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Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Which pitchers face innings limits?

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

Just call it "Innings Cap Tuesday."

60 Feet 6 Inches

Five 25-and-under pitchers who could face potential innings caps, including the two most frequently cited candidates, Michael Pineda and Jordan Zimmermann, who are scheduled to start on Tuesday. It's no coincidence; Pineda and Zimmermann specifically were slotted into the fifth spots in their respective rotations, which lined them up for that day, as their teams begin to manage their workloads out of the All-Star break.

What better time to examine one of the more aggravating trends of 21st century baseball, the dreaded "Innings Cap"?

Whatever your opinion on the topic, meticulous management of young pitchers' workloads is a way of life, and fantasy owners must prepare pitching staffs accordingly. My opinion: There is far too much emphasis on innings pitched, which shouldn't be the only measure of a pitcher's workload, as things such as total pitches, stressful pitches (granted, that's not a recorded statistical category) and a pitcher's injury track record should also be taken into account.

Unfortunately that's often not the public stance, the emphasis remaining on innings. Many teams openly admit to planned innings caps for their young hurlers, sometimes as early as spring training. Others don't reveal their plans until shutdown day. But the root of the strategy is the same: Teams don't like affording 25-and-under pitchers more than a 30-inning increase from one season to the next, an indicator often referred to as the "Verducci Effect," named for reporter Tom Verducci, who brought it to the mainstream.

The impact on fantasy owners is the same, no matter the team's approach: We lose key stats from our young pitchers at the most critical stage of our seasons, those September weeks that decide championships, especially in head-to-head formats. We must prepare, usually as early in the season as this (and arguably earlier, depending upon how competitive your league).

Today's column serves a reference guide to pitchers at greatest risk of facing an innings cap in 2011. These are pitchers who today are no older than 25 and are currently on pace to exceed their 2010 innings totals by more than 30. Each is listed with his current pace, which takes his major and minor league innings total and projects it over his big league team's remaining games, and his resulting innings increase based upon that pace. A "worry level," ranging from low to moderate to high to extreme, is also included.

Jordan Zimmermann, Washington Nationals (194-inning pace, plus-123 1/3): His is the most prominent name in this year's debate, and if you regard that 123 1/3-innings bump as misleading due to his 2010 recovery from Tommy John surgery, comparing Zimmermann's 2011 innings pace to his previous career high of 134 innings, set in 2008, still results in a 60-inning bump. He's 25 years old but has just 472 2/3 professional innings on his arm, and thus the Nationals have been open about their desire to cap him, somewhere in the ballpark of 160-170 innings, depending on which of their beat reporters you believe most. Zimmermann has averaged 6.39 innings per start this season; at that pace he has eight or nine starts remaining, the first coming on Tuesday. If he keeps pitching every fifth game, that means his final start would come either Aug. 27 in Cincinnati or Sept. 2 versus the New York Mets. Or the Nationals could use off days to push him back in the rotation, which A) could throw him off his rhythm or B) be an obvious heads-up to your trade counterparts that he's facing a hard cap. Either way, it's a negative, and you should shop him in a re-draft league. Worry level: Extreme.

Matt Harrison, Texas Rangers (187 1/3-innings pace, plus-101 2/3): He is the oldest player on the list, as he'll turn 26 on Sept. 16; he has the most professional seasons under his belt (eight, though he's tied); and he has the most 150-inning seasons as a pro (three). The Rangers need him, and they're not about to overly sweat it with a soon-to-be-26-year-old. Worry level: Low.

Danny Duffy, Kansas City Royals (158 2/3-innings pace, plus-96 1/3): Finally an explanation for the Royals' six-man rotation! In all seriousness, that might have entered into their decision-making, as going six deep will slow Duffy's innings accumulation; it would afford him, at most, 11 more starts and, at his current rate of 5.22 innings per start, he would tally 57 1/3 more innings (for 151 1/3 innings total, which still puts him 89 innings ahead of his 2010 number and 24 2/3 ahead of his career high of 126 2/3, set in 2009). The Kansas City Star reported on July 7 the Royals plan to keep Duffy on turn until late August, at which point they'll decide whether to cap his innings. Either way, that means the team can mathematically have only three two-start pitchers the next six weeks, so the six-man angle hurts in fantasy. (Wait, do fantasy owners really want Royals pitchers?) Worry level: High.

