Saturday, July 8, 2023

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, July 8, 2023 -- "The Perez Pause"

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter: The Perez Pause
Vol. 15, No. 64
July 8, 2023

It’s a surprise to me that some lessons have yet to take hold. From June 1, 2012:

Strasburg isn't in danger of being abused because no professional pitcher, and especially no young pitcher, is in danger of being abused. If he's merely treated like any 23-year-old starting pitcher, he will be well within the safe guidelines for pitcher usage. The special circumstance of "coming off Tommy John surgery" has to be balanced against the special circumstance of "flags fly forever”.

More than 11 years after I wrote that, we’re still fighting the last war. Since the season of the Strasburg Shutdown, 2012, just 65 pitchers baseball-aged 23 and under have thrown even 125 innings in an MLB regular season. Just 22 of those 23-and-youngers have thrown at least 175 -- about two a year, though one of those was the shortened 2020 campaign. Look at the previous ten-year period, from 2002 to 2011, and you find 110 young pitchers at 125+, and 63 at 175+. Go back ten more years -- which includes the two strike-shortened campaigns -- and you have 104 and 43.

Looking at this through the lens of pitch counts makes the case even more clear. In the last ten seasons, there have been a total of three 120-pitch starts by young pitchers, and just 26 115-pitch starts by them. You’re about as likely to see a perfect game as you are to see a young pitcher throw 120 pitches. For the ten years prior? Seventy-one 120-pitch starts, and 200 115-pitch starts. No young pitcher has gone 125 pitches in a game since 2009, none has gone 130 since 2006.

What was one of baseball’s biggest problems when I started writing about the game, the abuse of young arms by teams asking too much of them, no longer exists. It’s polio. It’s smallpox. It’s weekly magazines.

Per, the Dodgers’ Bobby Miller is the best pitching prospect in baseball. He was 23 last year and threw 112 1/3 innings. He topped out at 103 pitches, and threw 100 or more just twice. Go down the list. The Guardians’ Gavin Williams threw 115 innings last year at 22, never more than 97 pitches in any one outing. The Giants’ Kyle Harrison threw 98 2/3 innings at 19, 113 innings at 20, and may not reach either number at 21 as he’s going to miss a month with a hamstring injury having thrown 56 1/3 innings. He’s been a pro for two years now and he’s thrown 90 pitches in a game four times. The Phillies’ Mick Abel is starting the Futures Game tonight; he threw 108 1/3 innings last year, is one pace for fewer than 120 this year. He has two 100-pitch starts and 13 at 90 or more, which makes him Wilbur Wood in this crowd.

For most of baseball history, pitchers were getting hurt because they were pitching too much, often at too young an age. In the 1990s, teams began to lower both game and season workloads, but pitchers kept getting hurt, so teams lowered workloads more, and pitchers kept getting hurt, so teams lowered workloads more, and now we have a sport in which the best pitching prospects arrive in the majors with basically no experience pitching tired or getting hitters out a third time.

And they keep getting hurt.

The reason, of course, is velocity. We’ve traded overwork injuries, usually to the shoulder, for overexertion injuries, usually to the elbow. Collectively, pitchers produce the same amount of energy and effort in 2023 as they did in 1983. The difference is at the individual level, where the pitchers concentrate that energy into fewer pitches, encouraged by teams that have the luxury of rostering 13 pitchers for each game and deploying max-effort pitchers in shorter and shorter stints.

Teams learned the right lesson initially, but have gotten caught in this cycle of thinking that if 110 pitches is safer than 130, then 90 must be safer than 110, and 70 safer than 90, until they’re barely developing pitchers at all. What pitchers are doing, though, is maxing out their effort for those 70 pitches, often blowing out their elbows in the process.

Andrew Painter threw 103 2/3 innings last year, threw more than 90 pitches twice, threw more than 80 pitches five times, and has spent 2023 rehabbing a sprained UCL in his throwing arm. Max Meyer was the third pick of the 2020 draft, threw 111 innings in 2021, and 61 in 2022 before his UCL blew out. Meyer had never thrown more than 92 pitches in a pro game when his elbow went kablooie. Kumar Rocker made six pro starts before needing Tommy John surgery. Dustin May has as many elbow surgeries as a pro (two) as 100-pitch outings.

All of this brings us to Eury Perez, the Marlins phenom who was sent down to Triple-A this week to limit his workload, per Craig Mish. What has that workload been? Perez has been a professional since 2021. At 18, in his first year, he threw 78 innings in 20 games, never more than 81 pitches, and even 80 just twice. Last year, it was 77 innings in 18 games, never more than 88 pitches, at least 80 six times. This year, Perez made the majors, and in 17 games he’s thrown 84 1/3 innings, topping out at 93 pitches, reaching 90 just three times. Eyeballing his underlying numbers, his velocity has held up, and aside from one inning against the Cobb County Gashouse Gorillas, his performance has as well.

The Marlins are pausing Perez because of an evidence-free belief that using him less today will keep him healthy tomorrow. What teams can achieve through workload reduction has long been achieved, though. The Overton Window on pitcher usage has moved so fast that Max Verstappen was seen driving the thing. Teams have done all they reasonably can do to keep overuse from being a factor in injuries. Pitchers no longer get hurt because they pitch too much. They get hurt because they pitch.

Twenty years and a couple of days ago, the Cubs sent a 23-year-old sophomore to the mound against the Cardinals. Mark Prior threw 114 pitches in seven innings, allowing four runs and striking out 11. Now, Perez is younger, but around the league, do you want to guess at how many pitchers 23 and under have thrown 114 pitches in a game this year? It’s zero. Last year? One, Hunter Greene, who did it twice. In 2021? None. In 2019? None. In 2018? Three.

The injury risk today isn’t cumulative the way it was with shoulders, the way it was on the 130th pitch of the night, the way it was 20 years ago when Prior threw 757 pitches in six starts in September. Workload just isn’t an issue any more, even for young pitchers. Eury Perez might blow out making three-inning starts for the Jacksonville...uh...Jumbo Shrimp?...or he might be Justin Verlander, and the only way we’ll find out is to pitch him. The Marlins’ use of him this year would have been considered “babying” not so long ago -- 17 starts in 90 days, none longer than six innings or 93 pitches. There is no reason to think Perez can’t keep throwing 90 pitches every fifth day. That’s a laughably low workload for a professional pitcher, even at 20.

The marginal risk of whatever extra pitches Perez would be throwing is notional, tied to the idea that more pitches equals more risk. That applied, in the original Pitcher Abuse Points research, to the pitches above 120, above 130, when pitchers were pitching tired. Eury Perez is never going to work that deep into a game. You’d arrest a manager who used pitchers the way Dusty Baker did for those 2003 Cubs. That fight has been long won. It had been won when the Nationals shut down Strasburg in 2012. Eleven years later, though, here we are.

There is no evidence that modifying Perez’s already conservative use will keep him from getting injured, and a lot of evidence that the innings he won’t pitch for the Marlins will be pitched by someone who makes the team more likely to lose.