The Brewers have been plagued by injuries to their young pitchers
for more than a decade. Prospect after hard-throwing prospect has
signed on the dotted line, eager to fulfill their big league dreams and
anxious to one day climb the bump at County Stadium or Miller Park, but
precious few have survived their apprenticeship in the organization's
minor leagues. For that, the Brewers have paid a heavy toll. Without
the financial resources to acquire top-notch free agent hurlers, the
team's failure to safely and successfully develop young pitchers has
contributed in no small way to their ongoing 12-year losing streak.
But things are beginning to change. Or at least that's what Doug
Melvin, Gord Ash, Reid Nichols, and the rest of Milwaukee's braintrust
are hoping for.
And it's not just hope -- they're doing something about it.
Over the past few seasons, the organization has undertaken a
comprehensive review of its player development system with an eye
toward improving the health of its pitchers. From the Arizona League
to Triple-A to the big leagues, the Brewers are attempting to rectify
the ills of the past while implementing an innovative, common-sense
approach to pitching injury prevention from the top of the organization
to the bottom.
But will it work? Will serious pitching injuries -- or the majority
of them, at least -- become a thing of the past?
To help find the answer, Brewerfan.net consulted Will Carroll, a
pioneer in the field of baseball injury analysis and reporting. A
writer at Baseball Prospectus (where he pens
the popular column "Under The Knife") as well as The
Juice, a weblog he co-authors with Scott Long, Carroll is the
author of a forthcoming book about steroids in baseball entitled The
Juice: The Real Story of Baseball's Drug Problems as well as
Saving The Pitcher, "a revolutionary analysis of pitching
injuries and how to prevent them." The host of Baseball Prospectus
Radio, he is quickly becoming a fan of the team from the Beer
Brewerfan.net: The Brewers have implemented a "piggyback,"
eight-man rotation at Single-A West Virginia this season that pairs two
starting pitchers with one another and limits their pitch counts in
consecutive outings to 80 and 40 pitches, respectively. A similar
system was developed in the mid-1990s by Grady Fuson while he was with
the Athletics and has since been implemented by the Rangers (thanks to
Fuson) and Reds (thanks to Dan O'Brien, who worked with Fuson in
Texas). According to the Washington Post 1, those three teams were the only ones in
Major League Baseball to use the system in any form as of May 2004.
Have other organizations begun to implement similar programs?
Will Carroll: Actually, the system is more a product of research by
Bob Cluck, now the pitching coach with the Tigers, than anyone else.
There have been a number of teams have considered what I call the
"tandem system" but only those you mention have committed to it. I
believe it's a very effective system with proven results. The hardest
part is getting the pitchers themselves to buy in while also
strengthening their arms. Pitchers focus on wins, not things like
efficiency and really have to be taught to understand why this system
works and how it won't retard their progress. I think the Brewers
understand this. I'd like to see the system at High-A and even at the
start of the season in Double-A as well. Someday -- maybe in the next
revision of Saving The Pitcher -- I'll write up the best way to
develop pitchers. I'll be wrong of course, but it will make for a
Proponents of the system cite several benefits in both injury
prevention and pitching effectiveness. Fuson, for example, argues that
"the 18- to 22-year-old arm is not prepared to pitch the way people
traditionally think. Their arms are not fully grown and mature.
They're not prepared to take the torque that major league guys can.
This system eases them into it." 2
Do you agree? In your opinion, will the implementation of this system
result in a reduction in pitching injuries?
I completely agree and believe that this will system reduce
injuries. Nate Silver's research on the injury nexus, Mike Marshall's
work with biological age, and Glenn Fleisig's work on biomechanics all
point to the same thing. It's difficult to put it all on age -- it's
maturity, not age. Worse, the more stresses that are put on arms at a
young age, the more damage there is. We're seeing younger and younger
pitchers needing overuse treatments like Tommy John surgery. At some
point, we have to do something to stop that. In the interim, we have
to protect them where we can and the minor leagues is one.
Of course, there's also the idea that college pitchers are safer
bets. That's true, but we're also seeing some insane pitch counts.
Part of the value of college pitchers is predictability and the fact
that they survived the experience while pitching on someone else's
dime. From a purely developmental perspective, I'm not sure that's
best. If I could predict with anything resembling certainty which
pitchers would develop, I'd draft high school pitchers.
