The Frailty of the Modern Pitcher

uncannymanny

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I want to address your second issue. I work in the semiconductor industry and a wafer fab has a dozen or more major process steps that are used hundreds of times in the production process. There are hundreds of variables for each step, so there are literally hundreds of thousand variables to track. Machine learning enables us to optimize the process steps individually and collectively. In the old days, craftsmen used to do this on a micro level, e.g. if this pin needs to mate in that drilled hole, then take the pins with a larger measured diameter and match them with the holes with larger diameters to maximize performance and reliability.

MLB teams have much more data than ever before. Imagine taking Crawford's size, reach, flexibility, strength, previous injuries, parental health, ultrasound of tendons .... add in game situation, pitch count, type of pitches, pitcher fielding plays, ball stickiness, etc. I'm sure there are other datasets to add to this. Run the regression with an output of player health and, eventually, teams will be able to predict injuries with some accuracy. At a rudimentary level, they already do this with reliever days and pitches, and young starter innings year to year (Si's Tom Verducci used to highlight this one).

I'm sure the Sox have something already cooking, and I hope they team up with the world class medical practitioners and facilities in Boston.
The problem I see with this is that in machining you can measure all the bits and stuff. When you’re talking about a human body (which doesn’t really adhere to math in the first place), unless youre scoping the elbow and shoulder after every start, you’re missing a lot of necessary inputs.

Edit: why aren’t they running MRIs after every start for guys? Feels like a small expense comparatively (awaiting @radsoxfan rebutting this assumption).

Wouldn’t softening the ball just be the most simple answer? Less HR’s, more balls in play- would encourage pitchers to lay off stuff and add to more on field action, more defense….
MLB loves home runs. I can’t see them doing anything that dramatically reduces home run rates (sadly, as a lover of doubles, triples and plays on the bases).
 

Jace II

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Nothing in this article that hasn't been discussed in this thread, but it's a good (longform) summation of the problem - velocity being both the ultimate goal of pitcher development and the disease that is killing pitching - and the lack of incentive any of the involved parties have to solve it:

https://www.theringer.com/mlb/2024/4/2/24118963/pitcher-injuries-crisis-mlb-study-tommy-john-ucl

Apparently MLB itself is doing more intensive study. Lindbergh recommends the usual reducing-number-of-pitcher-roster-spots fix. At least most people agree it's a problem at this point.
 

CR67dream

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Nothing in this article that hasn't been discussed in this thread, but it's a good (longform) summation of the problem - velocity being both the ultimate goal of pitcher development and the disease that is killing pitching - and the lack of incentive any of the involved parties have to solve it:

https://www.theringer.com/mlb/2024/4/2/24118963/pitcher-injuries-crisis-mlb-study-tommy-john-ucl

Apparently MLB itself is doing more intensive study. Lindbergh recommends the usual reducing-number-of-pitcher-roster-spots fix. At least most people agree it's a problem at this point.
Thanks so much for posting this. What an illuminating read, I recommend it highly. And yes, it was pretty cool to see how much of this we had already touched on. :)
 

absintheofmalaise

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Here's an article from January on Dr. James Andrews retiring. He places the blame squarely on how hard young pitchers are throwing and the amount of spin they are putting on the baseball for the amount of UCL injuries.
“I started following the injury patterns and injury rates in the year 2000,” Andrews says. “Back in those days, I did about eight or nine Tommy Johns per year in high school aged and younger. The large majority of Tommy Johns were at the Major League level, then the Minor League level, then the college level and then just a handful of high school kids.

“In today’s situation, the whole thing is flip-flopped. The largest number is youth baseball. They’ve surpassed what’s being done in the Major Leagues. That’s a terrible situation.”

Andrews says the obsession with velocity and spin at the youth level is having a devastating impact on arms and the game itself.

“These kids are throwing 90 mph their junior year of high school,” he says. “The ligament itself can’t withstand that kind of force. We’ve learned in our research lab that baseball is a developmental sport. The Tommy John ligament matures at about age 26. In high school, the red line where the forces go beyond the tensile properties of the ligament is about 80 mph.”
 

