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ARE THEIR DAYS NUMBERED?
Albert Kim
May 22, 1989
A new statistical theory makes it possible to predict whether aces like Dwight Gooden (left) and Roger Clemens will fulfill their promise before age catches up with them
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May 22, 1989

Are Their Days Numbered?

A new statistical theory makes it possible to predict whether aces like Dwight Gooden (left) and Roger Clemens will fulfill their promise before age catches up with them

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HAUNTED BY THE PAST
BFS before age 25 is the key to determining how successful a pitcher will be. Here are projections for five top starters under 30. BFS and innings pitched include minor and major league work. No BFS figures are given when pitchers worked fewer than 170 innings.

AGE

Bret Saberhagen

Fernando Valezuela

Frank Viola

Dwight Gooden

Roger Clemens

BATTERS FACED PER START

INNINGS PITCHED

BATTERS FACED PER START

INNINGS PITCHED

BATTERS FACED PER START

INNINGS PITCHED

BATTERS FACED PER START

INNINGS PITCHED

BATTERS FACED PER START

INNINGS PITCHED

18

   

30.2

205

   

29.9

191

19

28.6

187

26.3

192

   

28.6

218

20

 

158

31.1

192

   

31.3

277

21

29.8

235

32.0

285

   

31.1

250

28.4

180

22

 

156

31.9

257

27.4

184

29.3

202

 

98

23

32.4

257

32.6

261

27.9

210

30.7

248

30.5

254

24

31.8

261

32.3

272

30.6

258

   

32.7

248

DANGER ZONE 30-33

I've had people call me a freak for several years. But it wouldn't be my choice of words. I'm as surprised as anybody else. When you try to project longevity, there's no scientific way.
—NOLAN RYAN April 1989

How do you explain a pitcher like the 42-year-old Ryan, who at week's end was leading the majors in strikeouts? Over the years many have tried to uncover the secret of his staying power, and they have come up with several theories: He eats a lot of vegetables. He used to soak his fingers in pickle brine. He was a champion Indian leg wrestler. He cheats. He grappled with steer in the off-season. He toughened his arm by throwing rocks at water moccasins as a kid. He has God on his side.

In accounting for a phenomenon like Ryan, who through Sunday was 4-2 with 63 strikeouts for the Texas Rangers, consulting tarot cards would probably be as accurate as any of the aforementioned theories. Ever since the turn of the century, when Joe (Iron Man) McGinnity, exhibiting a different kind of endurance than Ryan has, won 247 games and pitched more than 3,400 innings over a 10-year major league career, the question of why some pitcher endure while others light up the skies for a year or two and then disappear into the night has baffled baseball analysts. Will the New York Mets' Dwight Gooden and the Boston Red Sox' Roger Clemens continue on the fast track to Cooperstown into the 21st century? Or are their glory days numbered?

Predicting a pitcher's longevity is a risky endeavor. However, new research by baseball statistician Craig Wright suggests that the secret of longevity, al least for starting pitchers, may not be as mysterious as it has appeared to be. Wright and Rangers pitching coach Tom House have written a book entitled The Diamond Appraised (Simon and Schuster), from which this article it adapted. According to Wright's study of the endurance patterns of pitchers dating back to 1876, the most grievously overworked pitchers are those who consistently, game after game, face a lot of hitters early in their careers. Those most likely to enjoy long and successful careers are the ones who are not overworked before they turn 25, while their arms are still developing. McGinnity for example, became a big leaguer at a ripe old 28 and was still pitching professionally (although not in the majors) well into his 50's.

Ryan is another example. Although he started pitching in the minors at 18, elbow trouble, early control problems and a stint in the Army Reserve limited the time he spent on the mound before turning 25. In his first seven years as a pro, from 1965 through '71, Ryan averaged only 114 innings pitched per season. More important, he faced an average of 26 batters per game and rarely finished the games he started. Not until he was 25 and pitching for the California Angels did Ryan have his first 200-inning season. And what happened? In his 22nd big league season, he has a total of 277 wins, 5 no-hitters, and 10 one-hitters, and a record 4,838 strikeouts. And he shows no signs of slowing down.

"The time you can really hurt your arm is the late innings," says Jim Palmer, who won 268 games for the Baltimore Orioles from 1965 through '84. "That's when you're tired and you still have to make quality pitches. Pitching into the late innings on a constant basis is really tough."

The most impressive late bloomer of them all is Warren Spahn. At age 36 in 1957, Spahn had 21 wins and 18 complete games for the Milwaukee Braves to lead the National League in both categories. That was the second of six straight 20-win seasons and the first of seven straight with the league's most complete games. Stan Musial once said, "I don't think Spahn will ever get into the Hall of Fame. He'll never stop pitching." Indeed, at 42, Spahn was 23-7 with a 2.60 ERA, and when he finally left the majors two years later, in 1965, he did so with more wins—363—than any other lefthander before or since.

Unlike Ryan, Spahn was not known as a conditioning fanatic or as an exceptionally hard thrower. But one characteristic Spahn shares with Ryan is an unusually light work load before age 25. Spahn missed the 1943, '44 and '45 seasons—when he was 22, 23 and 24—because he was serving in the U.S. Army. In 1947 he led the National League with 289.2 innings, but, according to Wright's theory, that didn't have a deleterious effect on Spahn since he was past his vulnerable years.

The idea that heavy work loads can shorten careers is not new. Going from a four-man to a five-man rotation and, to a certain extent, to the practice of using first-rate pitchers as relievers, evolved out of an effort to protect against overuse. However, what has been largely ignored is the importance of age in determining whether a pitcher has been worked too hard.

"The average male may stop growing when he's 16 or 17," says Dr. Arthur Pappas, the Red Sox team doctor. "But there is a continued maturation of joint cartilage that goes on beyond that. There's no question that there is a certain connection between the number of pitches thrown and later pitching problems. A young pitcher's tissues are still developing, and he's not yet throwing with the control that a more mature pitcher has. So he can throw his shoulder muscles out of balance."

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