Jair Jurrjens, Atlanta Braves (205 1/3-innings pace, plus-76): He's the "surprise" name on this list, but the only surprise should be that he's just 25 years old. He qualifies but is an awkward entrant; his career high in innings is 215, set in 2009, and he tallied 188 1/3 in 2008, both of those accrued entirely at the big league level. Jurrjens has also been the Braves' most effective starter to date; they're not going to shut him down. Worry level: Low.

Derek Holland, Texas Rangers (199-inning pace, plus-76 2/3): He's the curious case, as most people remember him pitching deep into last October, but even adding his postseason frames he totaled 134 1/3 in 2010, the rotator cuff injury that cost him two midsummer months effectively serving to cap his workload. Now that he's a year older and more experienced, sporting an average of 138 2/3 innings between the majors and minors the past three seasons, might the Rangers be willing to pitch him without restraint? Perhaps, but they should be smart, being that they appear postseason bound once again. A skipped turn or two in September is possible if the Rangers clinch early. Worry level: Moderate.

Jacob Turner, Detroit Tigers (178 1/3-innings pace, plus-63): Rumors that he would claim the fifth-starter role beginning today turned out to be just that, rumors, and a primary reason the Tigers haven't been quick to promote him is their concern about his workload. Turner, still in Double-A, had a start skipped in June and got an extended rest during the recent All-Star break, and there's little chance he'll be afforded as many as 150 innings, let alone 178 1/3. We might not see him in the majors before 2012. Worry level: Extreme.

Alex Cobb, Tampa Bay Rays (176 1/3-innings pace, plus-56 2/3): Sorry to spoil your excitement after his solid outing Monday against the New York Yankees, giving him four quality starts in his six tries to begin his big league career, but the greatest obstacle facing Cobb now is a potential innings cap. He's well over pace and has never exceeded 139 2/3 innings in a season (2008), and the Rays have a bevy of rotation candidates who can afford him rest. Worry level: High.

Michael Pineda, Seattle Mariners (193-inning pace, plus-53 2/3): It is a debate that has raged on for weeks, Will they or won't they? That, of course, refers to the Mariners' puzzling declaration that they don't plan to cap Pineda's innings. No matter their public stance, the hints that they will are subtle: They pushed him back in the rotation exiting the All-Star break, a common strategy with innings-cap candidates; not to mention pitching coach Carl Willis told the team's official website on Monday, "I've mapped out a rotation through Sept. 1 that allows us to utilize off-days with him, give him as much rest as possible." Look at the Mariners' schedule; they have days off on July 28, Aug. 4, Aug. 11, Aug. 18 and Aug. 25, or five consecutive Thursdays, and a final one on Thursday, Sept. 15. After his scheduled starts today and Sunday, they could slot him in five consecutive Tuesdays to provide him extra rest; pitch him on regular turn on Sept. 4, 9 and 14; then shut him down for the year. At his current rate of 6.28 innings per start, that would result in 28 starts and 175 2/3 innings, still 36 1/3 more than his 2010 number. Even that might be excessive; remember that an elbow injury limited him to just 47 1/3 frames in 2009.

Ultimately, Pineda's innings will inevitably be managed looking forward, diminishing his two-start opportunities and perhaps throwing him off his rhythm. Look to 2010 examples Phil Hughes and Mat Latos: After their first non-All-Star break-related schedule shifts, Hughes had a 5.07 ERA (16 starts, two relief), Latos a 4.93 (eight starts). In re-draft leagues, this is probably your final opportunity to sell high with Pineda. Worry level: High.

