Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Intellectualism, Sabermetrics and Stephen Strasburg's Innings-Limit

The debate over whether the Washington Nationals should "shut down" young phenom Stephen Strasburg has been raging since early this season, when it became apparent that the Nationals might be good enough to challenge for a playoff spot.

Strasburg, as even casual fans are aware, is only two years removed from undergoing a procedure known as "Tommy John" surgery.  The plan, as it was stated in the preseason, was for the Nationals organization to "take it easy" with Strasburg, and limit him to approximately 160 innings this season.  However, with the Nationals contending and on their way to the playoffs, to shut down Strasburg at a set innings-limit will deprive the Nationals of a young man who is, ostensibly, one of the three or four best pitchers in the National League and who stands to be the very real difference between the Nationals winning or losing a short playoff series.

It is easy to see how proponents for both sides -- limit Strasburg or let him pitch -- have arguments that are easy to defend.

But as the saying goes, common sense is not so common, and apparently the merits of both sides are not apparent to all.  Today, a writer for MLB.com weighed in on the debate, publishing an article called "Rizzo Right to Side With Doctors in Strasburg Debate" and effectively said that anyone opposed to the innings limit was ignorant.
The Nationals had a plan for Stephen Strasburg long before this season began.  They are sticking with that plan come heck or high seeding.
* * *
Colleague Matthew Leach says give the kid the ball and see how far he takes you. I say proceed with the plan.
* * *
Really, one opinion boils down to machismo, the other to medicine. Because while those in favor of extending Strasburg's season are siding with their inner competitor, the Nats are siding with medical evidence and intellect.
I don't even know where to begin on this.  Not only does Anthony Castrovince create a false dichotomy -- that he must be limited to his innings cap or not; or that he dismissed the opinions of those who disagree with him as the result of "machismo" alone; or that he cites to a faux medical study that has been debunked a dozen times; but the worst of these, in my opinion, is that he deigns to speak for an entire class of fan.

Over the last decade, the sabermetric, analytical, statistically-inclined fan has earned a seat at the table when it comes to discussion of the game.  Although there is still a long way to go, baseball has undergone a revolution whereby teams, front-offices, writers, and the players themselves have opened themselves up to a more advanced statistical analysis of the game.  It hasn't been a straight line from Usenet to OBP to Baseball Think Factory to VORP to Moneyball to WAR, but as with any revolution in thinking, there are fits and starts.

Unfortunately, however, there are always those who either claim to be part of something that they are not, who co-opt a way of thinking for their own purposes, or just understand it.  The article above appears to be a good example of this.

In his article, the MLB.com author cites to the Verducci Effect as the reason that Strasburg should be shut down for the year at a set innings cap.  Those unfamiliar with the Verducci Effect cannot be blamed for thinking that the Effect is part of some thoughtful, advanced statistical analysis, developed by some egg-head sabermetrician in his mother's basement.  However, the Verducci Effect is nothing of the sort.

As the author states, the Verducci Effect originates in a yearly colum where Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci "points out the risk in 25-and-younger pitchers whose innings increased by 30 or more from one year to the next (or, for those coming off injuries or a change in roles, the previous innings high, regardless of when it occurred)."

However, the Verducci Effect -- despite how uncontroversial and common-sensical it seems -- has been thoroughly debunked.  The Hardball Times did a study and discovered that "pitchers who see a large increase in workload are more likely to continue to be successful than those who don’t."  Deadspin did a great job consolidating other research studies and agreed that "every study" they could find "suggests that [the Verducci Effect] at best doesn't exist and at worst is backwards."

However, none of this appears to prevent the author of the MLB.com article from saying that the decision to shut down Strasburg is the result of "medical evidence and intellect", or that "Rizzo's expert-aided instinct" came from "the reams of research [Rizzo] has read."

Ordinarily I'd let an article like this go by without comment, but 1) it is on MLB.com, not some random garbage blog on the fringe of the internet, and 2) the tone of the article is sanctimonious and anti-anti-intellectual.  Rather than stick with his "gut" or "instinct", the writer gets on a high horse and derisively dismisses anyone who would disagree with him on the basis of "medical evidence" that does not exist.

Ultimately, nobody knows what will happen with Strasburg whether he gets shut down or not.  He was babied in the minors and required Tommy John surgery regardless.  He may get hurt again if he's shut down tomorrow, or he might pitch 200 innings this year and never miss a day to injury because of it.  Stephen Strasburg isn't Kerry Wood -- he's Stephen Strasburg, and trying to project exactly what will happen if he passes an inning threshold (arm explodes at 180.1 innings!) is a fool's errand.

It is incumbent upon MLB.com to do a better job with its content, and it is incumbent on the sabermetric community to make sure that, as sabermetric ideas become more mainstream, that the meaning of those ideas are not co-opted or twisted or misused by those who do not understand.

Brian Mangan is an attorney who lives in New York City and owns Stephen Strasburg in his keeper league and really, really does not want him to get hurt.  However, as a Mets fan, he believes it to be inevitable.

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