Young Pitchers'll Break Your Heart (Part Two)

November 10, 2016

The adage that appears (belatedly) as the title to this series has been repeated almost as long as there’s been baseball: Young Pitchers’ll Break Your Heart.  And as many a friend has wondered about his heart-broken pal, "So why’d you go out with her in the first place? You couldn’t see this heartbreak coming? A blind man on a galloping horse coulda seen she was going to chew you up and spit you out. Geez."

Well, we all know why men date heartbreakers, right? If there’s even a chance that it might work out, we’re eager to see if this one might be that rare dangerous woman who’s perfect for us in the long run, and we’re willing to take that chance over and over and over again. High risk, high reward.

With young pitching (you weren’t hoping I’d expand on my advice to the lovelorn, were you?), it’s easy to understand why it breaks our hearts: because their arms break down. So much pressure is placed on the single act of throwing that if anything at all goes wrong, or sometimes even if nothing much goes wrong, a pitcher’s arm and his career will explode like a pack of matches in your hand: a few seconds of brilliance, followed by a handful of burnt-out nothing, plus some scorched skin.  Position players, dependent on so many different body parts, can better adjust to injuries, to overuse, to declining strength or flexibility, and eke out some kind of career-saving evolution more easily than pitchers can. A right-fielder’s cannon arm blows out, he can move to first-base.  A base-stealing leadoff man’s knee breaks down, he can bat lower in the order. A left-fielder puts on 40 pounds, he can still DH.  But when pitchers lose the one ability they have, often their one best pitch, they’re lucky to hang on to a roster spot, much less a starring role, for very long.

I present four tables below, again of the players (57 of them) all under the age of 25 with at least 1 WAR, this time from 1986, thirty years ago. I thank you for your indulgence as I figure out how best to present these tables. (I used eight tables for 1996, when I should have combined the Single-season and Career WAR into one chart, as I do below. If I do another season, I think I’ll get it down to two long charts, pitchers and hitters, since there’s really no compelling reason to break it down by leagues as I’ve been doing. Just my recommendation, if anyone wants to do 1976 instead of me, or any other season. Also I think I’ll ask you guys to take my word in the future for these players’ ages instead of devoting a column to listing each one—the important thing is that these players are all under 25, and not so much which one is 22 and which one is 23.) The pattern I suggested in Part One, on 1996, seems to be holding up quite well for 1986. Bottom line:

In 1986, the 30 batters totaled 72.1 WAR, averaging 2.4 WAR, and over the course of their careers totaled 815.8 WAR, averaging 27.2 apiece.

In 1986, the 27 pitchers totaled 60.3 WAR, averaging 2.2 apiece, and over their careers, 514.4 WAR, averaging 19.1.

In other words, the pitchers and the batters in 1986 closely mirrored each other’s performances again, while the career WAR totals were nearly 50% higher for batters than for pitchers.

Most of these players, batters and pitchers, mind you, were pretty disappointing, all in all: it’s more common for a good young player to fizzle out than it is for him shine brightly. (Again, by the eyeball method, you can easily see longer, more successful careers for batters on the tables below.)  It just seems to be more common for pitchers to fizzle out, which shouldn’t be news to anyone, I suppose. But I think I’m showing that it’s not JUST axiomatic that young pitchers will break your heart—it’s actually true.  That heartbreak appears (so far) to be measurably and substantially higher with pitchers than with batters.

Which might explain why the strategy I suggested in my last column makes sense: seek to keep your young position-playing talent and seek to deal off your young pitching talent. You will (I promise you) get killed from time to time, no way to avoid inadvertently dealing off a young Nolan Ryan for an aging Jim Fregosi now and then following this principle, but over the long haul you’re going to gather far more talent than you will deal off.

Of course you’ll still need to play young pitchers and young batters, sometimes in crucial roles—no way to prevent this, nor am I suggesting you should. In fact, I’d think that if you have a starting rotation that consists of three or four highly paid veteran rotation starters, acquired through Free Agency or otherwise, your back end would give a promising young pitcher a chance to show what he can do.  Probably he won’t do well, but if he does, then you regard him, not as the anchor of your pitching staff’s future, but as live bait to some team that believes in the virtues of young pitching more than you do.

