We Had All the Answers, and Rany Jazayerli Just Changed the Questions

I’ve talked before about how my journey as a skeptical reader, a journey that eventually landed me here as a semi-respected writer on baseball matters, began with reading Rob Neyer and Rany Jazayerli’s Rob and Rany on the Royals columns in my freshman dorm 15 years ago.  So it’s with that same skeptical eye that I read Rany’s Grantland column yesterday about Stephen Strasburg.

Rany argues that the Nationals were wrong to shut Strasburg down because, essentially, the Nats are babying Strasburg and the preventing injury in young pitchers pendulum has swung too far in this case.  Now, that’s a drastic oversimplification, and the point he’s making sounds eerily similar to the old school complaints that pitch counts are ruining the game.  But Rany’s not decrying reduced workloads.  Instead, he’s pointing out that reduced work loads have already done their jobs.

Rany takes us through a lot of the modern history of pitch counts and efforts by Saber types and seamheads to get MLB to pay attention to and avoid pitcher abuse, an effort that Rany argues has been largely successful as

“From 1984 to 1998, one out of every two young starters was still starting regularly five years later. From 1999 onward, two out of every three young starters have done so. These are the best young pitchers in the game — and their failure rate has been cut by a third. That ain’t beanbag….That’s the take-home point here: Major league baseball teams have dramatically altered the way they handle starting pitchers — and in doing so, they have significantly reduced the risk of injury to those pitchers.” [emphasis is Rany's]

Now, to get to his conclusion, Rany uses some pretty arbitrary endpoints for his study, only looks at games started data, and goes through a ton of anecdotal data about specific pitchers.  Obviously, this makes his study far from conclusive.  You would be right to read his argument with a skeptical eye and to question his methodology like I did.  But skepticism isn’t an end point in and of itself, and the issue that Rany raises is an incredibly important one if Sabermetrics isn’t going to stagnate. 

Essentially, what Jazayerli is saying is that seamheads have won this fight, but that in winning we now need to critically examine our own paradigms to prevent falling into the same dogmatic traps that doomed generations of young pitchers to early rotator cuff tears.  It’s a question that ultimately can and should change the way we think about how pitchers are handled going forward.  It’s not picking between the extremes of whether pitchers are babied or overworked, but a question of what’s the best way to maximize the value a team can responsibly get out of a young pitcher.  We don’t want our favorite teams to ruin careers, but we also want them to win games.  It’s a delicate balance that takes a scalpal to take apart, rather than the chainsaws most of us have been using.  And I think we’ll all be able to look back on this as one of the seminal moments when all our questions began to change and we started to build new knowledge around this issue.

Rany’s going to get slammed in some quarters, but don’t get suckered in by that. Just because he doesn’t have the magic bullet that ties everything together doesn’t mean he’s wrong.  Indeed, this is what the revolution looks like when it starts.  It’s messy, and a little incomplete, and requires a great deal of additional critique and examination.  Don’t look at this as the end of a conversation, but the beginning.  And consider it an invitation to join in.  But be ready to bring data and to be convincing.  Rany’s thrown down the gauntlet here and has generously provided us all with a new question and a jumping off point for further research.  If you don’t engage with it and other similar questions that challenge Sabermetric doctrine when they arise, you’re going to get left behind.