Sports Illustrated columnist Tom Verducci makes a list every year of the young MLB pitchers who he believes are vulnerable to a drop in performance and/or an injury due to what he calls “the year after effect” — the rest of the world has, in turn, termed it “the Verducci Effect.”
How could those pitchers have avoided being on that list?
Originally, the “Year-after Effect” or “Verducci Effect” surmised that a pitcher who is under 25 years old and who had an increase in his workload of 30 innings or more in the previous season is at greater risk for injury or for a steep decline in performance.
Here is an exact quote from Verducci in 2007 (link is dead; it was published before Sports Illustrated digitally extracted itself from CNN.com):
Get ready for the down side to all that young pitching success. It’s called the 2007 season. More specifically, it’s the Year-After Effect, the price teams almost always pay for pushing their young pitchers too far. And we could be due for a huge crash next season. I’ve been tracking the YAE for about a decade now. It’s based on a general rule of thumb among executives and pitching coaches: young pitchers should not have their innings workload increased by more than 25 or 30 innings per year …
When I’ve looked at major league pitchers 25-and-younger who were pushed 30 or more innings beyond their previous season (or, in cases such as injury-shortened years, their previous pro high), I’ve been amazed how often those pitchers broke down with a serious injury the next season or took a major step backward in their development.
… The bottom line: a dramatic increase in innings on a young pitcher elevates the risk of injury or a setback to their development.
More recently, Verducci has amended the “30 innings” qualifier to “an innings increase of 30 percent or more.”
We can go on and on about the merits and demerits of Verducci’s theory — it’s been panned and dismembered on Deadspin, HardballTimes, BaseballProspectus, and many other places. What’s interesting about the naysayers, however, is that most of them challenge Verducci’s numbers with statistics of their own. Hence, EVERYONE is missing the forest for the trees, because instead of treating pitchers the way a life insurance agent would, you need to first consider an individual pitcher’s mechanics, and second, you need to look at his rest and recovery patterns, because those are the two top reasons pitchers suffer arm injuries.
But just for a moment, let’s pretend that all pitchers are created equal, all pitching mechanics have the exact same stress on arms, and every pitcher follows exactly the same recovery schedules. With that in mind, let’s tackle the numbers behind the original Verducci Effect: an increase of 30 innings over the previous season.
Assuming that increasing a young pitcher’s workload by 30 innings is recipe for disaster the following season, there IS a way to eliminate that 30-inning increase WITHOUT limiting his innings.
Yes, it’s possible, and we don’t even need help from The Amazing Kreskin.
It’s simple math, and it has to do with WHAT THE PITCHER DOES BETWEEN STARTS.
After every start, MLB pitchers routinely take one day off, then on the second day they do a 25-30 pitch bullpen (this is BAD, by the way, because if the pitcher has thrown 76 or more pitches, he needs FOUR days of rest — and that means four days away from the mound, not throwing). Most pitchers then do another bullpen on the third day after a start (again, bad), they stay off the mound the fourth day, and then pitch again on day five.
Now, let’s do the math.
We will assume an average inning is about 15 pitches.
Increase of 30 innings x 15 pitches = 450 pitches. OK so far?
Now, let’s eliminate that first bullpen session on day two. It is dangerously affecting the recovery process anyway, by preventing tissue rebuild.
In a perfect MLB season, pitchers would make 32 starts. Let’s cut that down to 25, because that’s closer to the average number of starts.
24 post-game bullpen sessions x 30 pitches = 720 pitches removed from the pitcher’s workload.
720 pitches divided by 15 pitches per inning equals 48 innings.
Hey! Not only did we eliminate that supposedly dangerous 30-inning increase, we gave the pitcher an extra 18 innings of headroom!
So whether you believe in the Verducci Effect or any other theory suggesting that a pitcher “has only so many bullets,” and you want to minimize his workload, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to take game innings away — just take away ONE BULLPEN SESSION PER WEEK and you’ve just found almost 50 more innings the pitcher can throw in a game. Easy peasy.
Now, you’re probably saying, “but a bullpen session isn’t as intense as an inning in a game, so it doesn’t count.”
According to research using a radar gun, when a pitcher is asked to throw at “half speed” or “50%” they actually throw 85%. When they’re asked to throw “three-quarters speed” or “75%” they actually throw 90% of their full intensity. Why? Because if they threw less than that, they’d have to change their mechanics, which would create a different skill — and by the way, it would be a complete waste of time. So when a pitcher does a “soft side” bullpen session at “about half speed” he’s really throwing at 85% intensity. The stress on the arm throwing at 85% intensity vs. 95-100% intensity is negligible.
For more explanation on how these numbers work, and why pitchers actually throw 80% when they’re asked to throw at 50%, listen to The Fix podcast below – Season 3, Episode 1.