On the other hand, if you have a promising young position player, when you’ve got (or when you’ve made) a spot in your lineup for him in which he does well, you might look NOT to trade him off.  Sure, if some other team offers you the sky for your young position-playing star, or if some team offers you nothing more than a bag of batting-practice balls in exchange for your hot young pitcher, you make an exception. What I am suggesting, though, is that you adopt this extreme axiom as your guiding principle: keep good young position-players, trade good young pitchers. Simple as that (with rare exceptions noted). Young pitching will break your heart. Videlicet (and vidablue):

 

NL batters under 25 in 1986

Age

WAR /avg

Career WAR / avg

Barry Bonds*

21

 3.5

162.4

Will Clark*

22

 2.2

  56.2

Kal Daniels*

22

 2.2

  16.8

Barry Larkin

22

 1.5

  70.2

Lenny Dykstra*

23

 4.7

  42.2

Chris Brown

24

 3.2

    5.9

Vince Coleman#

24

 1.2

  12.2

Darren Daulton*

24

 1.1

  22.9

Eric Davis

24

 5.3

  35.9

Bob Melvin

24

 1.0

    2.5

Kevin Mitchell

24

 2.5

  29.0

Darryl Strawberry

24

 3.4

  42.0

Robby Thompson

24

 3.4

  33.6

13 NL batters

 

35.2 / 2.7

531.8 /  40.9

 

 

NL pitchers under 25 in 1986

Age

WAR / avg.

Career war / avg.

Dwight Gooden

21

 4.4

 48.6

Charlie Kerfeld

22

 1.4

   0.0

Lance McCullers

22

 3.3

   5.2

Bruce Ruffin*

22

 3.7

   9.7

Floyd Youmans

22

 3.7

   6.6

Sid Fernandez*

23

 2.6

 31.4

Pat Clements*

24

 1.3

   3.5

Scott Garrelts

24

 1.8

   9.7

Greg Mathews

24

 1.1

   3.5

Ron Robinson

24

 2.2

   8.4

Bob Sebra

24

 1.5

   1.1

Jay Tibbs

24

 1.3

   5.4

12 NL Pitchers

 

28.3 / 2.4

133.1 /  11.1

 

 

 

AL batters under 25 in 1986

Age

WAR /avg.

Career WAR / avg.

Ruben Sierra#

20

 1.4

 16.6

Jose Canseco

21

 3.0

 42.3

Ozzie Guillen*

21

 1.6

 20.9

Daryl Boston*

23

 1.2

   4.4

Oddibe McDowell*

23

 3.1

 10.6

Dick Schofield

23

 4.2

 18.8

Cory Snyder

23

 1.1

   0.6

Danny Tartabull

23

 1.1

 23.2

Steve Buechele

24

 1.8

 16.5

Darnell Coles

24

 2.0

   0.0

Tony Fernandez#

24

 4.9

 45.0

Jack Howell*

24

 1.4

   9.7

Wally Joyner*

24

 3.2

 35.7

Dan Pasqua*

24

 2.5

 10.8

Jim Presley

24

 2.0

   0.2

Angel Salazar

24

 1.4

   0.0

Kevin Seitzer

24

 1.0

 28.7

17 AL Batters

 

36.9 /  2.2

284/  16.7

 

 

 

 

AL pitchers under 25 in 1986

Age

WAR /avg.

Career WAR/ avg.

Ed Correa

20

 2.8

    1.3

Mitch Williams*

21

 1.9

    7.3

Eric King

22

 2.4

    9.5

Bret Saberhagen

22

 2.0

  59.1

Bobby Thigpen

22

 1.6

    7.8

Roger Clemens

23

 8.9

139.4

Doug Drabek

23

 1.6

  27.8

Mark Gubicza

23

 3.4

  37.7

Mark Portugal

23

 1.9

  16.0

Bill Wegman

23

 1.8

  17.9

Storm Davis

24

 2.8

  17.3

Danny Jackson*

24

 3.3

  17.9

Joe Johnson

24

 1.5

    1.5

Dan Plesac*

24

 3.2

  17.2

Calvin Schiraldi

24

 2.9

    3.6

15 AL Pitchers

 

