With more closers breaking down, it's time to rethink modern bullpen
The casualties keep mounting. Brian Wilson: done and headed for his second Tommy John surgery. Joakim Soria: done after his second Tommy John surgery. Ryan Madson: done after his first Tommy John surgery. The list of closers on the disabled list also includes Andrew Bailey, Kyle Farnsworth and Drew Storen.
No one wants to admit it, but the modern bullpen is a failure and the modern conventional wisdom of training pitchers is a failure. The modern specialized bullpen does no better job protecting leads than the pitching usage that preceded it. And though closers, like pitchers of all types, work less often, they break down more often. What industry would accept these failure rates -- the way baseball does?
• Sixty-six percent of 2011 Opening Day closers (20 of 30) are no longer closing for the same team 12 months later, with seven of them hurt.
• Fifty percent of all starting pitchers will go on the DL every year, as well as 34 percent of all relievers, according to research by Stan Conte, director of medical services for the Los Angeles Dodgers. That bears repeating: half of all starting pitchers will break down this year. ("When I did the research," Conte said, "I was so surprised I figured I must have done the math wrong.")
• Injuries last year cost clubs $487 million -- or about $16 million per team. The bill since 2008 for players who can't play is $1.9 billion.
Yet baseball keeps doing things the same way. It is addicted to the "theater" of having a specialized closer and the "theory" that an arm has only so many pitches in it -- and that everybody's arm will be treated exactly the same way. And when the casualties keep piling up, baseball keeps going about it the same way. The sport is so flush with money even wasting half a billion dollars a year doesn't set off any alarms.
The incidence of injuries went down slightly in one brief period: the back end of the steroid era, when sophisticated, cutting-edge use of illegal performance-enhancers -- not the industrial-strength, gym-rat regimens of the early adopters -- were keeping people on the field and aiding in recovery. But since 2007 -- right after amphetamines joined steroids on the banned list -- the rate of injuries has not improved despite the advances in science, nutrition and training. Walk into any major league clubhouse before a game and you will see all kinds of strength trainers, masseuses, massage therapists, doctors, whirlpools, hydrotherapy pools, hot tubs, cold tubs, weight rooms, gyms ... and injured pitchers.
"That means this method is not working," Conte said. "Injuries have not gone down. With all due respect to the medical professionals, and they're great, we're not putting a dent in it."
Conte is finishing a research paper on pitchers who undergo a second Tommy John surgery, a topical issue because of the injuries to Wilson and Soria as well as an epidemic of elbow injuries this year. Sixty-six pitchers began this year on the DL, about the same as last year (68). But 53 percent of the injured pitchers this year suffered an elbow injury, a jump from 23 percent. (Conversely, the percentage of injured shoulders went down. "I'm not sure what it means," Conte said.)
Conte's research on Tommy John surgery shows that 85 to 90 percent of patients return to pitching. For repeat Tommy John patients, the news is not so good. Seven of 10 relievers who underwent a second Tommy John operation made it back while only one out of seven starters returned. The data is only now coming in.
Wilson and Soria are part of a new generation of Tommy John patients. Each underwent their first procedure in 2003, with their reconstructed elbows holding up for about eight years. Wilson was 21 and Soria was 19. Tommy John patients are getting younger and younger, and so we're just now finding out in helpful numbers how the elbow holds up through a full run of professional baseball.
Wilson's injury was not a surprise given his history, usage and pitching style. The Giants rode him hard to a world championship in 2010. He made 80 appearances, including the postseason, and was asked 19 times to get more than three outs. He racked up 54 saves and 85 1/3 innings. The next season he wasn't the same, and the red flag to people like Conte was that he was shut down at the end of the season with elbow pain for purposes of "rest."
Another red flag: Wilson wasn't throwing as hard. The guy who threw 97 in 2009 was down to 94 last year. A loss in peak velocity -- a loss of three or four miles per hour is very significant -- is a dead giveaway that something is wrong.
But was Wilson really worked that hard in 2010? It depends on your perspective. For a modern closer, and for the way Wilson was trained, yes. Wilson never worked more than 68 games before or since. The Giants pushed the usual conveniences of the modern closer because they played so many close games and because they had a chance to win the franchise's first championship since it relocated to San Francisco.
But when you look at how closers were handled 20 or 30 years ago, no, Wilson was not overused. What seems to make no sense is that closers are asked to pitch less but they break down more often. Here's an example: compare four-year runs at ages 26-29 for two famously bearded closers: Wilson and Jeff Reardon of the Montreal Expos:
Look at the major difference in innings. Reardon pitched until he was 38. He ranks seventh all time in saves and games finished.