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Yo La Tengo

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Interview with Verlander that echos many of the topics raised here. I continue to think that adjusting the baseball and the strikezone is the only path forward. But Verlander suggests having a team lose the DH if their starter fails to hit a particular threshold of innings. Interesting idea.

View: https://twitter.com/CodifyBaseball/status/1777457747593961949?fbclid=IwAR0t877Bkton7DyQg2eEVJ3oqfpq8_fGZO9YkyUp93ZnzbB_NOxY48L2NAI_aem_AceGdyEyvI69baldUylGA-IFcDTf7Wu9P5CG8gsD80kzzUaPz7TIFB4tdWccpMJpYy5cqSJWSajVmMbwgHjDVMD2


As for the pitch clock complaints, that ignores the massive rise in pitcher injuries prior to last year. From the Lindberg article in The Ringer: The rate of professional pitchers undergoing the surgery has steadily increased over the years. It’s a trend that began before the pitch clock was introduced. The average game time increased by 14 minutes from the late 90s to 2021 and 2022, while pitcher injuries went up from 11,668 IL days in 1995-99 to 31,558 IL days in 2023.

Finally, James Andrews gets the last word:

“I started following the injury patterns and injury rates in the year 2000. Back in those days, I did about eight or nine Tommy Johns per year in high school and younger. The large majority of Tommy Johns were at the Major League level, then the Minor League level, then the college level and then just a handful of high school kids.”

Andrews says, based on research, that baseball is a developmental sport, and the UCL ligament that pitchers need repairing doesn’t mature until age 26. The maximum that high school players should be throwing at that age is 80. Otherwise, it’s putting the ligament and pitcher at risk of injury.

“In today’s situation, the whole thing is flip-flopped. The largest number is youth baseball. They’ve surpassed what’s being done in the Major Leagues. That’s a terrible situation.”
 

zenax

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“In today’s situation, the whole thing is flip-flopped. The largest number is youth baseball. They’ve surpassed what’s being done in the Major Leagues. That’s a terrible situation.”
I recall hearing about parents getting TJ for their teenage pitchers in the hope that it would increase their velocity and improve their chance of getting a high signing bonus.
 

zenax

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In 1992, SABR published volume iii of Minor League Baseball Stars and in the prologue, while talking about minor league pitchers in the 19th century, they said, "Pitchers were not pampered in the 19th century. There was no such thing as middle reliever, set-up man, or or a closer."

They mentioned a couple playing on a California League in 1892 as part of a 2-man rotation in a 170 game season. One went 45-23 in 91 games and 803 IP while the other pitched 697 innings. That is 1500 innings in 170 games or about 8.8 IP/G from whenever the season began into November.
 

8slim

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Perhaps there's a Sox-centric thread where this would fit better, however...

I was pondering the usual lack innings our starters throw -- "usual" meaning the way starters throw league-wide these days, not necessarily Sox specific. Decided to run some crude numbers.

17 games into the season Sox starters are averaging a shade less than 5 1/3 innings per start along with 89.6 pitchers per start.

To put that in some context, over the first 17 games of the 2014 season (no particular reason I chose 2014 other than it being 10 years ago) Sox starters threw 6 innings per start on an average 96.7 pitches. That's +15% and +8% more than this season, respectively.

We've seen starters throw six innings 4 times this season, and no one has gone any deeper than that. Compare to 10 years ago when Sox starters threw 6 or more innings 14 times. In addition, starters threw 100+ pitchers 9 times in 2014, vs. just twice this season.

I'll admit to being a broken record about the current way starters are handled, but man I just hate it so damn much.
 

RS2004foreever

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In 1992, SABR published volume iii of Minor League Baseball Stars and in the prologue, while talking about minor league pitchers in the 19th century, they said, "Pitchers were not pampered in the 19th century. There was no such thing as middle reliever, set-up man, or or a closer."

They mentioned a couple playing on a California League in 1892 as part of a 2-man rotation in a 170 game season. One went 45-23 in 91 games and 803 IP while the other pitched 697 innings. That is 1500 innings in 170 games or about 8.8 IP/G from whenever the season began into November.
I am a runner.
It's the difference between a 10K and a sprint. I seriously doubt guys in the 1920's were full out on all of their pitches - they knew they couldn't be.
I suspect but cannot prove that the modern hitter is significantly better than a hitter even in the 1950's.
As hitters improve, pitchers no longer pace themselves because they don't have the stuff to get them out pitching at 80%.
 

