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Last year, I did an analysis searching for indicators that can help predict which pitchers are most likely to miss extended time due to injuries or have a huge dropoff in performance.  I followed that up with a post where I chose 20 Risky Pitchers for 2009 with the ambitious goal that 12 of the 20 would either fail to throw 2,000 pitches in the next season or see a FIP increase of 0.50 or higher (note: for the analysis, I’m switching to xFIP which is a new addition to FanGraphs and adjusts fly balls to the league average HR/FB rate).

The final (and humbling) results are below.  8 of the 20  pitchers or 40% of the pitchers dropped below 2,000 pitches or had an xFIP increase above 0.50.  40% sounds pretty good until you realize that about 40% of all pitchers coming off 2,700+ pitch seasons fall into one of these two categories the next year.  Basically, my predictions were as successful as picking the names out of Kevin Mench’s ginormous hat.

Pitches xFIP Change (0.50+) Dropoff
Armando Galarraga 2453 0.53 YES
Ricky Nolasco 3035 -0.47 NO
Gavin Floyd 2981 -0.87 NO
Brett Myers 1145 —– YES
Ryan Dempster 3159 0.07 NO
Andy Sonnanstine 1713 0.49 YES
Jonathan Sanchez 2849 0.05 NO
Todd Wellemeyer 2117 0.72 YES
Dana Eveland 839 —– YES
Johnny Cueto 2904 0.2 NO
Zack Greinke 3477 -0.61 NO
Ervin Santana 2300 1.09 YES
Jesse Litsch 158 0 YES
Jon Lester 3404 -0.95 NO
Mike Pelfrey 3158 0.03 NO
A.J. Burnett 3462 0.74 YES
Matt Garza 3421 -0.27 NO
Javier Vazquez 3315 -1.03 NO
Ted Lilly 2671 -0.16 NO
Scott Baker 3258 0.08 NO

Now I could try and make it look better by changing the criteria and saying my warnings of Nolasco saved teams of a 5.00+ ERA or a disappointing first half from Scott Baker but that wouldn’t be right.  For every Nolasco (1.50+ ERA jump but a negative xFIP), there’s an AJ Burnett whose ERA was flat while his xFIP went over the 0.50 mark (note:  you’d think this could be explained by the move to the new Yankee Stadium but his ERA was actually a run better at home vs away – 3.51 vs. 4.59).  To add insult to injury, two of the selections (Vazquez and Greinke) turned out to be in the top 5 of our ‘best draft values‘ according to our Point Shares and their average ADP.

So f0r this post, a wiser and humbler Rudy Gamble will take another stab at the analysis.  A future post will lay out 20 more predictions for 2010.

First off, there are a few aspects of the analysis that I think can be improved:

  1. Throw out any pitchers that met the 2,700 pitch marker but put up high numbers (5.00+ xFIP).   This takes out a few players like Daniel Cabrera who aren’t going to be drafted anyway.
  2. Throw out any pitchers older than 37.  The reasons why a Randy Johnson or John Smoltz missed time in 2009 is most likely different than the factors that would affect a 27-year old.
  3. Assume international pitchers like Dice-K and Kuroda had a similar pitch count the prior year (rather than credit them with a huge pitch increase).
  4. Increase the xFIP change from 0.50 to 0.75 to reduce the number of seasons that wouldn’t be viewed as a fantasy disappointment (e.g., CC Sabathia saw a 0.72 increase in FIP in 2009 but his 19-8/3.37/1.15 season was as good as any fantasy owner could rightfully expect).

With this revised ‘falloff’ definition, the amount of seasons that qualify move from ~40% to 27% (between 26-27% for 2005, 2008, and 2009 with an odd jump in 2006 to 36% and decline in 2007 to 16%).  This represents 94 of 349 seasons between 2005-2009 with 72 fell below 2,000 pitches and another 22 had a +0.75 FIP increase.

The criteria we established last year after various tests were:

  1. 27+% of Sliders and Curveballs the year prior
  2. 700+ pitch increase the year prior (vs. the year before that) – inspired by the ‘Verducci Effect’
  3. Previous year was the first year above the 2,700+ MLB pitch threshold in 2008

Let’s revisit these assumptions based on some questions I had after the first analysis:

Revisiting pitch types

After my initial analysis, I exchanged a few messages with Disabled List Informer who ranked sliders as a greater injury risk than curveballs.  I tested all pitch types again by comparing the averages of 2004-2008 seasons preceding dropoff vs. non-dropoff seasons in 2005-2009.

