Handle with care: Examining Shaw’s workload

ShawAs the story goes, Indians reliever Bryan Shaw was in Terry Francona’s office last season when he spotted the bullpen-use card on the manager’s desk. Shaw had been used a lot during this particular stretch of games and Francona had written “down” next to the pitcher’s name.

Shaw grabbed something to write with, scratched out the manager’s note and scribbled “awesome” next to his name instead. When Francona noticed the correction, the manager had a good laugh, but he didn’t change his mind about the pitcher’s status for that day’s game.

“He still wasn’t pitching,” Francona said.

On Friday, Cleveland avoided arbitration with Shaw with a one-year contract worth $1.55 million and chances are that the right-hander will be pitching a lot once again in 2015. Last year, Shaw appeared in a career-high 80 games and logged 76.1 innings, setting a single-season club record for appearances. He became the first Cleveland pitcher to lead the American League in games since 1955 and the first to lead baseball since 1920.

Throughout last season, Francona discussed the internal tug-of-war he endured while determining whether to use Shaw or give the pitcher a day off. The pitcher always wanted to take the ball and he expressed that extra days off led to poor results. Glancing at Shaw’s career splits, there’s some truth to that: one day off (.677 opponents’ OPS), two days off (.677), three days off (.774), four days off (.857).

Cleveland valued having Shaw willing, ready and handling the bulk of the setup duties last season.

“He would’ve been more valuable if we could’ve just found ways to get him into games more frequently,” Indians GM Chris Antonetti joked. “I was thinking about 140 games would be reasonable. No, that’s one of the great things about Bryan. I know he pitched a lot last year, but he always wants to pitch. He’s that guy that, every day, it’s, ‘Hey, I’m good. I’m ready to go today.’ We actually had to try to manage his volume, because Bryan, if he had his preference, I think he’d try to pitch every day.

“Having a guy like that, with that type of mentality of just wanting the ball regardless of the situation, regardless of the time of year, regardless of the game, it’s a invaluable guy to have. Not only someone who wants the ball, but when he takes it, is very, very effective. He’s been a huge part of our bullpen since the time he joined the organization and we continue to be excited about having him be a core guy out there for us.”

reliefipThe fact of the matter, however, is no pitcher has a rubber arm. A high volume of pitches, innings and games can have a toll on any pitcher. Over the 2013-14 seasons, Shaw has given the Indians a 2.91 ERA over 150 games and 151.1 innings. In that span, he ranks second in the AL (third in the Majors) in games pitched and second in the Majors (first in the AL) in innings for pitchers with zero starts logged.

Should there be some concerns about Shaw heading into 2015, given his usage not only in 2014, but in ’13-14 combined? Should the Indians plan on monitoring and managing his innings a little closer next season?

“Believe it or not, we actually tried to do that last year,” Antonetti said. “I think for a while, he was on pace for 95-plus games. We tried to curtail his use in the second half, but it’s always a balance with Bryan, because we’re trying to manage his innings and he’s constantly going, ‘No, no, I want the ball. I can’t go two or three days without
pitching. My arm doesn’t feel great,’ or, ‘I don’t feel as good or as sharp when I go too many days without
pitching.’ So, it was a constant balance throughout the course of the season. I’m hopeful it’ll be a balance
again this year.”

In an effort to see what kind of effect logging the kind of games and innings Shaw has over the past two years can have on a pitcher, I took a look at all the pitchers who had 80-plus games and 70-plus innings in a season, dating back to 2007. I used that year as the cut-off, because that’s as far back as PITCHf/x data goes. Excluding Shaw, because we obviously don’t have his 2015 to examine, there are 19 such instances.

The list includes Joel Peralta (2013), Shawn Camp (2012), Matt Belisle (2012), Jonny Venters (2011), Sean Marshall (2010), Nick Masset (2010), Luke Gregerson (2010), Mike Gonzalez (2009), Peter Moylan (2007, 2009), Carlos Marmol (2008), Luis Ayala (2008), Heath Bell (2007), Jonathan Broxton (2007), Aaron Heilman (2007), Cla Meredith (2007), Scott Proctor (2007), Jon Rauch (2007) and Saul Rivera (2007).