BaseballJones

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Back then they used a relative handful of baseballs in a game, which made them more scuffed up and just a touch less lively over the course of a game. That benefitted pitchers.

Today they introduce a brand new baseball every single time the ball is hit or touches the dirt. They always have a fresh, clean, lively ball to play with. This benefits the offense.

Plus the ball is just more lively than it used to be anyway. MLB wants fireworks on offense - it’s more interesting. And while I certainly don’t put these injuries squarely on the pitch clock, it has meant that some pitchers whose natural rhythm is slower now have to throw more pitches in less time than they’d prefer, and that adds up.

One simple way to address all this is reduce the liveliness of the ball and allow balls to stay in play even with some use. Don’t go back to a dead ball era, obviously, but just reduce it a little. That will allow the pitchers to put up reasonable performances without having to max effort every pitch, which should allow them to pitch effectively for longer and bring some balance back into the game.

It’s actually a super easy, totally common sense fix that can be done relatively quickly. But will MLB do it? Unlikely. And why won’t they? Now that is the real question.
 

VORP Speed

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It doesn’t matter how lively the balls are. At any given level of liveliness, pitchers will get better results by maxing out spin and velocity and therefore they will do so. If you want pitchers to throw more innings it will have to be legislated by limiting roster spots for pitchers or limiting how many pitchers can be used in a game or something along those lines.
 

RS2004foreever

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Back then they used a relative handful of baseballs in a game, which made them more scuffed up and just a touch less lively over the course of a game. That benefitted pitchers.

Today they introduce a brand new baseball every single time the ball is hit or touches the dirt. They always have a fresh, clean, lively ball to play with. This benefits the offense.

Plus the ball is just more lively than it used to be anyway. MLB wants fireworks on offense - it’s more interesting. And while I certainly don’t put these injuries squarely on the pitch clock, it has meant that some pitchers whose natural rhythm is slower now have to throw more pitches in less time than they’d prefer, and that adds up.

One simple way to address all this is reduce the liveliness of the ball and allow balls to stay in play even with some use. Don’t go back to a dead ball era, obviously, but just reduce it a little. That will allow the pitchers to put up reasonable performances without having to max effort every pitch, which should allow them to pitch effectively for longer and bring some balance back into the game.

It’s actually a super easy, totally common sense fix that can be done relatively quickly. But will MLB do it? Unlikely. And why won’t they? Now that is the real question.
The problem is historically there is a correlation between offense and baseball attendance. Less offense means less runs means a less interesting game.
 

BaseballJones

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The problem is historically there is a correlation between offense and baseball attendance. Less offense means less runs means a less interesting game.
If that's true, then of course we are back to a situation where those running the sport care far more about $$ than they do the health and well-being of the players they employ. Not dissimilar to the NFL.
 

Max Power

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The problem is historically there is a correlation between offense and baseball attendance. Less offense means less runs means a less interesting game.
But offenses are not high right now and the product on the field is not good. We're at historical lows in singles, doubles, and triples, and a high in strikeouts. The only thing that's keeping the overall scoring numbers near average for the last 30 years is that homers are way up. If there were more balls in play and fewer going over the wall, there'd be a similar number of runs scored and a more entertaining game overall.
 

Petagine in a Bottle

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I disagree with the idea that fans want lots of runs scored too. Some of the most well known games in history were low scoring, phenomenal pitching performances. A 1-0 game can be every bit as exciting, if not more so, than an 11-10 one. I’d argue that the former is likely to be a much more well played game, too.
 

RS2004foreever

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I disagree with the idea that fans want lots of runs scored too. Some of the most well known games in history were low scoring, phenomenal pitching performances. A 1-0 game can be every bit as exciting, if not more so, than an 11-10 one. I’d argue that the former is likely to be a much more well played game, too.
The occasional 1-0 run game is interesting - but baseball would be hammered the average game was 2-1. It is more interesting watching someone do something than watching someone prevent another from doing it.
 

