For those who don’t know who William Norwood is your first thought, after glancing at the title of this piece, would probably be an orthopedic surgeon about to become famous for developing a radical new way to repair the panoply of injuries that have beset the sport of baseball in general and pitchers in particular. Not the case. Norwood is a surgeon, of significant renown in fact, but not an orthopedist. His specialty is pediatric cardio-thoracic work. There is a specific multi step procedure that bears his name. It has changed countless lives since its inception in 1981 and while improving the national pastime pales in comparison to saving a child’s life I think it’s still worth musing over. The application of his work is, to say the least, indirect but the cognitive approach involved in it’s formation could be of immense value to the sport, and subsequently to its fans.
Norwood’s breakthrough came concerning a congenital heart disease called hypoplastic left heart syndrome. In babies afflicted with this condition the left side of the heart is severely underdeveloped in utero. The left side is the one that supplies the body with oxygen rich blood. The results were as dire and straight forward as it seems. Prior to Dr. Norwood’s change in approach, all surgical intervention had failed. The standard of care was palliation until the infant’s eventual demise. Norwood changed all that. What’s fascinating to me is that the procedure has four separate components, spread out over three stages and at a fundamental level his contribution to this could be most accurately described as absolutely nothing. Norwood pioneered none of the individual techniques involved. But he did realize that by combining the already existing options in the right order he could turn a problem that no one could solve into one that would have a positive outcome. The insights that he had in that regard are the ones that I think have broader application, and if properly tailored to the sport could end up alleviating its most pressing miseries.
When we strip away all the technical detail, the Norwood procedure boils down to lateral thought leading to a simple change in utilization of already existing resources yielding an incalculably better result. Which brings us to the plague of elbow and shoulder injuries that have become de rigueur for major league pitchers. If you’re reading this I will assume that you are a fan of the sport, and regardless of where your rooting interests lie you have, in recent years, experienced the loss of a key starter at a soul crushing moment. You’ve also watched your team try a variety of failing strategies to deal with, and hopefully avoid the situation, with mediocre results at best. I think it’s possible that utilizing the philosophical approach mentioned in the above described surgery in conjunction with a top to bottom systemic commitment to the flexibility needed on an organizational basis a team could work entirely within their own talent pool and improve their outcome, without dramatically altering their financial burdens. I think that the improvement would happen on the field and in the training room.
Beginning in the center of this puzzle, our first obligation is to cover the roughly 1450 innings of pitching it takes to get through a 162 game schedule. As it is now there is a large (and growing) gap between the demands placed on a starting pitcher and the established mean physical capacity of the men who fill that role. Most of what I hear/read in regard to this problem involves getting pitchers past their difficulties in facing a lineup for the third time in a start. Virtually everyone’s ERA goes up each time through the order. If I presented this issue to a person with no interest in or experience with baseball, their response would be predictable. Stop using the player before the dramatic drop in effectiveness. I imagine that many knowledgeable fans, as well as people who make decisions like that for a living would be open to that kind of approach if not for the issue of roster size. That concern is understandable but there are effective tradeoffs and solutions available which require a little tinkering and skill acquisition here, and a whole lot of reshuffling the deck there. A rotation today consists of five men who are each expected to make 32-33 starts a year. The rest of the staff consists of some combination of the following: one or two long men, a lefty specialist, a seventh inning man, an eight inning man and a closer. That brings us to eleven men. Most teams keep a “just-in-case” guy around making it twelve; essentially half of the twenty-five man roster. Nobody throws complete games anymore so six to seven innings a start has become the gold standard for a starter’s workload. With almost every one experiencing the decline mentioned before most of the stress on a pitcher’s arm comes after the fifth inning. If roster size wasn’t an issue I think a four man rotation, with a corresponding drop in per start innings would be a preferred plan. Forty starts a season, five innings a start would mean many fewer pitches thrown under duress.
The next accommodation would have to be in loosening up the current rigid patterns of bullpen usage. Please pardon my brief personal rant here. If I were running a baseball team I can not imagine using my best non-starting pitcher in the way that closers are used today. It is rare that any team’s featured reliever enters the game for more than one inning, before the ninth inning or starts working with runners on base. This is an utterly moronic expenditure of what is supposedly a very valuable resource. If we’re in the seventh inning with the bases loaded, one out and the other team’s number three hitter up I’d be hard pressed to see how that’s not a good time to be using my best option available. If I had a pitcher getting paid closer money who just couldn’t be counted on at that moment I’d start holding open tryouts for the next guy to hold that position. Period. That sort of bullshit is the biggest, but far from the only, example of the kind of intellectual constipation that is exacerbating the problems with pitching in the game today. The “closer” position is the easiest to caricature but the rigid assignment of hyper specific roles infects way the entire staff is used.
