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OC Register: MLB’s era of ‘load management’ is just getting started

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In 1998, a record 96 pitchers qualified for an earned-run average title. Major League Baseball had just expanded to 30 teams. There were more players, and more pitchers, than ever. In the years that followed, the number of ERA qualifiers – pitchers who threw at least 162 innings in a season – hovered in the eighties and nineties.

Then after the 2014 season, a funny thing happened. Qualifying for an ERA title became somewhat rare. Only 78 pitchers qualified in 2015, then 74, then 58. By 2018, MLB had only 57 qualifiers or fewer than any individual season from 1901 to 1944 (when there were only 16 teams!).

This coincided with a similar trend among position players. To qualify for a batting title, a hitter must make 3.1 plate appearances per team game. The trend line since 1998 isn’t as steep or as steady. Still, from 2018 to 2019, the number of batting-title qualifiers fell from 141 to 135 – the lowest number since 1992, the final season of the 26-team era.

On a fundamental level, this forces us to think differently about what to expect when we watch a baseball game. It’s long been true that a starting pitcher isn’t expected to complete all nine innings, save for rare occasions. Now it’s also true that only two pitchers per team on average will throw 162 innings in a season. The Angels, in an extreme example, saw only one pitcher (Trevor Cahill) throw even 100 innings in 2019. For many clubs, the idea of using a consistent third, fourth and fifth starter over a full season is a chimera.

The same goes for the bottom of every batting order. Only four and a half players per team, on average, received enough plate appearances in 2019 to qualify for the batting title. The rest of a lineup is more of a rotating cast than ever. Except when it comes to the best of the best players, managers and general managers seem content to divide their team’s workload at the cost of individual accolades.

What’s going on?

Injuries are partly to blame. The number of days lost to the injured list (formerly the disabled list) shot up 24 percent among position players in the last year, according to Spotrac. For starting pitchers, IL days lost increased by 4 percent.

Something else is at work, too. It’s tied directly to the collection of analytical data by major-league front offices. The specifics differ from team to team, but the end result is the same: The days of the 250-inning starting pitcher, or the batter who plays all 162 games, “are gone,” said Dr. David Altchek, an orthopedic specialist with the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.

“There’s not going to be a sudden reversion,” Altchek said. “We have our highest-paid players not playing. It’s ridiculous.”

Welcome to MLB’s era of “load management.” The hottest buzz phrase in the NBA has been part of baseball’s fabric forever, if not its lexicon. Take the five-man starting rotation. This built-in system of rest has been the norm for generations of pitchers. Ask Danny Ozark about Steve Carlton’s “load management,” however, and he might assume you said stevedore by mistake.

The change has really taken hold among position players – and not just back-of-the bench substitutes. Some degree of load management has become the norm, even among stars. In the last 11 seasons, four position players won a Most Valuable Player award while playing fewer than 140 games. That equals the number of sub-140-game MVPs from 1964 to 2008, excluding strike-shortened seasons.

“Load management is probably another term for recovery,” Altchek said. “Just like any athletic endeavor, or your own training, if you go too hard too often, you start to go backwards instead of forwards. Baseball season is very long and very repetitive. It’s a challenge because you have to let these athletes recover. Nobody has a scientific measure of how much recovery they need, or don’t need. We tend to base it individually on past history.”

Altchek went on to make an important distinction. Teams are collecting plenty of biomechanical data on their players these days. The proliferation of wearable tech has provided reams of information about the forces baseball players exert swinging a bat and throwing a ball. This is more true for minor leaguers than major leaguers, whose union prohibits teams from collecting certain data without the player’s permission.

The question guiding baseball’s load management movement is what to do with all that data. Nestled in Altchek’s quote is a rather damning conclusion: teams are still relatively clueless.

“Everyone’s more in a measurement phase than an execution phase,” he said. “Nobody really knows yet. We’re more in a data-collection phase, the first inning of this sport science phenomenon.”

