Readiness or Roles?

Watching the playoffs this year, it’s clear that Andrew Miller’s usage last year wasn’t an aberration. Pitchers, at least in the playoffs, are going to be asked to work to get outs, not fill roles. One-inning closers are pushed to go more than one. Starters are used as relievers. Innings are extended, as are pitch counts.

This is clearly effective and in must-win games, rest and pretty much everything else is irrelevant. However, Voros McCracken, a well-known baseball researcher best known as the creator of fielder-independent pitching stats, posits that either the regular season model or the new post-season model of pitching usage is broken. It’s a tough one to test.

Many others state that the playoff model is unsustainable in the long term. This hasn’t been tested, but has some logic. Whether it’s Brian Kenny’s “bullpenning” or any other sort of role-less system, there’s not a lot of data available on how this works. Even in the past few playoffs, there’s very little usable data that would indicate how pitchers respond to these workloads.

Most of the confusion lies in the lack of knowledge about pitcher recovery. There’s still remnants of the old school, know-your-role and ice-your-arm still in control of pitching staffs out there. The change has been evolutionary, moving from observation and hope, to measuring and modalities.

The tools available to help a pitcher recover from a start are simply better. Our understanding of conditioning, response, and active recovery are much better now than they were fifty years ago or even ten. Look into the training room of a major league team and you’ll see tools like the Marc Pro, a modality that uses electricity to stimulate recovery. You’ll see players using pulsed electricity, driving more electricity deep into muscles and tissues. Lasers, massage tools, and more will be in there as well.

Teams are also doing more to measure the athletes. Most of the work has been done on external measures, but heart rate and true arm stress can be directly measured in game now. MLB has approved the motusTHROW and the Zephyr heart monitor for in game use, allowing a real-time look at the physical condition of pitchers that allows for adjustments of workload and readiness.”

This measure of readiness is going to be the real key. Given the right parameters, the problem becomes one of scheduling (or more accurately, combinatorics.) It’s simple to break things down into roles. Starters start every fifth day, relievers can’t go too many in a row – that’s easy, but it only works to a point. A role-less future is going to have to take much more into account.

In future pieces, I’m going to take a deeper look at readiness, possible problems and solutions, and how pitchers can work on their own readiness, taking control of their own arm.