Young Pitchers'll Break Your Heart (Part Five)

December 31, 2016

Let’s start this off with a little quiz. I’m going to name you pitchers in MLB in 1971 who earned at least one WAR, and you’re going to tell me which ones are real and which ones exist only inside my fiction-writer’s brain.

Mel O’Hara

Bill Gogolewski

Rich Hands

Lloyd Allen

Bill Derning

Mike Hedlund

Ted McKean

Al Bean

Steve Dunning

Answers below, on the chart of pitchers’ WAR.  It may be more obvious to you than to me which names are real, but as I compiled the list I kept going "Who he?"  Which I guess is the point of this little exercise, how often pitchers in particular post mediocre careers after posting pretty fair seasons when young.

Both lists, pitchers and batters, are arranged this time in decreasing order of WAR, not for any real good reason. (I couldn’t copy the link from BBref into Excel for 1971—must be something different about the way those links are coded so I had to type them out myself.) This time around. the one-season totals for the batters and the pitchers under 25 years of age were virtually identical (80.9/ 80.6) with the crucial difference being there were 11 more batters than pitchers, giving the pitchers a much higher average WAR in 1971, but a much career total WAR. Overall, I’m convinced by now that this edge is real.

Okay, ‘nother quick quiz: who totaled higher WAR over the course of their careers, these five batters--Bill Buckner, Dave Kingman, Willie Montanez, Joe Rudi, and Aurelio Rodriguez –or these four batters, Steve Braun. Milt May, Willie Crawford, and Bernie Carbo?

All right, it’s kind of a giveaway trick question, right? The first five guys had such long and impressive careers that the only reason I’d make this into a quiz would be if the next four guys, who had such short and or/unimpressive careers as regular starters, had compiled the higher WAR. I mean, the first five guys were stars of a sort, three of them at least occasionally mentioned as potential HoF candidates, for at least several years apiece.

Buckner and Rudi batted in the middle of the order for pennant-winning teams, driving in a boatload of runs,  Kingman hit close to 500 HR and had some monster years, Montanez drove in over 90 runs a bunch of times and hit 30 HRs once, and the original A-Rod was a terrific glove guy who played forever, right? In fact, all of these guys played forever, so on the basis of compiling, even without the many impressive single seasons, you’d suppose this bunch had accumulated WAR up the yin-yang (which is where many players, by the way, choose to store their career WAR) while Braun, May, Crawford, and Carbo form no one’s idea of perennial starters, much less stars. Mostly, I think of them as guys who managed to get into starting roles on occasion but who sat on the bench a lot, and the only pennant winning I associate with any of them is Carbo on the mid-1970s Red Sox, where he was definitely a part-time player. And it’s only four guys playing basketball shorthanded against the other five!

But, yes, the four scrubinees have a few more total WAR than the five star players. Let me see if I can figure out how the five "stars" accrued so few WAR: Montanez was bit of a shocker, actually gaining fewer career WAR than he had in his 1971 season, which was only 1.9 to begin with. He put up so many years of a negative WAR (with superficially impressive stats—his one All-Star year, 1977, for example, he hit 20 HRs and batted .287 but had a negative 0.7 WAR) that his lifetime total was a mere 1.5. Buckner was the same story only writ large—he batted in runs forever, but otherwise didn’t do much offensively for a first baseman, and was limited defensively besides. Kingman’s even huger defensive liabilities also cost him, and he could lead the league in HR but little else. Rudi and A-Rod were good glove men, and Rudi could hit, but only for a handful of good years, I guess, when he was getting a lot of ink (for, as he famously said, not getting a lot of ink: he was highly rated and well-known for being under-rated and obscure, apparently justly so.)  Rudi, for all his Gold Gloves (3) takes a WAR hit for playing LF and 1B, so he ends up with a negative 3.2 WAR on defense, and he, like Kingman and Buckner, had a very poor OBP, .311.  You can jump all over WAR for selling these guys short, or jump all over me for my lousy memory, but WAR says they weren’t nearly as impressive as  I remember them.

Willie Crawford, for example, had about the same career WAR as Joe Rudi, which I would have thought  was some sort of typographical error, or alternate-universe sort of thing, but maybe I just wasn’t paying his career the proper attention. I know I was ignoring Steve Braun’s career—I follow the AL Central perhaps least of all the divisions, and the Twins weren’t winning squat the years Braun was a regular for them, so that one is probably on me.

