October 29, 2007

Baker Gets Bum Rap Concerning Wood, Prior

OK, so the Reds have hired Dusty Baker as their new manager, and half of Reds Nation has gone ballistic, with the chief complaint against him apparently being that Dusty ruined Mark Prior and Kerry Wood when he was in Chicago.

Before you subscribe to the theory that something Baker did somehow derailed the career of Mark Prior, you might want to read this analysis by Chris O’Leary, a part-time pitching mechanics analyst and consultant who developed methodology for analyzing pitching mechanics that was used by one major league team for the 2007 MLB draft. In that analysis, O’Leary demonstrates that Prior’s arm troubles are the result of numerous flaws in his delivery and motion. Even if Dusty never managed an inning for the Cubs, Mark Prior’s arm was bound to fall off anyway.

Besides that, some digging I’ve done on the web reveals that Prior’s medical problems seem to have begun when he had a collision on the basepaths with Marcus Giles while advancing to second base on a ground ball during a game in 2003, on which play Prior may have separated his shoulder. In any case, he missed almost a month for something that has nothing to do with Dusty Baker or pitch counts, and afterward he apparently altered his delivery and throwing motion to compensate for pain in his throwing arm in a way that further contributed to his own arm troubles.

As for Kerry Wood, he was a medical trainwreck before Dusty Baker ever put on a Cubs uniform. Two days before the 1995 MLB draft, when he was a 17-year old high school player, Wood threw 175 pitches in a doubleheader, then was drafted by the Cubs, and a year later, sat out a month as a minor leaguer because of a tender elbow. He made it to the majors in 1998. In August ’98 he sprained his elbow but, with the Cubs in the wild card race, he worked through the pain in the season’s final weeks. Then he tore a ligament in his right arm during his first outing of spring training in 1999 and was done for the year, undergoing Tommy John surgery in May 1999 – four years before Baker took over as manager.

While I couldn’t find an analysis of Wood’s pitching motion similar to the one for Prior that I linked to above, I do know from watching him myself that he has a bad habit of throwing across his body, which I’m sure has contributed to some of his injury history…and so has the fact that this is a guy who fires the ball to the plate as hard as he can every time he takes to the mound.

Why am I posting this? Regardless of what you think of Dusty, he’s been hired to manage the Reds for the next three years, and once he puts on that uniform, he’s one of us. I wasn’t thrilled they hired him either, and the whole Wood/Prior thing was the main reason why. But like many of us who are Reds fans, I don’t follow the Cubs very closely (Seriously, who’d wanna?), so I wasn’t watching the careers of Prior and Wood, before or during Baker’s tenure as manager. I accepted what was coming out of Chicago’s media on the subject as fact.

But after doing some more reading since the Reds hired Dusty, it’s plain to me that the pundits in Chicago were wrong. I don’t know what their axe to grind with Dusty was, why they hung the blame on Dusty for Prior and Wood’s medical problems. I don’t know what other peoples’ beef against Dusty may be, either. I do know that if it has to do with Prior and Wood, you may want to do some more research before you nail Dusty to the cross despite the fact that he has yet to manage an inning in a Reds uniform.

Dusty Baker is not the reason for the injury problems of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood.

Mark Prior and Kerry Wood are the reasons for the injury problems of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood.

HMZ

Update Nov. 2, 2007: This thread subsequently produced an e-mail from Chris O’Leary advising that on his web site, he has an updated analysis of Prior’s mechanics that readers here might also be interested in.

12 comments to “Baker Gets Bum Rap Concerning Wood, Prior”

  1. Red Hot Mama says:

    Are you saying I got out of the Reds blogging business for nothing?? :P

    From the reading I did of Cubs blogs during Baker’s tenure there, the frustration seemed to have more to do with his preference for the fading veteran over the possible-up-and-comer. The fact that he abused his pitchers was gravy.

  2. Joel says:

    I disagree with the argument that the pitchers were injuries waiting to happen so it’s not Dusty’s fault. I’m not putting the full blame on Dusty, but if it’s so obvious that a pitcher is bound for an injury, or better yet if they pitcher has already had major arm surgery, the solution is NOT to have the pitchers consistently throw more pitches in a game than all but one or two pitchers in the league. Maybe both guys were bound to hit the injury wall. Fine, I can accept that, but it doesn’t absolve Baker from pushing them toward that wall at a much faster pace than necessary.

