Comparing Verlander and Felix to History

by JeffMoore

The major free agent signings every year, especially those that involve pitchers, cause mixed reactions to ripple throughout the baseball world, conjuring up the typical griping from small-market teams, and sniping from the sore losers who snicker behind closed doors that the winning bid was too high or contained too many years, and convincing their fans that they were wise enough to avoid such pitfalls.

But in an off-season without the usual dearth of big-name free agent pitchers, we have seen the hot stove activity instead permeate our baseball consciousness in the form of contract extensions given to young players approaching free-agency, namely those given to Justin Verlander, who just signed a 5 year/$80 million extension, and Felix Hernandez, whose Mariners gave him a similar 5 years/$78 million less than a month ago.

Long-term contracts in baseball (where the money is guaranteed) are inherent with a certain amount of risk, and that risk is even higher with pitchers.   But in both of these cases, history can allow these two fan bases a little bit of comfort.

Other than their 3 year age difference, the two pitchers are similar (note that I didn’t say the same) in just about every other way.  In fact, in the expansion era (since 1961), there have been only 11 right-handed pitchers who were exclusively starters and pitched over 800 innings before the age of 26:

Player             ERA+     IP From   To   Age  GS  W  L W-L%   H  ER   SO  ERA
Mike Mussina        139  894.1 1991 1995 22-26 125 71 30 .703 802 320  556 3.22
Dwight Gooden       134 1172.2 1984 1988 19-23 158 91 35 .722 960 341 1067 2.62
Tim Hudson          130  812.0 1999 2002 23-26 122 64 26 .711 743 309  634 3.42
Felix Hernandez     125  905.0 2005 2009 19-23 138 58 41 .586 863 347  810 3.45
Kerry Wood          118  902.2 1998 2003 21-26 142 59 41 .590 677 363 1065 3.62
Justin Verlander    116  840.0 2005 2009 22-26 132 65 43 .602 797 366  746 3.92
Jack McDowell       113  906.0 1987 1992 21-26 132 59 39 .602 811 351  633 3.49
Jake Peavy          111  864.0 2002 2006 21-25 138 57 45 .559 774 337  850 3.51
Ben Sheets          111  982.1 2001 2005 22-26 149 55 62 .470 978 418  826 3.83
Steve Busby         109  902.2 1972 1976 22-26 127 62 45 .579 849 353  592 3.52
John Smoltz         109  979.2 1988 1992 21-25 146 57 54 .514 852 381  738 3.50

Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 2/4/2010.

The table above shows a mixed bag of results of players proceeding from this type of career start.  For comparison’s sake, we can throw out Steve Busby, who tore his rotator cuff when he was 26 which effectively ended his career.  Ben Sheets also began his injury history during his 26-year-old season, and has not pitched 200 innings in a season since.  The other two pitchers on this list who haven’t fulfilled what seemed like their obvious destiny were Dwight Gooden, whose career was derailed by drug addiction, and Kerry Wood, who had already missed a season due to Tommy John Surgery when he was 22 years old.

Do the best of our (and more importantly, their teams’) knowledge, neither Hernandez nor Verlander has had any of these issues.  The rest of the list should offer comfort to Tigers’ and Mariners’ fans, as it includes two possible Hall of Famers (Smoltz and Mussina), two players in the midst of strong careers (Peavy and Hudson), and Jack McDowell, who did not have the longevity most would have hoped for, but did win a Cy Young Award in his 27-year old season.  Of the 11 players on this list, only McDowell had injury troubles down the road without a previous history of them.

We know that with every long-term signing there is risk, but there is also the risk of losing an ace pitcher to free-agency.  A lot can happen to a pitcher in 5 years, but both of these deals require about as little risk as an organization can expect.

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17 Responses to “Comparing Verlander and Felix to History”

  1. Hossrex Says:

    I think you meant “glut”, instead of “dearth.”

  2. Rick Says:

    Let’s hope they both have long careers.

    Another way to look at it, though, is the similarity scores on baseball-reference. The most similar pitcher to Verlander is Wade Miller, who had an injury-shortened career. For those similar to Verlander through age 26, we see McDowell, Ben McDonald, Miller, and Busby, none of whom did much after 30. This list, however, also includes Halladay and Pettitte – maybe he’ll resemble them instead.

    Hernandez’ comps suggest he’s even riskier. There are a few good pitchers on his comps but there are even more examples of guys who had short careers. The most similar pitcher to Hernandez is Charlie Lea of the 80’s Expos. Through age 23 the most similar is Denny McLain who was as good a pitcher as you could want – until after age 25.

    As everyone knows, long-term contracts for pitchers are risky.

  3. Hossrex Says:

    The player comparison by age charts aren’t designed to say ANYTHING about how a player will perform in the future.

    They simply project which player the person is most similar to through a certain age.

    It’s just silly to look at a comparison list, and say “well, he’s similar to guys who got hurt, so he seems risky.”

    Nonsense.

  4. Rick Says:

    Not really.

    The issue, ultimately, is supposing we can predict the future based on the past. Sometimes it works, sometimes not – which means it’s not a reliable tool. Using the past to predict risk is risky. Hmmm.

    The best tool would be to look at a pitcher’s mechanics and say, “Does he look like someone that’s going to hurt himself or someone that’s going to pitch a long time?” Then offer the long-term contract, or not.

  5. Rick Says:

    Even looking at someone’s mechanics is still using the past to predict the future.

    Looks like the left side of my brain is taking a day off.

  6. Hossrex Says:

    You’re talking about psychohistorianism (in the Asimov sense).

