Are MLB Teams' Pitching-Obsessed Blueprints Even Producing More Top Arms?

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Are MLB Teams' Pitching-Obsessed Blueprints Even Producing More Top Arms?
Evan Habeeb-US PRESSWIRE
Is the Nationals' handling of Stephen Strasburg crazy or smart?

The 2012 Major League Baseball season has seen many great pitching storylines come rushing to the forefront. There have been three perfect games and six no-hitters thrown this season. Teams like the Nationals, A's and Rays have all benefited from great young pitching staffs. R.A. Dickey is keeping the knuckleball alive and well. 

However, the 2012 MLB season has also seen plenty of strange pitching storylines come rushing to the forefront. Some of them make it clear that pitching is being viewed through a much different lens these days.

In an unprecedented move, the Nationals pulled the plug on 24-year-old ace Stephen Strasburg in the middle of a pennant race as part of an effort to protect his surgically-repaired right arm. They are, after all, going to need it in the future. More so, apparently, than they need it in the present. 

The strangest development of all has happened in Colorado, where the Rockies instituted what they called "Project 5,183" in June. The plan, which has since been tinkered, called for a four-man rotation in which each starter was to be limited to 75 pitches per start before handing the ball over to designated relief pitchers.

What these storylines and a few others out there go to show is that teams are more obsessive with their pitching staffs than ever before. Everything is planned and regimented, and teams aren't afraid to go against conventional baseball wisdom if they think they've discovered a possible means to gain an edge.

The big question is whether any of this is working? Are the blueprints that teams have for their pitching staffs actually making a difference, or are teams wasting their time?

These questions call for an immediate discussion.

 

Project 5,183: A Weird and Ultimately Futile Attempt to Handle a Unique Situation

Though it's not necessarily easy to agree with what the Rockies are doing these days, it's definitely easy to sympathize with them. They're in a boat all by themselves when it comes to their pitching woes, and there aren't many things left to try for them to try and get out of it.

Project 5,183 wasn't treated as anything clever when the Rockies unveiled it. On the contrary, baseball fans and experts alike basically scoffed at the Rockies for coming up with such a strange and unprecedented experiment.

But as Rockies manager Jim Tracy was quick to point out, what did they have to lose?

"It's very different," Tracy told Yahoo! Sports in August. "When you are in a situation like we're in, it's nuts to be afraid to change and try something different. What do we have to lose? We can always go back."

The plan was the brainchild of Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd, who is more familiar with the dire effect the thin air that hangs over Coors Field has on pitchers than anyone else alive. He told The New York Times that the point of Project 5,183 was actually twofold. In addition to being an attempt to keepruns off the board on a more regular basis, it was also instituted to save Rockies pitchers from injury.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
No manager in baseball wants Jim Tracy's job right now.

“We have found that every starter who has pitched here for 185 to 200 innings for three consecutive years over the lifetime of this franchise has broken down with a significant injury,” he said.

So then, how did Project 5,183 fare?

No so well, really. The Rockies recently abandoned the four-man rotation aspect of the plan, but the numbers that the team's pitching staff accumulated in July and August when the plan was in full effect are hardly encouraging.

In July, Rockies starters compiled a 6.39 ERA, worst in the National League. Their relievers did better to the tune of a 3.71 ERA, but they only managed to win three games while pitching an NL-high 97 innings.

In August, Rockies starters did better to the tune of a 4.42 ERA, but their relievers regressed to post an ERA of an even 5.00 while pitching 129.2 innings.

Along the way, the Rockies had to shut down two starters—Christian Friedrich and Jonathan Sanchez—with injuries. The team currently has a 4.54 ERA in September, third-worst in the National League.

So a couple months after they put their master plan in motion, the Rockies' pitching dilemma is as bad as ever. It's clear that more fine-tuning is needed.

To this end, Danny Knobler of CBSSports.com reported this week that the Rockies now want to hire a "Director of Pitching" to take control of the team's scouting, drafting and development of pitchers. They apparently have their sights set on longtime pitching coach Mark Wiley for the job.

If all goes well, Colorado's new "Director of Pitching" will help transform the franchise into the pitching powerhouse that it's always wanted to be.

The Rockies aren't crazy to think that they can do it. After all, the teams that put a special emphasis on developing great pitchers in recent years have actually managed to develop great pitchers. And rest assured, it hasn't been by accident.

