Workload factor for young starters

Updated: June 18, 2013, 4:02 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Lost in the disappointment of Michael Wacha's demotion was this: Part of the reason he, rather than Tyler Lyons, was assigned to Triple-A Memphis was the team's admitted concern for his workload.

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Wacha did have a 4.58 ERA in three starts, so performance might have weighed equally, but St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny confirmed that the rookie right-hander will face some sort of innings cap this season, whether he spends the rest of it in Memphis or St. Louis.

"We'll have to look over his whole workload," Matheny told the Cardinals' official website Friday. "We don't want to find ourselves in a situation at the end of the year where we have a kid that we can't use because he's had too much work. We're trying to be smart about that and also allow him to work on some things. When he comes back, we'll see how he throws."

In this age of pitch counts, relief specialization and 33-start seasons -- no starter has made 36 or more starts in 10 years, and there hasn't been a 35-start campaign since 2010 -- careful management of youngsters' seasonal workloads are all the rage. They're frequently called "innings caps," and whatever your opinion of them, they are something 21st-century baseball teams take seriously.

The Cardinals' approach with Wacha is understandable; he is in the midst of his first full professional season. The No. 19 overall pick in the 2012 draft, Wacha amassed 21 innings in the minor leagues last season on the heels of the 113 1/3 he threw for Texas A&M that spring for a total of 134 1/3 innings. This season, he has pitched 70 1/3 innings between Memphis and St. Louis. Using the Cardinals' schedule for pace setting, that puts him on track for 162 2/3, or a 28 1/3-inning increase. While that might not sound like a lot, keep in mind that he made his first start of 2012 for Texas A&M on Feb. 17 and the final one on June 1. His first appearance for the Cardinals' Gulf Coast League rookie affiliate came on July 11, and his final appearance for Double-A Springfield was on Sept. 15. He had a six-week midsummer respite while negotiating his contract with the Cardinals and was switched to relief shortly after joining the organization. It was a loooooong year.

[+] EnlargeMichael Wacha and Tyler Lyons
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonFor the Cardinals, the choice between Michael Wacha and Tyler Lyons might come down to quantity over quality.

Whether the Cardinals would have been smarter to reserve Wacha's remaining innings for the majors is a legitimate debate, but now that he has been demoted, the issue of his workload has moved front-and-center. With Lyons' struggles in his most recent turn, you might have heard whispers of doubt in the Cardinals' decision. Instead, you're hearing Wacha or Carlos Martinez, demoted to Memphis 18 days earlier to return to starting, as future replacement candidates.

Martinez might, in fact, be the better bet for the next promotion, if judging strictly by workload concerns. Though more than two months younger than Wacha -- they are both 21, but Wacha turns 22 on July 1, Martinez on Sept. 21 -- Martinez's conversion to relief during his brief stint with the big club in May suppressed his season innings pace; he's on track for 96 1/3 innings, which is eight fewer than he threw in the minors in 2012. Oh, and Martinez has a 2.45 ERA and 21 K's in 22 innings in his five starts since being demoted.

If you play in a deep mixed or NL-only league with the bench room to afford it, Martinez is every bit as attractive a long-term stash as Wacha.

Like Wacha, a fellow rookie starter has also been surrounded by "innings cap" chatter all season: Zack Wheeler, who is set to make his major league debut for the New York Mets on Tuesday.

"I know that Zack had about 150 innings last year, so given that base, he's probably this year limited to about 180 or 185, which ought to be plenty," Mets general manager Sandy Alderson told the New York Daily News in mid-May. "We try to build maybe 30 innings per year."

Wheeler, 23, has thrown 68 2/3 innings in the minors this season, for a pace of 173 2/3. That would be 24 2/3 more than he threw between Double- and Triple-A last season (149), easily within Alderson's target range.

Still, as innings tend to pile up more quickly at the big league level -- the schedule is longer, for one thing -- Wheeler might not quite make it to the regular-season finale. There's another potential obstacle in his path: As he is a member of a team 15 games under .500 and 14 1/2 out in the National League East, the Mets might decide that there's little point in pushing their most promising prospects in meaningless September games.