Another benefit of of the program, its advocates argue, is that
it helps develop pitchers who are aggressive in the zone and
comfortable "pitching to contact." Reds' Director of Player
Development Tim Naehring contends, for instance, that "coming out of
college, with aluminum bats, these guys are used to pitching away from
contact. We're trying to teach these young pitchers at an early age to
pitch to contact, which means trying to command the fastball and get
the hitter out early in the count. When you only have 75 pitches, you
better be pretty effective with the way you use your pitches if you
want to stick around until the fifth and sixth innings." 3 Is this something that you foresee the
Brewers emphasizing? How important do you feel it is for young
pitchers to learn how to effectively manage their pitch counts?
It all gets back to efficiency. If you have X pitches to throw, it
makes you think about "wasting one." There will be times that you do,
that the pitch accomplishes something. Doing it on 0-2 has never made
any sense to me. I'm not sure any team teaches the theory of pitching
well. In my opinion, it comes back to command. I'd rather have a team
of soft tossing guys who can hit spots than a fastballer who relies on
blowing someone away.
The "pitching to contact" idea to me might lead to problems. You
have to have a good defense and seems to have a groundball bias. It's
antithetical to some stathead orthodoxy, but I think pitchers
occasionally need to say "I need a groundball" and pitch to that. At
other times, they better be pitching for strikeouts.
Another interesting experiment being implemented in the Brewers'
farm system this season is an inversion of typical pitching roles
wherein relief pitchers start the game and are later relieved by
starters. In an interview with MLB.com, Doug Melvin explained that
successful big league starters (like Curt Schilling) go deep into games
and don't rely on middle or long relievers to bridge the gap to the
closer. On the other hand, "there's a lot of minor league pitchers who
never see the ninth inning because of pitch counts," he said, arguing
that working in the late innings will help develop a pitcher's mental
toughness. 4 Are you familiar with
any other organizations that have attempted a similar role-inversion?
Is this program a good complement to the "piggyback" system mentioned
earlier, insofar as it allows pitchers to work later into games without
elevating their pitch counts? How important do you feel it is for
young pitchers to work in the late innings?
I love this idea in some ways, hate it in others. I think Melvin's
exactly right that some pitchers won't reach it and that this might
have some real tactical advantages, but I'm not sure that we really
know how the ninth inning is any more valuable than the fifth or first.
Pitching is pitching, an out is an out, and if you need some
artificial construct to get you on the ball, I worry. I'll tip my cap
to Melvin and his staff for thinking outside the box and wait to see
how it works out.
The Brewers have suffered through injury after injury to their
young pitching prospects over the past decade. From Tyrone Hill to
Jeff D'Amico to Kyle Peterson and from J.M. Gold to Nick Neugebauer to
Mike Jones, Milwaukee has been disturbingly unable to develop healthy
young hurlers. To what do you attribute the club's inability to
protect the arms of its pitchers? Is the organization's tendency to
draft pitchers with high injury risks (like Peterson and Gold) at the
root of the problem? Or does the team's player development system
deserve more of the blame?
It's partly the selection and partly a lack of commitment to
preventing injuries. That's changed, albeit at a high cost. It
doesn't make Neugebauer feel any better that Mark Rogers might survive
because he didn't, but at least the Brewers are learning. They have a
proactive medical staff with Roger Caplinger and Bill Raasch. They've
invested in great medical facilities. They do high speed video on all
their pitchers. They're considering injury prevention at every step,
from draft to Triple-A. They're willing to look in any direction --
even mine -- to try to improve something they acknowledge as a
weakness. That's a great sign.
In your book Saving The Pitcher, you argue that "there's
no reason a pitcher should ever be injured." 5 Traditional baseball thinking holds that
serious arm injuries are just part of the game. Brewers Assistant GM
Gord Ash, for example, commented that "any time you have significant
injuries, you can't be happy about it. But it's not just an affliction
of the Milwaukee Brewers. Injuries are part of the game." 6 Given that the origins of many pitching
injuries can be traced to a player's time in little league, high
school, or college, to what degree can Major League organizations
prevent pitching injuries? Are they more preventable than Ash and
Forgive a little hyperbole on my part. We know what causes injuries
and theoretically we can prevent them all. Of course, we'll never be
able to do that in the real world. There are always going to be freak
incidents, a pitcher that breaks down well below the level we'd
predict, and the fact that we can't control all elements of the game.
