The Yankees Saved Hughes For His Next Team

If the innings limits and protective strategies had worked at least once, I’d say there’s a basis for having them, but this applies to Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain, Stephen Strasburg and any other pitcher who’s been held back in the interests of clubs “protecting” their investment: THEY DON’T WORK!!!!

The Yankees placed these rules on all their young pitchers they drafted highly and valued to keep them healthy. Neither Hughes nor Chamberlain stayed healthy and they haven’t been particularly effective either. So what was the point? The false, weak argument will say, “Well, we had no idea about that then; we were following doctors’ advice; we studied the numbers and history; we’d do it again.”

Isn’t the point of drafting and developing pitchers to have them pitch and pitch well for the team that drafted them? Hughes is going to be 27 in June and has a solid won/lost record for his career of 52-36. The record is a byproduct of having pitched for the Yankees for his entire career in an era when they won over 90 games on an annual basis and were loaded with offense and a deep bullpen that doesn’t blow leads. His peripheral numbers are mediocre and the same logic that qualified Ivan Nova’s 16-4 record in 2011 as not entirely accurate also applies to Hughes with the main difference being that the Yankees didn’t use the same strategies on Nova and didn’t think much of Nova, yet he’s been just as good as a pitcher they did tie up, Hughes.

That’s bad for the perception, so it’s ignored.

Yesterday Hughes was diagnosed with another injury, a bulging disk in his neck, said to have occurred during infield practice. It’s not the Yankees’ fault, but it’s an example of the fragility of athletes in general and pitchers in particular when they’re performing the occasionally dangerous and stressful activity of baseball.

What have they gotten with all the developmental rules? With the numbers that they, hopefully, didn’t extrapolate from Tom Verducci? With the constant shifting of roles, shutdowns, break periods, and pitch counts?

Nothing.

This is not to pick on the Yankees. Many teams are doing the same things with similar results, but Hughes’s latest injury makes him a worthy example. Hughes has been a mediocre pitcher who could have been a star had they just left him alone. Like Kennedy, Hughes will have to develop elsewhere and be allowed to pitch the 200 innings that, after six years in the big leagues, he’s yet to do. He’s a free agent at the end of the season and there will be a team that looks at Hughes and says, “We’ll sign him and let him pitch,” and will be rewarded with, at least, more than the Yankees have gotten from him.

Teams are paranoid and afraid to do something different from the current orthodoxy and self-proclaimed experts sitting behind computers, crunching numbers and waiting for an opportunity to critique. The Giants, with an old-school GM Brian Sabean, have built one of the best pitching staffs in baseball—one that’s brought them two World Series titles in three years—and they did it by drafting two high school pitchers (Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain) and one pitcher who was too small and had such a unique motion and training regimen that teams didn’t want to touch him (Tim Lincecum). What do the Yankees have? Two failed would-be stars and another top prospect who almost won the Cy Young Award for the Diamondbacks two years ago.

The Moneyball concept of not drafting high school pitchers because of the “risk” has thankfully been tossed overboard. The Verducci Effect is in the process of being phased out. (For the record, if my GM said he was using the arbitrary research of a sportswriter to develop and dictate how he used his pitchers, I’d fire him.) Teams are looking at the reality and realizing that maybe young pitchers might be better-served to be allowed to throw innings and incorporate other factors rather than the numbers handed to them by Ivy League graduates armed with an algorithm. Isn’t this is why there are pitching coaches, managers and scouts: to determine a pitcher’s tics, movements and mechanics to decide when he’s tired; when he’s at risk for injury; how he should be deployed?

Pitchers are fragile, but instead of using that fragility as a basis to freeze them for a later date, perhaps the opposite would be a better strategy: let them pitch while they can pitch and move on when they can’t. A team deciding to do that will certainly get better results than the Yankees have with Hughes, who is probably counting the days until he can get out of the Yankees constraints and go to a club that will let him enjoy his prime years as something other than a what might have been. Currently, he’s a failed experiment in building a young pitcher and a case study of those poor decisions creating a pitcher who can be found on the market cheaply to be used and discarded.

Hughes keeps getting hurt; he’s the Yankees’ fourth starter; he’s leaving at the end of the season because the Yankees won’t want him back at the money he’ll ask for and the pitcher would probably like to get a fresh start. With all of these facts, tell me, what was the point of the rules they used as a garrote to strangle his future?

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  1. #1 by Andee on February 22, 2013 - 12:41 am

    Is not drafting HS pitchers a Moneyball concept? Or did GMs like Beane (10-12 years ago) prefer college arms because they were ostensibly more developed and would save them development time in the minors? Because the Mets have gone very heavy on HS arms since Alderson took over, and Paul DePodesta (presumably a big influence on the team’s draft philosophy) was the guy who came up with the very idea of “market inefficiencies.”

