Letting Loose on Use vs. Abuse
In a recent interview with Bert Blyleven, I asked the man who ranks fifth in career strikeouts and ninth in shutouts how Felix Hernandez compared to Dwight Gooden. Blyleven's following response caused several readers to reply in the comments attached to the article and via email.
Again, let's see how Felix does in his next start and how he finishes the season. Baseball has always compared this player to that player. Hernandez has made only two major-league starts. It's not fair to him to start comparing him to Gooden or any other pitcher. "Doc" Gooden had a very bright future in the game of baseball but ruined it by taking drugs. We will never know how good he could have been over a long career because of his choices.
More than a few readers blamed Mel Stottlemyre for Gooden's subsequent decline. In reaction to those comments, I said pointing the finger at Stottlemyre for Gooden's problems would be like finding fault with Darryl Strawberry's hitting coach as the reason he fell short of the high expectations placed upon him.
To get another perspective, I asked Bob Klapisch, who has covered baseball in New York for more than 20 years with the New York Post, New York Daily News, The Bergen Record and ESPN.com, "Do you believe Dwight Gooden's failure to put together a Hall of Fame career is due to overuse, drugs, or some combo of the two?"
Here is what Klapisch, the author of five baseball books (including High and Tight: The Rise and Fall of Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry) had to say:
Definitely drugs and drinking. All the Mets failed to take the game seriously back then, but Doc and Darryl were the worst offenders. They thought it was cool to show up to the park hungover. I remember when Kevin Elster gave it one last go-round with the Yankees in spring training in '02. He still had great hands, but he was like some alien creature to the other players - showing up two minutes before everyone had to be on the field, still smelling of beer and cigarettes. Everyone else had already been in the complex for two hours working out, but Elster - like all the other Eighties Mets - never believed in that. Gooden especially.
Too bad. At the core, he was a nice guy with an unbelievable arm.
Klapisch, who also co-authored a book with Gooden (Heat: My Life on and Off the Diamond), knows as much or more about the 1984 NL Rookie of the Year and 1985 NL Cy Young Award winner as any writer in the business. He witnessed and reported on Doc's good years as well as the bad.
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Although not directly related to Gooden per se, I thought Bill James made some poignant comments regarding pitcher usage on the SABR-L board last Monday. With Bill's permission, I am reprinting his post in its entirety:
Since my research has been cited in the discussion of pitcher longevity, I thought perhaps I should take a moment to put my views on the issue on record. Sabermetrics prizes knowledge and despises opinion. Over the last thirty years, many serious people have made sincere and dedicated efforts to understand the relationship between pitcher usage patterns and pitcher injuries. It seems to me that, despite these efforts, there is very little about the subject which is actually known. What we have is more along the lines of research-based opinions.
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The ways in which pitchers are used in games has changed, since 1975, not only in one way, but in many, many different ways. The ways in which young pitchers are trained and developed have also changed in many different ways. Somebody offered a summary of some research I published twenty-five years ago. Without commenting on whether or not the summary was accurate--I don't have any idea whether it was or wasn't--I would say that no research done in this area twenty years ago is of very much relevance to modern baseball. The usage patterns have simply changed too much.
Years ago, many of us questioned the wisdom of certain usage patterns of young and less experienced pitchers, arguing that these patterns were careless and would lead to unnecessary injuries. What I think a lot of people don't understand is that that argument ended in the 1980s. Major league managers now universally accept the idea that pushing young pitchers too deep into the game carries a risk of injury. There is nobody left in the managerial ranks who does that, and there hasn't been for years.
The more relevant questions now are whether these changes in pitcher usage patterns are well thought out, whether they are appropriate, and whether they are delivering actual benefits. The two most significant changes are:
1) The switch from four-man to five-man rotations, which began in the 1970s and was completed by 1990, and
2) The imposition of pitch limits, which began about ten years later mid-1980s) and was completed about ten years later (ca. 2000).
My opinions, for what they may be worth, are that
1) There is no evidence that the switch from four-man to five-man rotations has delivered any benefits except in limited cases.
2) Modern pitch limits, while they are no doubt useful and appropriate for young pitchers, may be unnecessarily strict for mature pitchers.
3) There is little reason to believe that any modern manager is abusing the arms of his pitchers.
4) There is, however, a substantial question as to whether the ways that we develop young pitchers are solid, and even a fair question as to whether they are as good as they were thirty years ago.
5) Much of the discussion seems to proceed on the assumption that injury rates for pitchers are higher now than they used to be. I very much doubt that this is true. It seems to me overwhelmingly likely that the injury rates of modern pitchers are lower than they used to be, not higher.
Given the results of Hernandez's last two outings, it will be interesting to see if Seattle opts to shut him down for the remainder of the year. He has already acquired a lot of valuable experience and the Mariners are going nowhere fast. As such, it seems like there is more to lose than to gain by pitching Hernandez the final two weeks of the season.
As history and the above commentary demonstrates, pitcher usage is an inexact science. Every pitcher and situation is different. Some can handle the increased loads better than others. How Blyleven and Gooden responded is a matter of record. What becomes of Hernandez remains to be seen.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]