It appears sliders are negative indicators (11% more thrown in seasons preceding dropoff seasons) but there is no indication that curveballs are.  Cut fastballs and split-finger fastballs are too small a percentage of pitches to take away any significance from this analysis.  I did a subsequent analysis isolating pitchers who threw 10+% cut fastballs and split-finger fastballs.  There were 42 seasons of 10+% cut fastballs which were succeeded by 12 falloff seasons.  The 28% falloff rate almost exactly matches the average rate of 27% so we’ll rule out cut fastballs as a variable.  Only 19 pitching seasons saw 10+% split finger fastballs (Roger Craig – the pitching coach not the 49er – sheds a tear) and 7 of those seasons were Dan Haren or Kelvim Escobar so I’m not going to make any conclusions on that given lack of sample.

Fastballs and changeups appear to be mild positive indicators.  When I isolated pitchers who threw a below average % of Fastballs and Changeups, the results were promising for indicating potential falloff candidates.  But after taking out those with a high % of sliders, the remaining seasons came in about average.  So we’ll be taking curveballs out of the equation and focusing on sliders thrown as an indicator.

Below are the dropoff rates of those throwing sliders as 15, 20, and 25+ of their pitches indexed against the overall rate (27%).  We can see that the higher the slider rate, the higher the percentage of dropoffs.  That said, even at 25+%, the dropoff rate is only 35% (which is 32% more likely than a random pitcher).  The fact that CC Sabathia threw 25% sliders in 2009 doesn’t really give me any pause in drafting him.

Season Prior (2700+ pitches + xFIP < 5.00) Seasons Dropoff Seasons % of Dropoff Index
Slider > 15% 158 47 29.7% 110
Slider > 20% 79 25 31.6% 117
Slider > 25% 31 11 35.5% 132

Perhaps a stronger argument for not using this one statistic alone is isolating pitchers who threw 15% sliders but they didn’t have a 700+ pitch spike in the previous year nor was it their first year > 2,500+ pitches (loosening this up vs the previous 2,700+ pitches).  Of the 106 seasons that fit that description, 28 had falloffs or 26.4%.  So basically an experienced slider pitcher is no more likely to have a dropoff than the average pitcher.  In retrospect, this line of thinking would’ve taken Javier Vazquez, Ted Lilly, and Scott Baker off last year’s dropoff list.

Player Age

I was curious to see if my initial heralding of a ’700+ pitch increase’ and ‘first year above 2,700+ MLB pitches’ were just hiding an age-related skew – e.g., younger pitchers are more likely to drop off than players in their prime years.

Below is a distribution of all pitching seasons by age indexed against the 27% rate seen across all 21-37 year old pitchers.  As you can see, there is no rhyme or reason here.  I’m not reading into that dip at 27 given that 26 and 28 overindex.  So scrap player age as a consideration.

Age Total Seasons Dropoff Seasons % Dropoff Seasons Index
21 1 0 0.0% 0
22 4 0 0.0% 0
23 9 3 33.3% 124
24 18 4 22.2% 83
25 30 9 30.0% 111
26 36 11 30.6% 113
27 39 6 15.4% 57
28 41 13 31.7% 118
29 39 11 28.2% 105
30 34 10 29.4% 109
31 29 8 27.6% 102
32 26 8 30.8% 114
33 16 4 25.0% 93
34 14 5 35.7% 133
35 4 0 0.0% 0
36 6 2 33.3% 124
37 3 0 0.0% 0

700+ Pitch Spike

This criterion was inspired by the ‘Verducci Effect’ which theorizes that pitchers with a 40+ IP increase year over year is more at risk for injuries the next year.  His theory seemed to have a level of success over the years although last year’s predictions – based on my dropoff criteria – were subpar.  The only big dropoff on the list was from the worst (or 2nd worst) pitcher on the list (Eveland) and John Danks and Jonathan Niese are marginal cases.