 

From Boston to Baltimore to Tampa Bay and Elsewhere: A Little TLC Can Make a Big Difference

The Rockies aren't the only team in baseball that knows it needs to get its act together in regards to its pitching. The Boston Red Sox also have a pitching dilemma on their hands that they need to move quickly to solve.

The degree to which Boston's pitching has devolved over the last few years is staggering. The Red Sox led the American League with a team ERA of 3.87 the year they won the World Series in 2007. This year, their 4.54 ERA ranks third from the bottom in the AL, and it represents the continuation of a larger problem that began last September when the Red Sox posted a team ERA of 5.84.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Clay Buchholz is one of the only competent starting pitchers the Red Sox have developed in recent years.

As Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe noted in a recent article, it's no accident that Boston's pitching has gone so badly awry. The Red Sox's pitching is where it is because the team is "lagging behind" other teams in terms of scouting and developing, not to mention how they handle the health of their pitchers.

In a perfect world, the Red Sox would be able to hire Rick Peterson away from the Baltimore Orioles. He turned the A's into a pitching powerhouse in the early 2000s before working some wonders with older pitchers upon joining the New York Mets, and this year he's worked wonders as Baltimore's own Director of Pitching.

Baltimore's pitching is by no means great, to be sure, but one must look at the Orioles with the proper context in mind. Their team ERA may be a modest 4.01, but that's light years ahead of the MLB-worst 4.92 ERA the team posted in 2011. Seeing as how Peterson has had precious little talent to work with this season, that's impressive.

Peterson has accomplished several amazing feats this season. He turned Jason Hammel from a pitcher with a career 4.99 ERA into a pitcher with a 3.43 ERA in 20 starts. He helped turn Chris Tillman into a pitcher with a 3.22 ERA in 12 starts. He turned Miguel Gonzalez into a pitcher with a 3.77 ERA in 12 starts. Zach Britton was even pitching well for a while there.

This is to say nothing of the evolution Baltimore's bullpen has undergone under Peterson's watch. Despite being tasked with covering a ton of innings, the Orioles bullpen ranks sixth in baseball with a 3.05 ERA.

For Peterson, pitching is all scientific. He is a master when it comes to finding and fixing mechanical flaws, and the results he's produced in his very first year with the Orioles speak for themselves.

It doesn't take a Director of Pitching to master the mysteries of pitching mechanics, injuries and the like. Tampa Bay Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey has a well-earned reputation for being able to spot and fix mechanical flaws in a hurry. It's no accident that the Rays are enjoying the best team ERA in the American League under his watch.

White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper also has a good eye for how pitchers are feeling and how their mechanics are looking at any given moment. He works together with the team's trainers to keep tabs on the statuses of all the team's pitchers, but he puts a lot of stock in what his own two eyes tell him. 

David Banks/Getty Images
Chris Sale's velocity has declined throughout the course of the season, but he's still pitching very well.

He clearly has a set of good eyes. Jake Peavy is going to surpass 200 innings for the first time in five years this season, and the team's handling of young lefty Chris Sale has been excellent. He's already topped his previous career high for innings by over 100, yet he's still going strong.

Hickey's work in Tampa Bay and Cooper's work in Chicago go to show that a pitching coach needs to do more than just go over game plans with pitchers and give them pep talks now and again. The physical aspect of pitching is vitally important, and it's something that's hard to master. People who have mastered it—such as Hickey, Cooper and Peterson—can make a huge difference.

This is not to suggest that game-planning isn't an important part of pitcher development. The healthiest pitcher in the world isn't good for much if he doesn't know which pitches to throw.

This is where things get messy, as not every organization in MLB has the same philosophy when it comes to which pitches work best.

 

Texas vs. Baltimore: To Cut or Not to Cut?

The most important pitch in Major League Baseball right now may be the cut fastball. It used to be Mariano Rivera's specialty pitch. Now it's a pitch that seemingly every pitcher either already throws or desperately wants to throw in order to gain an edge.

The cut fastball enjoyed something of a banner year in 2011. Roy Halladay used it more than ever to put together a near-Cy Young campaign. Dan Haren used it more and more on his way to a 16-win season. Josh Beckett used it to help put a bad 2010 season behind him. James Shields used it more often, and he ended up pitching an absurd amount of complete games.

