal gains from any precaution taken. The issue is, how has Rany determined the industry has got to the point where there is no more risk to be “squeezed out”? How has he provided objective evidence of this?
Those are rhetorical questions. If he had presented such evidence I wouldn’t have spent my time writing this piece on the Washington Nationals’ decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg. Oh, that reminds me I haven’t even discussed him yet.
Rany clearly and concisely states his conclusion on that decision, “[The Nationals] might be right, but given that the injury risk has already been reduced so significantly, it’s likely that any further benefit to shutting down Strasburg will be minuscule.”
As I’ve stated ad nauseum his conclusions are entirely unsupported by this piece. We have no idea if injury risk to young pitchers has been reduced. If it has, we have no idea to what degree it has been reduced. Nor do we know the actual cause of the alleged reduction. To suggest that the injury risk to young pitchers has been reduced to such a degree that taking further precautions is unnecessary is stunning. Moreover, even if one was kind enough to assume the rest Rany’s assumptions as fact – I would not suggest this – he’s applying this study to an individual who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, throws 100 MPH fastballs, and has unique mechanics. Of course, these variables were not given serious consideration.
Rany address the Tommy John surgery and power pitcher variables by more or less arguing that Kerry Wood returned from the surgery and performed therefore Strasburg can too. That assertion wreaks of someone who came to a conclusion and then cobbled arguments together to support it.
He then adds this:
The point of having a pitcher like Stephen Strasburg is to help you win a championship. Preventing Strasburg from helping you win a title this year — so that he might be more likely to help you win a title in the future — is causing certain harm to your team in the present for a theoretical benefit in the future. That is, in a word, dumb.
Dumb? The arrogance is disheartening.
Recall the series of of unsupported conclusions we’ve discussed. Based on these statements he feels he knows better than the Nationals do when it comes to Stephen Strasburg. They’re “dumb”. Rany is smarter than the surgeons they’ve consulted about his elbow following major surgery. Smarter than the scouts who have red flagged his pitching mechanics since college. Parading his conclusions as fact is an abuse of his national platform. Claiming his conclusions to be “sabermetric” is setback to the discipline.