Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Why Riggles Isn't Quite 100% Off the Hook for Strasburg in my Book

Maybe the DCCC is invading my subconscious, but I suddenly find myself recalling dark episodes from the Bush administration. Like Donald Rumsfeld:
There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we do not know we don’t know.
Which brings me to Stephen Strasburg's elbow. Did the Nationals "do everything they could to protect him and keep him from placing unusual stress on his arm" as Buster Olney and all right-thinking baseball insiders have said again and again?

The truth is, we don't have any idea. Pitching is one of the least understood areas of sports medicine. Talk to one pitching coach, and he'll tell you that Strasburg's problem was the "upside-down W." Talk to another and he'll say it was that he short-stepped on the front end. Talk to another and he'll tell you he didn't do enough long-toss, or that he threw too much in college, or that he didn't throw enough, or that his mechanics are perfect and just had bad genes.

After listening to all that, you realize that there are really only two camps when it comes to pitching injuries. People
who don't know and know they don't know (see, me), and people who don't know but think they know (see Olney, Buster).

My problem is that Jim Riggleman could be the poster boy for the school of unknown unknowns. On blogger day last year, I asked him if he'd learned anything from Kerry Wood, and would he do anything differently. He said, "I never asked for him to come up, but once he was there we treated him like everybody else. [Pitchers] just get hurt. It was probably inevitable."

Then, during spring training, Mark Zuckerman captured this moment of clarity from Riggleman:
You know, anything that has to do with the mechanics of pitching, you know, I just, I'd be bluffing if I tried to tell you I knew what I was talking about. You know, the mechanics of pitching, you know, it makes sense to me when McCatty and pitchers explain what they're doing, but you know, I want him to be healthy, and I'm looking for results, so, you know, that's the main thing, and I'm sure if he feels there was a mechanical thing there that he was doing that he'll make the adjustment, and he'll do it otherwise next time he pitches.
There are gobs of quotes like this from Riggleman, and they all basically come back to the same points: he doesn't know what he's talking about, but he's 100% sure it doesn't make any difference.

Now, again, based on what we could see from the outside, it seemed like they were careful. We know about pitch counts, they waited to bring him up... generally it looks like they were taking obvious steps to limit his workload and the stress on his arm.

That's all well and good. But pitch counts and innings limits are only two pieces of a big puzzle, and I just don't believe that a team run by a guy who says he knows bupkis about pitching mechanics (and doesn't seem to be aware why that's a problem) can be said to be doing "everything they could."

Going back to the "two camps of pitching theory," there's really a third camp. Those are the people who know they don't know, but they have ideas and they are trying to learn. Guys like Don Cooper of the Chicago White Sox (who has been widely misreported as having "predicted" Strasburg's injury--Cooper saw what he considered a red flag in Strasburg's "upside-down" arm action, but expressed worry, not a concrete prediction).

Cooper doesn't have the magic 8 ball or anything. But he was the pitching coach for this group, which says something. He and a lot of other thoughtful, smart baseball and medical people are working to advance the body of knowledge about pitching injuries, even if all they can do is reduce risk or delay injuries, rather than eliminate them altogether.

I just with the guy running my team was one of those smart, thoughtful people trying to learn.


Bonsai said...

I think that a certain amount of accountability is necessary, and certainly people should be willing, if not encouraged, to ask tough questions when warranted.

However, you can't just make sensationalist accusations without significant reason. I know, I know I'm throwing around a bunch of "gray" words that are hard to define exactly, but having people point fingers wildly leads to fearmongering and overall poor information.

This reminds me of the Jose Bautista incident where a reporter asked him if he used performance-enhancing drugs, with the only reason that his home run total has gone way up this year. For the same reason, you accuse Riggleman of causing Strasburg's injury, because he's had a past with pitchers.

That one quote you used shows nothing about how he handled Strasburg's workout regimen, much less any input McCatty, Rizzo, etc. have in the matter.

Sorry this is long winded, but you generally have great input on the Nationals, from a viewpoint that a lot of other blogs and reporters aren't brave enough or allowed. Your writing is better when backed up by facts and logical reasoning, not farfetched theories.

Steven said...

What sensationalist accusation? I said I'm not ready to say that Riggleman is 100% without blame. Seems like a pretty measured statement. You're saying that we have to agree with Buster Olney that Riggleman did everything 100% perfect in order to avoid being accused of making a "farfetched theory?" Seems like the claim that we know 100% that Riggleman was perfect is the most farfetched, least substantiated theory of all.

cass said...

"But pitch counts and innings limits are only two pieces of a big puzzle"

But pitch counts and inning limits are the only two things Riggleman would be expected to handle, no? And even then, it was pretty clear that Rizzo was pretty much calling the shots on those.

So I guess I don't know why you're focusing on Riggleman. Wouldn't Steve McCatty be the one responsible for stuff like mechanics? This comes through with your comparison to another pitching coach, but why compare Riggleman and Cooper rather than McCatty and Cooper? If you want someone more managerial than McCatty, then you look to Rizzo I guess, but Riggleman seems the least involved with Strasburg's development of all of them. He just does what he's told and really that's all we should expect him to do.

Steven said...

McCatty works for Riggleman. Wanna say that McCatty's not off the hook either? And Rizzo too? Sure. But Riggleman is the manager, and if he has no fucking idea what he's talking about, that's a problem. Your position is that McCatty's in charge of the pitchers, so if, let's assume McCatty's boss has completely wrong, ass-backwards ideas about how pitchers should be handled, that doesn't matter at all?