42.0 / 2.8

381.3 /  25.4

 

 

This time around, the nostalgia was even stronger than it was in 1996. I was a big Mets fan in ’86 (my oldest daughter, born on October 29, 1986, was very nearly named "Mookie" rather than "Elizabeth") and these young players’ names brought a certain fondness and vividness to mind. It was probably Bill’s influence, but I remembered making (and using) silly nicknames for many of these young players, some of which turned out to be sadly prescient ("Oh-to-be McDowell," "Steve Buchele-of-his-former-self," Bobby "Ron McKernan" Thigpen, "Produce-aisle Wegman," "Ed Correa-ending-injury," Bob "Ice-Station" Sebra, Scott "Or-Else" Garrelts, Floyd "To-Err-Is" Youmans, and of course Jim "the Pelvis" Presley.) As to Jay "They Call Me Mister" Tibbs, I remember the Mets’ losing him (twice actually) when he was a promising young pitcher in their system, and being rather upset that they’d unloaded this rising star. And I mourned the loss of Floyd Youmans, who was rumored to be a sort of Doc Gooden clone, when all we got in return was a crummy old Gary Carter.

Speaking of Doc (whom I called "Gooden Bad, I spoke those words as if a wedding vow," though not until he actually was pretty Gooden bad), it might seem like a terrible misstep to deal him (or Roger Clemens) off after their first promising years, and maybe this is just the cost you’d pay for adhering to my principle here, dealing off a genuinely stellar young pitcher every so often.  But in Gooden’s case, I remember thinking soon after he put together a few more superficially good years, sometime in the very late 1980s and early 90s, that his reputation (and his W-L record) was much better than his actual pitching, and I remember wondering if I’d lost my mind or if it made a little sense to consider trading Doc while his reputation and his W/L record was still great.  Of course, hindsight shows us clearly that getting almost anything at all in exchange for the trainwreck that Doc was headed for would have been a smooth move, but I’m not asking for any credit for foreseeing that trainwreck on the horizon. (I was just a nervous Bill James reader, wondering what Doc’s rising ERA and declining K rate signified in light of his still-stellar W/L record.)  But if you followed my principle here, even with a pitcher as dominating as the young Doc Gooden, and you dealt him off after his rookie year or even his Cy Young season at age 20, wouldn’t you have gotten real value in exchange for him? Value that might have lasted much longer than Doc’s stardom did?  Do you think you could have gotten Barry Larkin to shore up the Mets’ below-average shortstop in exchange for Doc Gooden in 1985? Or Ozzie Smith?  Or Eric Davis to fix your left field weakness? Or Vince Coleman? Hell, you probably could have gotten Larkin AND Davis, or Smith AND Coleman. And gotten some pitching thrown in—my point being that Gooden, in addition being a great young pitcher, was also a valuable commodity. (The best deal in hindsight would have been with the Pirates, for their young left-fielder.) My point is that I’m not just recommending dumping young pitching—I’m talking about how young pitching can tempt other teams, and how most teams tend to overlook the young pitching’s fragility and to disregard its often-false promise. Of course, if the Mets actually had traded Gooden off after the 1985 season, they probably would have missed the World’s Championship, depending on whom they’d gotten back, but who’s to say they wouldn’t have gotten back a World’s Championship (or three or four) on the other end, after Doc had lost his grip on the ball and on his life.

This is just wool-gathering, of course, and I’m not sniffing my nose at an actual World’s Championship, which was one of the more satisfying moments of my life: I’m just citing Doc’s example of a rare star pitcher that would seem to argue vehemently against this principle but which actually supports it. Even Dwight Gooden, who won almost 200 big league games, was worth much more in trade at age 20 or 21 or 22 than he would ever be again in his career. He had earned 22 of his lifetime 48.2 WAR by 1986, at the age of 21. And he’s my counter-example, a pitcher who went on to win a lot of games in a fairly long and mostly successful career.