‘Verducci Effect’ Choice 2009 Pitches xFIP Change Dropoff
Jon Lester 3404 -0.95 NO
Cole Hamels 3116 0.06 NO
Tim Lincecum 3439 -0.3 NO
Chad Billingsley 3250 0.42 NO
Clayton Kershaw 3030 -0.06 NO
Dana Eveland 839 0.65 YES
Mike Pelfrey 3158 0.03 NO
John Danks 3210 0.57 YES
Jair Jurrjens 3305 0.38 NO
Jonathan Niese 1906 (estimate MLB + minors) NA YES

(Quick Update:  SI.com just posted Tom Verducci’s ‘Verducci Effect‘ 10 for ’10 today.  I really like his work on SI and MLB.  But my first allegiance is with Fantasy Baseballers so I need to point out that his success metric of ‘year without injury and with a lower ERA’ is a rather low bar.  How low?  Of the 349 pitcher seasons of 21-37 years olds following years of 2700+ pitches and < 5.00 FIP in 2004-2008 (translation:  generally healthy years with a modicum of success), a full 60% of them saw a decrease in their FIP the next year.  I’m assuming ERA follows the same path.  Of the remaining 137 pitcher seasons, another 58 saw < 3,000 pitches thrown (a liberal proxy for no injuries as a healthy seasons is about 32 starts/3200+ pitches).  Net result:  23% (79 of 349) of all pitchers might ‘succeed’ based on his criteria.  So his 4-for-34 (12%) stat – which sounds amazing -  is a little bit like taking credit for predicting a Jersey Shore character might do something embarrassing in an episode.)

Based on my new dropoff criteria, 38 of 112 (33.9%) seasons following a 700+ pitch spike saw a dropoff.  This is a 126 index which is better than the 15% slider threshold.  BUT if we isolate this criteria from the others (< 15% sliders and not the first year with 2,500+ pitches), it results in 6 of 22 seasons or 27%.  So this factor alone isn’t a good predictor.  Note that none of the 20 risky pitchers I picked last year fit only the 700+ pitch spike criteria.

(Note:  It is possible this could be improved by factoring in minor league pitches as well.  It’s a big pain to cobble together the stats for all the minor league divisions though and only innings pitched are available.)

First Season Above 2,500+ Pitches (in MLB)

This is the rarest of the three criteria with 78 seasons (or 22% of all seasons) and 34.6% of the instances (27) followed with a dropoff season.  This 129 index slightly edges out the other two criteria.  Isolating this criteria is near impossible as it almost always occurs with a 700+ pitch spike – only 2 cases have occurred in the past 4 years.  But as the next section will show, it does seem to do a good job of isolating the riskier players who satisfy one of the other two criteria.

Testing 2+ of the Criteria

As noted above, while it appears that each criteria by itself is a positive indicator, isolating it from the other criteria saps it of any power.

The below chart shows the various combinations of the three criteria.  A combination of 2+ of the criteria nets a 34% dropoff rate (index 128) and all three criteria nets 40.6% (index 151).

Season Prior (2700+ pitches + xFIP < 5.00) Shortcut description Seasons Dropoff Seasons % of Dropoff Index
Slider > 15% A 158 47 29.7% 110
Pitch Diff > 700 B 112 38 33.9% 126
First Year > 2500 C 78 27 34.6% 129
None of three -(ABC) 126 27 21.4% 80
1+ of three A OR B OR C 223 67 30.0% 112
2+ of three 2 OR MORE 93 32 34.4% 128
All three A & B & C 32 13 40.6% 151
*2 or more is the sum of ‘All three’ plus:
A AND C NOT B 3 0 0.0% 0
A AND B NOT C 17 6 35.3% 131
B AND C NOT A 41 13 31.7% 118

If I had just limited my risky pitcher selections to only those that fit 2 criteria, Vazquez, Lilly, and Baker could’ve been replaced by Edinson Volquez (first MLB year with 2,500+ pitches and 700+ pitch spike), Manny Parra (same two criteria) and either Backe or Redding (whom I noted as risks) and netted a respectable 11-for-20 (with Greinke and Lester being painful selections).

Here is a breakdown of the 19 pitchers that qualified as a falloff with the # of criteria they met.  8 of the 19 (42%) fit 2+ criteria while 26 of the 73 (35.6%) overall fit the criteria (index: 118):

2009 Dropoff Pitchers
Slider 15+% Pitch Spike 700+ First Year Above 2,500+ MLB Pitches Criteria Met
Andy Sonnanstine 1 1 1 3
Brandon Backe 1 1 1 3
Jesse Litsch 0 1 1 2
Edinson Volquez 0 1 1 2
Ervin Santana 1 1 0 2
Manny Parra 0 1 1 2
Brett Myers 1 1 0 2
Tim Redding 1 1 0 2
Ben Sheets 0 1 0 1
Dice-K 1 0 0 1
Derek Lowe 1 0 0 1
Hiroki Kuroda 1 0 0 1
Kyle Lohse 1 0 0 1
Oliver Perez 1 0 0 1
Jake Peavy 1 0 0 1
Scott Olsen 1 0 0 1
Brandon Webb 0 0 0 0
David Bush 0 0 0 0
Scott Kazmir 0 0 0 0