BaseballJones

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I wonder how many fans enjoy the "use 5 pitchers a night" model that's currently in use across MLB, as compared to the "let a really good starter go 7-8 innings" model.

Starting pitchers used to be household names, but now it's like, they're kinda fungible. I think many (most?) baseball fans would rather see the stud starters go deep into games regularly. But I don't know if any research has actually gone into that. I might just be pulling that out of thin air.
 

jon abbey

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I wonder how many fans enjoy the "use 5 pitchers a night" model that's currently in use across MLB, as compared to the "let a really good starter go 7-8 innings" model.

Starting pitchers used to be household names, but now it's like, they're kinda fungible. I think many (most?) baseball fans would rather see the stud starters go deep into games regularly. But I don't know if any research has actually gone into that. I might just be pulling that out of thin air.
Since this discussion started here recently, I have definitively decided/realized for myself that I tend to prefer the opposite. It's the rare SP that I want to see working deep into the game for my team, and I always want the opposing pitcher out quickly, even when the other team has a loaded pen (because it affects subsequent games). If rosters were big enough, I'd be quite happy seeing my team use six pitchers every game.
 

BaseballJones

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Since this discussion started here recently, I have definitively decided/realized for myself that I tend to prefer the opposite. It's the rare SP that I want to see working deep into the game for my team, and I always want the opposing pitcher out quickly, even when the other team has a loaded pen (because it affects subsequent games). If rosters were big enough, I'd be quite happy seeing my team use six pitchers every game.
I wonder if you're in the majority. You might be. But when I see a good starter on the mound, I think it's more enjoyable baseball to see him go 7+ innings than to see a parade of middle relievers, most of whose names I've never heard of.
 

jon abbey

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I wonder if you're in the majority. You might be. But when I see a good starter on the mound, I think it's more enjoyable baseball to see him go 7+ innings than to see a parade of middle relievers, most of whose names I've never heard of.
I am usually in the minority but how many good starters are there like this that you consistently want to watch? I heard all winter about how Blake Snell is dominant but hard to watch, and he won the NL Cy Young last year.
 

BaseballJones

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I am usually in the minority but how many good starters are there like this that you consistently want to watch? I heard all winter about how Blake Snell is dominant but hard to watch, and he won the NL Cy Young last year.
Well, I want to see Kutter Crawford pitch 7 instead of bringing in Berardino in the 6th. And if they actually let Snell pitch to the order a third time, it would be fun to see him try to get outs in the 7th inning, especially when he's on.
 

Sin Duda

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It's only a sample size of 1, but I saw an early season game, Sox at Texas, which the Sox won 2-1. It should have been an exciting game (Papelbon's first save!) But the later innings dragged on for me. I'd rather have a 5-4 game or even a 9-7 game.

As an aside, it's amazing I barely remember some of these players in the lineup just 2 years after 2004: https://www.baseball-almanac.com/box-scores/boxscore.php?boxid=200604050TEX
 

Late Yclept Chanticleer

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I wonder how many fans enjoy the "use 5 pitchers a night" model that's currently in use across MLB, as compared to the "let a really good starter go 7-8 innings" model.

Starting pitchers used to be household names, but now it's like, they're kinda fungible. I think many (most?) baseball fans would rather see the stud starters go deep into games regularly. But I don't know if any research has actually gone into that. I might just be pulling that out of thin air.
I think big-name pitchers throwing complete or near-complete games were "must watch" TV when I was growing up. But it was also a bit of a different game.

The first issue is game-length. Pre-pitch clock games were getting absurdly long, and pitcher usage changed. (I love the pitch-clock era.)

The second is drama. Things being at stake. And there, your ace potentially shutting down a division rival and/or inching them out of the post-season is great viewing. (I'm not sure that last is well-calibrated at this point.)
 

8slim

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I wonder if you're in the majority. You might be. But when I see a good starter on the mound, I think it's more enjoyable baseball to see him go 7+ innings than to see a parade of middle relievers, most of whose names I've never heard of.
I want to see starters pitchers go as long as possible, not an endless parade of faceless relievers. When I started following the game, the expectation was that any #1 through #3 SP was trying to throw a complete game. Part of the later inning intrigue was seeing if a starter could make it to the end, or at least get to the 9th inning closer.
 

