Sunday, November 27, 2011

The New CBA and the Misuse/Overuse of Pitching Prospects

Both Dave Cameron and Keith Law did a splendid job recapping the highlights and lowlights of the new MLB CBA (sadly there are a great deal lowlights).  I believe, however, that one negative aspect of the new CBA has not been discussed sufficiently.  In short, by enticing more players to go to college, the MLB is putting their prospects in the wrong hands.

This goes beyond the fact that, on average, college coaching staffs are not as skilled as professional coaching staffs in terms of developing prospects (especially in developing the sort of specific players a specific team may be looking to develop).  On average, the best coaches are in the professional ranks, so putting these future prospects in the hands of inferior coaching for 3-4 years inhibits their baseball development.  However, this negative aspect of the CBA is not my focus here.

Rather, my focus is on how college pitchers are misused and overused.  For a college coach, a new pitching recruit is simply a three or four year investment.  For a professional coach, a new pitching prospect can be a 10+ year investment.  Who is going to be concerned more for the pitcher’s long-term health and development?  Well, obviously it is going to be the coach who has more invested in the player.

I have two roommates who pitched at the same Mid-American Conference school.  Both of them were right-handed pitchers and both were viewed as low-level pro prospects at some time or another (one was drafted out of high school, and both attended several professional tryout sessions).  Each experienced a period of dead arm, where their low to mid-90’s fastballs were suddenly sitting in the mid 80’s range.  What did coaches do?  Well, of course, their coaches turned both of them into side-armers, making them right-on-right specialists.   In fact, this was (and still remains) standard practice at the school for any player who experiences dead arm.  It is the best way to squeeze out every ounce of value before the pitcher graduates.

Now, ask yourself, “What would a professional coach do in this situation?”  Well, simply put, a professional coach would shut the pitcher down for an extended period, seeing if he could help bring the velocity back.  If that failed, he might then move on to other methods (long-toss program, etc.) in hopes of bringing the pitcher’s velocity back.

Now, it is not as simple as the college coach acting selfishly and the professional coach acting selflessly.  Both are actually acting selfishly.  For the professional coach, the selfish thing to do is whatever best helps the player become as good of a player long-term as possible.  So, he will take a long-term approach with the player.  The college coach is not afforded such a luxury.  Rather, the college coach must win and win now in order to keep his job.  So, in order to achieve this goal, he squeezes every ounce of short-term value he can out of a player.

This is not a problem merely at the lower level (i.e. the MAC, where the anecdote I recite occurred).   Many remember Austin Wood, the Texas pitcher who threw 169 pitches (a day after throwing 30) in a 2009 NCAA Regional game.  If a coach in the New York-Penn League (or some other low minor league system) used a top prospect like this, what would happen to that coach?  Obviously he would be fired or severely reprimanded.  If you do something like this in college, you are rewarded, because you are doing whatever it takes to win.  It should surprise no one that Wood only pitched 1.1 innings in 2010 (his first full MiLB season) because of injury.  This type of overuse is not all that uncommon.  In fact, during 2009 alone, a pitcher threw 150 or more pitches 25 times!

So, as more pitchers are enticed to go to the NCAA ranks, more pitchers will be misused and overused in ways that would get professional coaches fired in they treated the players in such a way.  

College coaches get rewarded for it.  That’s why MLB teams should want these kids under their control.

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