Thursday, September 10, 2009
Young arms feel the 'grind' at this point
By Jerry Crasnick
We've seen the advent of the Joba Rules and baseball embrace the tenets of the "Verducci effect," which says young pitchers run an increased risk of injury when their workloads increase by 30 innings from one year to the next.
This summer in Cooperstown, Tom Seaver, Jim Bunning and other Hall of Famers lamented the current obsession with pitch counts. "We're encouraging mediocrity and being very successful at it," Don Sutton said.
No matter where they stand on the topic, big league teams are more mindful than ever of pitchers' workloads. That's especially true of young pitchers, who need to be monitored extra closely during high-stakes games in September.
"Guys come through the minors where the finish line is September 1, and that extra month is an absolute grind," said Texas pitching coach Mike Maddux. "A lot of the young guys are accelerated to the big leagues because they've had success, and sometimes they don't have the buildup of minor league innings that you'd like to see."
Among baseball people, it's a given that major league innings are more stressful than minor league innings, and pennant-race innings are the most taxing of all.
"It's not just the innings. It's the intensity of the innings," said Colorado general manager Dan O'Dowd. "You have to monitor the quality of a pitcher's stuff and take a close look at his delivery. You rely so much on your medical people -- specifically your trainers. They have a real good feel when guys are starting to fatigue."
Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jered Weaver, Edwin Jackson, Ubaldo Jimenez and Jon Lester are among the "young veterans" who appear to have gotten over the hump, but some other talented young pitchers are still learning on the fly.
How are they positioned for the stretch drive? In this week's installment of Starting 9, we look at young starters for contending clubs (or at least, teams that are still breathing) who won't have the luxury of shutting it down for a few more weeks. Some are better positioned than others for a big finish.
The workload: Chamberlain has thrown 139 2/3 innings in 27 starts, compared to 100 1/3 innings between the bullpen and the rotation a year ago.
He's become the poster boy for baseball's efforts to protect young arms. Just for fun, we plugged the words "Joba Rules" into a Nexis search, and it came back with 557 newspaper mentions since August 2007. The words go together like "knuckleballer Tim Wakefield" or "Steve Blass Disease."
The Yankees' attempts to safeguard Chamberlain's future are understandable, but right now he doesn't know if he's coming or going. Chamberlain looked rusty when forced to wait too long between starts. And now that he's in the midst of a carefully devised plan to build up innings in September, he appears tentative and unfocused.
Chamberlain threw lots of straight, 91-92 mph fastballs against Tampa Bay on Wednesday before finding the strike zone and cutting loose. But that 31-pitch first inning was a sure-fire bullpen-taxer.
Although the Yankees remain committed to starting Chamberlain, it's become apparent that he's temperamentally better suited to the bullpen, in a Jonathan Papelbon-Brett Myers sort of way.
"He just runs so much on emotion," said an AL executive. "That's his personality. He can't help it."
The Yankees would like to extend Chamberlain to six innings by the end of the regular season so he can slide in behind CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte in the postseason rotation. But after three straight three-inning starts, Joba isn't quite in sync with the plan.
The workload: Porcello, 20, has thrown 141 2/3 innings as a rookie. Last year he pitched 125 innings for Class A Lakeland in his professional debut.
Manager Jim Leyland and pitching coach Rick Knapp vowed to keep a close watch on Porcello when the Tigers broke camp, and they were true to their word. Porcello threw fewer than 90 pitches in 10 of his first 11 starts, then took a 16-day break during the All-Star break to recharge.
Judging from the results of late, he's fine. Porcello is 3-1 with a 3.45 ERA since the beginning of August, and a scout who saw him in a recent outing said "there's still more in the tank."
The Tigers gave Porcello two mandates entering the season: They wanted him to become more knowledgeable of his pitching mechanics and develop a reliable breaking ball. Porcello is an adept student, and he took a step forward when he shelved his curveball and settled on a slider.