Jaime Garcia, St. Louis Cardinals (211 1/3-innings pace, plus-48): One of two men to make the list in consecutive seasons, Garcia's workload is of concern for two reasons: that he has recovered from Tommy John surgery (September 2008) and that the Cardinals fancy themselves contenders and might need him for October baseball. A skipped start or two is possible. Worry level: Moderate.

Kyle Weiland, Boston Red Sox (167 1/3-innings pace, plus-39): He has never been rated one of the Red Sox's top prospects, ranked the team's No. 23, 26 and 20 prospect by Baseball America the past three seasons, respectively, but the Red Sox aren't an organization that will foolishly push a youngster. More importantly, they recognize Weiland isn't the kind of pitcher sure to carry them to the postseason; the concern of an innings cap is far less than the chance they might soon replace him with a midseason acquisition. Worry level: High.

Zach Stewart, Toronto Blue Jays (174 1/3-innings pace, plus-38): Last season, the Blue Jays capped Brandon Morrow but not Brett Cecil, so what do they regard Stewart, more Morrow or Cecil? Stewart was ranked the team's No. 5 prospect by Baseball America this preseason, but he has been ordinary in repeating Double-A; maybe they'll keep him there and cap him. Worry level: Moderate.

Daniel Hudson, Arizona Diamondbacks (226-inning pace, plus-37 1/3): Standings might very well decide this, as entering Tuesday's play the Diamondbacks are 3.5 games back in the National League West and five games out in the wild-card race. If they're to advance to October, they'll need to lean on Hudson, easily their most valuable starter. A 226-inning season might be bothersome when evaluating his 2012 prospects, but there's little doubt he could handle 200-plus. He's 24 years old and has thrown 166 and 188 2/3 the past two years. Worry level: Low.

Jhoulys Chacin, Colorado Rockies (207 2/3-innings pace, plus-34 2/3): He's in a funk, going 0-3 with a 6.17 ERA in his past four starts, and if the Rockies continue to slip in the playoff races, they might provide him some September rest if they're non-contenders and feel he needs it. But a 34 2/3-innings bump isn't that worrisome, and he has topped 170 frames twice as a pro already. Worry level: Moderate.

Rubby De La Rosa, Los Angeles Dodgers (144 2/3-innings pace, plus-34 1/3): There's little doubt he'll be capped, as a 22-year-old who has shuffled back and forth between the rotation and bullpen throughout his five-year professional career. De La Rosa might be the most likely of anyone on this list not to throw a pitch in the month of September, as the Dodgers are clear non-contenders. John Ely, currently in Triple-A, could easily replace him. Worry level: Extreme.

Zach Britton, Baltimore Orioles (187-inning pace, plus-33 2/3): The Orioles have already begun the capping process, demoting Britton to Double-A Bowie following his nightmarish July 8 start in Boston (2/3 IP, 6 H, 8 R, 7 ER) and restricting his workload in the minors. Many reports hint that he could return to the big club after July 30 but that he faces a cap of no more than 175 innings, meaning he'll still need to skip a few more turns. Britton might yet have five or six more useful starts to offer fantasy owners, but he's also now high-risk; his schedule already having been altered. Worry level: High.

Mike Leake, Cincinnati Reds (172-inning pace, plus-33 2/3): Leake's workload is an intriguing debate. Do the Reds regard his future as bright enough that they would cap him, or do they consider him more of a No. 3 or 4 who shouldn't have his hands tied? It's probably closer to the latter, but they also have enough starting-pitching depth to replace him if necessary, something that might happen if they slip in the NL Central race by September. Worry level: Moderate.

Julio Teheran, Atlanta Braves (176-inning pace, plus-33 1/3): In addition to the Braves' absurd amount of starting-pitching depth keeping him stuck in Triple-A, the strike against Teheran is that he's just 20 years old and a top prospect and therefore a virtual lock to be capped. Barring a surprise trade in the next two weeks, Teheran might use up all of his innings for Gwinnett before he could ever be recalled. Worry level: High.