Anyway, this is a diversion from the real issue here, which is how impressive the career totals of all 39 batters were: 25.9 apiece on average (meaning Joe Rudi finished in the bottom half of the group). Only the one HoFer (Bench) but a ton of really good careers: Otis, Munson, Simmons, Evans, Cruz and several others.  The 28 pitchers, by contrast, were not all that impressive, career-wise: two HoFers (Blyleven and FIngers) but not much behind that. Some guys who were good but who got hurt early (Gullett, Nolan), some guys who had full careers but not dominant ones (Lee, Coleman, Forsch, Dierker , Splittorff) and of course the subject of Bill and Susie’s conversation when Susie knew baseball better than Bill did, Vida Blue.  (I love that story, Bill getting all excited because the Royals had acquired Blue, and Susie reminding him that he was always so critical of teams acquiring big-name pitchers who turned out small, as Blue turned out to be, 13-17 as a Royal.) The 28 pitchers averaged only 15.4 WAR over their careers, compared to 25.9 among batters, despite having a significant edge over the batters in 1971 (2.9/ 2.1).

 

Position players under 25

WAR in 1971/ avg

Career WAR/ avg.

Amos Otis

  5.3

 42.6

Thurman Munson

  4.1

 45.9

Johnny Bench

  4.1

 75.0

Bob Robertson

  4.0

   9.5

Ted Simmons

  3.3

 50.1

Earl Williams

  3.3

   7.9

Boots Day

  2.9

   1.6

Al Oliver

  2.9

 43.3

Chris Speier

  2.7

 30.6

Gene Clines

  2.6

   4.6

Dave Cash

  2.5

 25.4

Ray Fosse

  2.3

 12.9

Richie Hebner

  2.3

 32.9

Joe Rudi

  2.3

 25.4

Gene Tenace

  2.2

 46.8

Willie Crawford

  2.1

 24.2

Aurelio Rodriguez

  2.0

 15.2

Cesar Cedeno

  1.9

 52.7

Willie Montanez

  1.9

   1.5

Ron Blomberg

  1.8

   1.8

George Foster

  1.8

 43.9

Ken Singleton

  1.5

 41.6

Joe Lahoud

  1.5

   4.2

Steve Garvey

  1.5

 37.7

Elliot Maddox

  1.4

 14.9

Darrell Evans

  1.4

 58.5

Rennie Stennett

  1.3

 13.8

Jose Cruz

  1.3

 54.2

Bernie Carbo

  1.3

 18.4

Greg Luzinski

  1.3

 26.1

Mickey Rivers

  1.3

 32.5

Roger Metzger

  1.2

   3.4

Jim Nettles

  1.2

   1.1

Milt May

  1.2

 16.5

Dave Kingman

  1.1

 17.3

Dave Concepcion

  1.1

 39.8

Steve Braun

  1.0

 17.6

Bill Buckner

  1.0

 14.8

Jim Spencer

  1.0

   2.7

39 position players

80.9 /  2.1

1008.9 /    25.9

 

 

 

 

Pitchers under 25

WAR in 1971 / avg.

Career WAR/ avg.

Vida Blue

  9.0

  45.0

Bert Blyleven

  6.4

  96.5

Joe Coleman

  5.3

  25.0

Mike Hedlund

  4.2

    3.8

Clay Kirby

  4.2

    8.9

Bart Johnson

  3.9

    9.0

Ken Forsch

  3.6

  27.1

Larry Dierker

  3.5

  34.2

Don Gullett

  3.0

  16.7

Bill Gogolewski

  2.9

    2.6

John Cumberland

  2.8

    1.1

Bill Parsons

  2.7

    0.6

Paul Splittorff

  2.7

  22.8

Steve Kline

  2.6

    7.1

George Stone

  2.4

    5.3

Bill Lee

  2.2

  21.4

Reggie Cleveland

  2.1

    8.3

Lloyd Allen

  2.1

    0.0

Gary Gentry

  1.8

    7.9

Tom Hall

  1.8

    6.0

Dave LaRoche

  1.8

  14.3

Gary Nolan

  1.7

  25.7

Rollie Fingers

  1.6

  25.0

Jim York

  1.6

    0.9

Alan Foster

  1.4

    6.1

Roger Moret

  1.3

    7.4

Steve Dunning

  1.0

    0.8

Al Santorini

  1.0

    0.8

28 pitchers

80.6 /  2.9

430.3  /   15.4

 

  

This is it. I and my provisional study are concluding that this evidence is too consistent to be rejected out of hand any more. Something is going on here, and if it’s not that young batters have longer, more productive careers than similar young pitchers, then it’s that I don’t know how to study this phenomenon. Tell you the truth, I’d been thinking all along that I might have done something critically wrong (and embarrassing) here, or that I happened to hit on those few years that this phenomenon happened to take place but it would disappear once I looked at a larger group of young pitchers and batters, but now I’ve done 1971, 1976, 1986, 1991, and 1996, about two hundred young batters and two hundred young pitchers, and it’s shown up pretty consistently overall and in each season, so the question now is why?

