Candles in the wind (Part 3)

In the previous installments, we’ve tackled position players who played a lot of games before age 26 and not as many after that (see the first link for the full methodology). It’s a minority group of players when they’re on offense, but today’s look at pitchers is not so small.

For position players, I used only the criterion of games played before 26; pitchers, however, get two lists: by innings pitched (i.e., starters) and by games played (generally relievers). Any player who would be on both lists (old-time starters, mainly) appear only on the innings list, and thus the games played list captures only those under 1322.2 innings pitched, since that figure is No. 30 on the innings list. Some starters are on the reliever list for the next few years, but they’ll be off fairly soon.

Rather than listing just the top 10 on both lists, I’ve listed every pitcher in the top 30 who is over the 50 percent threshold. I did this partly because we’re covering only one position and so have more space, but also to highlight how different young pitching is from young hitting. Of the 60 original pitchers, just over half (31) played the majority of their games before 26, and several others fell just shy, including Don Drysdale and Catfish Hunter. Among position players, only shortstop has even 10 such players.

For consistency across the articles, stats run to April 25 of this year. I rounded the innings to make the table an easier read.

Starting Pitcher (IP)

Most Innings Pitched Before 26: Walter Johnson, 2070
30th Place: Robin Roberts, 1322.2
Active Players Soon on the List: Only if Dusty Baker gets a hold of Felix Hernandez. The active leader for innings is Jeremy Bonderman, but he’ll still get only around 1,100 innings at most, which would be around 75th place historically.

Player                  To 26     26+     Perc.    Actual       Normal
Joe Wood                 1418      18       99%    1908-1922    1914-1930
Jim Shaw                 1324     277       83%    1913-1921    1918-1934
Denny McLain             1502     384       80%    1963-1972    1968-1984
Larry Dierker            1624     710       70%    1964-1977    1971-1987
Pete Donohue             1444     427       68%    1921-1932    1925-1941
Van Mungo                1344     769       64%    1931-1945    1935-1951
Dick Ellsworth           1344     812       62%    1958-1971    1964-1980
Earl Hamilton            1366     977       58%    1912-1924    1916-1932
Joe Coleman              1416    1153       55%    1965-1979    1971-1987
Dwight Gooden            1524    1277       54%    1984-2000    1989-2005
Hal Newhouser            1609    1384       54%    1939-1955    1945-1961
Fernando Valenzuela      1555    1375       53%    1980-1997    1985-2001
Bret Saberhagen          1329    1234       52%    1984-2001    1988-2004
Chief Bender             1549    1468       51%    1903-1925    1908-1924

This list surprised me in two ways: first, for the group of fairly recent pitchers on the list, and second, for how not all of these guys have a lone injury on which they can hang their troubles. Saberhagen went from fully durable to chronically injured pretty much at 26, and Gooden’s loss of pure stuff could be just as much blamed on his high innings total—11th in the modern era—as on his life problems. In this age of sports medicine, we tend to put earlier concerns of “sore arm” or “dead arm” in the category of “injuries they couldn’t diagnose way back when,” but for certain players there may be something to it.

Some pitchers just can’t handle the mileage. One is reminded of Oliver Wendell Holmes’s poem “The One Hoss Shay”, in which a wagon was built to have no weak points (since the weak point is always the first to go) and succeeded so well that, when it did fall apart, every piece fell apart simultaneously. Yet its imminent destruction was plain to see:

First of November, the Earthquake-day,
There are traces of age in the one-hoss shay,
A general flavor of mild decay,
But nothing local, as one may say.
There couldn’t be, for the Deacon’s art
Had made it so like in every part
That there wasn’t a chance for one to start….
And yet, as a whole, it is past a doubt
In another hour it will be worn out!

After it falls apart as a unit and the wagon is in a heap, Holmes narrates:

You see, of course, if you’re not a dunce,
How it went to pieces all at once,
All at once, and nothing first,
Just as bubbles do when they burst.

End of the wonderful one-hoss shay.
Logic is logic. That’s all I say.

Think of some of the last few pitchers to log 1,000 innings before their age-26 season—Steve Avery, Ismael Valdez, Dontrelle Willis—and Holmes’s description sounds pretty apt. You don’t really know exactly what fell apart, but there’s the heap all the same.

Of course, a lot of young players took a big load and survived quite nicely. In his youth, Frank Tanana pitched as much asJoe Coleman did, but Tanana hung around forever. The same goes with Dennis Eckersley, though his later innings total is kept down by his transition to reliever.

The really fascinating one, though, is Bert Blyleven. Bert is third all-time in the modern era with 1,909 innings pitched before his age-26 season (269 innings above fourth-place George Mullin). In fact, Blyleven would make the top 30 even if you included 19th-century pitchers; only he, Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson can say that. Yet Blyleven also is third among the modern top 30 for innings pitched after 26, trailing Johnson and Robin Roberts. It wasn’t all Dierkers or Colemans or Valenzuelas; for every one of them, there was a Don Sutton or Gaylord Perry or Steve Carlton.

What this means for protecting pitchers or determining who can handle the load and who can’t, I don’t know. Exactly half of the top 20 for innings pitched all-time pitched in the 1980s, but only three of them were ridden hard enough to make the innings top 30 (Johnson/Mathewson/Blyleven again). In other words, even though several pitchers had a “head start” on a long career, only three fulfilled it, whereas players brought up a little bit later stayed around longer. As with the position players, young pitchers flash so much potential that we expect them to keep at it for the next 20 years, overlooking pitcher attrition rates for the weight of expectations. It’s probably not so odd that the list above is so long, but when the pitcher has accomplished a bunch early, it’s far more vexing when they go downhill.

