What is a Pitcher For?

On August 25th of this year, Matt Harvey the star pitcher for the New York Mets, suffered an injury that will require Tommy John surgery and cost him the rest of this season and most of the next one. This is a great disappointment, not just to fans of the star crossed Mets, but to anybody who likes exciting young pitchers. Since being called up late in 2012, Harvey has been one of the game's best pitchers, posting a combined ERA+ of 153 and averaging 9.9 strikeouts, and only 2.2 walks per nine innings. Harvey turned 24 at the very beginning of this season so, if he is able to fully recover from the surgery, as many pitchers do, he may still have a great future.

Although Harvey pitched a rather substantial 260 innings in the low minors in 2011, in 2012 between AAA and the big leagues he pitched fewer than 170 innings and had only pitched 178 innings this season. Harvey, while not overworked, was not treated with the extreme caution that, for example, the Washington Nationals treated Stephen Strasburg, who has a chance to reach 200 innings for the first time this season, at the age of 24.

Critics of the Mets may argue that Harvey's injury was the product of overuse and could have been avoided. However, there is no real proof of this. Moreover, if Harvey is the victim of overuse, it raises the question of whether any young pitcher can be used in anything approaching a normal way anymore, or more generally, what a pitcher is for. Given how prone to injuries pitchers are, how little we still know about how pitchers hurt themselves, the evidence that much of this is random and not controllable, and the constant availability of young hard throwing pitchers, it is possible that teams should worry less about burning out young arms and more about getting the most out of pitchers while they are young and can throw hard.

Ignoring pitch counts is still not wise and in this age of deep bullpens is rarely necessary, but handling pitchers too delicately may be a mistake too. Limiting pitches and innings, according to most of the evidence, helps avoid injuries, but it only helps avoid some injuries; and even pitchers who are handled delicately can get hurt or lose their touch. The lack of certainty surrounding pitchers suggests a strategy of using good pitchers while they are pitching well, with little concern for their futures. This could create conflicts between pitchers, who would benefit from long careers, and teams, who might employ this win now type strategy. This conflict, however, is not always the case, because being used a lot also allows a player to achieve a level of stardom that would otherwise not be possible.

Three NL West pitchers, Madison Bumgarner, Clayton Kershaw, and Tim Lincecum, exemplify this approach. Kershaw, who is 25, has pitched 200 or more innings at the big league level over the last four years. Bumgarner, who is 23, is on his way to his third consecutive season pitching 200 or more big league innings. Harvey was at 158 innings before he got hurt and Strasburg, now 24, may reach 200 innings for the first time this year. Lincecum began a streak of four straight years of 200 innings or more at age 24. Two hundred is an arbitrary number; and there are other ways to manage pitcher usage, but Kershaw and Bumgarner have clearly been handled differently than Strasburg and Harvey.

Bumgarner and Kershaw have also enjoyed significantly more success because they have both avoided injuries and been allowed to pitch a lot. This has been to the benefit of both their teams and the players themselves. Bumgarner has already signed a long term contract that assures payment even if he gets hurt; and Kershaw will likely sign a similar, but much bigger, contract in the not too distant future.

The cautionary example, however may be Lincecum. Lincecum was the Kershaw of a few years ago, winning Cy Young awards and being used a lot, but not unambiguously overused, as a young pitcher. Lincecum, however, as he approaches free agency is a shadow of the pitcher he once was. Other than his brilliant 2012 post-season, he has not been a great pitcher since 2010, or even an average pitcher since 2011. The Giants obviously benefited from using Lincecum, as well as Bumgarner, in this way, winning the World Series behind these two heavily used pitchers in 2010 and 2012.

It is tempting to say that Lincecum is now paying a price for the success the Giants enjoyed and that this is emblematic of how teams can abuse pitchers to get what they need, but that would be an assumption based on too much uncertainty. Lincecum could have gotten hurt anyway; and it is possible that his current downturn in performance is not linked to overuse. More importantly, Lincecum himself benefited from the use. The success, awards and championships enabled him to earn a lot of money and will drive up his cost this off-season when he is a free agent. It is possible that players like Strasburg, Bumgarner and Kershaw, with overuse will leave Hall of Fame careers in the trainer's office and the disabled list, but pitchers who are not allowed to pitch 200 innings a year in their early and mid-twenties are almost guaranteed to never achieve real greatness.