I've talked before about how my journey as a skeptical reader, a journey that eventually landed me here as a semi-respected writer on baseball matters, began with reading Rob Neyer and Rany Jazayerli's Rob and Rany on the Royals columns in my freshman dorm 15 years ago. So it's with that same skeptical eye that I read Rany's Grantland column yesterday about Stephen Strasburg.
Rany argues that the Nationals were wrong to shut Strasburg down because, essentially, the Nats are babying Strasburg and the preventing injury in young pitchers pendulum has swung too far in this case. Now, that's a drastic oversimplification, and the point he's making sounds eerily similar to the old school complaints that pitch counts are ruining the game. But Rany's not decrying reduced workloads. Instead, he's pointing out that reduced work loads have already done their jobs.
Rany takes us through a lot of the modern history of pitch counts and efforts by Saber types and seamheads to get MLB to pay attention to and avoid pitcher abuse, an effort that Rany argues has been largely successful as
"From 1984 to 1998, one out of every two young starters was still starting regularly five years later. From 1999 onward, two out of every three young starters have done so. These are the best young pitchers in the game — and their failure rate has been cut by a third. That ain't beanbag....That's the take-home point here: Major league baseball teams have dramatically altered the way they handle starting pitchers — and in doing so, they have significantly reduced the risk of injury to those pitchers." [emphasis is Rany's]
Now, to get to his conclusion, Rany uses some pretty arbitrary endpoints for his study, only looks at games started data, and goes through a ton of anecdotal data about specific pitchers. Obviously, this makes his study far from conclusive. You would be right to read his argument with a skeptical eye and to question his methodology like I did. But skepticism isn't an end point in and of itself, and the issue that Rany raises is an incredibly important one if Sabermetrics isn't going to stagnate.
Essentially, what Jazayerli is saying is that seamheads have won this fight, but that in winning we now need to critically examine our own paradigms to prevent falling into the same dogmatic traps that doomed generations of young pitchers to early rotator cuff tears. It's a question that ultimately can and should change the way we think about how pitchers are handled going forward. It's not picking between the extremes of whether pitchers are babied or overworked, but a question of what's the best way to maximize the value a team can responsibly get out of a young pitcher. We don't want our favorite teams to ruin careers, but we also want them to win games. It's a delicate balance that takes a scalpal to take apart, rather than the chainsaws most of us have been using. And I think we'll all be able to look back on this as one of the seminal moments when all our questions began to change and we started to build new knowledge around this issue.
Rany's going to get slammed in some quarters, but don't get suckered in by that. Just because he doesn't have the magic bullet that ties everything together doesn't mean he's wrong. Indeed, this is what the revolution looks like when it starts. It's messy, and a little incomplete, and requires a great deal of additional critique and examination. Don't look at this as the end of a conversation, but the beginning. And consider it an invitation to join in. But be ready to bring data and to be convincing. Rany's thrown down the gauntlet here and has generously provided us all with a new question and a jumping off point for further research. If you don't engage with it and other similar questions that challenge Sabermetric doctrine when they arise, you're going to get left behind.
@commnman As Bill James said of sabermetrics, "what we do, essentially, is take the things people say about baseball & ask, 'is that true?'"
Let's be honest - the Nationals are simply analyzing what has been successful, and what has been tragic in the past and making their decision based on logic and not "but this is how it's been done forever". This is essentially what SABR - or any group trying to effect change is ultimately asking by presenting research that challenges the status quo.
For sake of argument - If a franchise made the decision to go with a 6 man staff, and had sustained success with it, at least one other franchise would at very least give it a try. If that bore success, more would follow.
Likewise, if the 6 man did not succeed, that would further advance the idea that 5 man is the way to go.
Remember - as recently as 25 years ago, a 4 man rotation was widely accepted as "optimal".
We are going to have to play wait and see to see if the Strasburg gambit succeeds. Only time will tell.
We can all agree that the Prior/Wood gambit did not - thus, true progressive thinking seeks to get away from the ideas that have a track record of failure as best as it can.
My favorite bit from Rany's piece was that Mark Prior threw as many 130+ pitch games in September and October of 2003 as every pitcher in Major League Baseball combined has during the entire 2012 season.
Rany's piece was the classic "Wow, we've missed the forest for the trees," article. Pitching is still a terribly unnatural act and it's practioners are still prone to winding up on a surgeon's table. However, by limiting pitches, teams have - as Rany pointed out - by and large recognized this and have made it as safe as is practicable. To date, the most compelling argument in DC for keeping Strasburg going is that "Flags Fly Forever." Rany introduces another argument: That extra protection is unnecessary because the Nationals have *already* taken what extraordinary steps to protect Strasburg's health by historical standards. In the end, the Nationals probably are good enough to win without Strasburg in 2012. And they are certainly better in 2013 with a healthy Strasburg. Whether this shutdown insures the second part of that, no one can know for certain. The most interesting question now, in my opinion, is what is the marginal difference between 25-30 postseason innings of Strasburg versus 25-30 innings of Ross Detwiler? I have to think it is less than the general public thinks, yet probably little more than the Nationals brass does.