Compare Dwight Gooden with Sandy Koufax, for example. Koufax’s career lasted from ages 19 to 30 but didn’t get going until Koufax was 25. After six years of dominance, injuries forced him out of the game. Gooden’s career until 30 is sort of the inverse of Koufax’s: When Gooden came up at 19, he was thoroughly sensational from Day One, picking up a Cy Young at 20. His problems with substances and injuries caught up to him pretty soon, and he spent his age-30 season out with injury. Overall, Gooden’s win-loss record was 157-85, remarkably similar to Koufax’s 165-87, but what’s the perception of both pitchers? Take away Gooden’s youth and you have a league-average pitcher; take away Koufax’s youth and you have an unstoppable legend. It’s weird how much a career path can alter the lasting images of a player, but so it goes.

Relief Pitcher (Games)

Most Games Before 26: Mitch Williams, by 35 games over Francisco Rodriguez, who in turn is 33 games over third-place Chad Cordero. Featuring Chad Cordero as Waldo Woo…
30th Place: Willie Hernandez and Gary Ross, 225
Active Players Soon on the List: Huston Street, Matt Capps and Jonathan Broxton should make the top 30 this year, and they’re only in their age-24 season, so they have another year to add to it. At present, this list is pretty easy to make—become a setup guy or closer at 22 and keep your job—so a bunch of unknowns in the minors or even in college could be shaking up this list soon.

Player                  To 26     26+     Perc.    Actual       Normal
Billy McCool              292       0      100%    1964-1970    1969-1985
Chad Cordero              299       5       98%    2003-        2006-2022
Francisco Rodriguez       332      12       97%    2002-        2006-2022
Lance McCullers           281      25       92%    1985-1992    1988-2004
Don Gullett               236      30       89%    1970-1978    1975-1991
Carl Scheib               235      32       88%    1943-1954    1951-1967
Ralph Branca              259      63       80%    1944-1956    1950-1966
Gary Ross                 225      58       80%    1968-1977    1972-1988
Byung-Hyun Kim            299      76       76%    1999-2007    2003-2019
Art Houtteman             228      97       70%    1945-1957    1952-1968
Tom Hall                  240     118       67%    1968-1977    1972-1988
Mitch Williams            367     252       59%    1986-1997    1989-2005
Neil Allen                248     186       57%    1979-1989    1982-1998
Felix Heredia             291     220       57%    1996-2005    1999-2015
Dennys Reyes              253     217       54%    1997-        2001-2017
Mike McCormick            253     231       52%    1956-1971    1963-1979
Chuck Stobbs              239     220       52%    1947-1961    1954-1970

Recent work on pitcher abuse has helped preserve starters, but we know comparatively little about reliever workloads. Mitch Williams was test case No. One, and he didn’t hold up that well, turning from rubber-armed to jelly-armed very quickly. K-Rod and Mr. Cordero (C-Cor?) are the next ones, and Cordero’s injuries aren’t helping the case for frequent use of young relievers. The whole idea of the college closer going almost straight to the majors (Cordero, Huston Street, and a bunch of others who haven’t worked out yet) is changing this list quite a lot, and how they hold up beyond their first big free-agent contract might change both bullpen usage and drafting strategy.

Relievers differ from starters in many ways, but two things stand out to me: permanent availability, and a resulting increase in warm-up pitches. A manager might have his relievers slotted for different situations, but if that situation comes up suddenly (surprise lefty-on-lefty), then it doesn’t matter if your lefty pitched the day before; in he goes. With every reliever change, however, comes a bunch of warm-up pitches in the bullpen, and so even if your situational reliever throws only about two pitches in-game to get a groundball or whatever, he has actually thrown far more pitches than that. Put another way, every appearance or potential appearance in a game, be it starting or relieving, has warm-up pitches as a sunk cost. And the more costs you’ve sunk into your relievers, the less value you’re going to get back. This is particularly true if the relievers warm up but don’t get in the game; those might not show up in the box score, but they show up in the arm, and the more the scarier. If Williams hadn’t been so unusual to begin with, maybe his sudden collapse would have been attributed to his extreme workload.

As with the starters, there are several relievers who held up fine under a young workload: Lindy McDaniel, Goose Gossage, Mike Jackson, Julian Tavarez. Even more than starters, though, they seem to be in the minority. There are plenty of relievers in the top 30 who, like Drysdale and Hunter for the starters, barely missed the 50 percent mark: Terry Forster, Scott Radinsky, Gregg Olson and Tom Niedenfuer. Over the next decade, we should understand better whether current bullpen handling steers young relievers more toward Mike Jackson or toward Mitch Williams.

Conclusion

One of the common threads of my articles is assessing our psychological perception of baseball and stats. The spotlight can direct our focus to an odd assortment of things, but if we step back and put people into their proper categories, we wind up with a different perception from the standard narrative. It’s somewhat the same phenomenon as when a team is hot and when it isn’t: We like to extrapolate from each point and assume status quo. We love our heroes to be young so that we can project the Hall of Fame onto them, and then we’re surprised when they don’t make it. We remember players based on when they were popular, not necessarily when they were at their best.

I hope with these articles that, regardless of whether you’re interested in my specific methodology or point, you the reader will check to see how much of your perception of baseball, past or present, is based on the events themselves and how much is based on the way in which the standard media nudge us to certain conclusions.

References & Resources
Sean Forman’s database.

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