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UCLA Baseball: Is John Savage Overusing Bruin Starting Pitchers?

An article from FanGraphs suggests that he is.

It’s pretty certain that no one is going to be calling UCLA Head Coach “Captain Hook” anytime soon.
Joe Piechowski

A few years ago, Baseball Hall of Famer Goose Gossage criticized the way today’s pitchers are coddled in Major League Baseball in an effort to protect them from getting injured. At the time, Gossage said, “I would buy into these pitch counts if there were less injuries, but there are more injuries today than there ever has been.”

Well, according to an article published on FanGraphs, UCLA Head Coach John Savage may just agree with Gossage. In the article, Gerald Shifman, the lead researcher at Crain's New York Business and a writer at The Hardball Times and who previously worked in the New York Mets' baseball operations department and in Major League Baseball's publishing department, argues that John Savage is overusing his starters.

And, it might just be hard to disagree with Shifman as he makes a pretty convincing case.

Shifman starts out discussing Griffin Canning’s fall in this year’s MLB Draft. He cites Baseball America, who three days before the draft, predicted that Canning would be selected with the 16th overall pick by the New York Yankees. Of course, we know that Canning wasn’t picked until the 47th pick, a difference that cost Canning $2 million.

Shifman cites tweets from Scout’s Taylor Blake Ward which indicated concerns about Canning’s pitching arm and shoulder had at least one team predicting he would fall.

Shifman then looks at six years of data from UCLA’s games, comparing it first among the UCLA pitching staff and, then, comparing those results to the NCAA overall.

The UCLA data looks at the number of pitches per start for five types of starters. He looks at Game 1 starters, Game 2 starters and Game 3 starters, all for weekend series, and then adds Midweek starters as well as Tournament game starters.

As you would expect, the Game 1 starters typically threw more pitches per start than Game 2 starters and both of those typically threw more pitches per start than Game 3 starters and weekend pitchers typically threw more pitches per start than midweek starters.

There really isn’t much surprise there. In a college rotation, you would expect that the Friday starter would be considered the ace of a team’s rotation and that the midweek starter would be the fourth-best guy in the rotation.

What was surprising, though, was the overall workload of the UCLA pitching staff, especially the Game 1 starter. 33% of Game 1 starters for UCLA threw more than 115 pitches in a game. That is more than twice as much as the NCAA average of 14%. 11% of UCLA Game 2 starters threw more than 115 pitches compared to just 8.6% in the NCAA as a whole, which is still almost 50% higher.

Meanwhile, UCLA’s Game 3 and midweek starters were below the NCAA averages. That’s odd as well, given that UCLA’s two best pitchers were used as much as they were.

Shifman also looks at how often Bruin pitchers violate the Pitch Smart guidelines from MLB and USA Baseball. In the case of every class, UCLA pitchers violate the Pitch Smart guidelines more than the NCAA average. In the case of freshman, UCLA’s violation rate is almost three times higher than the NCAA average. For sophomores, it’s almost 50% higher than the NCAA average and, for juniors, it’s slightly more than 50% higher than the NCAA average. Finally, for seniors, it’s about 10% higher than the NCAA average.

While Shifman then suggests that pitchers may want to steer clear of UCLA even though top recruits are still choosing UCLA, he avoids the questions about Savage’s motivation behind his use of the slow hook with Bruin starters.

Is Savage more trusting of his starters because he’s trying to build the arm strength with the understanding that he is preparing them for the next level? Is he leaving his starters in longer because he simply doesn’t trust the guys he has in the bullpen? Does he trust the bullpen guys less because they’re not as good as the starters? After all, if they were as good or better than the starters, wouldn’t they be starting instead? So,is it a talent issue combined with the pressure to win?

Perhaps Shifman avoids these questions because he doesn’t really care what Savage’s motivation is. Perhaps he is just trying to make potential recruits aware of UCLA’s use or overuse of the team’s starters.

But, there is little doubt that schools are going to point to the Schifman article to negatively recruit against UCLA. In fact, one of the handful of commenters on FanGraphs mentions that.

It was also interesting that Shifman didn’t bother discussing injury rates of Bruin pitchers at the next level. That may have been inconclusive or there may not be enough data on that. Of course, it would have been easy to point to the injuries suffered by James Kaprielian in the Yankees’ minor league system. Since being drafted in the first round of the 2015 MLB Draft, ironically, 16th overall (the same spot and team where Baseball America had predicted Canning would be selected), Kaprielian missed most of last season and almost all of this season with a series of flexor strains in his throwing arm near his elbow.

But, that might also have required Schifman to explain why Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer and Adam Plutko haven’t experienced significant injuries.

So, in other words, where you fall in this debate probably depends on whether you agree with Goose Gossage or whether you believe in limiting a guy’s pitch count.

Personally, I think it comes down to a game-by-game call on whether a given pitcher has anything left in the tank to get the outs he needs to get out of the inning. Although, I do also think that, maybe, John Savage should have a little bit of a quicker hook with his top two starters.

Go Bruins!!!