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Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Concerns about workloads

By AJ Mass
ESPN.com

Greetings, dear readers! Tristan H. Cockcroft is getting a well-earned week off after tirelessly covering things from all angles while the players took some time to recharge their batteries. Once again he has asked me to "take the conn" and steer this ship past the second star on the right and straight on 'til morning. So let's get the U.S.S. Starting Pitcher up and running.

60 Feet 6 Inches

Last week's 60 Feet, 60 Inches focused on whether it made sense to start pitchers on their first outing back after being on the disabled list. Part of the reason for the concern whenever a pitcher gets out on the mound for the first time after a lengthy stint away from the game is the fear that it might be "too much, too soon." A pitch count or innings cap is typically in place to help minimize the risk of re-injury.

Terms such as "pitch counts" and "innings caps" are all the rage in the baseball world in 2012, but it wasn't always so. This may come as a surprise to some younger readers, but back in ye olde days, pitchers were actually expected to finish every game they started. Crazy, isn't it?

Today, once a pitcher reaches that "magic" 100th pitch, the manager is already halfway to the mound to make a change, but back in 1989 Nolan Ryan threw 130 or more pitches 16 times. Since 2005, one pitcher (Tim Lincecum in 2008) has been allowed to reach that plateau twice in a season.

Managers are constantly afraid that too much strain on a pitcher's arm in one game will lead to end-of-the-year slumps or other health issues later on. You may be hard-pressed to convince Terry Collins that the reason Johan Santana has gone 3-5 with a 6.54 ERA and a .305 batting average against since throwing the New York Mets' first no-hitter isn't because he let his ace throw 134 pitches in the effort.

R.A. Dickey
R.A. Dickey may not have the same issues with workload, thanks to his knuckleball.

The key to identifying which pitchers might be headed in that same direction because of overwork -- and therefore which pitchers to start shopping now while the going is still somewhat good -- is not, however, simply counting pitches, but rather taking a look at who is throwing more pitches than he should. If we can find the pitchers who are under constant stress by working too hard inning after inning, start after start, it will be far more predictive of a late-season decline than a simple pitch count could ever be.

To that end, I will once again trot out a stat that I like to call Work Factor: the difference in the expected number of pitches and the actual number of pitches thrown. Based on Tom Tango's work with estimating historical pitch counts, what Work Factor does is figure out the expected number of pitches a pitcher "should have thrown" so far this season, based on his innings pitched, strikeouts, walks and hits allowed.

It stands to reason that if we have a solid formula for predicting the expected number of pitches based on actual game outcomes, which Tango's work does provide us, then any variance between that number and the actual pitch count is likely the result of a pitcher working harder than he needs to. That's where we can plant our red flags.

Cruise Control

Here are eight pitchers who Work Factor indicates have put less stress on their arms this season than what is historically expected of pitchers who have faced the same numbers of batters with the same statistical results. Additionally, all of them have an overall P/IP (pitches per inning pitched) of 15.0 or under, which typically signals an even workload throughout the season and less of a likelihood of the development of "tired arm syndrome" as the end of the season approaches.

What is interesting to note in this group is that since 2008, Felix Hernandez, Bartolo Colon, Tim Hudson and Cliff Lee have not had even one season (that they played) in which they threw more pitches than the expected total, so there's a track record here of being somewhat more efficient, even as the innings add up.

R.A. Dickey and his knuckleball seem to be immune to the same kind of arm issues that plague many more traditional pitchers. In fact, his Work Factor number has improved steadily over the past five years, to the point we have little to no concern about the possibility of his second straight 200-plus-inning season.

Working Overtime

Conversely, if you're looking for reasons to worry, here are eight arms that Work Factor indicates have faced far too many deep counts and may well run out of gas sooner rather than later. Additionally, all of them have an overall P/IP well over 15.5, many dramatically so, which typically signals a pitcher who may tend to work harder than his peers to get through the same number of opposing hitters.

Johnny Cueto has been phenomenal and is 7-2 with a 1.88 ERA since June 6. However, he also has thrown over 110 pitches in five of his past nine starts with his low total being 106 in that stretch. Take a look at his career ERA splits by month and you'll notice a disturbing trend:

April: 3.63; May: 2.98; June: 2.96; July: 3.82; August: 4.20; September: 4.61.

By working way too hard consistently throughout the season, there typically ends up being little left in Cueto's tank as the schedule runs out of dates. The same fate can easily befall a pitcher like Max Scherzer, whose high strikeout totals often cause him to burn through at least 100 pitches before the time the sixth inning is through.

Felix Doubront has been slowly but surely deteriorating since the start of June, when he was 6-2. Since that time, including Monday night's six runs in five innings versus the Texas Rangers, he has gone 4-3 and only managed to see the seventh inning twice. The rest of the way may see his ability to work deep into contests slip even further.

Certainly you don't want to use Work Factor as the only reason to consider getting out from under these potential problems before it's too late. But if you're already seeing smoke, throwing another stick on the pile isn't going to make things any better.