Bringing us back to where I first began to froth at the mouth, a four man rotation would be a big help in this regard. For one thing it would free up the fifth starter to take more innings in relief. There’s no reason why someone who’s been trained to start every fifth day can’t be repurposed to throw two plus innings twice a week instead. Think of that. Twice a week the first guy in after the starter would be working with all the upside of a starter without the exposure that comes from pitching deep into a game. As an added incentive the dependability of those pitchers would most likely cut back on the endless warmups that the rest of the staff ends up going through on a nightly basis. As a long suffering Met fan I can’t count how many times I’ve watched a member of our ‘pen throw a half a games worth of pitches before they ever took the mound. Having a “starter” level talent available twice a week would allow the long men to pitch their innings under less pressure, and so on down the line. By not asking people to do things they can’t we’d be more certain of them being able to do what we know is comfortably in their skill set. More judicious use of the staff would also mitigate trips to the operating theater. With the velocities being not only reached but held my the majority of major leaguers we have probably reached the end of what we can do preventatively through training methods.
There is a limit to how much the connective tissue of the human body can enhanced. Without diving too deeply into the world of kinesiology, tendons and ligaments do not respond to exercise in the way that muscle bellies do. If the limbs in use have maxed out their adaptability and the usage seems unlikely to change in intensity the only variable left is workload. Moving, as baseball did in the 70’s, from a four to five man rotation is a frequency based change. It is no longer working. The next logical choice would seem to me to be the pattern of usage. Pitching more frequently under less stressful circumstances is at least worth considering. Regardless of what some of you may be thinking by now, I am not actually an idiot. As far as you know. Under the plan I’ve (barely) outlined above we could really make use of thirteen men on a pitching staff. Which brings us to T.J. Rivera.
Rivera was an undrafted player, out of Troy University. Signed as a free agent by the Mets he was not on the forty man roster after the 2015 season but went unselected in the subsequent rule 5 draft. I write this not to belittle him, but to make a case for his determined nature as a way of setting the stage for the suggestion I’m about to make. Having watched him play a bit the one word I would most associate with him is athleticism. He looked like the kind of guy who would do whatever necessary to fit in at any position, even if he had no natural place where he would truly excel. At the plate he was aggressive which worked in his favor against somebody with a strong dedication to throwing strike one, but at a disadvantage when he was up against a pitcher who could really work the edges. It’s hard to project him as an everyday player but his willingness to do anything the team needed combined with above average motor skills make him a valuable man off the bench. There is one thing I thought he might be willing to do that would make him an even greater potential asset. T.J. Rivera struck me as the kind of guy who might say yes if management asked him learn to catch. It sounds like a small thing but it could really change the makeup and thus utility of the bench. And, quite possibly allow a team to carry an extra pitcher. Having a player like (idealized) T.J. Rivera would give a team a third catcher, fifth outfielder, and sixth infielder all wearing the same number on their (his) back. If the rest of the team was put together with an eye for versatility a team could operate with a thirteen man pitching staff. Of course the Mets didn’t make any such request. That may be in no small part because he is a true Met, in the sense that at this moment he is busily recovering from Tommy John surgery. But if Rivera the individual is no longer part of the conversation then Rivera as a concept still can be. Most if not every organization has a T.J. Rivera in their employ. These are men who’ve heard one version or another of “no” throughout their athletic careers, and just kept going. I’m guessing that if you told them their best shot at a major league paycheck was to become a third catcher/ utility everything they’d buy their own shin guards.
It isn’t just the Rivera’s. It’s also the Chris Capuano’s. Chris Capuano was a Met starting pitcher who was very tough through the first four innings (ERA under 2.80) and struggled after that. What would his career have looked like if he’d been responsible for two three inning appearances a week instead of trying to get through six innings once every five days. That must have been incredibly frustrating, and may have piled up enough high leverage pitches that it contributed to multiple arm operations. To be fair no one starts out wanting to be “just” a role player, and I’m sure Capuano and Rivera were no exceptions to that rule. Still, for most players that kind of thinking represents a false choice. With all due respect it’s not like either of those men, or the many more like them are trying to choose between superstardom and supporting jobs. Their skills are what they are. To be fair I think seeing that reality and then bringing it to pass is the job of management, both on the field and in the front office. Pitchers might be more willing to accept the task of throwing 125 innings a year and trying to keep their ERA (or even better FIP) under 3.00 if the organization showed the kind of fiscal love that sort of performance merits. Which leads us to (thank God) the final leg of this marathon.
The real burden of this kind of systemic change lies with the boss. In order for this approach to be accepted by the players and take hold, a general manager is going to have to make it clear that the team he’s running is going to evaluate and reward people in light of this non-traditional way of trying to win ballgames. If you’re going to ask athletes to serve atypical functions you’re going to need to understand the relative values of those functions and act accordingly. If management was willing to do this a player’s natural resistance to what he saw as a less important job would probably lessen. So would (hopefully) his agents. For most organizations this is a project they could start on right away. As unorthodox as it is a winning record is a powerful tool of conversion. The benefits to the team would extend far beyond the obvious competitive level. Even if a team’s payroll didn’t change much the distribution would help mitigate the likelihood of getting stuck with a financial black hole, a la Albert Pujols or Jacoby Ellsbury. Getting more effective work from the pitchers would decrease stress on the fielders and allow the offense to move away from the all or nothing course it is now on.
I realize I’m pipe dreaming here. I’m sure I’m going to get a plethora of comments questioning my psychiatric well being, genetic lineage or both. As a Met fan I know I’m not in danger of seeing anything like this in my lifetime. Oh well, at least I wrote it before Billy Beane started doing it.