Friday, June 1, 2007

Buzzing Bissinger

In Buzz Bissinger’s piece in the New York Times’ new Play Magazine, he puts forth the idea that increasing a minor league pitcher’s innings is more important in preventing injury than monitoring pitch counts at the major league level. Of course, as the article goes on, he details the high pitch counts of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood (the article’s focus), but implies that they were harmful because of the relatively light inning loads of the two pitchers in the minors.

Bissinger, who in print and interviews shows a sporadic interest in facts, cites the large number of innings pitched by some household names. His numbers cited:

Pitcher, Minor League Innings

Curt Schilling, 701.7
Tom Glavine, 536.7
Greg Maddux, 491.3
Randy Johnson, 418.3

Mark Prior, 51 (Bissinger, for some reason, acknowledges just one of Prior’s USC seasons)
Kerry Wood, 281.3

Bissinger qualifies Wood’s innings by saying they were on a strict pitch count. We’ll never know what might have happened had he not been on a strict pitch count in the minors. Bissinger would like us to believe that he would have survived the high pitch counts in the majors. Bissinger clearly did not consider that Wood might have broken down before reaching the majors (just as he did not consider, when noting the recent uptick in the percentage of disabled players who are pitchers, that these trips to the DL may be a precautionary complement to pitch counts rather than a result of players being weakened by pitch counts).

Using the Minor League inning totals of the four future Hall of Famers above is the classic baseball debate technique of using the few guys that everyone’s heard of, who have done something you think should be common place, as proof of a model. Bissinger writes, “The rule of thumb is that a pitcher should get some 400 innings of work in the minors before being called up.” Here’s how Bissinger would respond to his own nonsense:

Pitcher, Minor League Innings (numbers courtesy of The Baseball Cube)

Steve Carlton, 306
Nolan Ryan, 287 (and quoted by Bissinger in the piece)
Don Sutton, 249
Tom Seaver, 210
Jim Palmer, 129
Bert Blyleven, 123

And a few current players with no durability issues:

Johan Santana, 334
C.C. Sabathia, 232.7
Mike Mussina, 178

Bissinger left these guys out, most likely, because they interfere with his ability to make sweeping generalizations based on the four guys at the top. The fact that he would quote Ryan in the piece, but not mention his minor league innings numbers, is deceptive to say the least.

Finally, in yet another act of deception, in the paragraph that begins with the 400-inning rule of thumb, Bissinger writes:

“Francisco Liriano, in his first full season with the Minnesota Twins in 2006, went 12 and 3 and seemed destined for greatness, but he will miss the entire 2007 season after undergoing ligament replacement surgery — the so-called Tommy John procedure — on his elbow last November.”

Liriano, 484.3 minor league innings pitched. I wonder why that wasn’t mentioned.

Nobody has all the answers on pitching and few people claim to, but if there has to be a voice shouting down from the mountain about baseball, it shouldn’t be Buzz Bissinger.


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