Mike Minor, Atlanta Braves (194-inning pace, plus-33): He has an advantage over Teheran in the call-up pecking order for three simple reasons: that he threw more 2010 innings, 161 to Teheran's 142 2/3; that he's three years older; and that he had three quality starts in five tries in his most recent stint with the big club. But it might be moot: The Braves have a solid current five, and certainly have four they would prefer to Minor in a potential playoff series. He might be capped because the Braves won't ever need him, but if they do need him, there isn't a lot to sweat. Worry level: Low.

Currently outside the "danger zone"

Lyles
Jordan Lyles is winless in his nine starts this season.

These four pitchers aren't on pace to exceed their 2010 innings totals by more than 30, but any acceleration could shift them into the above group.

Jordan Lyles, Houston Astros (179-inning pace, plus-29 1/3): The Astros have already made public their plans to cap the rookie's innings, that number 165-170, per the Houston Chronicle. But looking at his pace and projecting his 5.58 innings-per-start average forward, he could still make as many as 11 more turns in the Astros' final 66 games. He might need to skip only two starts in September.

Jeremy Hellickson, Tampa Bay Rays (178 2/3-innings pace, plus-23): The Rays have been cautious enough with Hellickson so far, last and this year, and his pace isn't of grave concern. There's only one reason to monitor him: He might be one of their four best starters if they advance to the postseason, in which case he'd breeze past that 178 2/3-innings number, counting October frames. Of course, they would probably need him to keep pitching just to get there.

Jonathon Niese, New York Mets (201 2/3-innings pace, plus-22): He's one of the older pitchers on the list, a 24-year-old who turns 25 in October. He threw 179 2/3 innings last season and the Mets lack viable rotation alternatives. The Mets probably won't hesitate to let him throw 200-plus frames.

Tyler Chatwood, Los Angeles Angels (174 1/3-innings pace, plus-19): He's just 21 years old, so don't be too quick to proclaim that a 185 1/3-innings cap is a "smart" total (he threw 155 1/3 in 2010). He was the Angels' No. 2 prospect as judged by Baseball America in the preseason and that's a lot of frames for such a young starter, as he has 413 as a pro already. I don't even think he'll get to 174 1/3. More likely, he'll be shut down if the Angels fade in September.

Why isn't Alexi Ogando on this list?

It's simple: He's 27 years old, and will turn 28 on Oct. 5, so he wasn't even within range of the "under-25" criteria I used to generate the list. That said, Ogando's workload bears watching, despite his advanced age, as not only does he already boast a career high in innings (104 2/3), his pace of 176 2/3 innings would exceed his entire professional total entering 2011 … by 23 1/3 innings! (He had 153 1/3 from 2006-10, primarily because he didn't begin pitching until 2006, then made 56 relief appearances compared to only three starts.)

Ogando, who was a regression candidate even before accounting for his workload bump, has struggled recently, almost directly coinciding with his setting a career high in innings. Consider: In the 11 starts it took for him to set that new personal best, he was 6-0 with a 2.20 ERA and 0.88 WHIP. In six starts since, he's 3-3 with a 4.65 ERA and 1.32 WHIP. The Rangers also need to consider potential postseason usage, and even if they're unwilling to cap his innings, he might suffer the consequences with either more lackluster numbers in August and September and/or in 2012. He's as much of a sell-high candidate as anyone profiled.

Three up

Phil Hughes, New York Yankees: Two starts might typically not be enough a sample size from which to make solid judgments, but when those two include such encouraging signs as Hughes', it's not unfair for fantasy owners to act. (Remember, we often must make swift judgments.) Velocity was the most prominent for Hughes: After averaging a mere 89.0 mph with his fastball in his first three starts of 2011, he increased that number to 91.5 in his past two outings, which is a heck of a lot closer to the 92.4 he averaged during his breakout 2010. Another: His breaking pitches were considerably more effective, his curveball, cutter and slider, which accounted for 46.7 percent of his total offerings in those two outings, limiting opponents to .227/.261/.273 rates in the 24 plate appearances that ended in one; his numbers were .429/.478/1.000 with those in 23 PAs in his first three turns. Hughes also got opponents to miss on 12.3 percent of his swings, closer to his 19.6 number in 2010, and swing at more pitches outside the strike zone, his 28.2 percent of those in line with his 28.4 percent in 2010. He's not 100 percent "back" … but at his current rate of progression he might be by Aug. 1.

