Young Pitchers'll Break Your Heart (Part Four)

December 14, 2016

In doing the 4th installment of this series, covering the 1991 season, I ran into my first snag. Or to be more precise, the first sure sign that I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, statistically speaking. I don’t think it represents a serious refutation of my thesis here. (Which, for those of you not paying meticulous attention to a series begun weeks ago and kept up sporadically here on BJOL, states that young batters may well have about 50% more career value than comparable young pitchers do, which, if true, might represent an unexploited market inequity.) I’ll explain my error first, ask for your understanding of it next, and move on to the 1991 numbers last.


In tracking the batters who had WARs over 1.0 in 1991 while being listed in as under 25 years of age, I noticed the name of Tommy Greene, barely making the cut at 1.0.  "Hmmm, thought Greene was a pitcher. Maybe this is a different Tommy Greene?" But no, it’s just that the young Mr. Greene had 1.0 WAR as a batter in 1991 while also compiling 3.2 WAR as a pitcher, which made me consider if I’d been doing this study incorrectly. I don’t really understand how BBref measures a player’s overall WAR at this point, or if they put partial WAR in three categories, Pitching WAR, Batting WAR, and Fielding WAR, but total them up nowhere, or if the figures under "WAR" for batters and for pitchers are their totals in all three categories for the year. I’ve been assuming the latter, but I think I could be wrong about that, given Tommy Greene’s showing up in both categories, pitching and batting, and probably fielding as well.  Is there any place I should be looking for his (or for anyone’s) total WAR for the 1991 season? That’s really what I’m trying to compare here, not their WAR values in each separate category.


Now, in my defense (said the man with the noose around his neck to the hangman), I don’t know how much this matters to my overall thesis.  I’d suppose that very few pitchers have positive offensive value, and that cumulatively (which is how I’m drawing my conclusions here) pitchers have negative offensive value, making them even less valuable over the course of their careers than I’ve been saying, not more valuable.  (The fact that Mr. Greene is the first pitcher to show up on these charts who got even a 1.0 WAR for his batting makes me further inclined to think that it’s negligible, and probably a negative figure, overall. I’ve run over a hundred young pitchers in this study, and Greene was the first one to turn up, and that just barely.)   Similarly, I’d suppose that most batters (again as a cumulative group) have positive fielding WAR, so again they would be more valuable than I’ve been assuming, not less valuable, if the WAR represents only their batting WAR. Finally, if pitchers would also have positive fielding value, it would be a very small figure since they play the field so much less often than a batter would, and it would still probably combine with their negative batting WAR to create a negative total in those two categories. So I actually think this error may make for a stronger thesis, rather than a weaker one.


So correct me if wrong about any of this, please, but pending sharp correction, I’m going to proceed with my study. Not that I enjoy bitching (I do, sorta) but if BBref really doesn’t have a place where players’ total WAR in a season is listed, that seems like an error on their part, and if they do (or if I’ve been looking in the wrong place for the total WAR figure), please let me know where to find it, and I’ll see if that changes my findings in any way.


Some of you seem quite adept at navigating BBref—perhaps we ought to share tips for getting around it in their complicated system. Let’s begin here, with this "Comments" section being open to anyone who can offer instruction in understanding where, if anywhere, they put their WAR totals for each player. Maybe this can become a place (or "Readers Posts"?) for a general BBref (and related) Q&A?  I’d love to show what I’ve learned about copying from BBref into Excel and into WORD tables to anyone who’d be interested. For me, copying-and-pasting from one into the other in doing this "Heart-break" series has been a little trickier than expected, and there are some quirks that I’ve become resigned to. (Seemingly at random, for example, when I copy a player’s name from BBref into Excel, most of the time it goes smoothly, but about one time in ten, the copied version looks different and it occupies a double-wide line in Excel—the only remedy is to erase the entire line and try again. And often again.) I’m sure Rylan can help in showing all of us some basic posting skills, and maybe we can see if some facilities for posting in various places in BJOL can be explained. (For example, Bill and some others seem to be able to post photos in threads, a skill I have yet to master. In these columns, I sometimes post those ugly strings of interminable letters instead of links, either because I’ve forgotten how to post links or the icon for "links" isn’t where I think it should be.)  In any event, I don’t think my lapses in posting the correct total WAR for these young players has had a significant effect on my conclusions, and I suspect it’s even made my thesis stronger.