    One of the problems they found with some college pitchers is that they were already arm abused by the time they were drafted (e.g. Paul Wilson), so just because a guy has a great record in college doesn’t mean that he isn’t just as risky as a prep kid who has logged fewer innings; in fact, depending on how he was used, he might be more so. Arm abuse probably also truncated the career of Dwight Gooden, and in fact, exacerbated whatever substance abuse problems he developed to help deal with the pain.

    So really, I have no problem with that whole pitch-their-arms-off-young concept being given a major overhaul. Besides, it seems to me that Hughes’ injury is not something that’s going to sandbag his career in a big way, and given where the injury occurred, his workout routine probably has more to do with it than his pitch counts if there’s an exogenous cause at all.

    I just compared Jason Isringhausen’s 1995 stats with Matt Harvey’s 2012, since they debuted at the same age and with equal auspiciousness, and found that Izzy pitched something like 60 or 65 more innings that year than Harvey did last year, and faced something like 200 more batters. And of course, Izzy broke down in 1996 and was never really the same after that. Izzy, along with Pulsipher and Wilson, are probably the poster children for avoiding arm abuse.

    • #2 by admin on February 22, 2013 - 1:40 am

      You have to separate what the clubs actually did with how Michael Lewis portrayed it for his own ends. He made it seem like the mere idea of drafting a HS pitcher automatically made the GM doing it a moron.
      These pitch counts and rules and regulations are supposed to protect the GMs and the teams more than it actually protects the pitchers. Now that the public is able to pay such close attention to how pitchers are used, the front offices are scared to death of being criticized, so they’re erring on the side of extreme caution even if it means they won’t get anything out of the pitchers as the Yankees haven’t with several of their “young studs.”
      I wouldn’t go so far as to blame Gooden’s injuries on his drug use. He was using when he was in high school by his own account. Pulsipher’s mechanics were dreadful; Isringhausen was a flake with a stressful motion of his own; Wilson was probably overused from college onward.
      Kids are kids. They don’t think about numbers of pitches or staying healthy. How many of them are messing around on softball fields or showing off and hurt themselves that way? it’s all the more reason to use them while they’re under team control, let them pitch and if it looks like they’ll get hurt, let them leave. The point of the Hughes posting didn’t have as much to do with him as it is an example of why these rules are a logical fallacy.

  2. #3 by Andee on February 22, 2013 - 3:34 am

    I do like Wheeler’s and Harvey’s mechanics, from what I’ve seen of them. Pulse and Izzy were notorious for their weird deliveries, yes. (Pulse once said that he and Izzy did a lot of stupid things with their arms, too, like playing catch with hard knuckleballs in the outfield, which they did despite veterans like Franco and Saberhagen warning them not to. Harvey and Wheeler seem more savvy than that.)

    But don’t a lot of pitchers, even successful ones, have problems with “violent” deliveries? Lincecum looks like a shotput made out of Legos out there, and he did have a pretty significant drop in velocity last year (and his walks went up too), which probably led him to get hit much harder. But was that even correctable, given how deeply ingrained his habits were? I’m sure most teams try to correct a pitcher’s “violent” delivery, but they can only do so much tinkering without messing up other things.

    As for Moneyball, yes, the thinking among the SABR set at the time was to stay away from high school pitchers. But that was then, this is now. Market inefficiencies, by definition, have to change over time, because other teams will catch on to them and then they won’t be inefficiencies any more. (Even Billy Beane’s first-rounders from last year — he had three — were all HS players.)

    • #4 by admin on February 22, 2013 - 4:00 pm

      Lincecum’s mechanics were out of whack, his location was off and he looked like he lost some weight which he, more than most pitchers, can’t afford to do.
      I used to study pitchers’ mechanics and try to determine whether they’d get hurt or not, but unless there’s a significant sign of stress, it’s turned into a war of attrition. They almost all get hurt. Steve Karsay had among the most perfect mechanics I’ve ever seen in my life and was constantly on the disabled list. I truly believe teams and pitchers should eschew the training regimens and research and look back at what the Tom Seavers, Steve Carltons and Nolan Ryans did and copy that. They threw 280-320 innings a year and never got hurt.
      With mechanics, my concern is messing with them too much to destroy what it is that might make a pitcher effective in the first place. Kevin Brown for example could have had some issues with his motion changed, but if they did that, what would’ve happened to that natural sinker that was like hitting a bowling ball?
      With Moneyball, it’s wise to look at it as creative non-fiction because that’s what it is.

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