    As a note, I think he ultimately only hurt Wood as Prior’s injuries were more of the freak accident variety than the over-pitching type. I think his earlier injuries of collisions with players and line drives maybe have contributed to his later injuries perhaps as he compensated for his injuries. However, Wood had more games with over 115 pitches than any pitcher in the Majors in 2003 besides Javier Vazquez (another pitcher whose career appeared to fizzle early though he had a revival this season). That’s just not smart management of a pitcher who is the cornerstone of the organization’s future.

    The whole situation was more systemic with the Cubs than just Baker, but he was the ultimate decision maker at game time. Krivsky has been cautious with the Reds young pitchers to this point, and I’m hopeful that that will remain the organizations strategy going forward, but it’s obvious to me that Dusty is willing to sacrifice the future for the now. Maybe that’s a good attitude for some, but for me I’d rather build a team for long-term success than to go for broke to win a weak division one year and then be struggling to recapture that 85 win magic again.

  3. Zeldink says:

    It is troubling to look at Baker’s past with the Cubs and see all those games with 100 pitches that the starters threw, particularly a guy like Wood who had already had major arm surgery. Not the brightest thing to do.

    Also, everything I read about Prior indicated he had a flawless, injury-free delivery. I remember reading that in The Sporting News before the 2005 season started.

    Perhaps Baker does get a bad rap for the pitching injuries. Obviously, Zambrano escaped the abuse, but there aren’t many pitchers like him.

    We’ll see. I bet the team under Baker is more likely to rid themselves of any and all promise in their farm system than to run young pitchers into the ground.

  4. KC2HMZ says:

    RHM wrote: “From the reading I did of Cubs blogs during Baker’s tenure there, the frustration seemed to have more to do with his preference for the fading veteran over the possible-up-and-comer. The fact that he abused his pitchers was gravy.”

    Um, well, here’s the eight position players who made the most appearances at their respective positions for the Cubs in 2002 – the year before Baker took over – and their ages:

    C – Girardi, 37
    1B – McGriff, 38
    2B – Bellhorn, 27
    3B – Mueller, 31
    SS – Gonzalez, 29
    LF – Alou, 35
    CF – Patterson, 22
    RF – Sosa, 33

    The average age is 31.5 years old.

    Now the eight regulars from 2003, Baker’s first year as manager:

    C – Miller, 33
    1B – Karros, 35
    2B – Grudzielanek, 33
    3B – Ramirez, 25
    SS – Gonzalez, 32
    LF – Alou, 36
    CF – Patterson, 23
    RF – Sosa, 34

    Average age, 31.375 (say 31), basically the same as the year before, despite the fact Grudzielanek replaced Bellhorn at second base, and of course all the holdovers were a year older. Three of the new guys Baker went with were younger than the guys they replaced.

    Now, Baker’s last year, 2006:

    C – Barrett, 29
    1B – Lee, 30
    2B – Walker, 33
    3B – Ramirez, 28
    SS – Cedeno, 23
    LF – Murton, 24
    CF – Pierre, 28
    RF – Jones, 31

    Average age, 28.25 – or 28, basically three years younger on average than the team Baker inherited and the team he had his first year in Chicago (and Ramirez is three years older in 2006 than he was in 2003).

    Again, somewhat of a bum rap.

    It’s also worth noting that the Cubs’ younger 2006 team went 66-96, whereas the supposedly fading veterans in 2003 went 88-74 and won a division title and an NLDS, and were five outs away from the World Series before the baseball gods woke up, realized what Baker was about to accomplish, and enlisted the assistance of Bartman in restoring order. Maybe they should have left Baker alone and let him play the old guys?

    HMZ

  5. KC2HMZ says:

    Joel – The thing is, you really don’t necessarily get to pick the year you’re a contender. The bullpen was Borowski, Farnsworth, Remlinger, Guthrie, and a bunch of stiffs who were below replacement level, and the Cubs were in a pennant race. Baker used Wood and Prior and Clement and Zambrano because that’s what he had to work with. Wood wasn’t an injury waiting to happen because he had already happened four years before Baker got there.

