Archive: October 9th, 2008

Aaron Heilman: Most Abused Pitcher in Baseball?

Was Aaron Heilman the most abused pitcher in baseball in 2008? Look at the numbers and judge for yourself. His 1486 pitches thrown were tied for the second-most in MLB among “pure” relievers — pitchers who did not make any starts. (Carlos Marmol led all relievers in pitches with 1505 – but we’ll get to him).

Tampa Bay’s J.P. Howell also threw exactly 1486 relief pitches in 2008 — yet he pitched consistently well throughout the year, and enjoyed a strong September, while Heilman finished the season in the doghouse, appearing in only 7 games. What was the difference?

First of all, Howell never appeared in more than 11 games in any one month — Rays manager Joe Maddon used Howell (and all his relievers) judiciously. Howell appeared in 8 games in April, 11 games in May, June, July, and September, and 12 games in August. Interestingly, his pitch counts were fairly high in the first two months of the season — 275 in April, 294 in May, and 280 in June — but Maddon tapered down his pitches in July (185) and August (210), ensuring he’d be strong enough in September (235 pitches).

Compare that to the “management” of Heilman:

[TABLE=37]

Heilman was essentially pushed to the upper limits in April — you can blame Randolph for that — and he may never have recovered. To Randolph’s credit, he did back off on using Heilman in May and was limiting his pitches in June. However, once Manuel took over, it was right back to abuse, appearing 16 times in July and 15 times in August.

Also of note in the Howell — Heilman comparison is days’ rest. Howell was used on zero days rest 13 times all season; Heilman, twice as many (26). Howell was most frequently used on one days’ rest (19 times), followed by two days’ rest (16) and three days’ (9). In contrast, Heilman appeared with one days’ rest 21 times, on two days 18 times, and on three days’ 11 times. It should also be noted that Heilman once pitched in both ends of a doubleheader.

Appearances on Days’ Rest: JP Howell vs. Aaron Heilman

[TABLE=38]

* including two ends of one DH

Finally, Aaron Heilman threw 26 or more pitches in an outing 18 times, including two instances in which he threw 51 pitches or more. Howell threw 26+ in a game 21 times, but never more than 50, and clearly was given more rest.

Of particular consideration is the fact that Aaron Heilman was slated to be a setup man or 7th inning middle reliever. As a result, he was conditioned for this role from the beginning of spring training. As such, we can presume that preseason preparation program was optimized for him to pitch one inning at a time, 2-3 times per week. The sum total of his acutal workload in the season, however, was more comparable to that of a long reliever / spot starter. In fact, the only relievers in 2008 who threw more pitches than Heilman, Howell, and Marmol were those who made at least a few starts, and who were used almost exclusively in long relief roles: Chan Ho Park, Hong Chih Kuo, Boof Bonser, and Carlos Villanueva.

But then what about Marmol, who threw 19 more pitches than Heilman and had perhaps the best season of any setup man / middle reliever in baseball?

Let’s look at Lou Piniella’s use of Marmol (which could also be termed “abuse”):

[TABLE=39]

While it could be argued that Marmol was abused more than Heilman, it should be noted that Marmol’s highest pitch count in any one month was 293, and second-highest was 277. Heilman had highs of 308, 299, and 293 – again, these are numbers more comparable to long relievers. Still, it would seem that Marmol was at the very least the second-most abused pitcher in MLB next to Heilman, based on his frequency of use.

Marmol’s use in regard to days’ rest is similarly disturbing:

[TABLE=40]

Unlike Heilman, however, Marmol was never used in both ends of a doubleheader. He threw more than 26 pitches in an outing 17 times (compared to Heilman’s 16), but never more than 51 (Heilman did it twice).

Also of concern is the fact that both Marmol and Heilman rely heavily on a mid-90s fastball; in contrast, Howell is a “soft tosser” who barely tops out at 90 MPH. Generally speaking, throwing at a higher velocity takes more toll on a pitcher’s body.

It has to be understood that these numbers reflect the most abused pitchers in all of MLB — the vast majority of middle relievers are used 10-12 times per month, 160-220 pitches per month. Total pitches for the year for a typical middle reliever is anywhere from 650-1100.

This post is an excerpt from an upcoming report in progress titled “Bullpen Blueprint”, which examines and compares the bullpens of successful MLB teams in 2008. The full report will be available for PDF download at MetsToday.com when it is complete.

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Bullpen Blueprint – Teasers Coming

Last week I began researching an article about the management (and mismanagement) of big league bullpens in 2008. However, what began as an article turned into a treatise — the document is currently over 20 pages long (and growing) and certainly too hefty for a blog post. Eventually, it will be available as a PDF download.

Basically, what I’ve done is researched each playoff team’s bullpen management, as far as the frequency of use, pitch counts, and rest time, to determine whether there is a pattern among successful teams. Actual performance — that is, ERAs, blown saves, etc. — were not a focus of the study, though included for comparison. This may seem illogical, but the point of my research was to find out what successful teams do in their attempt to keep their bullpens fresh and performing at optimum levels from games one through 162.

Since we already know that teams strictly manage their starting pitchers — stopping them when they reach specific pitch counts, and ensuring they regularly receive at least four days’ rest between starts — I was curious to find out if teams also exerted similar limitations for their bullpen arms. What I’m finding out is that they do — or at least, the numbers suggest they do. This may seem obvious to most baseball fans, but as Mets fans, we certainly haven’t seen any patterns or “rules” in regard to handling relievers in the last 3-4 years.

MetsToday readers know I’m not much for grinding out and quoting statistics, and this report won’t be of interest to the number-crunching sabermetricians. But I’m hoping it sheds light on the correct and safe ways to manage championship bullpens — or at least begins the conversation. Because I don’t believe there’s any “mystery” or “luck” dictating middle relief performance from one year to the next, and I do think that there IS a right and wrong way to handle a bullpen over the course of a season. What I’m theorizing is that most studies are flawed in that they have focused on the raw performance numbers (ERA, WHIP, etc.) of relievers rather than taking a step back and seeing whether a reliever (or bullpen) has been properly prepared to compete.

This afternoon I’ll publish a “teaser” or excerpt titled, “Aaron Heilman: Most Abused Pitcher in Baseball?”. I’ll continue to post excerpts over the next two weeks, if you’re interested to read this doctrine as it develops. Your comments are more than welcome.

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