Every year, I take on the daunting task of going through every single team and creating a mini-database of stats and one-liner (and often only semi-informed) analysis. I use these to write rather arduous previews of each team every spring and attempt to predict how the teams will finish. I’m often horribly wrong, but the exercise is fun and allows me to learn more about each player and team in baseball, right down to the last player on a 40-man roster.

While accumulating information on each player, I often stumble upon an interesting tidbit of information that I was previously unaware of that may make me view a player in a much different light than I had previously. This happened to me the other day when putting together the Mariners database and I noticed that ace pitcher Felix Hernandez has thrown at least 190 innings in every full season he’s played except his first; when he threw 84.1 innings as a 19-year-old rookie. In the last three seasons, Hernandez has thrown at least 230 innings. It would appear as though he is not only one of the very best pitchers in baseball in terms of skill and talent, but he’s also shaping up to be one of the most durable.

Because of how early Hernandez’s Major League career got underway, he has already pitched six-and-a-half seasons and will not have his 26th birthday until April 8th. In total, he has thrown 1388.1 innings in his young career. All of this got me thinking: how many other pitchers have accumulated the number of innings pitched that Hernandez has so early in their life?

I took to Baseball Reference’s Play Index Tool to find the answer to my question, and it turns out the answer is not many.

In fact, since 1980, only two pitchers have accumulated more innings than Hernandez before their age 26 season: Fernando Valenzuela and Dwight Gooden. Both Valenzuela and Gooden started their careers a year or so younger than Hernandez was when he started his and so their totals are significantly higher at over 1500 innings each. Joining Hernandez in the top five, however are more comparable pitchers in Bret Saberhagen and Mike Witt.

Most people in the baseball community when talking about Hernandez’s relative value, site the fact that he is still so young; that he has several more years left in his prime and should therefore be considered on a different, more elite, playing field than many of his contemporaries. Pitchers such as Cliff Lee, Justin Verlander and Tim Lincecum were all several years older than Hernandez by the time they started netting significant Major League innings, thus rendering him far more valuable.

But let’s go back to that list of pitchers who logged significant innings very early in their life. Fernando Valenzuela, Dwight Gooden, Bret Saberhagen, and Mike Witt. All four started their careers off with a bang and all of them ended rather precariously. Will Hernandez falter in much the same way?

After a late-season cameo pitching out of the bullpen for the Dodgers late in the 1980 season, Valenzuela burst on to the scene in the strike-shortened 1981 season and posted a 2.48 ERA winning both the NL Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Award while helping the Dodgers win their first World Series title since 1965. Valenzuela would go on to screwball his way to five more outstanding seasons before the sheer amount of innings he threw caught up to him. His slide started in 1987 when he posted a career-worst 3.98 ERA and he was never the same thereafter, battling injuries and ineffectiveness until he retired, mercifully, after the 1996 season. What looked like a sure-fire Hall of Fame career, ended up falling short.

Gooden, the second pitcher on our list, was similarly hyped, breaking into the Majors on a full-time basis in 1984 at age 19. He stormed his way to an 8.6 fWAR season, followed by a 9.0 fWAR season at age 20 in 1985. No pitcher in the history of the game made such an impact on his team at such a young age. Gooden looked well on his way to a legendary Hall of Fame career and although he did have several more very good years, injuries kept him from sustaining his great start. He didn’t pitch over 200 innings after his age 28 season and retired after his age 35 season in 2000; a year in which he pitched with three different teams and was below-replacement-level.

To be fair, both Valenzuela and Gooden had a lot more innings under their belt by the time they turned 26 than Hernandez will, but the other two pitchers in the top five did not.

Bret Saberhagen experienced his breakout year in 1985 as a 21-year-old with Kansas City. That year, while pitching in 235.1 innings, he posted a 2.87 ERA and a 6.8 fWAR on route to capturing the AL Cy Young Award. He’d win a second Cy Young Award in 1989 after throwing 262.1 innings and accumulating an 8.4 fWAR at the age of 25. In his first six seasons, culminating in 1989, Saberhagen had thrown 200 or more innings and accumulated an fWAR of 5.0 or higher four times. He failed to reach 200 innings ever again and topped 5.0 fWAR only twice more while pitching with the Royals, Mets, Rockies and Red Sox.

