When Will Daisuke Matsuzaka’s Arm Fall Off?

Where will Daisuke Matsuzaka go? How good will he be? We will all probably know which MLB organization won the bidding for the Seibu Lions star pitcher by Monday evening, and the high cost of the acquisition is sure to inspire plenty of hot stove debates. For a review of what kind of performance we can expect from Daisuke Matsuzaka, I recommend this projection by THT’s Jeff Sackamnn and the analysis available at Matsuzaka Watch.

Today, I will be focusing on the risk of acquiring a pitcher like Matsuzaka. Many people are concerned about the 26-year-old’s demanding workload throughout his career, so I will look at some comparable pitchers in North America to assess Matsuzaka’s chances of staying healthy and productive over the next several years.

How Much is 1,402 Innings?

First, let’s just talk about innings pitched. Matsuzaka has thrown 1,402 innings of regular-season baseball from age 18 to 25. If we include minor league performances, I can find five active pitchers who threw more than Matsuzaka before age 26 and 11 active pitchers who threw at least 1,300 innings before the age of 26.

Active Player   IP Before Age 26
Greg Maddux     1,664
Javier Vazquez  1,463
Jon Garland     1,437
Brad Radke      1,435
Tom Glavine     1,429
Carlos Zambrano 1,364
John Smoltz     1,340
C.C. Sabathia   1,340
Ismael Valdes   1,335
Ryan Dempster   1,327
Brett Myers     1,303

Many of these pitchers have remained effective well past their 26th birthday. Of course, the Japanese baseball season is shorter than the Major League baseball season, so Matsuzaka was throwing more in fewer outings when compared to most of these players. We will look for pitchers with similar pitches-per-game statistics later in this article.

Survival Model

Next, I will attempt to illustrate when arm troubles or ineffectiveness led to a significant decline in playing time for pitchers with high workloads at a young age. I have identified pitchers who were active between 1956 and 1996 and who threw at least 1,200 innings before their 26th birthday. Next, I see if these pitchers can maintain their high workload over the next 10 years. The resulting models suggest it doesn’t take long for most these pitchers to contribute a below-average number of innings pitched in a season.

In the first model, “survival” means pitching at least two-thirds as many innings as a pitcher averaged during their age 24 and age 25 seasons. For example, a pitcher who averages 210 innings in their prime is “surviving” in this model as long as they pitch 140 innings or more in subsequent seasons. As soon as a pitcher fails to reach that workload in a season, they drop out of the picture:

We see a strong and immediate decline here. As soon as two years after the age 25 season, 31% of the pitchers have failed to maintain their average innings pitched in a season. Four years later, most of the pitchers have experienced at least one season in which they failed to reach the two-thirds threshold.

That is one good reason for the Scott Boras Corporation to seek a three-year deal for Matsuzaka. It is likely that Matsuzaka will experience trouble during an extended deal, and that could drive down his value when he hits the free agent market again.

So far, I have neglected to address the question posed in the article of this title. Failing to reach two-thirds of average innings pitched isn’t a good thing, but it also doesn’t imply major arm problems. Let’s look at a similar plot that measures the same pitchers’ ability to throw at least 50 innings in a season.

Nearly half of the pitchers failed to pitch 50 innings in a season at least once by age 32. Only one-third of the pitchers lasted into their mid-30′s without retiring or missing nearly all of a season. These results suggest the chances of Matsuzaka losing an entire season in the next few years is not very high, but a long-term contract could be particularly risky.

Case Studies

Numbers and line plots are nice, but it can also be helpful to talk about actual players. I looked at pitcher characteristics and selected five pitchers most like Matsuzaka from the sample of pitchers that qualified for the survival models. I created similarity scores from three sets of normalized variables; average estimated pitches per start from age 24 to age 25, strikeout and walk rates, and physical characteristics such as height and weight. The following three pitchers most closely resembled Matsuzaka when they were 26 years of age:

1. Fernando Valenzuela
Durability: Moderate

Valenzuela tossed 20 complete games during his age-25 season, and a rapid decline soon followed. He suffered from a dead arm and was inconsistent at age 27. The Dodgers released him when he was 30 years old, but he returned to the big leagues several times from age 32 to age 36. Valenzuela is now 44 years old and is still pitching in Mexico. He earns a moderate” label because of his longevity, but his early decline is not a positive sign for a player in Matsuzaka’s position.

2. Tom Seaver
Durability: Strong

Seaver was outstanding for nine years following his age-25 season. He didn’t really struggle until after the strike-shortened 1981 season. At the age of 37, he missed nearly half the season with a case of the flu, a muscle pull, and a painfully inflamed shoulder. He went on to have a few more solid seasons, and finally called it quits at the age of 41. A Seaver-like career is clearly a best-case scenario for Matsuzaka.

3. Don Sutton
Durability: Strong

Sutton was an average innings-eater at the age of 25, but his best seasons were ahead of him. He finished within the top five of Cy Young voting during each season from age 26 to 31. He didn’t miss any significant playing time until his retirement at age 43. This is a positive example, but I doubt Sutton’s career is very relevant because it’s likely that Matsuzaka peaked much earlier than Sutton did.

4. Tony Cloninger
Durability: Weak

Cloninger threw nearly 800 innings from age 23 to 25. He missed time with shoulder problems when he was 26 years old and wasn’t the same pitcher following that season. Cloninger retired at 31 years of age and went on to have a long coaching career. This is a worst-case scenario for Matsuzaka, but his workload over the past few years was not as intense as many of the horses of the 1960s.

5. Denny McLain
Durability: Weak

McLain’s star faded fast. He was outstanding during the ages of 24 and 25, seasons in which he logged over 300 innings pitched. The next year, he was ineffective on the mound and off-field troubles plagued him. McLain never pitched professionally past the age of 28.

I would heistate to draw strong comparisons between Matsuzaka and any one of these pitchers. However, these examples illustrate the wide range of trajectories that apply to high-workload pitchers beyond their 26th birthdays.

Summary

The survival model and case studies do not suggest a clear trajectory for young pitchers with high workloads. Close analysis of individual characteristics, including physical frame, pitching mechanics, and personal history, are probably more useful for assessing individuals’ long-term durability. Regarding that last point, I am surprised that so many baseball fans are worried about how Matsuzaka threw over 200 pitches in a high school playoff game. That kind of stress on an arm probably isn’t a good thing, but it isn’t a death sentence either. Strenuous 150-plus pitch outings for high school and college pitchers happen, even in the United States.

In sum, I’m not going to tell you when Matsuzaka is going to become ineffective or seriously injured. All I can tell you is that it will probably happen before he reaches 31 years of age.

References & Resources
Editor’s note: The last paragraph of the “Survival Model” section has been updated to reflect more accurate data. The Hardball Times regrets the error.

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