The rise of the cutter was chronicled by Albert Chen of Sports Illustrated, who wrote that the cutter is a "mysterious and magical pitch that is changing baseball."

Both fans and experts have long since taken note the rising use of the cutter. That's why it was such a surprise when Orioles GM Dan Duquette came out and told the public that the organization's young pitchers aren't allowed to throw cutters.

Via MASNSports.com:

First of all, the cut fastball, we don't like it as a pitch, OK? And we don't like it for young pitchers because it takes away from the development of their curveball, which is a better pitch long-term and also, the velocity of their fastball. So we encourage development of an overhand breaking ball that has depth along with command of their fastball and, of course, velocity and movement will get the hitter out.

All of this is relevant to top prospect Dylan Bundy, who was forbidden from throwing his cutter in 2012. Many cried foul because the Orioles had effectively taken away one of Bundy's best pitches.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Dylan Bundy is widely regarded as the top prospect in baseball even without his cutter.

Peterson, naturally, agreed with all that Duquette had to say, telling MASNSports.com that the cutter can too easily become a "crutch" pitch for young pitchers. If they take to throwing it too often, they stand to lose velocity that they won't be able to recover.

Baltimore's "no cutters" policy is essentially the exact opposite of the pseudo-policy the Texas Rangers put in place a few years ago. Their pitching staff took to throwing more and more cutters during the 2009 season under pitching coach Mike Maddux, and that was no accident.

"It was a big pitch for a lot of guys," said Maddux in the spring of 2010, via MLB.com. "It's a good contact pitch that forces the issue. Getting contact is what we're looking for."

Per FanGraphs, Rangers pitchers ended up throwing more cutters in 2010 than any team in baseball except the Phillies. They ended up with a team ERA of 3.93, a nice improvement on the 4.38 team ERA they posted in 2009. The effect of the increased use of cutters is somewhat reflected in the fact that Rangers pitchers held opponents to a .242 batting average despite having a modest 7.30 K/9.

The Rangers aren't using the cutter as much these days, in no small part because C.J. Wilson is pitching elsewhere, but what they showed back in 2010 is that the cutter isn't such a bad pitch. It helped the Rangers transform their pitching staff from a perennial laughingstock into one of the AL's best. That tradition is alive and well this season.

The Orioles have set out to prove that the cutter isn't such a magical pitch, but their own experiment is an incomplete one. We already have more than enough evidence that Peterson and the Orioles know what they're doing from a pitching perspective, but we won't know what kind of effect their "no cutters" policy has had until we see Dylan Bundy in action. 

That, of course, will be very soon. As reported by Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com, the Orioles called Bundy up to The Show on Wednesday. 

If Bundy goes on to have a successful major league career, the O's will be able to say that they were right. Banning him from throwing cutters was the right thing to do.

A couple years down the road, the Nationals are hoping that they'll be able to say they were right about Stephen Strasburg. Because right now, it's by no means a given that they made a call that had to be made.

 

Different Strokes for Different Folks: The Stephen Strasburg Situation

The Stephen Strasburg watch was the most overplayed, over-analyzed and generally over-hyped storyline of the 2012 MLB season. The obsession with it reached ridiculous heights.

However, none of us should be too quick to think that it was all much ado about nothing. The Strasburg situation is a rather important one in the grand scheme of things.

We've seen teams limit their pitchers' innings for various reasons before, including due to concerns over recent surgeries. The Jordan Zimmermann situation is often brought up as an example relevant to Strasburg, and rightfully so. He had Tommy John surgery late in the 2009 season, and the Nationals had that at the forefront of their minds during the 2011 season. Zimmermann was done after 26 starts and 161.1 innings in 2011.

Strasburg finished this season with 28 starts and 159.1 innings under his belt, making his 2012 season a virtual carbon copy of Zimmermann's 2011 season.

The Nationals have had to put up with a lot of bad noise after finally shutting Strasburg down now, but the criticism has more to do with how they may have ruined their chances of winning the World Series this year and less to do with how they may have ruined Strasburg's health.

Rob Carr/Getty Images
On the bright side, Stephen Strasburg didn't get hurt again this season.

After some confusion, Dr. Lewis Yocum, the man who performed Strasburg's surgery, came out and publicly defended the Nationals. He told the Los Angeles Times that it was agreed upon beforehand that Strasburg's innings would be limited, and that his own medical advice was "responsibly considered."