The list of things beyond innings and pitch count that the manager is involved in that could affect injury risk is long:
--long-toss routine
--off-day throwing
--mechanical adjustments
--pitch repertoire

Etc. etc.

James Bjork said...

So now in addition to monitoring overall performance and governing strategy in games, keeping up with all the statistics and odds of the sac bunt, as well as managing player egos and team vibe, a manager now needs to be an expert in limb biomechanics?

+1 in defense of Riggleman. The only thing a manager really does vis a vis arm wear is slot in pitchers to start, and decide when they exit the game. Hell, even Rizzo probably dictated that.

You're omitting another (likely) possibility- that BECAUSE he was aware he was not an expert on biomechanics, Riggleman elected to delegate the expertise, and rely on the judgment and impression of McCatty or medical experts on the Nationals' staff.

In light of the zealously monitored pitch counts etc this year, I'm of the "stuff happens when you fling your arm at 100mph" camp. I chalk this all up to Strasburg's genetically-programmed ligament composition not being up to par with the demands placed on it by his other immense physical gifts.

Nolan Ryan's golden ligaments completed his package. Strasburg's do not, and we can just hope that a beefier ligament from his leg will do the trick long-term.

flippin said...

I agree with Steven. The whole point of having managers/coaches/trainers is to add knowledge and value to the asset. It is not like he (Stras) is an artist and should be left alone to "create." The one obvious post-game ritual that seemed beyond the Nats training staff was to wrap the arm and shoulder in ice after a game. Seems every other big league pitcher, or any elite athlete for that matter, uses ice after workouts to limit tissue damage. I would hope Riggs would take a little time to read up on sports medicine or some such. After all, he is overseeing $60 to $70 million worth of athletes and seems clueless about what is best for them physiologically.

Steven said...

So now in addition to monitoring overall performance and governing strategy in games, keeping up with all the statistics and odds of the sac bunt, as well as managing player egos and team vibe, a manager now needs to be an expert in limb biomechanics?

No, he doesn't have to be the expert. But he's the decision-maker, and if he believes, as he's repeatedly said, that IT DOESN'T MATTER what he does, that pitchers JUST GET HURT, regardless of preparation, conditioning, mechanics, or workload, then he will be unable to receive and use good advise from the experts.

Again, if you're disagreeing with me, then your position is that you are 100% sure that Riggleman did everything perfectly and that there's nothing he could have possibly done that might have prevented Strasburg's injury. That's a far-out position that is impossible to justify in the absence of more knowledge about pitching injuries than we have now.

James Bjork said...

You hedge your bets in your post title so you can frame any disgreement as you just have, but I'm not buying it.

Either you're pinning some blame on Riggs or you're not.

You are nevertheless insinuating malfeasance on Riggleman's part by floating the possibility that his professed ignorance or ambivalence to arm mechanics may have led to SS' breakdown. Yes, that is one question that is forever unknown.

However, the more relevant question to indicting Riggleman is whether Riggleman should have known more or cared more to have actually done anything DIFFERENTLY in games or warm-ups.

Considering how SS' pitch counts were not extreme (far from Kerry Wood territory), coupled with Rizzo's top-down dictates on innings and pitch counts, and considering how Riggleman no doubt received constant input from bona-fide pitching and medical experts on the Nationals' staff, I believe Riggleman probably acted reasonably in light of the same medical uncertainty you cite.

James Bjork said...

I would just add that I share your lament that in general, Riggs just does not seem to be intellectually curious regarding a lot of elements of the game. He comes across as cookie-cutter, or "by the book" on a lot of things, and is generally bland. At least when Ozzie Guillen throws a player under the bus to the press, he does it with style.

I just don't think Riggs made any particular decisions that were unreasonable or reckless with regard to maintaining SS's health.

Steven said...

My point isn't that I have specific things that I think would have made a difference. In fact, I agree strongly with JJ Cooper who said the other day that anyone who speaks with certainty about pitching injuries is simply advertising that they don't know what they're talking about.

It's that Riggleman INSISTS that the decisions he makes MAKES NO DIFFERENCE. He's been arguing this in the case of Kerry Wood for years.

So if he did everything right, it was purely a result of random chance, like the person who wins the football pool by picking teams with nice uniforms.

Mark said...

This is completely asinine.

Mark said...

Flippin -

Speaking of taking a little time to research something...


flippin said...

Mark--What is the time stamp on that pic? After the shoulder injury?

Mark said...

Before - it's from the PC following his 3rd career start. I went looking for it because I've seen him wearing one multiple times. In Syracuse too.

There are lots of reasons I disagree with you guys, but the biggest is the basic premise that Riggleman has some sort of significant influence over the handling of Strasburg. Game to game he had his limits and guidance and the two instances in which Strasburg showed any evidence of pain, he sat him down instantly. That's pretty much the extent of Riggleman's role. If you're looking for someone to irrationally blame, blame Rizzo, blame Kasten, blame Scott Boras. All of them have had more of a say than Riggleman. I'm not even saying he's a good manager or really even defending him. It's just that blaming him is about as knee-jerk, shoot-the-messenger as you can get.

Steven said...

OK but even if I adopt your position that Riggleman was a bit player or less, then it's STILL at least a missed opportunity to have another good set of eyes involved to watch and help monitor. More likely, there's tension between Riggleman, who insists again and again that there's nothing that can be done to reduce injury risk ("pitchers just get hurt, that's all there is to it..."), and the folks who are over him commanding him to do things he thinks is meritless. That can't help.

That said, I think you're underestimating the importance of the manager's role.