The vast majority of these 27 promising young pitchers in 1986, of course, never had a star career or anything resembling one beyond this one season.  Some had career WAR totals that were scarcely higher than their 1986 WAR, and a few (Johnson, Sebra, Correa) actually had lower career WAR than they accrued in 1986, due to negative value of later years.  (BTW, a few guys actually had negative lifetime WAR which I entered as 0.0, mainly because they weren’t very much below 0 and I had no idea whether entering a negative number would mess up the way Excel tabulated my column totals. It doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, as Theo’s grand-dad wrote.)  Most of these guys did very little for the remainder of their careers, and quite a few of them were out of MLB after a few more seasons.

After the 1986 season, however, all of them had a little trade value, and some had quite a lot. If you’re assembling a team and you (like every team) would love to have a good young arm or two, It takes a lot of discipline to offer your young pitchers in deals to any club that has a good position player to swap, but in the long haul, such discipline, I posit, could pay off, if my thesis here is true. I’m not quite ready to assert flat-out that it is true, but what I’ve seen so far doesn’t convince me that it’s false, either.

 

 

 
 

COMMENTS (12 Comments, most recent shown first)

Steven Goldleaf
And steve161, as far as your "conclusion ... not... to trade away young pitchers, it would be not to draft them in the first place," I disagree. Not prioritize drafting pitchers, sure, but you need good young pitchers in this scheme, to fob off on less-enlightened trading partners. Ideally you'll be able to bring up your best young pitcher every season, pitch him at the back of your rotation, and when he has a month or two when he looks like Lefty Grove, you find a trading partner pronto. Repeat as needed until the world catches on to the fact that you keep winning pennants while your trading partners are stuck with all your cast-offs in the Special Hospital for arm-injuries.
3:25 PM Nov 11th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Yes, steve161, it's unfortunate that the Mets are both OBS's team and the team I tend to use for specific exemplars, because I used to be an intense fan of theirs, which focus tends to blur my larger point, so I'll try to concentrate on the big picture when I can and not set OBS off unduly by referring to the Mets. Doubly unfortunately, I just composed a longer passage, that I'll post later on today using the current Mets' roster as my convenient example.

Erratum: In this 1986 piece, I somehow added 42.0 WAR for AL pitchers to 28.3 WAR for NL pitchers, and got 68.3. (Usually I use a calculator--that time, I guess I added them up in my rocky head.) Anyway, the key figure, the MLB average WAR for the 1986 season is actually 2.6, not 2.2. This is what I get for publishing first, thinking second. I'll include the updated figures in my conclusions. If you spot any other arithmetic errors LMK--I should be good for at least one or two more.
8:33 AM Nov 11th
 
steve161
OBS, your caveats regarding age are well-taken, but your critique suffers from tunnel vision. The Mets are not the only team in baseball.

In general, we all succumb to the temptation to find single all-encompassing explanations for phenomena, but life is more complex than that. There are a lot of ways to build a franchise that is successful for a long period. But anecdotally, when we think of those franchises (1927 Yankees, 1939 Yankees, 1975 Reds, 1971 Athletics), more often than not we think of hitters--and maybe one dominant pitcher (1964 Cardinals).

I think Steven is on to something, but my conclusion would not be to trade away young pitchers, it would be not to draft them in the first place.
7:00 AM Nov 11th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Just to let you know that I'm halfway through the 1976 season. (Don't all jump on my crowd-sourcing idea at once, now!) As a further heads-up, rather than go much further into the past (although 1966 is my all-time favorite baseball season, for purely personal and somewhat arbitrary reasons), I think I'll revisit five-year intervals next: i.e., I'll do 1991, and 1971 maybe--I'm a little skeptical of doing the strike-season 1981, and if I would have thought of that originally I'd have chosen 2015, 1995, 1985, etc. OTOH, the strike affected pitchers and hitters equally so the raw data will be 2/3s of a normal season but the ratios between pitchers and hitters should be fine.

