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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 Suichi Murata, who will miss Nippon Professional Baseball's Opening Day due to a hamstring tear suffered in the Round 2 seeding game against Korea, might beg to differ. Though Team USA was riddled with minor aches and pains that forced several players to drop off the roster, Marlins closer Matt Lindstrom is the only player at risk of missing Opening Day. Basically, the 2009 World Baseball Classic didn't hurt major league ballclubs in any way ... or did it?

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: Derrek Lee broke his wrist in a collision at first base; Jorge Cantu broke his foot by fouling a ball off it; and Corey Koskie suffered lingering concussion symptoms following a fall while attempting to catch a pop-up.

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 Jason Varitek (torn meniscus) and the fragile 36-year-old Ken Griffey Jr. (knee, toe) lost more than 75 PA to injury compared to their 2005 totals. Albert Pujols, who always seems to be playing through one injury or another, was the only other player to lose more than 60 PA to the disabled list, shedding 66 PA from his 2005 total due to an oblique strain (a 15-day stay on the DL costs an everyday player roughly 60 PA, assuming an average of four plate appearances per day).

As for the quality of their performances, using Baseball Prospectus' Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) as our baseline offensive statistic, those 48 players totaled 1,620.4 VORP in 2005 and 1,552.5 VORP in '06. That works out to one run above replacement for every 17.55 PA in 2005 and one run above replacement for every 17.73 PA in '06, a one percent difference. The median change was a gain of 0.4 VORP. So it's clear that the WBC had no meaningful impact on the health or performance of established major league hitters in 2006.

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 Al Leiter, who retired following the 2006 WBC, and Roger Clemens, who intentionally waited until the end of June 2006 to return to the majors. The remaining group of 19 averaged more than 195 innings in 2005, but fewer than 163 innings in 2006, a 17 percent reduction, compared to the mere three percent reduction in PA experienced by the hitters. The median change in innings pitched was a decrease of just 13 frames, but five pitchers -- more than a quarter of the group -- saw their innings decrease by 60 or more. Those five were Esteban Loaiza (-62 1/3 IP), Bruce Chen (-98 2/3), Gustavo Chacin (-115 2/3), Victor Zambrano (-145), and Bartolo Colon (-166 1/3). Of those five, all but Zambrano threw 195 or more innings in 2005, and all but Loaiza threw fewer than 100 innings in 2006.

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 into the WBC. His shoulder had given out on him in Game 5 of the ALDS against the Yankees the previous October, when he failed to get an out in the second inning. Colon never actually threw a pitch for the Dominican Republic in the WBC, and though his attempts to participate surely were a detriment to his recovery, his problems cannot be blamed on the WBC alone.

That leaves Loaiza (trapezius), Chacin (elbow) and Zambrano (bone chips, flexor tendon and Tommy John surgery) as the established major league starting pitchers who came down with serious injuries following the 2006 WBC. Loaiza still managed to make 26 starts, though that was eight fewer than the year before. If we take Colon and Chen out of our initial group of 19, we find that the remaining 17 pitchers averaged 173 2/3 innings in 2005 and 154 in '06. That's still a 12.5 percent drop, but most of it is due to the three injured pitchers mentioned above. The other 14 lost an average of just 3 2/3 innings each.

Focusing now on that group of 14, we can look for a performance trend using Baseball Prospectus' win-expectancy-based statistic, SNLVAR. SNLVAR is a cumulative statistic for starting pitchers that uses win-expectancy to determine the effects of a starting pitcher's performance upon his team's chances of winning a given game, adjusting for the strength of the opposing lineup and the starter's run support and comparing the end result to replacement level.

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 Jeff Francis and Erik Bedard; Johan Santana, who was then in his late 20s and the best pitcher in baseball; Orioles project Daniel Cabrera; and journeyman Chan Ho Park. Looking closer at their 2005 and '06 seasons, Cabrera's marginal improvement is difficult to detect in his traditional stats, while Park posted a 5.74 ERA in 2005, giving him a lot of room to improve in '06.

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 some decline in one of those two areas, with only Santana, Bedard and Francis avoiding such a fate.

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.

Consider that Jake Peavy has made just three starts this spring -- one in Padres camp before joining Team USA and just two in the WBC -- while his Padres rotation-mate Cha Seung Baek, who did not pitch for his native Korea, has made six. Peavy has posted an ERA over 3.00 just once in the last five seasons. That came in 2006, when he had a 4.09 mark for the Padres after pitching for the U.S. in the World Baseball Classic.

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