Absent any sophisticated specificity, then, we see a general trend toward more rest. A manager might hope that sitting his third baseman on Monday will make him more effective on Tuesday, but for now it is still a hope. The hard data to support that conclusion just isn’t there yet. This is more true for position players than pitchers, whose velocity, spin rate, and spin efficiency might offer clues about his health.

Still, said one MLB pitching coordinator, there’s “still a lot of work to be done.”

None of this will console the fan who came to the ballpark expecting to see his or her favorite player, only to learn he got the day off because he’s played 20 games in a row. Maybe 20 games is a bit too ambitious for 2019.

Cal Ripken Jr. famously holds the record for most consecutive games played, with 2,632. That record will never be broken. Entering the 2020 season, the active leader in consecutive regular-season games played is Kansas City Royals outfielder/second baseman Whit Merrifield.

Merrifield has played 247 consecutive games.

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Does anyone else remember when Nolan Ryan would throw 300+ innings at full octane every year and still be able to swing a mean uppercut? Bob Feller put full effort into every pitch for well over 300 innings for three straight seasons and nearly five straight. Oh yeah, he went and served in the navy during WW2 for 3 years in between those prime seasons. This snowflake generation can’t pitch 30 games and half as many innings. Good thing they have their safe spaces to go hide and recover in after two times through the lineups. 

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21 minutes ago, Buttercup said:

Does anyone else remember when Nolan Ryan would throw 300+ innings at full octane every year and still be able to swing a mean uppercut? Bob Feller put full effort into every pitch for well over 300 innings for three straight seasons and nearly five straight. Oh yeah, he went and served in the navy during WW2 for 3 years in between those prime seasons. This snowflake generation can’t pitch 30 games and half as many innings. Good thing they have their safe spaces to go hide and recover in after two times through the lineups. 

Ryan would get his ass kicked today. 

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36 minutes ago, Buttercup said:

Does anyone else remember when Nolan Ryan would throw 300+ innings at full octane every year and still be able to swing a mean uppercut? Bob Feller put full effort into every pitch for well over 300 innings for three straight seasons and nearly five straight. Oh yeah, he went and served in the navy during WW2 for 3 years in between those prime seasons. This snowflake generation can’t pitch 30 games and half as many innings. Good thing they have their safe spaces to go hide and recover in after two times through the lineups. 

This dog shit and you should feel shame. Garbage.  

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1 hour ago, Sean-Regan said:

Ryan would get his ass kicked today. 

Highly unlikely. Guys who were great in past generations would still be great in today’s. Since I’m bored at my families house for Thanksgiving I’ll bite. Why do you think he’d get his ass kicked today? 

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58 minutes ago, Sean-Regan said:

Ryan would get his ass kicked today. 

Really? For one thing he would not have to complete almost every game. The game has changed. He would dominate today being so much fresher and having a bullpen to back him up. Analytics go both ways and with his work ethic he would in all likelihood benefit more than most. 
 

48 minutes ago, UndertheHalo said:

This dog shit and you should feel shame. Garbage.  

Sincerely, why? My best guess as to why players are on the DL at so much greater a rate is because the talent pool is deeper and playing through an injury can’t be masked as well when the game has fewer weaknesses and replacement players are better. In the original post it spoke of Cal Ripken and how that streak will never be achieved again. Is it really more demanding to be a shortstop now than in his time? They play the same amount of games, medicine is better, travel conditions are better, the strength and conditioning coaches are better... I just don’t understand why there are so many more injuries today

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1 minute ago, Buttercup said:

Really? For one thing he would not have to complete almost every game. The game has changed. He would dominate today being so much fresher and having a bullpen to back him up. Analytics go both ways and with his work ethic he would in all likelihood benefit more than most. 
 

Sincerely, why? My best guess as to why players are on the DL at so much greater a rate is because the talent pool is deeper and playing through an injury can’t be masked as well when the game has fewer weaknesses and replacement players are better. In the original post it spoke of Cal Ripken and how that streak will never be achieved again. Is it really more demanding to be a shortstop now than in his time? They play the same amount of games, medicine is better, travel conditions are better, the strength and conditioning coaches are better... I just don’t understand why there are so many more injuries today

Your best guess is wrong.

