SweetSpot: Chris George

Throwing pitches, throwing darts ...

April, 8, 2009
4/08/09
10:41
AM ET
Tom Verducci on who should be worried this year about this year's Year After Effect:
    Mike Pelfrey was ready for me in the Mets spring training clubhouse, as if he knew I was coming.

    "Look at me," the Mets right-hander said one day last month. "I'm a pretty big guy." Yes, sir. Pelfrey is 6-foot-7. Thankfully, he is a rather pleasant, mild-mannered guy.

    I didn't feel threatened, but my theory about young pitchers getting overworked was precisely in Pelfrey's crosshairs. Pelfrey was familiar with my rule of thumb that pitchers 25 and under are at risk of injury or significant regression in the year after their clubs boost their workload by 30 or more innings.

    --snip--

    So I agreed with some of what Pelfrey presented. He turned 25 in January and is a big guy, so maybe he withstands his 48-inning jump better than someone younger and smaller. That said, I'm still not taking him off my list of the most at-risk young pitchers of 2009 based on the Year After Effect. There is a reason why the Mets had an innings threshold in mind for Pelfrey, a reason why the Yankees have treated Joba Chamberlain with kid gloves and a reason, going further back, why Oakland was very careful to manage the innings growth of its young starters almost a decade ago when I first learned about this growing trend: Too much too soon is risky stuff.

    This year I red-flagged 10 pitchers -- and the list includes some of the greatest young arms in the game. Here are those pitchers and the innings jumps that put them on the list ...

The list: Jon Lester, Cole Hamels, Chad Billingsley, Tim Lincecum, Clayton Kershaw, Dana Eveland, Mike Pelfrey, John Danks, Jair Jurrjens, Jon Niese.

Verducci:

    How much should those guys be worried? Over the previous three years I red-flagged a total of 24 young pitchers at the start of those seasons. Of those 24 at-risk pitchers, 16 were hurt in that same season. Only one of the 24 pitchers managed to stay healthy and lower his ERA: Ubaldo Jimenez of Colorado, a guy I said would be less at risk because of his powerful body type.

    In the early years of my tracking the Year After Effect, the Royals notoriously pushed young pitchers to awful results (Jose Rosado, Chris George, Runelvys Hernandez, Mac Suzuki, etc.). The Pirates have supplanted the Royals as the worst offenders (Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, Tom Gorzelanny). It's one thing for the Mets to push Pelfrey with a playoff spot at stake, but it's hard to explain why a rebuilding franchise would put young starters at risk in meaningless games in September.

    Last year I red-flagged seven pitchers: Jimenez, Gorzelanny, Ian Kennedy (Yankees), Dustin McGowan (Blue Jays), Chad Gaudin (Cubs), Yovani Gallardo (Brewers) and Fausto Carmona (Indians). Except for Jimenez all of them broke down with injuries -- some of them serious, not all arm-related -- and combined to go 29-32. None won 10 games. Previous blowouts that were red-flagged included Francisco Liriano, Gustavo Chacin, Anibal Sanchez, Adam Loewen and Scott Mathieson.

I'm sure you see the gap in this analysis ... Where's the control group? We know -- we've known for a long, long time -- that young pitchers who pile up innings are susceptible to injuries. The Holy Grail of baseball is something that will keep young pitchers from ruining those oh-so-valuable gears and levers and pulleys that allow them to somehow perform their superhuman feats. But are young pitchers who boost their workload by 30 innings more injury-prone than pitchers who boost their workload by 20 innings? Is a 24-year-old pitcher who goes from 120 innings to 150 innings more likely to get hurt than a 22-year-old pitcher who goes from 175 innings to 190 innings? Do pitch counts matter, at all?

Verducci's method strikes me as terribly arbitrary. That doesn't mean it doesn't work. But without a control group -- without some basis for comparison -- we can't really know if pasting the photos of a bunch of young pitchers on the wall and throwing darts wouldn't work just about as well. And one thing I'm sure about: the Red Sox and Rays and Cardinals and Indians and Padres and another half-dozen (at least) teams aren't throwing darts.

Not exactly.

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