8slim

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But offenses are not high right now and the product on the field is not good. We're at historical lows in singles, doubles, and triples, and a high in strikeouts. The only thing that's keeping the overall scoring numbers near average for the last 30 years is that homers are way up. If there were more balls in play and fewer going over the wall, there'd be a similar number of runs scored and a more entertaining game overall.
Bingo. The worst thing about Theo joining FSG is that he's not working on making the game better at an MLB level anymore. He recognized the problem with a lack of action in today's game. I'm concerned that with him out of the league office MLB won't have the ability to keep tweaking the elements that Theo recognized were necessary.
 

Apisith

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https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/40186833/mlb-2024-josh-hader-usage-rules-contract-brewers-astros

I always thought it was illogical for any starting pitcher not on a free agency deal to agree to throw more than 80-90 pitchers per game. What do they get out of it? Especially so with the playoffs. Matt Harvey lost out on, what, $100m? Why would any pitcher not on a free agency deal agree to pitch in the playoffs? I get that these guys are competitive but teams treat them like assets, they should also treat themselves as assets.

For reliever, I think what Hader did is correct and is the future. These players have to smarten up, only then will the system change.
 

jon abbey

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This thread hasn’t been bumped in five weeks, I think pitcher injuries have slowed way down after a lot in spring training and early April.
 

simplicio

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Or we just got exhausted keeping up with them. Brooks Raley, Emmet Sheehan and Matt Brash with TJS in the last two weeks, with Whitlock likely to join them.
 

jon abbey

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I mean, those first three have basically been hurt all year, just 7 total 2024 IPs between them and that was all Raley.

Anyway, generally I think the most pitching arm injuries each year are somewhere in the initial rampup, will be interesting to see how 2024 compares to other years once we’re through the season.
 

nvalvo

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I started typing a whole thing in another thread, and then I realized I was majorly thread-jacking with a new topic and should track down the pitching injury thread.

I've copied below the post I was responding to in that thread, not to put @Sandy Leon Trotsky on blast here (I like SLT — good poster, would read again), but as a clearly put example of a very common idea that people often express on this board, especially in discussions of Whitlock's health issues: the idea that relief pitching is safer than starting for injury-prone pitchers. And I just don't see a ton of evidence for it.

Here's what SLT said, talking about Bryan Mata:

Im thinking with a limited pitching palette he’d be able to focus on his two best pitches. His projection as a ML starter would probably be 2 more years working a pitch count up.
He was fantastic in ST as basically a relief arm. Converting him now means you likely will hold onto him. Otherwise he’s occupying 40man space without likely contributing.
As a starter, he’s shown he gets injured and doesn’t have a high ceiling. In his time throwing shorter outings he’s shown a potential as a power late inning type.
And in response, I wanted to point out that Mata had been moved to the bullpen late last year, and pitched in the AFL as a reliever — when he got hurt — and was pitching in a relief role in ST — when he again got hurt. So arguably he's also shown he gets injured as a reliever.

Like Whitlock, Mata has a lengthy injury history. Both pitchers have pitched in different roles in their careers as professionals. I do not think we can know from the information that we have (e.g., that Whitlock's healthiest season in the majors came as a reliever) that their roles contributed to their injuries. It's not as though we can run 10,000 Monte Carlo simulations of a pitcher's career to come to a definitive, statistically probative judgment of whether he is more likely to remain healthy in a given role.

Starting pitchers get hurt a ton, but relief pitchers also get hurt a ton. Both roles have pros and cons from a health standpoint, of course: starters have to pitch more innings, but they get a schedule with rest built in; relievers throw considerably fewer pitches per outing, but they have to pitch at 100% intensity on an unreliable schedule, sometimes with minutes' notice, sometimes on back-to-back days.

I grabbed some data on IL stints from ESPN.com, which I've tidied up and shared here. This listing only contains players currently on the major-league IL; so, for Boston, Garrett Whitlock and Bryan Mata are included, but Bello and Pivetta (who have been on the IL and returned) are not.

