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Felix Hernandez And The Year After Effect

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Smart people, ordinary people, and fans of Rick Reilly who got lost might've read Tuesday's SI article from Tom Verducci classifying Felix Hernandez as one of the pitchers at risk for the Year After Effect. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, the Year After Effect - also known as the Verducci Effect - identifies pitchers 25 or younger who threw at least 30 more innings in the most recent season than in the season before, and says that these pitchers are at great risk for injury or underperformance. Felix turns 24 this April, and, including the WBC, threw 46.2 more innings in 2009 than he did in 2008. As such, he makes the cut, alongside nine other guys like Josh Johnson and Rick Porcello.

That can seem a little distressing. After all, the Year After Effect (YAE) has noted names like Dustin McGowan, Jose Rosado and Francisco Liriano in the past. Does this mean that Felix is in trouble?

To those of you who're feeling concerned, I offer two bits of advice:

  • Don't worry
  • Worry just a little bit

For one thing, the YAE is more than a little arbitrary. Why 25 years old? Why 30+ innings? Why not 26 years old, or 24 years old? Why not 20+ innings, or 40+ innings? Why have buckets at all? Buckets (or groupings) can be convenient, but they're never ideal. Pitcher A, 24, increased his innings by 29. Pitcher B, 24, increased his innings by 30. Pitcher C, 24, increased his innings by 90. Pitcher D, 26, increased his innings by 150. Pitchers B and C will get classified together, while neither Pitchers A nor D will be included. That doesn't make any sense. Granted, this isn't a scientific theory and these are exaggerated hypotheticals, but life is continuous, and not a step function. 30 innings represent more wear and tear than 20 innings, but 40 is more than 30, and so on. There's a principle here, and the principle might be valid, but the selection process is flawed.

For another thing, the YAE paints with a broad brush, and as we all know, humans are snowflakes. If you thought hitters were difficult to project, try projecting pitchers. Better yet, try projecting pitchers who'll get hurt. It's hard. General principles have their place, but you can't take ten different pitchers and apply the same rule of thumb, because they're each structurally unique. Let's say, hypothetically, that 75% of all pitchers selected for the YAE fall victim. That in no way means that each pitcher has a 75% probability of falling victim, because some guys can simply withstand the rigors of pitching a lot, and other guys can't. You have to treat each guy individually. What do we have with Felix?

We have a guy who had shoulder bursitis in 2005 and a forearm strain in 2007, and no other arm trouble.

We have a guy who's made 126 starts the last four years.

We have a guy who's thrown 191, 190.1, 200.2, and 238.2 innings the last four years.

We have a guy who got stronger as the season went on last year, a guy who didn't show any kind of velocity loss.

We have a guy whose workload has been closely monitored, even if it seems like it hasn't been.

We can't personally investigate Felix's shoulder and elbow to see how they're doing. I suppose it's possible they could be on the brink of obliteration. The Mariners, though, have presumably done their homework, here, and on the macroscopic level, there's no reason at all to believe that Felix can't handle a big workload. While he was worked hard, he gave every indication that he was up to it. To say that alarm bells should be sounding just because he meets two basic statistical criteria...no, that's too simplistic. You have to consider more, and the 'more' seems to work in Felix's favor.

Finally, I like both David Gassko and Jeremy Greenhouse, and they've investigated the YAE - Gassko in 2006, and Greenhouse this morning. Greenhouse's research is the reason I'm writing this post, actually. Guess what they've found out, independent of one another? Nothing. They can't find an effect. You can argue with their analytical methods if you so desire, and it's certainly not conclusive, but you'd think they would've been able to pick up on an effect if one existed, and they didn't. The burden of proof, then, lies on those advancing the theory. We should expect Felix to, say, throw fewer innings in 2010 than he did in 2009, but that's simple regression to the mean, because 238.2 innings is an extraordinary total.

Overall, I wouldn't worry about Felix's inclusion in the group. The YAE is a nice theory, and its heart is in the right place - young pitchers shouldn't be ridden too hard, because young pitchers are valuable and delicate. But its grouping method is poor, it addresses pitchers in general rather than specifically Felix, and no one has found any evidence that it's real. It'd be one thing if Felix went from 120 innings to 240. That'd be an alarming jump. But 200 to 240? If Felix gets hurt, or gets worse (I know, I know), I'd prefer to just chalk it up to the hazards of pitching than some handy rule of thumb, because it turns out pitching is dangerous.

And that's why I think it's reasonable to generally worry just a little bit. Because even if you don't put much stock in the YAE, pitching is dangerous, and perhaps more significant than Felix's ~40 inning jump are the 820 innings he's thrown the last four years. I guess that kind of depends on your perspective. Some would call that a heavy workload. Others would call it proof that Felix is more Randy Johnson than Kerry Wood. I'm not qualified to offer any sort of evaluation. Forgetting that, though, we're still dealing with the fact that pitching puts a terrific strain on the body, and Felix's continued health isn't guaranteed. It's not something to take for granted. Is he at special risk because he's young and threw 40 more innings? I don't think it's significant. Is he at risk because he's a pitcher? Sadly, yeah. I don't like to think about this any more than you do, but it is something we just have to keep in mind, and given that we could have another 500 Felix Days or just one more Felix Day, I implore you to treat each as if it were the last. Felix's is an arm to be treasured, for as long as it lives.