Are We Watching Pitchers Hurt Themselves in the Playoffs?

The postseason game is changing around us. Starting pitchers are being asked to go harder for shorter periods of time, allowing teams to begin playing matchups with the bullpen as early as the third inning. And while strategically sound in most cases, this trend has emerged without a major change in how we think about rest and schedules in the postseason. As much as we might love the high-intensity matchups that “bullpenning” provides, is it possible that pitchers are having to endure greater stress than in the past?

Postseason appearances ask more of a pitcher than their regular-season equivalents. When John Smoltz appeared on our podcast last year, he hypothesized that playoff innings were possibly the biggest factor (among others) in his own personal injury history. And it had to do with his bulldog mentality.

“I put this emphasis on postseason innings: every inning I pitched was three innings of stress for a regular-season game because that’s the way I approached the game. You weren’t guaranteed another,” Smoltz said. “In a regular-season start, there has never been a game where I even came close to a postseason game. I had a third and fourth gear in the regular season, but it was fifth and sixth gear in the postseason, constantly.”

To his point, consider: since 2007, starting pitchers have averaged as much as 2 mph closer to their max fastball velocity in the postseason than in the regular season.

Everyone has an extra gear for the playoffs, even if they aren’t all as Smoltzian as Justin Verlander. The Astro starter had a nearly 5 mph range between his average and max velocities during the regular season. That figure has dropped to 1.8 mph in the postseason.

Kyle Hendricks was asked before Game 3 if this has changed recently as starters are asked to go fewer innings.

“That is how the game’s going. It’s going bullpenning now, as they’re calling it,” said Hendricks. “But from a starter’s point of view, you still hope you can get into the eighth, ninth inning. If you’re throwing well enough, the manager will let you go that deep into the game.”

The gap between Hendricks’ average and max velocities has decreased fourth-most in the playoffs this year, from 3.5 mph in the regular season to 1.1 in the postseason. To some extent, he’s leaving it all out on the table no matter how many innings he gets to throw.

There’s a clear trend in baseball towards faster fastballs in general. How are pitchers doing it? It’s simple, for many: they’re living closer to their personal max velocity. Take a look at the range between average and max velocity within each pitcher, averaged across the league, over time.

There’s some evidence that higher velocities create more torque on the elbow, but the news is worse for our favorite hurlers, especially during this time of the year. More stressful, even, than how hard a pitchers throws in general is how hard he throws compared to his personal maximum specifically.

At this year’s SaberSeminar in Boston, Glenn Fleisig previewed a paper called The Relationship between Fastball Velocity and Elbow Varus Torque in Professional Baseball: Does Greater Velocity Suggest Higher Stress on the Ulnar Collateral Ligament? Along with co-authors Jonathan S. Slowik, Kyle T. Aune, Alek Z. Diffendaffer, E. Lyle Cain, and Jeffrey R. Dugas at the American Sports Medicine Institute, Fleisig looked into just this issue.

At ASMI, they took 64 healthy professional pitchers and tested them with radar gun (for velocity) and motion analysis (for the torque on the elbow) in a laboratory setting. The pitchers were told to throw 10 fastballs at full-effort max velocity. Those 64, even though they were instructed to throw max effort, produced at least a 5 mph range from their fastest fastball to their slowest.

“The data showed that there is a strong correlation within a person, that the faster you throw, the more torque you produce on your elbow,” Fleisig said as a way to sum up the to-be-published findings. “But there is not a strong association between the two among people, meaning that there are other factors that the radar gun doesn’t show — what their mechanics are and how big and strong you are. Looking at one person, the faster you throw, the more torque you put arm.”

That’s just depressing. As awesome as it is to see Verlander pumping 96s on the gun in his postseason starts, we also have this knowledge that he’s putting more stress on his arm in the process. Do you just shrug and say, “At some point you have to use the bullets you’ve got?”

If there’s any hope, it may come here. Take a look at the difference between postseason and regular-season velocity ranges. Maybe it’s stabilizing.

Average Range Between Max & Avg. Fastball Velo
Season Average Playoff Range Average Reg Season Range Difference
2007 2.55 4.42 1.874
2008 2.34 4.23 1.891
2009 2.57 4.11 1.542
2010 2.32 4.25 1.931
2011 2.32 3.86 1.541
2012 2.24 3.63 1.394
2013 2.34 3.70 1.363
2014 2.37 3.73 1.364
2015 1.97 3.36 1.390
2016 1.92 3.29 1.369
2017 1.90 3.49 1.590
SOURCE: PitchInfo

What that yellow number shows us is that, in at least one way, pitchers aren’t maxing out quite as much compared to their regular-season effort — not relative to how much they’ve been maxing out in the last few postseasons, at least.

But you could look at it another way: now, more than ever, pitchers are throwing closer to their max — all season long.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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6 years ago

“But you could look at it another way: now, more than ever, pitchers are throwing closer to their max — all season long.”

This. In today’s game with max velocities (and avg fastball velocities) higher than they have ever been, we are seeing pitchers push their bodies to the limit of what they are capable of which is why there are so many more breaking down.

6 years ago
Reply to  DookieHowserMD

…and part of why we’re getting shorter outings from starters generally. Some guys run out of gas earlier. Other guys start the game in 4th gear, have nothing left to bump the third time through the order, and can’t get the hitters out. Either way, when more starters are going max effort all the time that leads to shorter outings and more relievers.

6 years ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

Maybe more like “longer” relievers than “more” relievers.

Bobby Ayala
6 years ago
Reply to  DookieHowserMD

wait… are “so many more breaking down”? This article doesn’t seem to be making that claim.