Is Playoff Hangover Real for Starting Pitchers?

Analyzing and subsequently choosing starting pitchers for a fantasy baseball is more art than science these days.  There are tons of different theories, hypotheses, principles, concepts, philosophies, ideas, notions and axioms that fantasy managers will subscribe to and often the landscape becomes so jumbled that some of these will overlap or outright contradict another.  One such adage is that starting pitchers on teams that make a deep run into the playoffs are susceptible to a level fatigue that non-playoff pitchers avoid.

It is kind of a tributary of the Verducci Effect.  The Verducci Effect warns that pitchers under 25 years old who see their inning workload increase by 30 or more innings are subject to regression in performance often because the season is cut short by injury, but also the innings they do pitch aren’t on par with the previously set watermark.  The Playoff Hangover, which doesn’t have nearly the traction of the Verducci Effect, doesn’t have age limits or even any hard and fast inning requirements.  The loose concept is that the extra month of pitching and late start to the offseason could make a pitcher subject to performance degradation the following year.

The logic behind this supposition is sound enough on its face, more pitching + less rest = worse followup… OK, not outrageous .  It isn’t hard to envision how a longer season with a 20-35 extra innings (depending on the caliber of pitcher and how far their team goes) could have a negative impact on a starting pitcher, especially in this day and age when pitch counts and inning workloads are at the fore and the focus on protecting pitchers is at an all-time high.

But how does the theory play out in practice?  Nominally the best teams in the league make the playoffs and then the best of that bunch advances on into the League Championship Series and eventually the World Series.  Of course it takes a strong rotation to do this so it would stand to reason that often the pitchers on these teams advancing round-to-round are among some of the league’s best.

The relevance here is that the sample of pitchers isn’t likely to be riddled with injury washouts and subpar hurlers fit for the backend of second division teams.  Should an extra 25 innings from a Texas Ranger or St. Louis Cardinal starting pitcher impact their 2012 projection and ranking this offseason?  Does a lengthy playoff run portend performance degradation the following year?

To observe the potential effects of deep playoff runs, I looked at the inning output year-to-year of the starting pitchers for teams making it to the LCS in each league.  If this potential hangover had any substance, it would likely show itself in the form of injury resulting in decreased workloads for the parties involved.  I looked at the starting pitchers from the 12 LCS teams since 2008 which yielded a sample of 29 starters who all threw at least 12 playoff innings and averaged 23 as a group.

Of that group:

  • 16 of 29 (55%) saw their innings decrease the following year
  • 8 of the 16 (50%) saw what I would term a “marginal” decrease in workload (fewer than 20 innings) and averaged 204 innings as a group
  • 1 of those 8 (13%) threw fewer than 195 innings (Scott Kazmir with 147, after 152 during the playoff year)
  • 3 of the 16 (19%) saw what I would term a “marked” drop in workload, 20-35 innings, but that group still averaged 198 innings
  • 10 of the 16 (63%) threw what I would term “full seasons” of work averaging 208 innings
  • 5 of the 16 (31%) saw what I would term a “major” drop in workload, 50+ innings, due in large part to injury
  • 1 of those 5 (20%) threw a career high in innings during their playoff year
  • 0 of those 5 (0%) were within the generally accepted injury risk age range of 25 years or younger
  • The group of 5 averaged 32 years old while no one was younger than 28
  • 13 of 29 (45%) saw their innings increase the following year
  • 8 of the 13 (62%) saw a marginal increase in workload (fewer than 20 innings) and averaged 219 innings as a group
  • 2 of the 13 (15%) saw a marked increase in workload (20-35 innings) and averaged 219 innings
  • 2 of the 13 (15%) saw what I would term a “legitimate” increase in workload (36-49 innings) and averaged 214 innings
  • 1 of the 13 (8%) saw a major increase in workload (50+ innings) as Madison Bumgarner threw 94 more major league innings the following year.  That is admittedly skewed because he truly threw 193 innings in 2010 if you count his minor league total.  In that case, his workload increase would be 12 innings from 2010 to 2011.
  • 3 of the 29 appear in both ends of the pool including Cole Hamels (who actually appears twice increase pool and once in the decrease pool), CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee.

Are there any great lessons to be learned within these results?  It would seem not as far as I can tell.  We saw a total of 17% injury attrition from the group (5 of 29) and while that isn’t a meaningless figure, is there any indication that it had anything to do with the extra work in the playoff year?  They were all established veterans and only Jonathan Sanchez had reached previously untouched heights in terms of total workload.

Starting pitchers are inherently risky which is why you don’t see them populate the early rounds of drafts despite how often several of them finish among the top 25 in fantasy value in a given year.  We are always looking for advancements in analyzing and projecting pitchers year to year and attempts to show how workload impacts performance is currently the primary focus.  So while it might make some logical sense to concoct a theorem whereby deep playoff runs under the most intense spotlight the game offers will eventually hamper a pitcher in the subsequent year, it doesn’t seem to hold up as a bankable red flag.

Further damning the notion is the fact that it is only brought up in the context of the playoffs whereby fall and winter leagues, probably because of their scant coverage, aren’t thought of as future hindrances. While the pitchers in the Arizona Fall League or Venezuelan Winter League aren’t up to the caliber of the MLB Playoffs on the whole, each league will funnel impact players into the league for the 2012 season.

Any proof that an extended playoff run contributed to an injury-shortened season the following year would like be offered retrospectively and thus downgrading a Chris Carpenter or CJ Wilson (who pitched the most playoff innings in 2011 at 36 and 28, respectively) because of their team’s run through the World Series would be foolhardy and most of all, arbitrary.

Carpenter is37 years old with a checkered injury history on the heels of back-to-back 235+ inning seasons, something he has never done, so there is reason for caution with him, but if he does succumb to injury at any point in 2012 it isn’t likely to be related to the extra playoff innings.  Wilson, who only recently transitioned to starting, will soon be rewarded for excelling in that transition and who knows how a new environment, fame, heaps of money and lofty expectations will impact him in 2012?  But if he is felled by injury next season, I don’t see his 28 playoff innings anywhere near the top of the suspect list.  Happenstance and bad luck should be brought in for questioning first.  Especially in light of the fact that Wilson went from 74 relief innings in 2009 to 204 innings as a starter in 2010 (plus 24 playoff innings) to 223 (and 28) in 2011 without incident.

The Playoff Hangover Panic is a tool of revisionists retrofit onto a poor performance when no obvious explanation exists.  Thus you won’t see any concerns in the 2012 Starting Pitcher Guide around the elongated seasons of Carpenter, Wilson, Jaime Garcia, Derek Holland, Colby Lewis, Justin Verlander, Yovani Gallardo, Edwin Jackson, Matt Harrison, Zack Greinke, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Kyle Lohse, Shaun Marcum or Randy Wolf, all of whom threw 10+ playoff innings as their teams reached the LCS.

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