    Zeldink – Prior got hurt running the bases, but please, read the analysis I linked to, which as I say was produced by an analyst of pitching mechanics for a major league team, not a writer from SI. Prior’s delivery and motion is anything but flawless. It is, in fact, a mess. Also, some people actually blamed Baker because this was supposedly Zambrano’s worst year in the majors, saying that the 214 innings Zambrano pitched in 2003 was the reason. Of course it couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with the 216 innings he pitched for Lou this season, so it must have been the 214 innings he pitched for Baker four years ago.
    :roll:

    HMZ

  6. Joel says:

    C’mon, HMZ, it’s not like the Cubs bullpen was anything near what the Reds has been the last two seasons. It was about league average, and they had four very good pitchers, which is more than most pitching staffs could expect in the pen. Here are the ERA+ for those pitchers:

    Borowski – 164
    Farnsworth – 131
    Remlinger – 119
    Guthrie – 158

    Plus, Veres (92 ERA+) was slightly above replacement level as well. It’s not like he didn’t have anybody to bring in to replace Wood even 10 pitches earlier. It’s the late pitches that hurt the most because a tired pitcher tends to start letting their mechanics go even more.

    Compare that to the Indians this season, who were considered to have a strong bullpen, even though it really only consisted on 3 quality pitchers (Betancourt, Fultz, and Perez) and a bunch of iffiness. And yet Sabathia and Carmona still only managed to throw over 115 pitches 3 times and once respectively.

    Again, I’m not saying that the injuries are entirely Baker’s fault, but he showed no caution whatsoever with a young pitcher who already had a history of injuries. I can’t accept that as good management.

    By the way, I expect Zambrano to have a similar career path to Vazquez, mainly because both have thrown a lot of pitches at a young age. Plus, they both have “Z”s in their last name.

  7. Zeldink says:

    They do both have “Z”s in their last name. However, Vazquez has twice as many. Surely that means something.

    The article documenting Prior’s terrible mechanics was informative. With the dozens of still shots of his delivery, you could really see where it turned from great to bad. Seeing his elbow go above his shoulder and his arm bent at 135 degrees at the elbow looked painful.

    I guess sportswriters can’t be trusted. I mean, if what I read in The Sporting News wasn’t true….

  8. KC2HMZ says:

    Yep. Thank you, Zeldink, for taking the time to look at it.

    What was Baker supposed to do? With that delivery, simply letting Prior warm up in the bullpen was a risky proposition.

    Yet, this was the ace of the Cubs’ rotation.

    Send him back to the minors to refine his delivery, and everybody in Chicago screams bloody murder.

    Take the attitude that his arm is going to fall off eventually anyway so you might as well let him pitch while he still can, and everybody in Chicago screams bloody murder.

  9. Shawn says:

    Gee, I don’t know. Maybe a pitching coach could have helped him refine his delivery? Like in the minors years before? Even major leaguers can alter their delivery, and often have. Perhaps a competent pitching coach, like Dick Pole? Whoops, never mind.

    I covered this in much greater detail on my own blog. I invite you to check it out there.

  10. Mark T says:

    When Terry Francona replaced Grady Little as manager of the Red Sox, it was due in large part to Little not having a quick enough hook in leaving Pedro Hernandez in a playoff game too long.

    Francona is one of the quickest hooks in baseball, no doubt looking over his shoulder.

    So too do I expect Baker to be a quick hook, given all the criticism he’s taken.

  11. KC2HMZ says:

    N.B.: I’ve just updated the original diary with a link to additional analysis from Chris O’Leary showing Prior’s mechanical flaws in greater detail.

    Shawn – Funny you should mention pitching coaches. I’ve recently been told that Prior’s mechanics were designed by one. Does the name Tom House sounds familiar?

    I remember him working for the Rangers some years ago. I believe it was during that time that he originally came up with the idea Tony LaRussa infamously experimented with some years ago, of having nine pitchers each work three innings every third day.

    It was apparently House who designed Prior’s mechanics, and it was apparently House who told SI that Prior’s mechanics were perfect.

    Baker was thus left to work with the results of House’s handiwork. You can’t blame Baker for that, he wasn’t even in the Cubs’ organization when Prior was in their minor league system, he was managing the Giants. I’ll concede that Dusty’s level of use didn’t help Prior or Wood any, but the underlying cause of their problems is horrid mechanics, not overuse.

    HMZ

  12. River Otter says:

    Thanks for posting the Chris O’Leary paper. It seems to me that the prevailing opinion has been that Prior had good mechanics. Based on O’Leary’s paper, that doesn’t seem to have been the case.

    While I do think that Baker overworked his young trio of starting pitchers down the stretch in 2003, it’s hard to say whether it had any impact on Wood and Prior’s subsequent problems. My optimistic of impression of Baker is that he’s sensitive to the criticism that he’s overworked some of his young pitchers in the past, and that he’ll be more cautious with Bailey and Cueto.