"I don't want to put a target on this kid's back, but I think he's pitching better than he did early in the season," Knapp said. "He's gotten smarter to the league, and he's looking at different ways to attack hitters now."
If Porcello had pitched in Double-A this year, as the Tigers anticipated, management was planning to send him to the Arizona Fall League. Now he'll spend October on a bigger stage. Detroit is a flawed team, but that Justin Verlander-Jackson-Porcello trio will be a gantlet for potential playoff opponents.
"You run out those three arms in a series, and it's pretty impressive," said an NL scout. "We've all seen it: Power plays in the postseason."
The workload: Kershaw has thrown 159 innings in 28 starts this season. Last year he threw 168 innings between Double-A Jacksonville and the Dodgers.
It's never a good thing when your 21-year-old future ace dings his right shoulder running into a wall while shagging fly balls. Fortunately, Kershaw is left-handed, and a missed start in September might give him a second wind in October.
"Since there is nothing we can do about it, we're hoping it does provide him a breather," Dodgers GM Ned Colletti said in an e-mail Tuesday.
Problem is, red flags are flying everywhere in Los Angeles. Randy Wolf is feeling stiffness in his elbow and will miss his next start, and Chad Billingsley's velocity is down amid reports that his hamstring is bothering him.
As a result, the Dodgers are leaning heavily on Vicente Padilla, Jon Garland and the recently concussed Hiroki Kuroda. That's not a comfortable place for manager Joe Torre to be with Colorado 2½ games behind Los Angeles in the NL West.
The workload: Buchholz has been on a steady progression since 2006. He's gone from 119 innings to 148 to 156 last year if you factor in the Arizona Fall League. This year he's at 163 1/3 innings and counting.
It's been a strange year for Buchholz. He spent three months dominating Triple-A lineups, and the Red Sox resisted the temptation to call him up because they were so deep in starting pitching.
Not anymore. Brad Penny and John Smoltz are gone, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield are rehabilitating from injuries, and if the playoffs started today, Buchholz would slot into the No. 3 spot in the rotation behind Lester and Josh Beckett.
Buchholz's over-the-top delivery and wiry frame have generated questions about his durability, but he hit 95 mph on the gun against Baltimore on Tuesday, and his breaking pitches and changeup looked sharp. The Red Sox continue to monitor him, but they think he's in good shape to maintain his effectiveness over the next several weeks. They better hope so.
The workload: Holland has thrown 119 1/3 innings this season. He logged 150 2/3 in three minor league stops in 2008.
Rangers president Nolan Ryan is a hero to the old guard with his quest to change the mindset in Arlington and bring back the days when men were men and pitchers always aspired to go nine.
"We're a little older-school," Maddux said. "We have a fusion. We have targeted innings for everybody, and we're trying to keep everybody within their range. But we're not going to be stubborn about it or set the boundaries that tight."
Holland began the season in the bullpen, but never pitched back-to-back days and routinely threw multiple innings. The Rangers haven't babied him since moving him to the rotation in June. Holland threw 118 pitches in a win over Seattle, and came back two starts later to beat the Angels with a three-hit shutout.
Nevertheless, the results have been ugly of late. Holland is 0-3 with a 16.06 ERA in his past three starts. After taking a beating against Baltimore on Sunday, Holland refused to cite fatigue as an excuse. Maddux agreed, and pointed to self-imposed pressure as the root cause of Holland's poor performance.
"The team needed that game, and he put the weight of the world on his shoulders," Maddux said. "It was nothing physical. The stuff was there. If you have a game like that in June, nobody questions it. Have it now and all of a sudden it's a story."
Holland, fellow rookie Tommy Hunter and 16-game-winner Scott Feldman will all have to contribute for the Rangers to beat out Boston for the wild card. If Texas makes the playoffs on the strength of its pitching, that'll really be a story.
Josh Johnson, Marlins (14-4, 3.04 ERA)
The workload: Johnson ranks 12th in the National League with 183 1/3 innings pitched. He threw 87 1/3 innings last year in his return from Tommy John surgery, which he underwent on Aug. 3, 2007.