I had some good questions, a pair of them, one of which tried to answer "Why?", in the "Comments" section of my last "Young Pitchers…" piece, where they were buried unseen for a while before I gave in and checked to see if anyone had anything to say since I’d last checked, about a week before. It’s pretty inefficient, this "Comments’ stuff, because no one checks really after about a month  or so, so new comments just sit there in permanent lock-down, except I bet if you look, sometimes someone will read an old column, usually of Bill’s, and make a crack or ask a good question which no one ever sees. I don’t have any suggestions for fixing this, though maybe we could have some sort of notification if a new "Comment" appears or we could have some sort of pop-up or something, but what I’ll do instead of having these questions buried unseen is to respond here, and then resume the series.

MarisFan61’s question answered the question "Why?" by suggesting that my conclusion was actually pretty "well recognized and pretty fully utilized." He asked

How do you think the difference between average eventual value of pitchers and position players is "unexploited"? 

Good question, the short response to which is "I don’t." That why I keep saying that I have no idea what goes on in discussions between and among GMs. In one sense, as I keep insisting, it would be fairly astonishing if GMs DON’T take as a given the advantage young batters have over pitchers in their projected career lengths and values. The problem is that most other such givens are acknowledged openly: a batter who bangs a .350 average in Albuquerque is discounted for the thin air, pitchers with histories of elbow problems are openly regarded skeptically, and so on. Not so much for young pitchers in general. Viewed more widely than just GMs’ public statements, and you need look no further than the "Comments" sections of the first few "Young Pitchers…" articles for evidence,  fans seem to reject the whole "50% edge for batters" thesis. If you’ll recall the first "Young Pitchers…" article, I didn’t even title it as the first part of a series because I had no idea that it was going to develop into one--I just wrote about how the Cubs have won an argument with the Mets, the Cubs winning the World Series by stockpiling young position players, the Mets finishing out of the money by stockpiling young pitchers. The suggestion that "position players" might be the smart way to go drew some pretty hostile responses from the intelligent, informed BJOL readership, along the lines of "I wouldn’t trade Young Pitcher X for Young Position Player Y if you tossed in the Brooklyn Bridge," compelling me to research the issue using WAR and the Cubs for my parameters.

The silence of the GMs (a good title for a horror picture, no?) and the dismissal of the idea by the fans (both here and on talk radio, etc.) makes me think it’s at least a live question, with some GMs buying into it wholeheartedly and other GMs being more skeptical that their young pitchers need to go asap for whatever they’ll bring in return. Since the GM conversations are all behind closed doors, I’ll ask you a question, MarisFan61: "Have you heard or read anything to persuade you that this 50% edge thesis is a truism among GMs?"

I haven’t. Your point, which I’ve been granting all along might (and should) be accurate, reminds me of the maxim "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then they copy you."  I’m not sure where my 50% thesis stands on that spectrum right this second.

Brock Hanke comments:

Steve - Here's how the BB-Ref WAR works, for your purposes. When they do the Batting WAR, they add in a "position adjustment" for where the player played. When they do the Fielding WAR, they also add in the position adjustment. So, if you just add the Batting WAR and the Fielding WAR, you will get too high a number, because you've added in the Positional Adjustment TWICE. The final WAR that they show corrects for that. Just use the column labeled WAR. That's the one they mean. 

On the general issue of young pitchers, I think that a lot of the things that happen to young pitchers have to do with Craig Wright's old discovery that "high workload when young" is not good for long-term pitching arms. You might want to take a look at the pitcher's workload before, say, age 23. This shows up in the oddest places. Warren Spahn pitched one year for the Braves where he clearly established himself as a top starter. He was young then, but he also spent the next three years in the WWII military, so his total workload when young is very low. And, of course, he set records for durability. Bob Gibson was, IIRC, primarily a basketball player at Creighton, and then spent a year playing with the Harlem Globetrotters before the Cardinals decided that he was worth the money he was asking. That's a low workload when young. Another thing that I think is probably true - curve balls, when young, are bad for pitching arms. Johnny Sain and Warren Spahn have exactly the same situation: They came up with the Braves at the same time, spent the next 3 years in WWII, and came back ready to go. But Sain did NOT set any records for durability. The reason? My guess is that Spahn was a fastball / slider pitcher, while Sain was famous for his curve ball. There are even some cases of pitchers being overworked in college. This happened to Joe Magrane. His college coach worked him so hard that he lost 3 mph off his fastball during his senior year. When the Cards drafted him, the first thing they did was send him to "fastball school" to get his fastball back. But Joe, while he had a few very good seasons, did not last and couldn't handle over 200 IP a season. It's a complicated subject.