    That can tell you when major events are likely to happen, and perhaps get into greater specifics about what nature the event will take, but never regarding who the focus will be.

    Based on the past, you can know that sometime in February (for example) a world leader will be deposed (for example). Which world leader that will be isn’t part of the equation, because that isn’t how it works (and this was a terrible example of a remarkably complicated set of theories).

    You should check out the Foundation books.

  7. Hossrex Says:

    Rick: “Even looking at someone’s mechanics is still using the past to predict the future.

    Looks like the left side of my brain is taking a day off.”

    I agree. The problem is the comparison charts don’t actually take useful things like mechanics into account. It’s purely statistical.

  8. Patrick Says:

    One thing the comparison chart tells you is how hard it is to come out of the box as a very good workhorse pitcher and sustain it for 15+ years.

    Only Mussina remained a consistently good starter and that doesn’t bode well for Verlander’s and Felix’s longevity.

    I think we’re about to see a truly dominant year from Felix though.

  9. Chuck Says:

    “The best tool would be to look at a pitcher’s mechanics and say, “Does he look like someone that’s going to hurt himself or someone that’s going to pitch a long time?”

    A few years ago, the Yankees put together an instructional video showing proper pitching mechanics to their recently drafted players. The video used tape of college players at a MLB sponsored scouting camp.

    The star of the video?

    Go look up scouting reports for Jordan Zimmermann of the Nationals. Every single one of them will mention how perfect his mechanics are.

    He had Tommy John last year.

    We can’t see INSIDE somebody. Genetics have as much to do with a player as mechanics.

    RA Dickey has fashioned himself a decent length career as a reliever, but no matter how much or how hard he throws, he will never have Tommy John.

    Why?

    Because he was born WITHOUT an ulnar collateral ligament in his right arm.

    Stuff happens.

    Mark Prior.

  10. Raul Says:

    I just assume every pitcher will get surgery at some point.

    Pitching isn’t a forgiving motion.

  11. db Says:

    Mark Pryor was known for his perfect mechanics. His career certainly panned out injury-free.

  12. Patrick Says:

    A couple hours north of me, Mike Marshall has a pitching school that teaches what he calls perfect mechanics. It’s completely different from traditional perfect mechanics. He claims that if you follow his advice, you can pitch everyday and never suffer a shoulder or elbow injury.

    Quite a claim. One problem with it is it makes you look like your throwing like a girl. uhhh…sorry girls.

    I remember being at a spring training game, 99′ I think, and one of his proteges, Jeff Sparks came in to the game. His first warm up pitch was the only time I ever heard an entire baseball stadium laugh. After a 3 up, 3 down inning we were still laughing but not quite as hard.

    I just looked him up to see what happened to him. Career, 30.1 IP, 19 H and 30BB and 41 K’s! He threw like his elbow was pinned to his liver.

  13. Hossrex Says:

    Chuck: “Because he was born WITHOUT an ulnar collateral ligament in his right arm.

    Crazy.

    This is probably a stupid question… but don’t you need one of those?

    DB: “Mark Pryor was known for his perfect mechanics. His career certainly panned out injury-free.”

    As evidence of how broken the draft has become thanks to the modern day “super agents”, the Twins had the first overall pick the year Prior was available. Prior was the top rated player that year, but the Twins didn’t think think they’d be able to sign him (just like the Mariners didn’t think they could sign Dreifort). So, regardless of the fact that they had the first pick and he was the best player, they signed the second best player.

    Joe Mauer.

    Patrick: “One problem with it is it makes you look like your throwing like a girl. uhhh…sorry girls.”

    LOL! Awesome. Ever play catch with a girl? I used to hang out with the Santa Barbara City College girls softball team, and I’d play catch with them sometimes. Every single girl with whom I’ve ever played catch with (regardless of level) consistently throws crotch high. I can’t stress how nerve-wracking it is to play catch with someone throwing as hard as they can (because they’re trying to impress each other), when every other throw is a laserbeam pointed at your junk.

    Then you go play catch with a guy, and every throw is a perfect strike at your chest (i.e. where it’s supposed to be).

    What the hell is with that?

  14. Chuck Says:

    This kid I grew up with, about ten years younger than I am, was a bigtime high school jock, all sports. Baseball was his best game, he ended up getting a full ride to Providence as a pitcher/outfielder.

    He was an all conference player his sophomore year and played in the Cape Cod league that summer. Before heading back to school, he decides to play in some co-ed softball game with the team his girlfriend was on.

    He’s playing SS, batter hits a blooper over second base, he goes out and makes a routine catch. He’s IN HIS THROWING MOTION BACK TO THE PITCHER and the girl playing left field barrels into him from the back..blows out every ligament and breaks every bone in his left leg from the knee to his ankle.

    End of career.

    The only time men and women should do anything physical together they must be naked.

  15. Hossrex Says:

    Damn. That sucks.

    It’s gotta suck to be a mechanic in a garage, still walking with a limp, instead of playing pro-ball because of some dumb bitch.

  16. Patrick Says:

    Lol, that’s funny Hoss. I know what you mean. That’s the worst spot too because you don’t know whether to catch the ball up, down or backhanded, and there’s so much at stake too! I used to play catch with my daughter all of the time but she took it easy on me. It’s my son who can’t have a simple pitch and catch without throwing 80mph sliders at my pinned together ankle.

    Chuck, I really like your suggestion but I think it’s illegal in most states to play softball naked…….. No joke though, poor guy.

  17. Chuck Says:

    Who the heck said anything about softball??

    :)

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