Roughly speaking, there are 5 * 30 = 150 SP slots and 8*30 = 240 RP slots active at any given time; so relievers are ~61% of pitchers. And there are 68 starters and 94 relievers on the various ILs; so relievers are 58% of IL'd pitchers. ~31% of starting pitchers and ~28% of relief pitchers in the majors are on the IL.

Those percentages are all pretty close, to my eye. This is just not very consistent with relieving being meaningfully safer than starting. It is consistent with pitching (in any role) being quite risky.
83009
Now, maybe you could make a case that an injury-prone pitcher (to the extent that isn't just a synonym for "pitcher") might be better slotted into the bullpen for the good of the roster because it's easier to reshuffle roles in the bullpen in the wake of an injury than it is to get your depth starting pitchers lined up, etc., when one goes down. If that were the case, and we could confidently discern which pitchers were especially injury prone — a massive, massive "if" — it might indeed make sense from a roster standpoint to pitch those pitchers in relief. However, that's quite a different claim than the argument that a pitcher who gets hurt as a starter would not get hurt (or would get hurt less frequently) as a reliever.

TL; DR. I do not see a lot of evidence that pitching in relief is safer for a given a pitcher than pitching in the rotation. Am I off base? Is there such evidence, and I am ignoring it?
 

Sandy Leon Trotsky

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I started typing a whole thing in another thread, and then I realized I was majorly thread-jacking with a new topic and should track down the pitching injury thread.

I've copied below the post I was responding to in that thread, not to put @Sandy Leon Trotsky on blast here (I like SLT — good poster, would read again), but as a clearly put example of a very common idea that people often express on this board, especially in discussions of Whitlock's health issues: the idea that relief pitching is safer than starting for injury-prone pitchers. And I just don't see a ton of evidence for it.

Here's what SLT said, talking about Bryan Mata:



And in response, I wanted to point out that Mata had been moved to the bullpen late last year, and pitched in the AFL as a reliever — when he got hurt — and was pitching in a relief role in ST — when he again got hurt. So arguably he's also shown he gets injured as a reliever.

Like Whitlock, Mata has a lengthy injury history. Both pitchers have pitched in different roles in their careers as professionals. I do not think we can know from the information that we have (e.g., that Whitlock's healthiest season in the majors came as a reliever) that their roles contributed to their injuries. It's not as though we can run 10,000 Monte Carlo simulations of a pitcher's career to come to a definitive, statistically probative judgment of whether he is more likely to remain healthy in a given role.

Starting pitchers get hurt a ton, but relief pitchers also get hurt a ton. Both roles have pros and cons from a health standpoint, of course: starters have to pitch more innings, but they get a schedule with rest built in; relievers throw considerably fewer pitches per outing, but they have to pitch at 100% intensity on an unreliable schedule, sometimes with minutes' notice, sometimes on back-to-back days.

I grabbed some data on IL stints from ESPN.com, which I've tidied up and shared here. This listing only contains players currently on the major-league IL; so, for Boston, Garrett Whitlock and Bryan Mata are included, but Bello and Pivetta (who have been on the IL and returned) are not.

Roughly speaking, there are 5 * 30 = 150 SP slots and 8*30 = 240 RP slots active at any given time; so relievers are ~61% of pitchers. And there are 68 starters and 94 relievers on the various ILs; so relievers are 58% of IL'd pitchers. ~31% of starting pitchers and ~28% of relief pitchers in the majors are on the IL.

Those percentages are all pretty close, to my eye. This is just not very consistent with relieving being meaningfully safer than starting. It is consistent with pitching (in any role) being quite risky.
View attachment 83009
Now, maybe you could make a case that an injury-prone pitcher (to the extent that isn't just a synonym for "pitcher") might be better slotted into the bullpen for the good of the roster because it's easier to reshuffle roles in the bullpen in the wake of an injury than it is to get your depth starting pitchers lined up, etc., when one goes down. If that were the case, and we could confidently discern which pitchers were especially injury prone — a massive, massive "if" — it might indeed make sense from a roster standpoint to pitch those pitchers in relief. However, that's quite a different claim than the argument that a pitcher who gets hurt as a starter would not get hurt (or would get hurt less frequently) as a reliever.

