Nationals Baseball: Did Tommy John change the trajectory of Strasburg's career?

Friday, May 08, 2015

Did Tommy John change the trajectory of Strasburg's career?

Yesterday I made a point on Twitter, repository of good points, that we shouldn't assume Strasburg "never came back" from Tommy John surgery* because he didn't pitch enough in the majors to give us a baseline. Of course it may be just as reasonable to argue the flipside then. We can't argue he did come back because we don't know where he started from.  Where do the arguments come from? What ultimately makes most sense?

Let's start with the base argument for the "never came back"ers. Before Tommy John surgery Strasburg was averaging 97.6 MPH on his fastball. After returning from the surgery he was averaging 96 MPH. The 1.5 MPH drop has to be explained by something.

But that 97.6 MPH average was only done in 68 innings. Could it be an amped up rookie performing for the crowd? To answer that we need his minor league data.... that doesn't exist**. Even if we had his numbers it would be tough to say anything definitive with just that. It could be the case that he's more dominant in the minors which leads to fewer pitches thrown which leads to the ability to throw the pitches he does throw harder. Really what we need is ALL minor league data so we can see, based on age and minor league numbers, what we would expect a pitcher to do in the majors. Then we need to compare Strasburg's trajectory to the expected one and see if we can reasonably say TJ surgery threw him off. But all I'm doing now is going further down a rabbit hole with no rabbits. Doesn't exist.

Oh well. What kind of comparison can we do? Well we could find any other young MLB stud starter that has averaged that level of fastball and see if they tailed off as much in the first two years. That would at least give us something.

That ends up telling us something that might be pertinent. You see before last year, when Yordano Ventrua averaged 97 MPH even on his fastball - no one averaged faster than 96.1 MPH (as long as we have this data for which is like from 2001). And yet we're going in assuming Strasburg would average 97.6 for a season? That seems unreasonable. That 2010 Strasburg would be THAT much faster than anyone had ever thrown for a season?  This seems to indicate that that 97.6 MPH number was simply unsustainable over the course of a major league season.

Of course if Strasburg WAS special and could average a fastball that much faster than everyone else than that drop in velocity would be something. In general pitchers roughly stay close to peak velocity through their late 20s and don't see many drops as large as a 1.5 MPH in their early 20s. That would be unusual, if that's what you believe. 

What about monthly speeds in 2010? If those dropped then it would lead us to a similar conclusion. In fact, though, they DON'T drop. Strasburg averaged 98 MPH in June, 97.7 in July, and 98.1 in August. That's pretty consistent. Then again his IP per game was dropping quickly. In June it was 6 1/3. In July it 5 2/3rds. In August it was around 4.5 IP. Remember the minor league argument; fewer pitches means you can throw harder.

What about his other pitches? Again there is too little major league data to be sure but it appears that the velocity drop was across the board but the movement on his pitches remained about the same. Or at least we can't claim from the data any significant changes. The exception may be his change-up, which went from a a very tight pitch with little vertical movement to one with noticeable vertical movement. Of course who's to say what's better and the pitch has remained effective.

We're basically left nowhere at this point. Either argument is arguable. He was throwing superhumanly fast before Tommy John. He threw only as fast as the fastest after. Was it the surgery? I tend to lean toward no because I look at the history of baseball and think Strasburg can't be that much of an outlier compared to all the other pitchers who threw over the past decade plus. That's the base assumption, and I think if your data is inconclusive that's the best assumption to make. But if you want to argue the other side I can't really tell you you're wrong.(but I can still say you shouldn't seem so sure about it)

There are other things to think about to. Perhaps he could hit the same speed after surgery but was explicitly coached to take it down a notch. Perhaps he could have thrown that fast for a season but perhaps it was that speed that led to the injury. Maybe he had the talent but the physical tools just didn't exist for him (don't exist for anyone?) so the argument would be he would have always become the pitcher he is today.

One thing to remember. I talk a lot about impressions and how fans feel about a player being shaped by key moments; his first few appearances, his work in big games. For all the sepia-toned nostalgia that goes with Strasburg's first season arguably his best two starts were his first and his third. After those two, super fast fastball or not, he would never go over 6 innings with a ton of K's and low runs given up again. (he had a handful of great starts that only lasted 6IP). The Strasburg you may remember, the dominant force that would shut down teams deep into games, never existed.

*for those that don't run in the same Twitter circles this has been a theory slowly growing in popularity. 