The final pitcher on the list, Mike Witt, came up to the Majors as a precocious 20-year-old with the California Angels in 1981 and threw the eleventh perfect game in baseball history on the final day of the 1984 season at Arlington Stadium against the Rangers. From 1984 through 1986, Witt averaged over 250 innings per year and was considered one of the best starters in the AL, finishing third in Cy Young voting in 1986. In the middle of his 1987 season, however, the 6’7” Witt suddenly lost his trademark electric stuff at the age of 26. He would never regain it. He never again had an ERA under 4.00 and was out of the game at age 32.

So what does this mean for Felix Hernandez, who sits smack in the middle of a list of pitchers who saw their best days before their supposed “prime” years? All but Witt won a Cy Young Award before they turned 25 and all were considered inning-eating workhorses at a very young age. Is it possible that Hernandez may start to decline at a rate more comparable to pitchers in their early-to-mid thirties, similar to the way the other four pitchers did? Looking outside of the top five young innings eaters, you see names like Greg Maddux and C.C. Sabathia, but neither pitcher accumulated close to the innings Hernandez has by his age.

If I was the Seattle Mariners, I would have considered trading Hernandez, rather than Michael Pineda this winter.

Comments (23)

  1. Great piece of research. Expect of ton of re-posts out of this.

  2. Interesting read. With your post, it’s fair to say that you’re suggesting that Felix Hernandez is heading down a shaky path, given the number of innings he has logged in his young career. However, this statistical analysis has two drawbacks.

    One, even the Seattle Mariners know about inning counts and pitch counts. There has been radical changes in how teams manage their pitchers since the days of Fernando and Gooden.

    Two, Felix is a prototypical power pitcher with a very easy and durable delivery. I would argue that his effort level is much less taxing that Fernando’s (who relied heavily on his screwball). Gooden had off field issues that may have led to his downturn.

    Having said that, you do mention that CC and Maddux and how they didn’t log as many innings. I would agree that the Mariners need to re-evaluate how they have managed Felix before his effectiveness begins to slide.

    • I agree entirely with those drawbacks. I just found it to be an interesting correlation. Hernandez, to me, shouldn’t be treated in the same way as other 26-year-old pitchers considering the amount of wear and tear on his arm.

  3. What I’d like to know is how Felix’s inning totals relate to someone who spent an average amount of time in the minors. I know there are less games (especially for those that go to college), and maybe (?) the pitching itself is less taxing. Curious how that works out.

    • Yeah, I was actually going to try and factor that in, but it became a mess to figure out so I just went with what we can find.

      • I’d also argue that Major League and Minor League innings are fairly incomparable, especially for a top prospect who can cruise through a AA or AAA line-up without necessarily exerting full effort all the time.

        This is a very interesting subject, though, and it’s an interesting test of modern pitch-count philosophies. Can we manage our pitchers so that they throw this many innings and don’t fall apart, or can the human arm simply cope with that kind of stress?

  4. The first person I thought of after reading this was Bob Feller. 1446 innings after his age 22 season, but then he missed more than 3 years due to WW2. He returned and logged a bunch more innings and had a long and great career.
    Pure speculation, but I’m curious if missing those 3+ years saved his arm…

    • Pretty sure Bob Feller basically wrecked his arm in ’46 after he came back, but I could be mistaken.

      • Wrecked is a bit extreme. He still posted very solid numbers well into the ’50s, albeit with lower strikeout numbers.
        If anything though, we can probably attribute any damage to his 371 innings in 1946, not his innings before before the war.

        • The times were so different then too…guys weren’t throwing nearly as hard and they weren’t throwing sliders which are the single worst pitch for elbows.

  5. Such a small sample size.

    • I agree, but there clearly is a correlation of some kind.

      • The more I think about this, the more I’m starting to believe that in this case correlation may not imply causation.
        1. the sample size of relevant pitchers is so small,
        2. there are so many other relevant factors, ie. pitching style, mechanics etc. that have been proven to have an effect on pitcher durability,
        3. You write off minor league innings too easily. To see if early-career innings pitched has any effect, we’d really need to look at guys who pitched a ton in the minors/college too.
        As far as I’m concerned at this point, you haven’t sufficiently established causation.

        • I agree…I don’t think I was ever trying to suggest this WOULD happen. It’s just an interesting theory. I don’t think I was ever trying to establish causation. I was merely pointing out what happened to other pitchers in Hernandez’s position.

          • Fair enough. it’ll be interesting to see what happens. I’m partial to the Mariners so I’m gunning for to break the trend.