If you look beyond the fact that the Nationals now have to try and contend in October without one of their best pitchers, everything basically went according to plan. Strasburg had a terrific season, going 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA and an NL-best 11.1 K/9, and the Nationals were able to limit his innings. 

It boils down to this: If the Nationals weren't in a position to go to the playoffs right now, nobody would be complaining.

Still, there's a train of thought out there that the Nats made the decision to limit Strasburg's innings without any medical or scientific data to back up their claim that more innings would ruin his career long-term.

This train of thought isn't too far off the rails.

During my visit with the A's last Friday, somebody asked Farhan Zaidi, the team's Director of Baseball Operations, what he thought of the Strasburg situation as it related to the recent Tommy John surgeries of Jarrod Parker and Brett Anderson.

Zaidi was skeptical as to whether there's really a medical precedent for what the Nationals decided to do:

Of all the medical data out there about Tommy John guys coming back from surgery, I haven’t really ever seen anything conclusive that says a guy should not throw more than this many innings. I trust our case by case evaluation of a player. What the doctors are saying about this player. What the player is saying himself. What our training staff is saying. I trust that contextual information a lot more than any statistical model in this case. Those models don’t capture all that information.

In other words, the A's play it by ear.

Parker missed the entire 2010 season recovering from Tommy John surgery, and he returned to pitch a little over 135 innings between the minors and the majors in 2011. He hasn't had any training wheels this season, as he's up over 180 innings combined between the minors and the majors. He's pitching well, too, with an ERA just over 2.00 in three September starts.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
All told, Jarrod Parker has pitched over 300 innings in the last two seasons.

Granted, Parker and Strasburg don't share a common timeline as it relates to their surgeries, but what's significant here is that Parker has essentially had zero restrictions placed on him since coming back from his Tommy John surgery. To date, he has yet to show any ill effects.

Because Zaidi suggested that the Nationals may know something about Strasburg's arm that they're not telling people, it's true that Strasburg's bumpy showing in his last few starts could have been what led to his shutdown rather than any kind of target date. It could be that the Nats were playing it by ear all along, as the A's are doing with Parker.

Or it could be that they unwittingly shot themselves in the foot. Nationals manager Davey Johnson blamed the media for blowing the impending shutdown out of proportion and thus putting more stress on Strasburg, but the Nationals have only themselves to blame for that. They may have treated Strasburg's arm well with their plan, but they didn't treat his psyche very well in being so open about their plan.

The perception is that the Nationals are guilty of babying Strasburg. As strange as it is to say it, they really wen't babying him enough.

 

The Grand Conclusion

You don't need me to tell you that there are many, many things that weren't discussed in the above paragraphs.

Teams with bad pitching like the Rockies and the Red Sox were put under the microscope, but teams like the Twins, Indians and Astros were not. Rest assured, they're just as freaked out about their pitching as the Rockies and Red Sox are.

Similarly, not every team with good pitching was discussed here. The Rays, A's, Nationals, White Sox and Rangers got some love, but the Reds, Giants, Dodgers and others didn't get their names dropped. They deserve just as much credit for the work they've done with their pitching staffs as the teams that I focused on (especially the Reds).

The point of all this, however, is clear enough without having to take a look at all 30 teams individually: It's important to the point of being imperative for teams to have defined blueprints for their pitching staffs, and that some teams out there have yet to come around to just how defined these plans must be. 

There's no mistaking it: 'Tis better to be obsessed with one's pitching than it is to be casual. A team's obsessive plans for its pitching can lead to very good things.

The tricky part is that no two obsessive plans are going to be alike. Teams are going to analyze, scout and develop pitchers in their own way, and they're all going to do so according to their own individual philosophies.

We know that some philosophies that are already in place are working. The Nationals have developed an excellent pitching staff, one that should get even better moving forward. The Orioles are developing a good pitching staff of their own. The A's, Rays, Reds, Giants and others are all basically already where they want to be regarding their pitching.

We know for a fact that the Rockies are trying to join the party (though they have their work cut out for them). So are the Red Sox. The Astros are overhauling everything, including their pitching staff. The Twins, Indians and others also have a lot of work to do.

If these teams all have great pitching staffs in a few years, we'll know that the blueprints they drew up worked to perfection.

Great pitching is never accidental. But given the circumstances at play in today's game, great pitching is going to be less accidental than ever before for the foreseeable future. 

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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