The Strange Tale of Livan Hernandez (01/26/01)
(an Addendum to Pitch Counts)
A number of people have asked me about the effect of high pitch counts on pitchers. More precisely, the lack of effect on pitchers like Livan Hernandez, whose exploits in the 130+ pitch count stratosphere are well documented. Why hasn't that guy's arm fallen off? Great question, actually. And the answer is I don't know why. But I do have two theories.
The first is that he is not as young as he claims. This would not be the first time that a Latin player has misled the scouts or his team about his age. It happens with alarming frequency. Orlando Hernandez and Rafael Furcal (both older than first claimed) and Adrian Beltre and Wilson Betemit (both younger) are just some of the most recent examples. If Livan is indeed several years older than it was originally thought, then his usage, although on the heavy side for anyone, was probably not career threatening. It was just a really heavy workload. Really heavy.
The second possibility is that he simply has one of those extraordinary arms that can endure an inordinate amount of abuse. Bob Feller had an arm like that. Bob Friend, too. Maybe "Livan" is Spanish for "Bob". OK, maybe not. There're a couple of other guys on that list but they are the exception rather than the rule. Most young pitchers who go through that kind of overwork are either under the knife or out of baseball in a couple of years.
But that got me to thinking: is there a kind of pitcher that is better equipped to survive an excessive workload? Is there some way to pitch an excessive workload, at least in terms of innings, without doing long term damage to one's arm? So I looked back at my chart of the top 100 most promising arms and delved further into each pitcher's workload. Specifically, how many pitches did each guy throw while accumulating those early innings?
Unfortunately, pitch counts weren't kept league wide until very recently. The Dodgers were supposedly the first team to keep track of them. Branch Rickey, along with being credited as the father of the farm system, the pioneer who brought down the color barrier in baseball, and the man who brought expansion to baseball, was a fanatic about stats and is probably one of the first users of modern formulas for gauging and analyzing a player's ability. Presumably, it was about the time the Rickey came to the Dodgers as their GM in 1942, that they started keeping pitch counts. However, it has not been until quite recently, maybe the last 10 or 15 years, that they've been anything more than scribbles in the margins of some scout's notes.
Since pitch counts weren't available for most of the pitchers, I used the next best thing - baserunners allowed. Generally speaking, a guy who allows fewer baserunners is more likely to throw fewer pitches to get out of an inning than one who allows more baserunners. Makes sense. So from that I extrapolated usage.
The results. Well, they were not very conclusive. However, there were some things to note. Even though there were individual exceptions, pitchers that allowed fewer baserunners were more likely to be productive longer. Sounds obvious enough. What I found was that pitchers who averaged 11.3 baserunners or less per 9 innings (or in fantasy baseball terms, have a WHIP of 1.26 or less) were able to pitch 4.52 more 200+ inning seasons after their early heavy workload. Pitchers who averaged more only offered 3.43 more 200+ inning seasons.
Broken down a step further, pitchers who allowed 10.6 baserunners per 9, the real fantasy elite if you will (1.16 WHIP), were able to pitch 6.19 more 200+ inning seasons on average. The problem is that the fantasy dregs, pitchers who allowed 12.8 or more BR/9 (1.42 WHIP), survived for an average of 4.27 more 200+ innings seasons.
So it's impossible to draw the conclusion that high pitch counts had any detrimental effect on whether a pitcher lasted a long time or not. A guy who allowed a lot of baserunners might have simply been a lousy pitcher but a great arm. And those guys who didn't last long despite excellent baserunner ratios might have been the exact opposite. Like I said, the results weren't exactly conclusive. The one thing that did seem to bear out though is this: there were a lot more guys with good control who lasted a long time than there were guys who had bad control who lasted a long time. But again, that might be simply because they were really good pitchers and might have nothing to do with the pitch counts. What does seem to be a significant factor though is the number of innings thrown.
I compiled a list of the highest season averages in innings pitched for the 20th century. There were only about 80 guys in history who averaged 200 innings a season for their careers (10 year minimum). Of those 80, only 10 were guys on the most promising arms list. OK, so the best pitchers, in terms of effectiveness over a long period of time, weren't the usual suspects. If a guy was good enough to make the majors at a very early age, generally speaking one would think he'd have the best chance of a long career. But if he ends up throwing a lot of innings at a young age, this simply isn't the case. Many are burned out before they reach their prime.
The next step, then, is to see if there's an age where the number of innings doesn't show a negative effect on longevity. After compiling several lists by age (23, 24, 25), it seems like 26 is the magic age when good/great pitchers start showing up en masse on longevity lists. In other words, by the time a pitcher reaches age 26, he's physically ready for the workload of being a 200+ inning major league starter. Wrack up those kind of innings before then and chances are good (or bad, depending on your perspective) arm troubles and therefore career troubles are more likely to follow.
So, where does our tired friend Livan Hernandez fall here? To paraphrase Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man, "Is he safe?" His 773+ innings to date is a lot but probably can't be considered excessive for a guy who made his first appearance at age 22. But his baserunners per 9 (13.0, or 1.452 WHIP) and overall pitch counts have been high (16.6 per IP, or roughly 114 per start) so unless he has Bob Feller's arm, there's a better than average chance that he won't be repeating his 2000 season more than, oh... say, 4.27 more times.