I'll try to answer individual objections in the next installment, but what I think is that, rather than carping about my methods or my results or my arbitrary choices, you could run your own study and show how your results differ: that is, if you think 24 years old is a ridiculous cutoff for age, run a similar study with a 28-year-old cutoff and report what your study shows. Maybe you'll be right, and I won't be able to argue with your results. I'll be glad to share what I've learned about doing such a study, just mechanically (quirks of bbref, making tables, etc.). I'm eager for more input.
5:00 AM Nov 11th
 
Brock Hanke
My opinion, for what that's worth, is that this is a subset of Craig Wright's adage that overwork when young will lead to an unsatisfying career. Young pitchers who look really good, especially if they are just out of high school, are going to have had a LOT more work - and more work against better hitters - than young pitchers who don't look quite that hot. If I were to scout a young pitcher, the things I would be looking out for would be how many IP did he have in school? While he was in school, did he pile up lots of innings in those summer amateur leagues for high-level high school players (here in Missouri, I think they're called American Legion leagues, but I'm not sure)? If he's coming out of college, how hard was he worked in college? Only then would I start looking at things like radar guns and mechanics.
12:13 AM Nov 11th
 
OldBackstop
Steve, pitchers mature later, you can't just say "under 25". DeGrom didn't throw a major league pitch until he was 26. Matz will be 26 in May, he has only pitched 168 innings.

Young isn't age, it's years of service.

The young cheap pitching the Cubs got with Arrieta and Hendricks were a huge part of the season...did they have $50 million to replace them with veteran free agents as you suggest? It reminds me of how in the movie Moneyball the names Zito, Hudson, and Mulder don't appear.

The bottom line is, next year if the Mets have Thor, Harvey, Matz, Degrom and 21 replacement level guys, and the Cubs have Rizzo, Schwarber, Baez, Soler (or whoever you think are their best young four) and 21 replacement value guys........who is making the playoffs? Who is finishing last?

Run your numbers for pitchers Age 25 with at least three seasons in 1986. Then trade John Franco, Mark Langston, Ron Darling...there were 23 pitchers, 17 were still in the league five years later.

You better tighten up your game under a Trump Administration, Steve...there's a new boss in town, and he is all about business.
8:50 PM Nov 10th
 
lidsky
jest - just. Tomato, tomahto. (Give me an edit function for these comments!)
7:04 PM Nov 10th
 
lidsky
I thought that as well and the same for Bonds on the NL batting side. That drove me to taking his numbers and started playing with them.

If you look closely, the AL had 9 pitchers with a career WAR over 15, while the NL only have 2 with a WAR even above 10. It isn't jest Clemen's dominating.

I also pulled out both Bond's and Clemen's #s and the hitting dominance as well as the NL pitching flailing is still evident.
7:03 PM Nov 10th
 
MichaelPat
What you say is true, Lidsky, but Clemens explains it all.... Having a top five all-time pitcher kind of messes up the numbers here.
6:19 PM Nov 10th
 
lidsky
I think the separation between NL and AL was interesting in that only 1 of the 4 groups under performed: that was NL pitchers. If the NL pitchers performed even close to the AL pitchers your thesis disappears. There isn't enough numbers here to say whether that was a random division or something going on. I would think it likely random that only the NL pitchers had career problems, but we should check.

It might be interesting to do a similar study a few years away (both plus and minus). Maybe 5 years in each direction to ensure you get new players, but have roughly the same environment, and to see if either or both show a similar trend.
1:56 PM Nov 10th
 
Steven Goldleaf
It sorta goes without saying (which is why I didn't say it) that there are tremendous differences in subjective judgments of young pitchers. After 1986, you're going to ask more in trade for Dwight Gooden or Roger Clemens than you're going to ask for Bob Sebra. But there's no difference (that I can see) between pitchers who go on to long uninterrupted stellar careers and those who don't as far as predicting them is concerned. Good pitchers get hurt and mediocre pitchers get hurt. You'll get vastly different returns for each of them, but they've all got to go.

Or so my thesis maintains.​
6:27 AM Nov 10th
 
SteveN
I wonder if the more successful pitchers have some things in common. More strike outs or something. If you could identify the ones more likely to be worth keeping it would seem that you are really helping yourself.
5:16 AM Nov 10th
 
 
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