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MLB Starting Pitchers: High Return and High Risk

Stephen Strasburg

Howard Smith – USA TODAY Sports

In a recent article, I wrote about the high return but high risk of NFL quarterbacks. This got me thinking about MLB pitchers, especially with injuries to young phenoms like New York Mets pitcher Matt Harvey and Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg.

Happily, it appears that Strasburg has recovered from Tommy John surgery. Strasburg missed much of the 2011 season but has averaged about ten strikeouts per nine innings, a WHIP (walks and hits per inning) of 1.1 and an ERA of just above 3.00 over the past two seasons. As baseball fans, we hope the same will be true for Harvey who underwent Tommy John surgery in October 2013. Harvey will miss the 2014 baseball season.

The popularity of sports — and resulting big money — has created an unhealthy push for performance. Athletes push themselves to the limit, sometimes with negative consequences. Does it have to be like the line from the movie “Blade Runner,” “…the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long…?”

In the old days, we had all-time great pitchers like Cy Young and Walter Johnson throw 300 or more innings per year. In recent years, stars like Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez had long careers while pitching  many innings.

There is no question that pitching is a huge part of winning baseball. Elite pitchers average roughly six “wins above average” (WAA) per year in good years and can contribute as many as eight or nine WAA in a great year. Starting pitchers only pitch every fifth game but naturally have a huge impact on the game they pitch.

As a comparison, position players such as elite batters also average about six WAR per year in good years. In great years, elite players contribute seven or eight WAA. On average, batters are more consistent than pitchers, but pitchers have the potential to add more to a team than position players. In addition, the impact of a starting pitcher is concentrated over a shorter period of time — useful for short playoff series.

While pitchers seem to offer more potential, they are also more volatile than batters in terms of both performance and injury. In a nutshell, starting pitchers offer more potential return and reward but definitely more volatility and risk. We will drill down into the numbers and quantify this in a future article.

These analyses can be expanded to learn more about the sports we love. In some ways, the popularity of sports, and drive for excellence, has outstripped our understanding of the limits of the human body. While we all enjoy feats of greatness, everyone will agree that nobody likes injuries. The results have important implications in terms of drafts, free agency and trades.

Carlton Chin is a sports analytics contributor at Rant Sports. Please follow him on Twitter @QuantFacts, “Like” him on Facebook, or add him to your Google network.