WBC warning: Starting pitchers could be in for a rough season
The second World Baseball Classic was a success in a variety of ways, but the most relevant, as we prepare for the arrival of the 2009 major league season, was that there were no major injuries in the tournament this year ... to major leaguers, that is. Fans of the Japanese Central League's Yokohama BayStars and third baseman
Given the amount of hand-wringing that went on during the WBC concerning the potential for players to get hurt -- thereby harming the prospects of their major league teams for the coming season -- let's take a look at how the big league participants from the inaugural tournament faired during the 2006 season to see if we can detect any trends regarding injury or performance that we should look out for with this year's returning combatants.
In order to eliminate part-time and emergent players, whose playing time and performance levels tend to vary significantly, let's look only at the hitters who were established major league starters in 2005. Using 400 plate appearances as a cutoff, there were 51 hitters who participated in the 2006 WBC that we could consider established major league starters heading into the tournament. Among those 51 were three who suffered injuries during the 2006 season that resulted from freak accidents rather than stress or strain:
If we remove those three, we find that the remaining 48 players averaged 580 PA in 2005 and 562 PA in 2006, a marginal difference. The median change in plate appearances among those 48 players was minus-3. Of those 48, only 34-year-old catcher
As for the quality of their performances, using
On the mound it was a different story. Given the inherent variability of reliever performance, we focused our analysis on starting pitchers. Using a cutoff of 140 innings pitched in 2005 to identify established starters, we get a group of 21 pitchers, from which we can immediately discard
Each of those five pitchers had a different story. Chen wasn't hurt, he was just terrible, losing his spot in the Orioles' rotation by the end of May (but he had made just 15 major league starts over the three previous seasons, so it's likely that his 2005 season was the outlier). The Angels' Colon, meanwhile, had a shoulder problem going
That leaves Loaiza (trapezius), Chacin (elbow) and Zambrano (bone chips, flexor tendon and
Focusing now on that group of 14, we can look for a performance trend using
As a group, our 14 "healthy" starting pitchers were worth 59.1 wins in 2005 according to SNLVAR, but just 52.4 wins in '06. That's an 11 percent decline in effectiveness, and nine of the 14 pitchers -- nearly two-thirds of the group -- saw some decline in SNLVAR, regardless of whether or not they started more or fewer games in '06. The five pitchers who improved were, in order: emerging young arms
Pitching performance is naturally more volatile than hitting performance, causation is hard to prove and the above trends are hardly overwhelming, but the lack of meaningful positive variation among starting pitchers who participated in the inaugural WBC is troubling for teams that are greeting returning starting pitchers from this year's tournament. If we throw Chen and Colon back in the mix, nine of our original group of 19 starters saw significant decline in playing time or performance following the 2006 WBC, and 16 of 19 saw
This all makes sense: It's often said that spring training is really for starting pitchers; hitters only need a couple of weeks to get ready, as do relievers, but starters need to build up slowly over the course of a month or more, expanding their pitch counts and gradually working in their secondary pitches. The World Baseball Classic interrupts that process.