When looking at the pitchers’ seasons, and then comparing it to the results of the following year, there was a 26-percent spike in ERA for the group as a whole. There is also a .005-percent drop in velocity, a 16-percent increase in walk rate and a 28-percent decrease in innings pitched from the platform year to the following season. Of those 19 instances, there were 15 cases of an ERA increase, 12 cases of a velocity decrease, 12 cases with an increased walk rate and 18 with a decrease in innings.

Some of this can be chalked up to natural regression, but not all of it.

The only pitcher to defy each of those four categorical trends was Sean Marshall, who had an improved ERA, velocity and walk rate in more innings in 2011 than he had in 2010. That said, Marshall dropped to 61 innings in a still-effective 2012 before logging only 24.1 innings combined over the ’13-14 seasons, leading up to shoulder surgery.

Venters needed Tommy John surgery after ’12. Masset developed shoulder issues by ’12-13. Gonzalez has a shoulder injury in ’10. Moylan had Tommy John in 2008 and, after two more 80-game seasons, had back and shoulder surgeries. Broxton eventually had elbow issues. Meredith and Proctor eventually had Tommy John surgery, too.

Of course, these are just the examples that led to health woes in the year or years following excessive use out of the bullpen. There are other cases (Belisle, Gregerson, Rauch, for example) where the pitchers continued to be effective after their Shaw-like season. The results are varied, but there are enough cautionary tales found here to believe that Cleveland will be careful with Shaw going forward.

What about the fact that Shaw has handled a heavy load for two years?

Dating back to 2007, there have been 29 instances, excluding Shaw, where a pitcher has logged at least 150 games and 140 innings over a two-year span. Consider this: Cody Allen and Shaw were the only pitchers in baseball over the past two years to meet that criteria. At least in Allen’s case, his future as Cleveland’s closer should naturally lead to a decrease in innings in 2015 and beyond.

Averaged out, those 29 cases combined for a 3.23 ERA, 3.3 walks per nine innings, 7.7 hits per nine innings, 1.22 WHIP and 77-plus innings over their two-year samples. In the third year, they posted a combined 3.57 ERA, 3.4 walks per nine innings, 8.2 hits per nine innings, 1.30 WHIP and had 57-plus innings on average. That’s a 26.5-percent decrease in innings and an 10.5 percent increase in ERA from the combined two-year stretch to the third season.

The average velocity dropped from 92.89 mph to 92.17 mph (.008 percent decrease) from Year 1 to Year 3 in the examined seasons. Note: the velocity excludes Venters (2011-12) and Masset (2010-12), because they each missed the entire third season. Seventeen of the 27 cases used for pitch speed in this sample experienced a drop in velocity from Year 1 to Year 3. Sure, age and natural regression can account for some of this, but it could certainly be argued that the high volume of innings potentially played a role. There is no way to know for certain.

One pitcher that stands out within the ones found in the research is Gregerson, who just signed a three-year contract worth $18.5 million with the Astros. Over his Major League career, his yearly games logged has gone: 72-80-61-77-73-72. His innings by year have gone: 75-78.1-55.2-71.2-66.1-72.1. That staggered pattern has contributed to a run of effectiveness that includes a 2.47 ERA over his past four years.

What does this all mean? It could mean nothing. Maybe Shaw proves to be an exception, returns as the setup man and cruises through another 70-plus inning season. Or, maybe the Indians will be a little more proactive with curtailing Shaw’s innings load, especially if the club wants him to be fresh deep into the postseason. We know by now that Shaw won’t be asking for any days off.

At the end of the season, though, Francona said he has established a high level of trust with Shaw when it comes to being honest about how the pitcher feels on any given day.

“There’s a huge trust,” Francona said. “You don’t use somebody that much and not trust them to tell you how they feel, and to be honest. But, you also have to be good. There’s a reason he’s pitching. He’s pitching in leverage situations pretty much half the time. To do that, you’ve got to be good. It’s not just luck. You’ve got to bounce back, you’ve got to work at it, you’ve got to find ways to command pitches, because you’re facing teams multiple times over and over again, the same hitters. He’s been durable and he loves to pitch.”

–JB

1 Comment

“Sure, age and natural regression can account for some of this, but it could certainly be argued that the high volume of innings potentially played a role. There is no way to know for certain.”

Could you take a sample of pitchers with similar ages that did not meet the innings requirement to see if the is any statistical significance in the change of statistics? Or even use the performance of all pitchers over a three year period to see if this group is special?

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