Charging the Mound: Downward slider

Chris Liss and Jeff Erickson

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Tuesday, May 8, 2012 6:51pm
To: "Christopher Liss"
Subject: Charging

Carlos Marmol finally lost his closer's job last week after a horrific outing against the Reds, where he failed to retire a batter when holding a 3-0 lead. He gave up three walks, a hit and suffered an error by third baseman Ian Stewart in the process. But it wasn't just the result that brought him down, it was how it happened. His reliance on the slider over the last two years has been noticed before, but it was really laid out in this outing, which included him throwing six sliders in a row to Ryan Ludwick, eventually culminating in a bases-loaded walk. Manager Dale Sveum railed on Marmol for his reliance on the slider after the game:

"You've got to throw strikes and you have to throw strikes with your fastball," Sveum said of Marmol. "It's the same story again. Throwing 3-0 sliders when you have three-run leads is just not acceptable. We have to somehow make an adjustment there. We've got to throw fastballs in these situations."

We've talked about Marmol's declining fastball velocity before, and how he's used it less and less (though in 2012 he's actually it more often - though that sample includes outings after he's been removed from the closer's role). What I want to know is does his experience inform us about other pitchers? Should we be wary of others that use a slider extensively? I feel as if I don't use Pitch F/X data enough in my offseason planning or when evaluating players in trades during the season. What more data can we mine for our uses?

If we are worried about sliders specifically, I think that there's some other concerns. It was reported in the first few outings that Tim Lincecum completely eschewed his slider, even though opposing hitters and some pitch-tracking services thought otherwise. How reliable is that data?

What's the metric that we should be looking for? Slider percentage? Decrease in fastball usage? Decline in fastball velocity? What sort of sample size in-season is useful for this exercise? Should we look at the first handful of outings from a pitcher with the appropriate grain of salt, merely because they are the first full outings of the year?

It's anecdotal evidence to start down this path with Marmol, but there are others, too. Last year Michael Pineda threw the second highest percentage of sliders in the American League, at 31.5 percent (source: The 2012 Bill James Handbook). Here are the top-five starters for each league, and the percentage of sliders that they threw - do any of them worry you?

American League

Ervin Santana 38.3
Michael Pineda 31.5
Alexi Ogando 27.7
Colby Lewis 26.8
Brandon Morrow 26.6

National League

Bud Norris 36.2
Madison Bumgarner 32.4
Ryan Dempster 31.1
Livan Hernandez 26.4
Chris Carpenter 26.0

Carpenter is already out, so I'll add one more:

Clayton Kershaw 25.5

One size doesn't fit all - some deliveries are better equipped to throw that pitch than others, I'm sure. That said, I'm not sure what to look for in those deliveries or body types. Do you have any insight on this?

-----Original Message-----
From: "Christopher Liss"
Sent: Wednesday, May 9, 2012 1:16am
Subject: Re: Charging

I don't know where to draw the line specifically, but I wouldn't be surprised if Marmol went under the knife within a few months. He's logged a heavy reliever workload for five seasons running, he's got terrible command, he's relied heavily on the slider and he's lost velocity. He seemed to jump out. Randy Johnson threw a lot of sliders and logged a ton of innings at an all-time great level for years. So I don't know if you can isolate that variable and make any sweeping assessments. But couple it with reduced fastball velocity, loss of command, loss of effectiveness, and you have to wonder.

Lincecum and Kershaw are the most interesting because of how devastating it would be for either of them to go down. Over the past two years, not a lot of the top pitchers have missed time to injuries. Josh Johnson, Tommy Hanson maybe, and Stephen Strasburg before he'd hardly gotten his feet wet, but most of them - Lincecum, Kershaw, Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia, Felix Hernandez, Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, David Price, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, Roy Halladay, Matt Cain, Jon Lester, etc. - have avoided arm injuries of late.

This is almost unprecedented as pitching had been so unreliable in years past that you had to discount it for the possibility of injuries. So it almost seemed like we were in a new era where elite starters were as bankable as hitters. And now Lincecum's off to a slow start and scrapped his slider, with poor results, and his fastball velocity's way down. I think you have to discount him from his draft day price by about 15 percent. If someone wants to sell him lower than that I'll buy. If someone wants to buy him at 95 cents on the dollar, I'll sell. I don't know if he'll right the ship.

As for analyzing body types or mechanics, I think that's largely a fool's errand. Mark Prior supposedly had perfect mechanics, while Pedro Martinez was such an injury risk the Dodgers dealt him for Delino DeShields. I did have a theory about larger pitchers holding up better - CC Sabathia, Carlos Zambrano and Felix Hernandez, to name a few, all survived heavy work loads at young ages. But then Pineda is out for the year, and Zambrano is a shell of his former self, his last start notwithstanding.