Closers such as Reardon pitched multiple innings often (and were not "saved" for save situations only), so asking them to get four outs did not become the heavy lifting it is viewed as today. They had to pitch, not just throw as hard as they can with maximum-effort mechanics in very small, well-defined windows. Take a look at this to get an understanding of how the job has changed: by decade, it's the number of times a pitcher saved 25 games while throwing at least 81 regular season innings:
The role is devolving, not evolving. The past two seasons mark the first time since the save statistic became official in 1969 that nobody saved 25 games with 81 innings in back-to-back full seasons. Bailey, with the 2009 Athletics, is the only closer to do so in the past four years.
Managers are motivated by the save statistic, throwing three-out save chances to their closer like bones to a dog. The game universally has embraced this idea that a closer can't come in to a tie game on the road -- better to lose the game with a lesser pitcher than run your closer out there without a save in hand.
What makes this groupthink so crazy is that the system isn't working. Closers are breaking down or losing effectiveness faster than you can say Joel Zumaya. (Quick, look around baseball: show me the high velocity, high energy closer with the obligatory, goofy closer-hair starter kit who has a long career. The job has a bit of planned obsolescence to it.)
Clubs can find closers; it's keeping them in the job that is the tough part. Over the previous five seasons, 53 closers saved 25 games at least once. Thirty-three of them, or 62 percent, no longer are closing. Only five pitchers saved 25 games three times in the past five years and are still closing: Jose Valverde, Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon, Heath Bell and Joe Nathan (with the latter two off to shaky starts). Mostly, closers just come and go, or they break down and virtually disappear (Zumaya, B.J. Ryan, David Aardsma, Brandon Lyon, Kerry Wood, Bobby Jenks, etc.).
The truth is we know little about why and how pitchers break down, other than that overuse and poor mechanics are two known risk factors. That may be changing as information becomes more available. For instance, Pitch F/X, which has been around in full force for about four years, can allow the study of the impact of velocity and pitch type on injuries.
"We're heading into a new era," Conte said. "It's one of the offshoots of the sabermetric movement. We can look at data and make determinations. In the past, we didn't have similar data to compare different eras. The radar guns, for instance, tended to vary by three or four miles per hour."
The pitchers who throw especially hard or have one special wipeout pitch are the ones who are judged to have "closer's stuff." And so they are sent to the bullpen, essentially told to come up with facial hair and theme music, make WWE-style appearances and throw as hard as they can and only with the game on the line. Does that sound like a job with staying power?
In general, closers are inefficient investments. It's not just that they break down; Wilson, Soria, Madson, Bailey and Farnsworth will earn $30.2 million combined this year, whether they pitch or not. It's that paying a guy $12.5 million to throw 60 innings -- but, good Lord, not when the game is tied on the road and only when about half the plate appearances against him are truly high leverage -- is a waste of a great arm.
Is anybody watching the Tampa Bay Rays? They don't have the money to waste nor do they waste a valuable young starter in a closing role. The team with the fourth best record in baseball since 2008 has done just fine with five different pitchers leading the team in saves over those five years: Troy Percival, J.P. Howell, Rafael Soriano, Farnsworth and Fernando Rodney. Total cost: $15.8 million. And all of them, to varying degrees, have broken down.
Imagine if every team in the NFL used the same 3-4 defense. That's essentially what is happening in baseball. Everybody runs their bullpen and their pitch count policies the same way. Everybody. Justin Verlander on Monday night became the first pitcher to throw 120 pitches, hitting 133 and causing manager Jim Leyland to crack on the mound that he was going to get him fired.
And yet the universally accepted system is a failure when it comes to reducing the rate of injuries. What can change it? A maverick organization. (The Rangers and Giants are loosening pitch count restrictions in the minors, but the evidence is not yet very apparent in the majors.) A maverick manager. (Why won't somebody use a closer -- say Sean Marshall or Aroldis Chapman in Cincinnati -- in the manner of a 1980s closer such as Jeff Reardon? And my personal idea: give each starting pitcher a 10-day vacation during the season. Recovery, both mental and physical, is an undervalued asset.) Stem cell treatments. (Baseball better be bracing for a whole new series of ethical questions as science blurs the line between performance enhancing and performance enabling.)
Who knows what the future holds? Not even Tony LaRussa, the father of the modern bullpen, likely could have envisioned a pitcher limited to about 60 innings being worth more than $12 million while representing a breakdown waiting to happen. But this much is certain: the injury rate will not be reduced if teams continue to treat pitchers the same way they do now.