The rule of thumb is that pitchers don't regain full form until 18 months after Tommy John, so Johnson must be a freak of nature. He's 21-5 and averaging 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings since his elbow reconstruction.
"Plain and simple, it's just a testament to the way this kid worked at it," said Dan Jennings, the Marlins' assistant GM. "When you see an athlete go through something like that and come back in a short time and have stellar results, it tells you what type of person you're talking about."
Johnson, an imposing 6-foot-7 and 240 pounds, has pitched into the seventh inning 18 times this season. But when manager Fredi Gonzalez and pitching coach Mark Wiley see him laboring, they make sure not to ride him too hard. Johnson allowed one run in five innings against Washington in his last outing. But his control was spotty, and the Marlins lifted him after 82 pitches. These guys have developed so many young pitchers through the years, they know the drill.
J.A. Happ, Phillies (10-4, 2.77 ERA)
The workload: Happ has logged 149 2/3 innings this season, 17 shy of his total for 2008.
Perceived pitching "logjams" usually have a way of straightening themselves out. Jamie Moyer recently pronounced himself "disheartened" over being moved to the bullpen to make room for Pedro Martinez in the rotation. The Phillies made the call after deciding that Happ was pitching too well to be bumped.
Now things are getting interesting. Happ missed his most recent outing with a strained oblique muscle, and he's already been scratched from his next start. It's one of those mystery injuries that can linger.
Meanwhile, Moyer looks rejuvenated in his new role as long reliever, spot starter, and Martinez's designated rain backup. He's 2-0 with a 1.86 ERA in his past 19 1/3 innings, and he'll get the start Saturday against Mike Pelfrey and the Mets.
Manager Charlie Manuel will eventually have to determine who slides into the No. 4 spot in the rotation behind Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton. In light of closer Brad Lidge's travails this season, that decision ranks well down Manuel's priority list.
Jason Hammel, Rockies (8-7, 4.31 ERA)
The workload: Hammel has thrown 150 1/3 innings after logging 78 1/3 last year in Tampa Bay -- the majority out of the bullpen.
Rockies manager Jim Tracy shows a lot of faith in his starters and lets them work out of jams. But he'll also rely on his eyes and his gut to tell him when a pitcher is losing it. Hammel recently sailed through four innings against San Francisco only to be pulled in the fifth after 53 pitches. That outing was sandwiched by starts of 118 and 108 pitches.
Hammel just turned 27, so he's been around longer than the other guys on this list. At 6-6 and 220 pounds, he also has the classic pitcher's frame. "He's just a big kid with a very loose arm," O'Dowd said.
Hammel is a candidate to slide into the bullpen when the rotation gets shorter in October. O'Dowd said Aaron Cook probably won't return from his strained shoulder for another 10 days, so the Rockies will rely on Hammel and Jose Contreras at the back end of the rotation as they try to clinch a postseason berth.
The workload: Hanson has thrown 168 innings this season. He logged 166 2/3 in the minors and the Arizona Fall League last year.
The Braves all but killed their playoff chances with a recent five-game losing streak -- not to mention Wednesday's crushing loss to Houston on a blown save by Rafael Soriano -- but the schedule provides a sliver of hope down the stretch. They have series against the Phillies and Marlins, the two teams they're chasing in the NL East, and they play the Mets and Nationals 13 times in the final three weeks.
Tim Hudson's return gives manager Bobby Cox an excess of starters, but for now, Kenshin Kawakami is in the bullpen, and Hanson gets a chance to strengthen his case for NL Rookie of the Year.
Cox said the Braves will monitor Hanson closely and take a "commonsense" approach with him the rest of the way. Hanson threw eight shutout innings Wednesday night, and his last three pitches were a 95 mph fastball, a 94 mph fastball, and an ungodly 77 mph hook for strike three to pinch-hitter Jason Michaels. Common sense says he won't be taking a seat anytime soon.
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.