Friday, July 17, 2009

The Joba Theory--Explained and Expanded

Many of you saw the post I wrote last night, in which, with the help of a couple of Mets fans, I arrived at a very, very simple conclusion for the pitching woes of Joba Chamberlain.

Now that I've had a night to sleep on it, I thought I'd go and expand it, mention some caveats and correct some errors on my part, as well as provide you with some raw data--so if you'd like, you can draw your own conclusion.

The "Joba theory", as I'm callling it (feel free to call it whatever you want) centers around one basic premise: the pitching woes of Joba Chamberlain may be at least partly, if not wholly, attributed to the fact that, combining college and minor league performances, Chamberlain has not built up the proper arm strength to be a starter over the long haul.

Reduced endurance/stamina can be a cause of reduced arm strength, which in turns means reduced velocity, more hittable pitches, more pitches thrown and shorter outings.

That's just the physical aspect of it--there's also something to be said for the psychological aspect that without adequate time in the minor leagues, pitchers who experience sudden success at the major league level may not know how to handle the situation when they first begin to struggle. That, would, however, be over-reaching. Only a player and his psychiatrist/psychologist/whomever knows what's really going through his mind.

I am digressing.

Back to the theory at-large.

If I were to make a statement about what the theory is, without using the words "Joba" or "Chamberlain", it would be thus:

While long stints in the minor league do not guarantee a pitcher success, not pitching enough, either in the minors or in a combination of college ball and the minor leagues, can actively work against a pitcher's development.

This is what I wrote last night re: Joba

If you look here, you can see Chamberlain's innings totals for both his time in Nebraska and his time with the Yankees.

What do you notice?

Chamberlain did not even pitch 100 innings in the minor leagues; at Nebraska he did not reach 120 innings.

This season, he's already logged 89 innings--and if we keep the Verducci Effect (the idea that excess increases in innings pitched from year to year substantially increases injury risk) in mind, he probably won't top 130 IP--perhaps 140 if the Yankees are feeling like living on the edge with a pitcher who sustained a can't-be-overlooked shoulder injury last season.

Now, I did leave out the winter ball that Chamberlain pitched in 2006. While that does bump his 2006 innings total over 100 innings, you are still left with Chamberlain having pitched two years of college ball and one year in the minor leagues.

How does that compare with other?

Take a look at the chart I created here (it's in PDF form).

Now, some notes and observations:

  • The pitchers selected are, for the most part, considered either the #1 or #2 pitcher on their team, are no longer rookies (I believe Gallardo is an exception due to last year's injury) and are either considered young or in their prime--ie no Randy Johnson or John Smoltz or Andy Pettitte, all of whom are on the obvious downswing of their careers.
  • The first column is innings pitched in the minors before a pitcher's first call up; second is whether or not the pitcher was sent back down; third is total innings in the minors and fourth is the number of years in the minors.
  • I included the innings pitched totals for college ball for Tim Lincecum and Justin Verlander because of the low number of innings they pitched in the minor leagues. Both Lincecum and Verlander pitched three years of college ball--not Joba's two--and pitched over 100 innings in each season. It's not the minor leagues, but it would certainly contribute to stamina.
  • Aside from Verlander and Lincecum, only Mark Buehrle (out of 20 pretty randomly chosen pitchers) pitched less than three years in the minor leagues before their first call up. Six pitchers not named Verlander or Lincecum pitched between 200 and 300 innings, with Cole Hamels at the low end and Johan Santana at the high end (at 294). Twelve pitched at least 300 innings before their first call up.
  • You can guess a lot at those who went back down to the minors--shorter stints likely indicate rehab for an injury, while longer stints may reflect ineffectiveness or else that a team wanted to further develop a pitcher.
  • If we want to establish a baseline for what is most common--ie, the rule and not the exception--it'd seem to be three seasons in the minors (with a potential call up to the majors in the third) and 200 innings pitched. Even if you make the argument--and you can--that the combination of Joba's college innings and one year in the minors puts him over the 200 IP mark, he's still missing a year. He's not the only pitcher to have ever shot through all four levels of the minor league system in one year, but such things are an exception, not a rule, and sooner or later the law of averages tends to catch up.
  • Twenty pitchers, even twenty name-brand pitchers, is still of course far too small of a sample size, so I'll work on expanding it. Theoretically. If there's a pitcher you would like to test, it's pretty simple--go to the Baseball Cube, type in the pitcher's name, and look at the inning pitched in the minor leagues. Have fun! Ones you might consider trying, for the hell of it: Phil Hughes, Clay Buchholz, Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Chris Carpenter, Ben Sheets, Josh Beckett, Josh Johnson, Mike Pelfrey, Matt Garza, et al. Stay away from rookies who may be riding beginner's luck.
  • Relievers don't work here, either. Since relievers by their very nature don't pitch as many innings, the endurance they need to build is not as important as brute arm strength: Can you throw it 100 mph? Can you locate it vaguely close to the strike zone? Can you make believe it's got movement? Congratulations, there's team waiting to sign you right now! Starting pitching is a much different thing.

This is, of course, just a theory.

There are certainly holes, exceptions that don't fit and other issues to consider--like, perhaps, whether or not a pitcher has a history of arm injuries--but it does fit the model of Occam's Razor: the simplest explanation is usually the best.

Unfortunately, merely knowing what the problem is won't solve it--and with Chamberlain, that's a whole, other impossible-to-answer question.