** Fall League numbers in 2009 do exist and he was up OVER 98 MPH but this was literally 120 pitches total. I have a hard time considering that comparable, so I don't think it should be used either as evidence that 97.6 MPH was reasonable for a season or evidence that his overall MPH was dropping. We could check vs other Fall League pitchers if you like.


Chinatown Express said...

This is a great analysis with the limited data available. But I'm not sure I understand why the question is even interesting, except as a data analysis exercise. No one knows how as prospect or rookie will ultimately shake out. He had to have the surgery to pitch again. He is what he is after it. He might be a BETTER pitcher with slightly lower velocity - who the heck knows?

Anonymous said...

His debut was one of the most impressive games I've ever watched. Partly because of his hype going in (and that he lived up to it), or perhaps it was the 14 strikeouts. But I remember, and was reminded when I watched a re-run a couple weeks ago how he threw. It was electric. It was effortless. Maybe it was pudge behind the dish that helped? I don't know, but he hasn't looked that sharp since. They way he was pinpoint with his location was unreal.

Harper said...

CXP - Because of shutdown + how he comes across + bad luck in 2013 people have been thinking he's been wrong for a while. Now though something is really off. So we float back to where we think things went off rails.

Better way to think of it - people were excited about Strasburg before TJ. People were less so after. Therefore ipso facto TJ did something! (and it might of - or not - or made him better - or worse!)

Anon - Lesson is - always build to your best.

Bjd1207 said...

Man I love these kinds of posts Harper.

No significant thoughts yet. Still reading/researching. Thanks for this though

Miles Treacy said...

I'm curious if any data like that was kept for his college performance at SDSU? Likely a long shot, but he was so heavily scouted it might. I remember the ESPN stories about "the best pitching prospect" who consistently hit 100mph, but you know they're just starting the hype machine.

Chaz R said...

Man, that's tough on expectations when you're best game is your first. No wonder everyone is so hard on the poor kid. We all thought he was going to be a generational talent, when he is merely good. Probably tough on his self expectations as well.

cass said...

I watched most of his starts his last year of college. He was around 100 then just like in the minors and his first season in the bigs. But college radar guns are unreliable.

One other difference to note is that the rest of the Nats rotation was much worse in 2010. than it has been 2012-1015. So he looked much, much better in comparison. That's part of why he was considered a franchise savior. I do remember thinking he was clearly the best pitcher in the org when he was drafted and I do believe that was right.

As for velocity, I strongly suspect that his high velocity led directly to TJ. You know who else sat in the high 90's as rookies? Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez.

For this class of extreme flamethrowers (of the starter variety), I'd guess that Tommy John is virtually inevitable.

SM said...

What a wiggly can of worms you've opened. Way more questions than answers.

When Tommy John had his surgery, he was a 31-year-old pitcher looking to save his career. (And he did, winning 20 games 3 times after surgery.)

So does it matter when the surgery is performed? Who knows?

David Wells, for example, had it done before he reached the majors and had a terrific career.

Adam Wainright, A.J. Burnett, Cris Carpenter and Jimmy Key, for instance, all had it after they were in the majors,recovered and became effective. But those whose careers were essentially over post-TJ surgery? Far more.

Furthermore, what kind of pitcher has it most often? Power pitchers? Finesse pitchers? Starters? Closers?

I'm sure there's a way of graphing all this, but the variables are mind boggling.

I mean, was Frank Jobe's success rate better or worse than that of other surgeons? Do southpaws recover more quickly? Or starters? Or closers? Or guys with bad diets? Or even whether some organizations have a higher frequency of TJ surgeries than others?

You've baited the hook well, Harper.

Bjd1207 said...

On a brighter note, Reynaldo Lopez with 2 hits over 5 innings yesterday for the P-nats.

Giolito up tonight

SM said...

One quick (and hopeful) post-script:

Of all the players who had TJ surgery in 2009 (Jordan Zimmermann's year), Zimm has probably had the best career since then.

In 2010, Strasburg's TJ year, he's had the best career compared to his fellow TJ patients.

If nothing else, the Nationals are very, very good at nurturing recovering arms.

Anonymous said...

So is Harper all hype now?

Kenny B. said...

Bryce Harper is overrated because he's struck out before and he can't even pitch.

Robot said...

Totally overrated. Eleven homeruns in three games? Pfffttt....what about all those AB's where he didn't homer?

Kenny B. said...

If Bryce Harper were really as good as the hype, he would be able to hit a walk off homerun *before* the 9th inning.

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