We need legislation to protect young pitchers -- coaches can't do it
because they need to win. We need more organizations willing to
protect arms like the A's, Indians, Blue Jays, and Brewers are doing.
Injuries are part of the game; I like to believe we can make them a lot
smaller part of the game.
Kansas City-based writer Bradford Doolittle argues that "injury
management is just another area where small-market clubs can develop a
competitive advantage against the rich teams, much in the same way
statistical analysis can help them to build a lineup or a bullpen."
7 Do you agree with Doolittle?
What are some of the most important things that organizations like the
Brewers can do to prevent pitching injuries at the minor league level?
At the Major League level?
Absolutely! I think just the commitment to the process is the
biggest thing. There's a major league team that's made an
organizational decision NOT to prevent injuries. The GM said he's
going to "ride his horses" and then send them to Jim Andrews. That's
going to back fire, even if I can understand the thinking on some
level. When we see Tampa and Milwaukee at the top of the charts for
"medhead stats" that's a nice sign. Injury prevention and management
is very cheap, has a great rate of return, and doesn't require
significant changes to the organization. Things like assessment of
risk, managing risk, and understanding risk are the most important
One of the biggest debates in discussions about baseball's
Amateur Draft is the comparative desirability of selecting players from
high schools or colleges. The Brewers have tended to focus on prep
players, and prep pitchers in particular, although they have struck a
balance between the two schools of thought. If you were running a
Major League organization, would you advise your scouting department to
concentrate more on high school or college pitchers? In your opinion,
which demographic is more likely to suffer an arm injury?
Younger pitchers suffer more injuries, but heal quicker. I'd look
for pitchers with reasonable workloads, a good work ethic, and healthy
results. I'd look high and low, not eliminating anyone until I'd given
them a chance. Tall, short, fat, skinny, high school, college -- to
me, it doesn't matter. I want pitchers. Mark Rogers is a great
example -- he hasn't pitched much because of his location (Maine) yet
really has a great arm, good work ethic, and Tony Blengino really took
the time to understand what he could do. Great use of scouting.
A related issue with regard to amateur scouting is the divide
between pitchers from northern climates and those from the South, who
often play year-round and accumulate much more experience during their
prep careers. The Brewers drafted two high school pitchers last June
with their first two picks: Mark Rogers from Maine and Yo Gallardo from
Texas. Placing yourself in the same position as before (at the helm of
a big league organization), would you recommend concentrating on more
experienced pitchers from warm climates or less experienced (but less
overworked) pitchers from the North? Is there a tangible difference
between the injury risks presented by prep hurlers with significantly
different high school workloads?
I'd point to my answer above. I wouldn't eliminate anyone. I know
a good bit about Rogers, not so much about Gallardo (Though you've
gotta love a guy named "Yo"!). When you can look at a pitcher
holistically, you have a much better chance of accurately assessing his
performance potential and his risk potential.
One of the organization's most promising young hurlers, Mike
Jones, has suffered through a number of serious injuries during his
tenure as a Brewer. You described his latest, a SLAP lesion of the
labrum in his pitching shoulder, as "baseball's most fearsome injury"
8 and one from which "only a small
percentage of players ... are able to successfully return. 9 Does Jones have a chance to be one of
those in that small percentage?
I hope so. Jones has some great stuff. We're learning more about
labrum injuries and even seeing some returns (and odd side effects of
those returns.) I think Jones has a great chance because of the
organization, just how good he was (at 80% of his former self, he could
still have value), and because Jim Rooney and his minor league staff
really understand what's going on. It's going to be difficult and I
can't give any sort of percentage of his chance of return, but I will
say Jones has hope. Just a couple years ago, he'd need to be thinking
about a new career.
A sincere "thank you" to Will Carroll for sharing his time and
expertise with the Brewerfan.net community!
Bill Batterman is a writer for Brewerfan.net. You can get in touch with
him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.