Thanks, Brock, for the help in understanding how BBref wages WAR.  My question still remains for pitchers: is the figure found under "WAR" on the long chart of all the pitchers in MLB their total WAR, or just their total as pitchers? As I said I don’t think it’s going to be a big difference, except for the oddball case like Tommy Greene who got 1.0 WAR for his batting one year, but I’d like to know. Else I’m comparing peaches to apricots here: where can I find pitchers’ total WAR (pitching + batting + fielding) figures? Or is that already figured into the number listed under "WAR" in the "PITCHING" section of BBref? I hope like hell I don’t have to go looking, and adding up, the pitchers’ numbers from three separate places, just to learn their yearly overall WAR, "Because," as Sean Connery told Michael Caine in THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, "I won’t."  (It really needs a Scots brogue for the full effect.)

I remember (and own) Craig Wright’s book on pitchers’ arms (he wrote it with Tom House as I recall). We’ve had twenty years since then to study a generation or two of young pitchers, yet they still keep getting hurt, don’t they? We’re pretty far from protecting them from damage, seems to me, and it might not be as simple as fastballs vs. curveballs, or even "World Wars prolong pitchers’ careers (when they don’t kill them, of course)." If that was it, why wouldn’t every team draft pitchers out of college, and sit them down for a season, having them study techniques, work out, bulk up, rest, watch film of successful pitching motions, practice fielding bunts, etc. as an investment in their futures? Tommy John (who might not be the best authority on keeping your arm healthy) said that work, not rest, makes for strong arms, didn’t he? You want significant sample sizes when you’re investing in college pitchers, don’t you? You get those only through a lot of work, which is what you say you don’t want in college pitchers. It’s a dilemma we’re only at the beginning of solving, unless some GM somewhere knows something we don’t know (which of course some of them do, and are trying to keep as secret proprietary info for as long as possible). Someday, MLB will look back at these primitive times and marvel how we could be so blind as to the underlying cause of pitchers’ injuries. We may be a century or two from that perspective. It might involve better diagnostic techniques, or better training regimens, or more stringent pitch-counts up to a certain age, or radical new surgical procedures, or an eight-man rotation, or a new roster size (20 pitchers, 15 batters), or the abolition of all organized baseball below the college level, or a hundred other things we haven’t thought to do yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

COMMENTS (12 Comments, most recent shown first)

Steven Goldleaf
Sorry, ff, the missing word is "lower"-- "...there were 11 more batters than pitchers, giving the pitchers a much higher average WAR in 1971, but a much lower career total WAR." I might have confused what I was trying to say there, but my overall point is that pitchers and batters seem to have comparable WAR in their relative youth, but batters' career WAR totals increase by 50% over pitchers'. My take on the Cubs and the Mets is that the Cubs decided that position players are more stable, so they decided to develop their own and rely on them to perform more or less predictably, and to spend on pitchers enough to keep themselves stocked. I guess this philosophy means that if their veteran pitchers get hurt during the season, they're prepared to shell out to replace them and think of that as a cost of doing business, whereas the Mets were astonished that their young pitchers broke down and didn't know how to cope.
9:37 AM Jan 7th
 
flyingfish
So, Steven, let me demonstrate again that I don't understand how WAR is calculated by asking whether the explanation for the differential you find isn't simply that pitchers' careers are unpredictable, in large part because they get hurt so much. Every GM and former GM I hear talking about prospects says things like "Well, he's a pitcher, so we know there's a high risk he will fail." I never hear them saying things like that about position players.

I'm not sure the Cubs won the argument with the Mets, because the Cubs had some pretty decent pitching themselves. Unless the argument is develop your pitchers versus developing your position players, in which case, let's see how the Red Sox do this coming season, with their wonderful crop of home-grown position players and a pitching staff acquired almost entirely through free agency and trades.

I think a simple notification system to the author for comments would be easy to implement and would be a good idea.
5:25 PM Jan 6th
 
flyingfish
Steven: There is an important word missing in this from near the beginning of your article: "...there were 11 more batters than pitchers, giving the pitchers a much higher average WAR in 1971, but a much [MISSING WORD] career total WAR." I don't understand the computations of average and career total WAR nearly well enough to supply the word for myself, which I think makes clear that one point I don't understand is why the average WAR depends on the number of players being considered.
5:08 PM Jan 6th
 
Steven Goldleaf
OK, this process just got too complicated for me to do it properly, Brock. It works ok, I believe, because the extra steps only adds complications but doesn’t change the actual results (other than to make the 50% thesis a little stronger, perhaps.) Still and all, I’m glad I got this info after doing all the work, because I might not have done it at all if I knew I’d have to add in pitcher’s hitting and fielding. It’s sorta unbelievable that BBREF doesn’t provide one simple annual total for pitchers but does provide for batters—I’d suppose that was one figure that people would be interested in.