Batters under 25 in 1991

WAR in 1991/average WAR

Career WAR /Average WAR

Juan Gonzalez



Ken Griffey*



Carlos Baerga#



Milt Cuyler#



Delino DeShields*



Travis Fryman



Chuck Knoblauch



John Olerud*



Phil Plantier*



Roberto Alomar#



Jeff Bagwell



Bret Barberie#



Luis Gonzalez*



Gregg Jefferies#



Darren Lewis



Frank Thomas



Robin Ventura*



Albert Belle



Marquis Grissom



Ray Lankford*



Orlando Merced#



Geronimo Pena#



Omar Vizquel#



Larry Walker*



Mark Whiten#



Rick Wilkins*



26 players

 76 WAR /  2.9

950/ 36.5




Pitchers under 25 in 1991

WAR in 1991 /average WAR


Career WAR /Average WAR

Steve Avery*



Mike Mussina



Jim Abbott*



Kevin Appier



Andy Benes



Scott Erickson



Tom Gordon



Ramon Martinez



Chuck McElroy*



Kent Mercker*



Omar Olivares



Scott Radinsky*



Tommy Greene



Juan Guzman



Pete Harnisch



Joel Johnston



Chris Nabholz*



Charles Nagy



Jaime Navarro



Gregg Olson



John Smoltz



Mike Stanton*



22 pitchers

65.5 /  3.0

512.5 /   23.3





There is the slight danger here, I should mention, of these lists five years apart of young players overlapping. If one them pops up on a list as a teenager (i.e. under 20 years old) then he could also pop up on the next list five years down the road at age 23 or 24, though so far no one has done so.


But this set of figures supports the past sets: the WAR figures for 1991 are very close for batters and pitchers, 2.9 and 3.0., but over the course of their entire career, they diverge significantly, the batters averaging 36.5 WAR over their careers, and the pitchers averaging 23.3, again an over 50% increase in the value of the batters.


As I keep reminding myself (and you), maybe this is commonplace knowledge within MLB, and maybe when a team contemplates trading a young pitcher for a young hitter, they routinely factor in this 50% difference.


But that’s certainly not what I hear from my listening perch well outside of MLB. When I hear about a potential deal, there’s never a warning about the vastly reduced long-term potential of the young pitcher. It’s mostly "Yah, well, it’s a crapshoot all around, ya never know, que sera, sera" for both sides, with a lot of anecdotal BS about past deals gone sour.  And to some extent that’s true. Ya never do KNOW if a particular young pitcher is going to be Mark Fidrych or Nolan Ryan, and you need to gauge their individual potential on a variety of personal factors, and not rely on some broad-based statistical mumbo-jumbo about ALL pitchers starting with the dawn of time.


But if I were making deals involving young pitchers, I would certainly factor this in, bigly, if only as a corrective to the enthusiasm I may have for acquiring a young pitcher, or as a corrective to the general skepticism some of us apply to everything about knowing the future. If you can gain an edge over some trading partner in seeing likely patterns in future events, well, that’s the definition of an untapped market inequity, isn’t it?


Another counter-argument here might be that teams no longer control a player’s entire career anyway, so why concern yourself about players’ career potential? Focus on the next few years, that all. The problem with this counter-argument is that I think it holds up over virtually any period of time: often as not, the player whose career implodes sees his implosion immediately, not five or ten years down the road. A lot of these guys with fairly modest WAR in their youth have even lower career WAR—their main WAR contributions, in other words, derive from these early seasons, and they often have negative WAR offsetting them over the rest of their careers. Such total implosions occur with batters as well as pitchers, of course, but there’s no safeguard against a total meltdown happening to anyone, at any time. So the argument that "the disaster, if any, will come in the distant future when we will have likely gotten rid of him anyway" doesn’t really hold.