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1 minute ago, Buttercup said:

Really? For one thing he would not have to complete almost every game. The game has changed. He would dominate today being so much fresher and having a bullpen to back him up. Analytics go both ways and with his work ethic he would in all likelihood benefit more than most. 
 

Sincerely, why? My best guess as to why players are on the DL at so much greater a rate is because the talent pool is deeper and playing through an injury can’t be masked as well when the game has fewer weaknesses and replacement players are better. In the original post it spoke of Cal Ripken and how that streak will never be achieved again. Is it really more demanding to be a shortstop now than in his time? They play the same amount of games, medicine is better, travel conditions are better, the strength and conditioning coaches are better... I just don’t understand why there are so many more injuries today

Are there more injuries today than in previous generations? 

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28 minutes ago, Kevinb said:

Are there more injuries today than in previous generations? 

I didn’t find a way to track it. Seems there should be a resource for that. I found this article from 2012    https://www.baseballprospectus.com/news/article/15967/collateral-damage-the-disabled-list-a-history/

 

“The present setup of 7-, 15- and 60-day disabled lists is unlikely to change. Studies of MLB players unequivocally state that injuries are up significantly from the 1960s, `70s, and `80s ,but how restrictive the disabled list was up until 1990 is rarely mentioned. Injuries are increasing, but there is no way to completely separate the almost 200 percent increase in injury rate from the liberalization of the disabled list rules. This season will again likely see a similar record or near record number of disabled list moves, and it will kill a record number of electronic trees as we cover them.”

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29 minutes ago, Kevinb said:

So injuries are up. But because teams are using the DL a different way now we really don’t know if it’s more injuries or if it’s just using the roster management a different way. 

Very true. I think the only thing we can say for sure is that Tommy John procedures are way up. 

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2 hours ago, Buttercup said:

They play the same amount of games, medicine is better, travel conditions are better, the strength and conditioning coaches are better... I just don’t understand why there are so many more injuries today

The human body is still the human body.  Guys are pushed to the extremes, so they break down.  Ryan was a rarity in his day, a legit freak of nature.. his margin for error was greater in an era were 88 was an average fastball..  He didn't need to push to better everyone else's fastball.

The thing people always gloss over when they say stuff like "back when Ryan pitched" is that he was the exception to the rule, he piled on the innings and managed a long career... Most pitchers from that era were effectively done by age 30....  They may have pitched beyond that but they had shorter peaks....   The stuff they do now is an attempt to extend those peak levels instead of burning them out.

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I agree.  They need to have a 25 man active roster set each game with an actual roster of around 28 players.  Maybe consider having flex spots where a guy can be active on the MLB roster as well as a minor league roster at the same time, somewhat like the 2 Way contracts in the NBA.  

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12 hours ago, Inside Pitch said:

They do a significantly better job of identifying injuries, so yes.   

Before there was as much knowledge as there is now, guys tried to play through injuries that they made worse by continuing.

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On 11/28/2019 at 11:17 AM, Vegas Halo Fan said:

You can't use fancy words like "chimera" in an article about baseball.

Hahahahahahaha, i read that and thought, "did the author write that whole article just to use that one word?" 🤣🤣🤣🤣

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The pendulum continues to swing.

Perhaps at some point they will correlate cost with use? Maybe something like limit pitchers to 60 pitches but go to a four man rotation?

I don't know. It's early in this transformation but it's going to be interesting to see where it leads.

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On 11/27/2019 at 8:56 PM, Kevinb said:

So injuries are up. But because teams are using the DL a different way now we really don’t know if it’s more injuries or if it’s just using the roster management a different way. 

I agree with this response. Teams are actually, using load management and hiding it as DL time/injury list ....twinges, sprains and strains.....

Also, with medicine and supplements DOC might help me with this. 

Tendons become brittle and pitching and other analytics are extreme like spin rate which if you look at pitchers curve, slider and fastball spin rate is being over compensated for by a lack of mechanics and more torque! Which places more tension on the tendons.

It's become a turn em and burn em attitude!

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