Final point for this section:  Of the 32 seasons that qualify for the trifecta, the ‘dropoff’ rate was 11-for-24 in 2005-2008 (46%) but only 2-for-8 in 2009 (25%).  Andy Sonnanstine (whom was on my list) and Brandon Backe (who was noted but not put on because he wasn’t likely to be drafted) were the two players in 2009 that fit the bill.     Todd Wellemeyer (2,117 pitches/0.72 xFIP increase),  Armando Galarraga (2,453 pitches,  0.53 xFIP increase), and John Lannan (0.41 xFIP increase) did see regression with Ricky Nolasco, Johnny Cueto, and Gavin Floyd were able to maintain or progress.  Just goes to show that even the highest indexing predictor can be ineffective for a season given its small sample.

That’s it for now.  In the next post, I’ll list out the 20 riskiest pitchers to not draft based on these criteria.

32 Responses

  1. TheQuestforMerlin says:
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    Holy smokes, Batman. This is some great analysis and retrospective critical thinking. I’m not going to lie, after following the work I was excited to reach the end thinking you were going to post 2010′s riskiest pitchers… instead I get an episode ending cliffhanger! Looking forward to part II.

  2. Cheese

    Cheese says:
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    Wow, great job Rudy. Awesome post, and my brain definitely hurts after that one. Excited for the top 20 risky pitchers list! Keep up the nice work.

  3. The Hebrew Hammer says:
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    I ignored the risky pitchers post last year at my own peril. I will not make the same mistake twice.

  4. AL KOHOLIC says:
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    and you wander why i drink?couldnt get it sober,great work and waiting on the follow up

  5. Frank Rizzo says:
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    I look forward to your list of 20 Rudy. Great stuff. Numbers don’t lie……until they do.

  6. Critter Nagurski says:
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    The best thing about this post is that it makes me feel less bad for spending the time I do with player data.

    Why not just run a survival model – it would be a lot more robust and convincing than what you have here, and it seems like you have the data

  7. Tarasco'sSecretStash says:
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    Thanks Rudy, this is excellent.

  8. brad says:
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    my boy’s wicked smart

  9. eltoo says:
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    @brad: smaht*

  10. sean says:
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    @Rudy: the area that I’m most concerned about is where pitchers: (1) meet the criteria for “risky”;
    (2) season performance puts their peripherals basically in line with career norms; and
    (3) they suffer a drop-off in ERA and WHIP but not in “skill-measuring” sabermetric stats like FIP, xFIP, and the others.

    If we look at last year’s list, Nolasco screams at me. Billingsley, Hamels, and Garza also come to mind. These four were all guys on everyone’s list. They didn’t really check out as risky pitchers, but they failed our fantasy teams.

    Any advice?

  11. Thanks all for the compliments. Will crank out the ‘cliffhanger’ of the risky 20 in the next week or so!

    @sean: If the ‘skill measuring’ stats don’t change, I think any dropoffs are flukes. Over time, I think some players have shown that they can outperform the average FIP, BABIP, etc. – for example, I think Javier Vazquez always has a better FIP than ERA – but it’s a strong indicator for most. Same ‘fluke’ status goes for guys that overperform like J.A. Happ…

  12. Ian says:
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    I fear that some young dudes that I’m quite fond of (that didn’t come out right) will make this list. Hanson, Wain-O, Josh Johnson, and Brett Anderson seem like likely suspects.

  13. too many charts for me – I kind of like the way you did your charts last year Rudy Gamble – 20 risky Pitchers for 2009 –

    I see Andy Sonnanstine headlines the charts but even if you did not make the charts who would be crazy enough to draft him

  14. Bob says:
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    I’d like to see a chart featuring who ISN”T a risky pitcher. As far as I’m concerned, they all are. That’s why I won’t even think about drafting starters until the 8th round. That way, I can throw them away if the Peavyize me, like last year.

  15. Stephen says:
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    @Ian: What’s interesting to note is that Josh Johnson’s fastball sped up nearly 2 mph while his slider improved 1 mph since recovering from Tommy John’s surgery. However, I wouldn’t be surprised to see all those pitchers on that list.

    @Rudy Gamble: Wowzer. This article is impeccably written with good hindsight analysis. I would swear you work with research papers on a fairly consistent basis. Great job. Looking forward to the Top 20 Riskiest Pitchers article.