As to rtallia’s idea, I think it would cut your sample size here to unreliable proportions. A fraction of these pitchers were traded at all, a fraction of those were traded one-for-one, a fraction of those were traded one-for-one for a position player. I’ll guess if we have 200 pitchers in the study, maybe 30 will meet your description, which will yield unreliable results. But if you want to do the work, I’ll be interested to see what it shows. I just won’t take 30 or fewer trades as dispositive.

Nobody tried my pitcher quiz? Or you tried and found it too easy? Or too hard?

11:42 AM Jan 5th
 
Brock Hanke
Steve - I just double checked BB-Ref for its method of combining Offensive WAR, Defensive WAR and Pitching WAR. oWAR and dWAR do both use the positional adjustment, so you just use the final WAR they come up with. Pitching WAR is calculated SEPARATELY from oWAR or dWAR. You'd have to add the WAR figure in the offensive section to the Pitching WAR to get full WAR for a pitcher. Just FYI.
3:36 PM Jan 3rd
 
rtallia
Steven, tell me if you think this makes any sense: to now look at all the pitchers in your study who were TRADED for position players after their +1.0 WAR seasons, and compare the remaining career WAR values of those pitchers versus those position players, to see how it actually played out. Thoughts?​
1:24 PM Jan 3rd
 
pgaskill
Closest Kingman ever came to 190 RBIs wasn't very close at all: 118. Sorry, bub, no bonus for you.

But hey, at least he did manage a lifetime .302 on-base percentage! And his career high in strikeouts was only 156.

And he did have those 48 homers that one year. His next best, 37.
8:29 AM Jan 3rd
 
mbrucker
Re Kingman: I remember when he signed with the Cubs. Apparently he wanted a bonus in his contract if he'd broken the club RBI record. I don't know if he'd done so or come close somewhere. The Cubs guys said sure! At the time Hack Wilson was credited with 190 in a season (now 191 I think).
6:03 PM Jan 2nd
 
Steven Goldleaf
It occurs to me that I do have one fairly quick and dirty way to test out some of the categorical objections to my methods here: I could raise the cutoff to 2.0 WAR or 3.0 WAR or even 5.0 WAR, using only the data gathered to this point, and see if the results are any different. Hell of a lot easier than lowering the cutoff to 0.0, and examining every player who did anything at all under the age of 25, obviously raising the number of careers to hundreds rather than dozens. Actually if I were to include the negative WAR guys, which I won't, that number goes up another large increment, but I won't even think about doing that. In fact, there was (again) one pitcher (Lloyd Allen) whom I listed at 0.0 career WAR who actually had a negative career WAR--making the pitchers' performances (again) slightly worse than I have it.

I don't think raising (or lowering) the cutoff will change the results at all, but if you do, have at it. I offered to crowdsource the research early on, and I'm still willing to do so, if there are any remaining skeptics out there. I think the way to go with skepticism is to question, as Marisfan61 has, whether this is actually news to GMs. It's certainly news to most fans.
7:01 AM Jan 2nd
 
dmbbmartin10
yes, both intutively, and per your study, I agree a good position player, vs a good pitcher, regardless of the reasons, you will most likely end up better with the position player

Martin
5:02 PM Dec 31st
 
Fireball Wenz
While playing, Montanez had a reputation for slick, flashy fielding at first - he was considered a showboat.

10:44 AM Dec 31st
 
rwarn17588
I took a deep dive into Willie Montanez's mystifying WAR stats because, as you said, his batting stats looked decent. My conclusion: He was a butcher as a fielder. As a first baseman, his range was below league average, and he'd consistently commit double-figure totals of errors each season (one year, he had 22).

They'd try playing him in the outfield, but he was even worse. In the minors, his fielding average in the outfield was a cringe-worthy .926. His outfielder fielding average was somewhat better in the majors, but not a lot.

I know Bill James readers give the side-eye to fielding average as a judgment for defensive excellence. However, an outfielder with a fielding average below what a struggling third baseman should have is a big, honking red flag.

So teams wisely stuck him at first base, where he'd do the least damage defensively. If there ever was a guy meant as a DH, it was Montanez (which he was briefly -- and productively -- with the Rangers, but that's it).
10:19 AM Dec 31st
 
 
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