I would maintain that the reason for this thesis is obvious to the point of simplicity: pitchers rely on a single body part (or a single set of body parts), their arms, so anything that goes wrong with the arm is going to have a serious effect on a pitcher’s effectiveness, while batters can sometimes maintain their effectiveness after a severe injury to an arm or a leg or a foot or a hand. Just a theory, of course, but as I say, a sorta obvious one. If you’re going to trade me a young pitcher, I will want that deal to be so one-sided in my favor, superficially, that you’re probably going to withdraw your offer from me, and trade with someone else who doesn’t share my skepticism about young pitchers. But if you want one of MY young pitchers? Let’s make a deal, friend.


COMMENTS (6 Comments, most recent shown first)

Brock Hanke
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.
11:50 AM Dec 20th
How do you think the difference between average eventual value of pitchers and position players is "unexploited"?
I think it's well recognized, and pretty fully utilized.
6:14 PM Dec 18th
Steven Goldleaf
I'm not using WAR (BBref's, btw) because it's perfect, or even correct. I assume Fangraphs would show the same--do you disagree? Does one favor pitchers and the other favor batters? I'm using WAR because it seems simple and neutral, a quick and dirty way to measure effectiveness. This study is an early stage of the more thorough analysis we will have to do if its figures check out. So far, they do. I'm surprised by the disparity--I suspected that they'd show a 5% or 10% sort of edge, if anything, whose significance I would have to argue, probably in a weak and losing cause. But over 50%? That's a pretty clear bulge, no argument required.

What I'd want, before doing a more sophisticated study, is to see if this quick and dirty one holds up. As I keep insisting, MLB may well have done a more sophisticated study and have long factored the relative value of young pitchers and young hitters into their thinking. I can tell you, however, that fans certainly have not. It may be that teams haven't also, though I would hesitate before accusing them of that sort of negligence.
12:25 PM Dec 16th
Well, the obvious first question is: Which WAR? BBRef and Fangraphs use very different methodologies, neither of which alone seems more than vaguely indicative.

The next question, perhaps equally obvious, is this: how do teams evaluate the current and prospective future value of pitchers? Surely their methods are far more sophisticated than relying on a single number, which may be kind of useful for a study like this one, but hardly is the horse you want to ride in the Derby, where they keep track of who wins.

I'd even suggest, heretical though it may be, that they consult scouts.
10:26 AM Dec 16th
Steven Goldleaf
Thanks, astros34. Anyone know more than astros34 or me about the BBRef stuff? I'd love to hear more criticism of my methods or my conclusions here. It looks ok to me, but there are holes in what I know. Some of the holes I can defend (as with the screwy WAR totals, as above, which may be off but probably in the wrong direction to invalidate) but I'm sure there are some that I'd have trouble defending. My mega-conclusion, which is getting borne out the more of these years I study, is troubling to me, that a serious career inequity exists that MLB is ignoring. Does MLB ignore it or factor it in already? Do teams actually swap young players back and forth without accounting for the pitchers' lower career WAR? Does anyone see a flaw suggesting that the career WAR inequity isn't real? Let's discuss.​
10:16 AM Dec 15th
I'm sure someone will correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe pitchers' batting WAR is calculated against other pitchers, and the reason so few get even 1.0 WAR as a hitter is due to their low PA total. It's also stated on B-R that you can't just add the offensive and defensive WARs together to create total WAR for hitters, so I would assume the same applies if you try and add all three for a pitcher's total WAR. So far as I know, there is no place that total WAR for pitchers is listed on the player pages and you can't find it via Play Index.
9:21 AM Dec 14th
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