TL; DR. I do not see a lot of evidence that pitching in relief is safer for a given a pitcher than pitching in the rotation. Am I off base? Is there such evidence, and I am ignoring it?
It hurts my feelings being called out here!
But seriously, I appreciate the response with some data. I forgot Mata was throwing in relief
 

themactavish

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I started typing a whole thing in another thread, and then I realized I was majorly thread-jacking with a new topic and should track down the pitching injury thread.

I've copied below the post I was responding to in that thread, not to put @Sandy Leon Trotsky on blast here (I like SLT — good poster, would read again), but as a clearly put example of a very common idea that people often express on this board, especially in discussions of Whitlock's health issues: the idea that relief pitching is safer than starting for injury-prone pitchers. And I just don't see a ton of evidence for it.

Here's what SLT said, talking about Bryan Mata:



And in response, I wanted to point out that Mata had been moved to the bullpen late last year, and pitched in the AFL as a reliever — when he got hurt — and was pitching in a relief role in ST — when he again got hurt. So arguably he's also shown he gets injured as a reliever.

Like Whitlock, Mata has a lengthy injury history. Both pitchers have pitched in different roles in their careers as professionals. I do not think we can know from the information that we have (e.g., that Whitlock's healthiest season in the majors came as a reliever) that their roles contributed to their injuries. It's not as though we can run 10,000 Monte Carlo simulations of a pitcher's career to come to a definitive, statistically probative judgment of whether he is more likely to remain healthy in a given role.

Starting pitchers get hurt a ton, but relief pitchers also get hurt a ton. Both roles have pros and cons from a health standpoint, of course: starters have to pitch more innings, but they get a schedule with rest built in; relievers throw considerably fewer pitches per outing, but they have to pitch at 100% intensity on an unreliable schedule, sometimes with minutes' notice, sometimes on back-to-back days.

I grabbed some data on IL stints from ESPN.com, which I've tidied up and shared here. This listing only contains players currently on the major-league IL; so, for Boston, Garrett Whitlock and Bryan Mata are included, but Bello and Pivetta (who have been on the IL and returned) are not.

Roughly speaking, there are 5 * 30 = 150 SP slots and 8*30 = 240 RP slots active at any given time; so relievers are ~61% of pitchers. And there are 68 starters and 94 relievers on the various ILs; so relievers are 58% of IL'd pitchers. ~31% of starting pitchers and ~28% of relief pitchers in the majors are on the IL.

Those percentages are all pretty close, to my eye. This is just not very consistent with relieving being meaningfully safer than starting. It is consistent with pitching (in any role) being quite risky.
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Now, maybe you could make a case that an injury-prone pitcher (to the extent that isn't just a synonym for "pitcher") might be better slotted into the bullpen for the good of the roster because it's easier to reshuffle roles in the bullpen in the wake of an injury than it is to get your depth starting pitchers lined up, etc., when one goes down. If that were the case, and we could confidently discern which pitchers were especially injury prone — a massive, massive "if" — it might indeed make sense from a roster standpoint to pitch those pitchers in relief. However, that's quite a different claim than the argument that a pitcher who gets hurt as a starter would not get hurt (or would get hurt less frequently) as a reliever.

TL; DR. I do not see a lot of evidence that pitching in relief is safer for a given a pitcher than pitching in the rotation. Am I off base? Is there such evidence, and I am ignoring it?
It would be interesting to hear from physiologists/medical folks about different sorts of physical stresses. There's the stress that comes from maximum efforts, where the effort goes beyond some high threshold that can lead to breakdown (think of someone squatting a very heavy weight or sprinting at full-speed). And then there's the cumulative stress at lower levels, where the stress isn't so acute, but chronic in the sense of being performed over and over again (think of someone doing loads of repetitions or running long distances at slower speeds). The lines can obviously be blurry here (a starter looking to go 5 innings might be pretty different than someone pacing to shoot for 7+). However, the sheer fact that so many pitchers usually bump up their velocity when they shift from starting to relieving suggests a usual shift from lower thresholds of (maximal) stress to a higher threshold of max efforts. Either kind of stress can lead to breakdown, and perhaps there's no abstract answer to which stress is more perilous. Nonetheless, it would be interesting to see what the evidence would suggest (if there were some scientific data).