Tuesday, March 29, 2016

On Aaron Sanchez, The Year After Effect, and Smarter Pitch Counts

Toronto Blue Jays say pitcher Aaron Sanchez will be in starting rotation.
Butch Dill/USA Today Sports 
   With the news that Aaron Sanchez landed a spot in the Blue Jays starting rotation has come a concern for his young arm, and the innings that he may have to pitch as a starter this year.

   Blue Jays bloggers and media types alike have trotted out rules-of-thumb like the Year After Effect (sometimes mistakenly termed the Verducci effect) to explain how the Blue Jays will determine how many innings Sanchez, whose season high to this point is just over 130, will throw this season. Others suggest that Sanchez will be skipped at various times this year, some say that he will spend time in the bullpen in order to protect his young arm, and a few have even gone as far as to say that he will be shut down, a la Stephen Strasburg, when he reaches his supposed innings limit.

  All of this speculation ignores a basic fact - measures such as the Year After Effect, innings limits, and even to some extent simple pitch counts are very outdated means of monitoring a young arm. Many significant new advances have taken place over the past decade.

   One thing is certain:  the risk of a torn Ulnar Collateral Ligament, which can usually only be corrected by Tommy John surgery (the Jays tried rehab and Platelet-Rich Therapy with Roberto Osuna in 2013, with limited results, before submitting to Tommy John), drops significantly after 25 years of age, meaning that Sanchez is still in his prime years of risk.  Whatever measure the Blue Jays use, they will be carefully protecting him for at least a few more seasons.

   President Mark Shapiro as quietly been going about constructing a model organization in terms of player training and development since taking over last fall.  He has established the Blue Jays own version of a Centre for High Performance, hiring experts in strength and conditioning, nutrition, physiotherapy, and sport psychology to staff it.  As the team negotiates with the City of Dunedin on a new spring training agreement, a new, state-of-the-art training facility is likely a crucial part of those talks.  High Performance Centres are nothing new in the world of sport, but they are somewhat revolutionary in the world of baseball, and this no doubt has been a dream of the forward-thinking Shapiro for some time, but was not something his budget-conscious previous employer was willing to fund.

 No doubt part of the mandate for this new facet of the organization is injury prevention - something which is still just starting to gain traction in baseball, whose approach to arm injuries up to this point has been mostly restorative.  And the approaches they will use go far beyond the Year After Effect.

  The YAE has gotten a bit of a bad rap, but it, at least, was an attempt to make a systematic study of why UCLs were tearing.  The underlying assumption of it, as well as regular pitch counts, is that all innings and all pitches are created equal - and they're not.  A three-up, three-down, 8 pitch inning is not the same as one that approaches 30 (the magic number for Blue Jays pitching prospects - their day is over if they reach that limit in any inning), and a pitch with no runners on in a scoreless game in the 2nd is not the same in terms of leverage as one thrown with runners in scoring position in the 6th.  Pitcher fatigue is the culprit when it comes to injuries - the point at which a pitcher's mechanics become shoddy because he's tiring.  The out of sync mechanics that happen when a pitcher becomes tired are usually the cause of injury.

 But there are far more effective means of determining when a pitcher is becoming tired.  Smart Pitch Counts take into account the type of pitch and situation its thrown in, and come up with a score to determine pitcher fatigue.  Rany Jazayerli of Baseball Prospectus introduced the concept of Pitcher Abuse Points almost 20 years ago, and has reviewed and revised the formula to determine when a pitcher might be fatigued to the point of risking severe injury.

 Motus, which describes itself as "The Global Leader in Biomechanics for Sports Injury Prevention and Performance Analysis" has developed a compression sleeve with a sensor inside of it which can track the motion of a pitcher's arm as he delivers a pitch.  Many teams, including the Blue Jays, have been using it for that past few seasons.  The data generated by the sensor can be tracked by an iPhone app, but it sounds like the device is still a work in progress.  It's more than likely that some MLB teams have invested in some deeper proprietary analysis with this device.

 One thing seems to be unanimous throughout the baseball community:  poor mechanics are often the cause of pitcher injury.  Add to that a growing understanding of how to properly train and develop a pitcher, and you have the growth of training companies like Driveline Baseball, which uses weighted ball training and super slow motion video analysis to both build velocity and protect the arm through increased strength. Driveline uses a four step method to train pitchers, including training blocks dedicated to building arm strength, improving range of motion and force development, and "reorganizing proprioception" (basically, building what some refer to as muscle memory).  They are on the cutting edge of pitching research, but they are still virtually pioneers in the baseball world at the moment.

   That Sanchez was being considered for the bullpen was understandable, given his performance there, and the toll starting appeared to have taken on him last year.  As August Fagerstrom of Fangraphs has pointed out, Sanchez is a different pitcher this spring.  Not only has he started to transform his body (I'm impressed with the work he's done, but I am a bit of a cynic - it usually takes, about a year for a new training regimen to start showing significant results for elite athletes, not a three month off-season), but he's vastly improved his control - he's walked just 3 of the 78 hitters he's faced this spring.  Even with the presence of vet Gavin Floyd, Sanchez should have easily been in the mix for a starting job.  He's been one of the best pitchers in Florida this spring.  Perhaps the biggest factor has been improved command of his secondary pitches.  The club had to balance what was best for both the team this year and in the future, but this was absolutely the right move.  The Blue Jays have been accused in the past of babying their top young arms, but starting two years ago, they became very aggressive with their promotions.  There is always a fine line to be walked between challenging a young player and putting him a place where he's most likely to be successful, but Sanchez will never learn how to turn over a lineup from the back end of the bullpen.

   What does this all mean for Aaron Sanchez?  It's hard to say for certain, but the Blue Jays have likely been using technology to monitor his mechanics, in addition to the preventative work he did with his good buddy Marcus Stroman this off season.  As far as what the team's plan is for Sanchez, it's safe to say that the detail-oriented Shapiro has one in place.  It may involve skipping turns in the rotation, although it's hard to see him spend shuttling between the bullpen and the rotation this year - not with veteran swingman Jesse Chavez on the staff.  Manager John Gibbons did suggest to reporters that Sanchez will not spend the entire season as a starter, but did say that we wouldn't see a Strasburg-like shutdown of him, telling reporters “It’s not one of those things where he’s not going to pitch this year, like happened in another place a few years ago.”  If the plan is to move Sanchez to the bullpen, the stress that can be caused my warming up multiple times, and pitching in high leverage situations has to be considered.  Given the depth the Blue Jays have in the bullpen compared to a year ago (if everyone stays healthy), Sanchez may not need to make as much of a contribution as he did last year.
  Whatever the plan is for Sanchez, it will not be based just on pitch counts or innings.  GM Ross Atkins told the media that the new High-Performance division will play a large part in determining direction for Sanchez:
“It’s one thing for a general manager or a pitching coach to come up with a framework on how to monitor fatigue levels, It’s another thing for an expert in sports science to come up with a framework to measure that.”
   What will this new department use to determine when the risk of injury to Sanchez exceeds his value to the rotation?  Probably a combination of metrics - Smart Pitch counts, video analysis, and data from a Motus-like measuring device, as well as analytics involving pitch velocity and movement, as well as input from key personnel.

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