  16. Stephen says:
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    Also, Francisco Liriano could easily be on this list.

  17. @Bob: No doubt that pitchers are more risky than hitters. I’d say most pitchers who have 2-3+ full years under their belt and are < 35 are about as risk-free as you’re going to get. That said, hitters have their risk too. My philosophy is that waiting until 8th round to take pitchers means you might have to reach for hitters in rounds 3-7 and then are dependent on SP/RP bargains for much of the remaining draft. I’d rather get 2-3 solid SPs in rounds 2-7 and then have the flexibility to zag when the others zig.

  18. Real Tom says:
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    Rudy, what top three or four pitchers are YOU targeting this year, based on both risk and draft value?

    For example, I want Bills, Nolasco and Sanchez on most of my teams, because I think they’re relatively good value at their ADP, and they balance stability and upside. Bills and Nolasco more because I need top pitchers, and Sanchez because he’s great value.

    Who will you be targeting?

  19. @Real Tom: I’ve got my projections in order but haven’t compared them yet to ADPs. I honestly try to go into the process as stupid as possible (forget past performance – see what the data says) and then investigate when i see discrepancies. I’ll have a post closer to prime draft season where I list top bargain + overpriced players.

    I’m looking at my SPs in descending order of Point Shares (you can see them under 2010 Fantasy Baseball Rankings) and not a lot of players are making me feel fuzzy. But if Sabathia, Haren, Greinke, Verlander, or F-Her were available in the 4th/5th round, I’d feel pretty happy. I can also see taking a bounceback pitcher like Peavy or Bedard in the 10th round or so…

  20. DrEasy says:
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    Rudy, could it be that you’re selling yourself short in cases where the predicted disaster did happen, but was masked by the overall performance through the year? Johnny Cueto (good first half, disaster second half), or Scott Baker (bad first half, nice recovery the second half) comes to mind.

  21. Steve says:
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    @Rudy Gamble: Just so you don’t think you’re being blindsided, I just asked Grey in the other post about your (apparent) divergence of opinion on Peavy and Bedard.

  22. @DrEasy: Well, I’m not beating myself up too much on those three. But Greinke and Lester…ouch.

    @Steve: Grey seems really opinionated but he’s open-minded enough to take advantage of a bargain. It’s all about risk/reward with injured pitchers and not taking on too much risk. If someone took Peavy AND Bedard, they are nuts. But if one of those guys is around late, it’s at least tempting. See 2009 – Carpenter, Cris.

  23. Steve says:
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    @Rudy Gamble: Oh – anyone who’s been here for any length of time knows that you guys approach things differently – and that’s a big part of what makes Razzball so good.

    Nothing more than you guys valuing different guys differently

  24. @Steve: You’d expect us to value different guys differently. It’s when we view the same guys differently that might be surprising :)

  25. Dingo says:
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    @Rudy Gamble: I’d be more worried if you valued different guys same…ly?

  26. Rhymenoceros says:
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    @Rudy Gamble: I’m sure your brain would fill Kevin Mench’s hat. Most of that shizz doesn’t make a lick of sense because I slept through most of my statistics class in college. However, I like the changes you made to the criteria. Hopefully it gets you closer to knowing which type of pitcher has the most risk.

  27. airlifting says:
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    so what is your ultimate opinion on the verducci effect?

  28. @Rhymenoceros: My brain couldn’t fit in Kevin Mench’s hat if I injected it daily with HGH for a century. Fingers crossed on my predictions this year…

    @airlifting: I think inexperienced pitchers are more prone to injuries – there’s a sort of Darwinian aspect to it where those that have survived 2 or more full seasons as an MLB starter is more likely to survive a 3rd than someone who just has 1 under their belt and that pitcher is more likely to survive a 2nd than a pitcher who hasn’t done it before.

    So I think throwing in guys like Felix Hernandez who’ve pitched in the majors for a couple of years with Cesar Carillo and Bud Norris because they share a 40+ IP criteria is a bit faulty.

    The faultiest item is really how he gauges success which I noted in my post.

    But Verducci was ahead of this and who’s to say I would’ve even researched this further if it wasn’t for reading his earlier articles…

  29. Cecil ate a whole nother Fielder says:
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    Hey Rudy – with drafts soon starting in earnest, any word on when the 2010 risky pitcher “cliffhanger” will be making the scene? It is a great data indicator (regardless of any 2009 debatables), especially when choosing between 2 similarly ranked pitchers. Thanks!

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