Brandon Morrow, Toronto Blue Jays: Finally we're seeing the Morrow many of us -- myself included -- expected entering the season, as in his past six starts he's 4-0 with five quality starts, a 2.68 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and 9.82 K's per nine. But his hot streak is more than surface stats; consider the difficulty of matchups during that time. If you take his opponents' team OPS and split them by home and road games and rank them 1-60 (30 teams times two, ranked by each home and road OPS), here are the "difficulty ratings" of Morrow's past six assignments, working forward: Ninth, 21st, 33rd, first, 10th, 11th. That's right, only one of his starts -- the June 29 home game against the Pittsburgh Pirates -- ranked in the lower half, and barely at that. If you're worried about the difficulty of Morrow's matchups looking forward, there's no stronger defense than that.

Javier Vazquez, Florida Marlins: Speaking of recaptured velocity, that has also been the plus for Vazquez during his recent hot spell. He has four consecutive quality starts and has a 1.69 ERA and 1.07 WHIP in his past six turns, and during those six he has averaged 94.1 mph with his fastball, considerably higher than the 93.3 mph he averaged during his down 2010 and much closer to the 94.8 he sported during his outstanding 2008. Whether Vazquez can sustain that for the remainder of the year is a reasonable question; unlike the 25-year-old Hughes, age is not on his side (he's nine years older). Fantasy owners should recognize the improvement and enjoy this streak, but at the same time, prepare as if it's merely that: A hot streak.

Three down

Carlos Carrasco, Cleveland Indians: He is certainly turning into a streaky pitcher, following up an impressive nine-start stretch during which time he had six quality starts, seven wins, a 2.55 ERA and 0.97 WHIP, with a lackluster three-game stretch to begin July, posting a 9.00 ERA and 2.07 WHIP. Carrasco thrives upon generating a high rate of ground balls; he had a 53.8 percent ground-ball rate during his nine-start hot spell, but just 46.0 percent so far in July. One reason: He's keeping the ball up in the zone, 27.6 percent of his pitches in his past three starts judged "up," an increase from 24.3 during his nine-start hot spell. Yes, we're talking small samples, but a 3.3 percent differential means three more pitches per 100, and sure enough, he has served up four home runs during his three-start slump. Make Carrasco earn another chance with a solid outing before you reactivate him.

Bartolo Colon, New York Yankees: Just as quickly as that, questions surround Colon, the right-hander himself admitting that he has concerns about the left hamstring injury that cost him about three weeks in June. He told the New York Daily News this past Saturday that, while he no longer feels pain in the hamstring, he's "a little bit nervous or afraid to push" off the leg. That's as good an explanation as any for his disastrous back-to-back outings totaling 13 runs (eight earned) on 16 hits in 6 1/3 innings, and let's not forget that there was a stamina question in the first place, as he's a 38-year-old who totaled just 257 innings in the big leagues from 2006-10 combined. Perhaps Colon regains confidence in his hamstring and returns to his former fantasy-ace form in a week or two. But isn't it a fair question at this point to ask whether he'll hold up for another 12-plus turns?

Jake Peavy, Chicago White Sox: Injuries are also a worry with Peavy, who already had his first start of the second half pushed back two days due to fatigue. The average velocity of his pitches during his most recent start on July 10 was 85.4 mph, his second-lowest number of the season, and his lowest (85.3) came a mere two starts earlier. Sure enough, Peavy has a 7.71 ERA and 1.78 WHIP in his past three starts combined, the most recent two in matchups that shouldn't have posed problems for a healthy starter (home, versus Royals and Twins). He already has made two trips to the disabled list this season and has four total in the past two calendar years; all that talk about his delivery putting strain on his arm during his San Diego Padres days might indeed be having an adverse effect today.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.