As with most things, I think the variables have to be taken in combination. Marmol's struck me as problematic before the season but with the other players on your list, I don't have a lot to go on. I actually thought Verlander would break down after throwing so many pitches in 2009, but he's only gotten better since. Do you have any explanation as to why elite pitchers seem to be getting seriously hurt so much less often? Have teams gotten better at limiting pitch counts, spotting when a player is laboring or altered their training regimens for the better? Do you buy this as a permanent develop or see it as a fluke?

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Wednesday, May 9, 2012 12:47pm
To: "Christopher Liss"
Subject: Re: Charging

I agree with you - there's no one-size fits all indicator here. I'm just hoping to find another tool to add to the others that we already have, just as there's usually no single perfect predictive stat. The loss of velocity coupled with Marmol's reliance on the slider though stood out, for sure.

You're right about the lack of elite starting pitchers going down, but on the flip side, we've seemingly had more reliever injuries lately than usual - though I should bring in someone who has actually quantified the number of closers that have gone down. But is it possible that while major league baseball has done a better job of protecting their starting pitchers, be it through pitch counts, monitoring the stress in workloads, better throwing programs between starts and better awareness when there's a minor injury, that they haven't done the same with relief pitchers? Maybe there's still a learning curve in that respect, or is it just a case of luck in both respects? I think that there is some skill with maintaining these starting pitchers, or maybe it's what I want to believe. We're in an era of lower offensive output than the previous five-to-10 years. Maybe there's less stress on each average pitch, because there's less of a chance that it's going out of the park? I hesitate to suggest that the assumed decline in PED use is responsible, if for no other reason that pitchers were using it just as often as hitters before the testing and penalties got ramped up. Moreover, those using HGH were typically using it to recover from injuries - and that would affect these pitchers equally, too.

Also, we've seen a greater amount of emphasis placed on defense by teams - both in terms of the personnel they employ, and how they employ it. One of the big narratives this year is the greater use of shifts. If it's true that they're doing a lot to depress runs scored, then it is also true that it's less important for pitchers to rely on strikeouts. And if pitchers need to rely less on strikeouts, then they become less reliant on max effort or on using pitches that hurt their arm more.

I don't think this is necessarily permanent. I think run-scoring trends go in waves, for many different reasons, be it PEDs, expansion, different ballpark trends, or even how tight the ball is wound. So if the run-scoring is tied to pitcher health, and I know that's just one possible reason, then certainly the starting pitcher health could fluctuate accordingly.

We've seen so many closers go down this year, by injury or by performance - perhaps more at this early point in the season than in any other season since I started playing fantasy baseball 20 years ago. I happen to think it's largely coincidental - these injuries and quick hooks aren't related to each other. I don't see a trend at work - rather just one end of the bell curve, with last year falling on the other end of that curve. Agree or disagree?

Finally, on a completely different topic, how much do you think the average Josh Hamilton owner improved in the standings last night? That may not have been the greatest fantasy game by a hitter, but it's in the 99.999th percentile - I guess if he had more at-bats or stole a ton of bases, he could have had a greater impact. Can you recall a game where a hitter had a single more valuable game?

-----Original Message-----
From: "Christopher Liss"
Sent: Wednesday, May 9, 2012 2:06pm
Subject: Re: Charging

Eric Young and Carl Crawford each had six steals in a game, but neither homered, and Young scored only three runs. Kerry Wood helped his owners a bit in 1998 when he struck out 20 in a complete game shutout with only one hit and no walks allowed. But Hamilton's four-homer game is certainly up there. It's annoying because I've bought him in LABR in 2009 and 2011, but not 2010 (when he won AL MVP) and this year. One thing's for certain - when Miguel Cabrera gets pulled over for a DUI before 2011, or Hamilton goes off the wagon this past winter, ignore it. If anything, you'd rather they get it out of their systems before the season so they can focus on baseball once the year starts.

By my count six closers have suffered arm injuries: Joakim Soria, Ryan Madson, Kyle Farnsworth, Drew Storen, Brian Wilson and Sergio Santos. Mariano Rivera tore his ACL shagging fly balls, Huston Street and Andrew Bailey are always hurt and in any case neither has an arm injury (Street hurt his lat, and Bailey hurt his thumb). And I'd argue Wilson was already hurt before the year.

Maybe that's on the high end for a month into the season, but it seems worse because Jordan Walden, Heath Bell, Hector Santiago, Javy Guerra and Marmol have also lost their jobs. But closers losing jobs is a separate issue.

People assume hitter PEDs caused pitchers to strain more and get hurt, but what if pitchers getting off PEDs has actually helped because it stops them from superhuman recovery times which while helpful in the short term leads to more injuries due to overuse. In other words, maybe pitchers who aren't on PEDs tire earlier and start to get shelled, so they get pulled, whereas those on PEDs can throw harder for longer and end up getting hurt. I'd be interested to see the kinds of injuries that pitchers get at what frequency before and after PED testing kicked in.

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