Streamer's delight

Among streaming starter -- something Tristan defines as a single-start option in daily leagues among pitchers owned in 25 percent of ESPN leagues or fewer -- options for the upcoming week, here are his picks by day:

Tuesday, July 24: Paul Maholm at Pittsburgh Pirates
Wednesday, July 25: Homer Bailey at Houston Astros
Thursday, July 26: Jake Westbrook versus Los Angeles Dodgers
Friday, July 27: Carlos Zambrano versus San Diego Padres
Saturday, July 28: Barry Zito versus Los Angeles Dodgers
Sunday, July 29: Clayton Richard at Miami Marlins
Monday, July 30: Marco Estrada versus Houston Astros

Past picks
Tuesday, July 17: Jordan Lyles --6 IP, 11 H, 5 ER, 2 BB, 3 K
Wednesday, July 18: Clayton Richard -- W, 8 IP, 9 H, 4 ER, 0 BB, 2 K
Thursday, July 19: Lucas Harrell -- QS, 7 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 6 K
Friday, July 20: Drew Pomeranz -- 3 IP, 9 H, 7 ER, 0 BB, 3 K
Saturday, July 21: Ben Sheets -- W, QS, 6 IP, 5 H, 0 ER, 3 BB, 6 K
Sunday, July 22: Joe Blanton -- QS, 8 IP, 7 H, 3 ER, 1 BB, 6 K
Monday, July 23: Mike Minor -- QS, 7 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 4 K

Week's total: 7 GS, 2 W (28.6%), 4 QS (57.1%), 45 IP, 51 H, 22 ER, 4 BB, 30 K, 4.40 ERA, 1.22 WHIP
Season total: 98 GS, 39 W (39.8%), 52 QS (53.0%), 588 2/3 IP, 575 H, 259 ER, 198 BB, 446 K, 3.96 ERA, 1.31 WHIP

Three up

Mark Buehrle, Miami Marlins: In his past five starts, Buehrle is 4-1 with a 1.87 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk rate of 5.0 in that solid stretch of games. On the surface, it seems hard to imagine that a 33-year-old pitcher in his 13th season would suddenly post his best ERA and WHIP since 2005 and a career-best left-on-base percentage (76.6), but it makes complete sense. For his career, the ninth hitter in the batting order had a .251 batting average against Buehrle, and this year, with primarily pitchers in that slot, they've combined for only four hits in 41 at-bats (.098). That not only easily accounts for the improvements we've already discussed, but also the slightly higher strikeouts per nine innings rate (5.30) and lower walks per nine (1.36) rate as well.

Wade Miley, Arizona Diamondbacks: Miley did seem to limp into the All-Star break with two subpar outings just before the time away: 3 2/3 IP, 8 ER in a 10-2 loss in Milwaukee on June 30 and 6 2/3 IP, 4 ER in a 4-1 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers on July 5. Even with those outings in the mix, Miley has a 3.30 ERA and a .230 batting average against in his past eight starts. Take them out of the equation and you get a 5-1 record with a 1.66 ERA since June 6. Miley's Work Factor is minus-18, and he's still about 60 innings away from matching his innings pitched count from last season (at three levels), so we're not concerned that his rookie year will end with anything but a bang.

Chris Young, New York Mets: The Mets have been hurting this season on the mound in a big way with Mike Pelfrey, Dillon Gee, Frank Francisco and Johan Santana all on the disabled list right now. When Matt Harvey starts this week, he'll be the 24th pitcher to suit up for the team this season, tied for third-most in the majors. Since Young joined the staff on June 9, he has been as solid as they come. Six of his nine appearances were quality starts, and two of the ones that didn't meet the criteria only fell short because of pitch count concerns related to his shoulder surgery. Especially at home, where opponents are hitting just .208 against Young and his "rise ball," expect good things from what might be the only reliable option at Citi Field the rest of the way.

Three down

Vance Worley, Philadelphia Phillies: Since June 15, Worley has struggled, with a 2-4 record, a 4.85 ERA and a K/9 rate of just 6.53, well below his 9.0 K/9 pace before this most recent string of games. He has averaged 105 pitches per game in his past seven starts, dropping his Work Factor from minus-39 to minus-11. That's headed well in the wrong direction. Why all the excess work lately? The Phillies' bullpen has been particularly awful with a 4.66 ERA this season. Only the Houston Astros and New York Mets have been worse, and Charlie Manuel seems afraid to use his relievers. Only the San Francisco Giants' relief corps has worked fewer innings. At this rate, Worley is surely going to fall deeper into the abyss.

Ubaldo Jimenez, Cleveland Indians: Back when Jimenez was with the Colorado Rockies, it was easy to pass off any odd outing in which he gave up a few long balls as being part and parcel of pitching at Coors Field, still the "highest-scoring stadium" in the league, according to ESPN's Park Factor. Progressive Field ranks 21st on that list, so it makes little sense that this season Jimenez is seeing his career-worst home run-to-fly ball rate (12.7 percent) alongside his lowest-ever ground ball rate (38 percent). With 17 home runs allowed on the season, and nine in his past eight starts, it's not looking as if it will get any better any time soon, and it's hard to fathom Jimenez's ERA getting below 5.00 again this season.

Ervin Santana, Los Angeles Angels: So not only has Santana failed to finish the second inning in two of his past three starts, in his five appearances since a 2-0 shutout win over the Arizona Diamondbacks on June 16, he is 0-3 with an ERA of 9.41. He has only 14 strikeouts in those games, and 10 of them came on June 23 against the Los Angeles Dodgers at the height of their biggest slump of the season, a 1-11 stretch of games in which their only win was this game versus Santana. To fix his pitcher, Mike Scioscia has put a hard cap of 15 outs in place. After five complete innings in his next start, Friday against Tampa Bay, he's done for the night, even if he's throwing a perfect game. The goal is to get him to leave it all out there on the mound from the first pitch, but if he can't even reach that fifth-inning finish line on Friday, he might not get another chance for quite some time.