A few weeks ago, with their second selection, the Mets drafted Andrew Church, a righthanded pitcher who was the 90th ranked high school prospect in the country. He’s got four pitches (fastball, curveball, slider, and change-up), a decent build and has dialed it up to 95 mph, but, good stuff aside, Church was by most scouts described a 3rd or 4th rounder.
There are two possible reasons why the Mets may have taken Church as their second pick. The first could be part of a strategy of relegating resources for the later rounds, the second and more likely reason is that they believed they knew something about Church that most other scouting departments did not.
For all the Mets’ stated needs for position players and lefthanded pitching, they went on a run (picks 14 to 32) where 18 of 23 draftees were righthanded pitchers, and with the notable exceptions of Ricardo Jaquez and Johnny Magliozzi, they’re all decidedly on the large side.
In and of itself this wouldn’t be peculiar were it not for the fact that the Mets’ 2012 draft was similarly righthanded heavy. At one point they drafted seven right handed pitchers in a row starting with Paul Sewald in round 10 and ending with Miles Smith in round 16.
The organization presently is awash in righthanded pitching talent, and yet they continue to stockpile.
Way back in 2007 Al Doyle wrote a fascinating little piece for the now (sadly) abandoned Baseball Analysts website where he delved into the durability conundrum and attempted to explain why pitchers in the modern era seemed so much more prone to injury. His answer, in part, was a rather humble one.
In many cases, old-time major league pitchers shoveled countless tons of manure before they debuted in the Show. They also tossed many thousands of hay bales, milked cows by hand seven days a week, spent lots of time on the business end of a spade, hand-dug bushels of potatoes, drove tractors without power steering, strung barbed wire fences and repeatedly picked rocks out of the lower 40.
Small farms were a way of life for a significant percentage of Americans until the 1960s. There has always been a steady migration from rural areas to large cities, since slapping fenders on Chevys or working construction was a breeze (and paid better) compared to life on the farm. That trend slowed as farms consolidated and grew larger, but even those who ventured to the economically greener pastures of urban life brought something valuable with them from agriculture.
It’s an interesting premise in attempting to explain how pitchers could regularly throw 250 to 300 innings. These days kids have great thumbs (from playing video games) but I don’t know that they’ve tossed many hay bales.
Another explanation could be that players aren’t really getting injured more today than in the past, that the increase in injuries may be the result of improvements in medical practice and diagnostic procedures. There also isn’t a lot of data on injuries if you go back 30 years or more so it’s hard to say whether there were 5 or 6 guys back on the farm who blew their arms out for every guy who was able to go on and pitch 300 innings. There is still remarkably little data on minor league injuries, although that is changing.
The fact remains that developing a method of screening a durable body type would tilt the competitive balance heavily to any organization who managed to pull it off.
In Matt Harvey‘s last start I made a point of documenting his outing pitch for pitch and was amazed by the fact that while his fastball is certainly overpowering, I don’t think he really needs it to be. His breaking pitches and his change-up are so good, he is able to carve through opposing lineups relatively stress free. The added velocity is almost unfair, it’s overkill.
So in Andrew Church, you have (similarly) a big righthanded kid with a pretty good fastball but, perhaps more importantly, a broad compliment of secondary pitches. It stands to reason that a fireballer with iffy command who goes out there and tries to blow people away may run into more exertion type injuries than someone who can knock hitters off balance with breaking stuff and off speed junk, but then, why the right handed bias? Are left-handers more prone to injury?
Dr. Diane F. Halpern of California State University at San Bernardino and Dr. Stanley Coren of the University of British Columbia, in a controversial study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, claimed the differences between left handed people and right handed people in the general population were striking. They found that the proportion of left-handers is 13 percent among people in their 20’s, but only 1 percent among those in their 80’s.
Halpern chose baseball players listed in the Baseball Encyclopedia for her study because they had clearly defined handedness measures during early adulthood. Halpern and her colleagues looked at distribution properties for both and found that more than 2.5% of right-handed players survived to the age of 90 compared with less than 0.5% of left-handed players. She used the Moses Test of Extreme Reactions to assess the validity of these findings and confirmed that right-handers were more likely to live longer than left-handed players. The results are still significant when the oldest and youngest 5% were taken out of the sample.
From this study Halpern concluded that left-handers are at increased risk because of a developmental or pathological irregularity. These dysfunctions combined with increased environmental risk puts left-handed individuals at increased risk. Halpern says the risk is continuous leaving the left-hander “slightly less able to cope with physiological and environmental assaults (Halpern, 1991).”
So, right handed people live longer than left handed people? That’s a tough pill to swallow and subsequent studies have called some of these conclusions into question, namely the study’s failure to account for the fact that many people from older generations had their handedness changed by force as children (and some fascinatingly began to stutter as a result) so there would naturally be more left handed people by percentage in a younger population today compared to an older population. Still, the data continues to raise eyebrows even today.
More germane to our discussion, however, was a study that appeared in the American Journal of Sports Medicine by Warner, Guido, Delude, Sterner Greenfield and Meister entitled: Throwing Arm Dominance in Collegiate Baseball Pitching: A Biomechanical Study.
They concluded that left-handed pitchers were at increased risk for certain shoulder injuries compared to their right-handed counterparts possibly due to subtle biomechanical differences in their throwing motions:
Six parameters were found to have statistically significant differences between left- and right-handed pitchers. Passive non-throwing shoulder external rotation (right, 113° ± 9°; left, 124° ± 8°), elbow flexion at stride-foot contact (right, 79° ± 16°; left, 94° ± 20°), and shoulder abduction during acceleration (right, 72° ± 11°; left, 105° ± 8°) were greater in left-handed pitchers than right-handed pitchers. Shoulder abduction at stride-foot contact (right, 115° ± 13°; left, 73° ± 10°), shoulder horizontal abduction at stride-foot contact (right, 25° ± 12°; left, 15° ± 12°), and peak horizontal adduction angular velocity (right, 707 ± 185 deg/s; left, 551 ± 160 deg/s) were less for the left-handed pitchers.
More recently Bill James himself chimed in on his observation that sinker-ballers show notoriously poor durability, predictably going down to injuries after their first couple of years:
What I have never understood about ground ball pitchers, and do not understand now, is why they always get hurt. Show me an extreme ground ball pitcher, a guy with a terrific ground ball rate, and I’ll show you a guy who is going to be good for two years and then get hurt. I’m not saying this about Chien-Ming Wang and Brandon Webb; I was saying this before Chien-Ming Wang and Brandon Webb. They’re just the latest examples. Mark Fidrych. Randy Jones. Ross Grimsley. Mike Caldwell. Rick Langford. Lary Sorensen. Clyde Wright. Fritz Peterson. Dave Roberts. They’re great for two years, and then they blow up. Always … B. James
So there you have it, stay away from left handed power pitchers who throw hard who don’t have the greatest command and who have a limited arsenal (Scott Kazmir comes to mind), and stay away from sinker-ballers while you’re at it. If we were to be so bold as to try our own hand at developing a “durability profile,” we’d presumably look for a big right hander who doesn’t throw a sinker, who has a healthy compliment of secondary pitches and who has good command. Sounds an awful lot like some of the arms rising through the Met system doesn’t it? Too bad we can’t just clone Matt Harvey.