  6. I’m amazed at how fascinated I was by this post. However, after the Felix Hernandez thing the most important information it gave me was that baseball-reference’s WAR is SO much more useful than fangraphs. The troll in me would like to point out that you used a contested metric rather than a measurable statistic to come to your conclusions, but in the case of this article I can’t find fault with the interpretation. I can find fault, however, with the interpretation from Fangraphs that Gooden’s first and second seasons were basically equivalent. I don’t see how anyone could agree with that. The only support I could see for Fangraphs’ view was that Dwight’s rookie k/9 was higher than his sophomore year’s. In all (note: ALL) other important ways, Gooden greatly improved on his rookie campaign. I don’t understand why anyone would ever cite a metric (note: NOT statistic) that doesn’t reflect how the real world works. Also, anyone that doesn’t take pause at a METRIC that uses disputed defensive statistics (see Bautista vs Ellsbury) as a primary determinant is more naive than Neville Chamberlain.

    I really don’t mean to troll, I just get incredibly annoyed that the otherwise very smart writers on this site often reduce their analysis to metrics that depend on defensive measures that even you (I hope) find inconclusive at best. At the very least, I can’t lend credence to any metric that is measured entirely differently depending on the source. I don’t understand how none of you has any such qualms.

    By the way, this continues to be the best source of baseball information on the web. You all are an example for your field. I just can’t stand the dogmatic adherence to WAR as the end-all metric. It may be where analysis is going, but the development of WAR is more incomplete than the freedom tower. I just wish someone here would accept that.

    • Thanks for totally understanding the point of the post! I understand the drawbacks of all of the different interpretations of WAR, WARP and VORP. None of them are perfect and I don’t think any of us pretend that they are. Regardless of your feelings about the metric, it still does a decent job of telling you how good a player was. fWAR, rWAR and WARP all have drawbacks and which one is better is dependent on a lot of things. I actually agree that rWAR is better for pitchers, but I was on the fangraphs site at the time and it’s not as if it tells you nothing. The point still stands regardless. What difference does it ultimately make if Gooden’s rookie season was better than his sophomore one; does it change anything for this post?

      At no point was I using WAR to make definitive statements about anything. I was simply using it as a quick illustration of the type of season the pitcher had. The point was, these pitchers all saw significant drop offs after roughly their age 26/27 seasons. How you measure that is ultimately irrelevant because no matter how you do it, it’s obvious.

      I don’t mean to sound annoyed, as I’m really not, you just make a lot of assumptions about my analysis as it relates to my understanding of the fWAR metric.

      • I’m sorry if it came across that way. I actually found this analysis incredibly interesting, and I hope I properly understood it. I was referring more generally to the use of WAR, which drives me crazy. The statistics on Gooden didn’t even have any impact on your analysis, they just sparked my ire as I hate it when metrics are don’t at all reflect real statistical achievement.

  7. great post Travis. I wonder when AA said that in one instance in a trade he was saying yes but it just wasn’t the best fit if he offered D’arnaud+ for Pineda. In any event it is certainly an interesting analysis, although I wonder if in the 20+ years since the most recent comp offered up that medical science and our understanding of the bio-mechanics of pitching hasn’t helped offset some of the issues that prior players faced. For Felix’s sake I certainly hope so!

  8. How would the list look if you extended it back to, say, 1969 (there were a lot of guys throwing big innings totals in the 70′s)? Blyleven and Tanana come to mind, one as a guy with a long, excellent career, and the other as a guy with great stuff early who was forced to become more of a finesse guy by his mid 20′s.

    As it is, I’m not sure there’s much of a correlation based on the limited evidence – The usage patterns are different enough that he may be a unique case right now. It’s also worth considering that Gooden’s a bit of a special case as well – he threw a ton of innings early, but when he was at Felix’ point in his career he’d missed significant time twice in four years due to drug use and injury. The total innings are there, but he didn’t really fit the bill as a durable pitcher any more by that point in his career.

    • Funny you should bring up Blyleven and Tanana. When you search back as far as 1969, Hernandez still ranks fifth on the list and Bert and Frank are the ones inserted ahead of him. Blyleven had over 1900 (!!!) IP before his age 26 season.

      I’ll admit I cherry-picked a little by choosing 1980 as the arbitrary cut off, but I just feel like that’s a better era to start looking at because of the massive uptick in sliders which has been shown to put added stress on arms.

  9. This is a great post. Well done.

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