That's also the concern with fellow Mets right-hander Matt Harvey, the No. 8 starting pitcher on our Player Rater. Just 24 years old, Harvey has thrown 97 innings this season, for a pace of 245 2/3. That would represent an increase of 76 1/3 (after throwing 169 1/3 in 2012). Oddly, while Alderson mentioned a target number of innings for Wheeler, Mets vice president of player development and scouting Paul DePodesta had a different angle on Harvey's workload.

"It all depends on the individual and the composition of his individual innings. ... Pitch counts, stress of pitches and rest all factor in the final equation," DePodesta told ESPNNewYork.com's Adam Rubin. "For instance, if a guy throws 170 innings over 28 starts and throws 105 pitches per game, he might actually go 210 innings the following year on 30 starts with an average of 100 pitches per game. On the surface, it's a 40-inning jump, but it was largely because he became more efficient with his pitches and added two starts."

It's refreshing to hear DePodesta cite workload management in terms of statistics other than outs recorded (what innings pitched actually credit), a performance-based metric, instead examining things like pitches thrown or batters faced, which are volume-based. This idea of a hard cap of plus-30 innings for pitchers under the age of 25 seems awfully arbitrary; the addition of 40 innings for a 24-year-old isn't always more taxing than 20 more for a 20-year-old.

That said, the Mets' performance almost assuredly has them counting every one of his frames beyond 200. While I've heard the theory that the team might deliberately alter his schedule to use up his innings in home games -- he has made nine of his 14 starts at Citi Field -- the attendance figures don't support it; the team has averaged 636 fewer fans in games Harvey pitched. This is a bad team, one that might rein him in during September accordingly -- at least once he passes that 200-inning threshold.

Let's examine a few more young starting pitchers who might face innings caps this season. Listed in parentheses are their ages (birthdays listed if upcoming within the 2013 regular season), 2013 innings pace, 2012 total innings and the difference between the two. All innings totals include major and minor league stats. A "worry level," ranging from low to moderate to high to extreme, is also included.

[+] Enlargecounting pitches
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesTracking pitch counts is an important part of managing a pitching staff for now and for the future.

Jose Fernandez, Miami Marlins (20 years old, turns 21 on July 31; 169 2/3 innings pace; 134 innings in 2012; 35 2/3-inning increase): Few pitchers spawn the innings-cap question more than Fernandez, if only because of his age and his placement on the worst team of baseball, which is sure to shut him down at the earliest opportunity. What the Marlins have done with their prized right-handed prospect, however, is a brilliant bit of in-progress workload management. Fernandez has a 3.11 ERA, so you might be surprised to learn that he has averaged 86.8 pitches per start, has only once thrown as many as 100 pitches and has a major league-leading 10 games of 90 pitches or fewer. The Marlins are pacing Fernandez nicely enough that even if he's shut down, it would be in September and would be almost entirely a product of the team's record. Worry level: Moderate.

Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals (24 years old, turns 25 on July 20; 186 1/3 innings pace; 159 1/3 innings in 2012; 27-inning increase): He's relevant from two angles, the first that he was shut down due to a hard innings cap in 2012, the other that teammate Jordan Zimmermann's 161 1/3-to-195 2/3 innings pattern from 2011-12 seems like the blueprint for Strasburg's 2013. Strasburg is mostly on pace due to his current DL stint, but the Nationals have another factor to consider: Might they want to reserve some of his frames for a potential postseason run? Strasburg won't be the poster boy for the 2013 innings-cap debate, but he's not entirely exempt either. Worry level: Low.

Gerrit Cole, Pittsburgh Pirates (22 years old, turns 23 on Sept. 8; 185 innings pace; 132 innings in 2012; 53-inning increase): He'll be the most on-the-fence cap candidate of them all. He's a member of a Pirates squad that finds itself currently positioned for a playoff spot yet is a team that has a history of second-half collapses and one that might not push its 22-year-old top prospect in games lacking in relevance. Still, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington hinted in mid-March that Cole wouldn't necessarily be capped. "I don't think we want him to get to 250 innings this year, but he's going to be free to go," Huntington told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. We'll see how truthful you were, Neal, should your team find itself 11 games out on Labor Day, as it was last season. Worry level: High.

Kevin Gausman, Baltimore Orioles (22 years old; 162 innings pace; 138 2/3 innings in 2012; 23 1/3-inning increase): Gausman's 2012 total includes the 123 2/3 innings he threw for LSU, which, like Wacha, came in a season that began Feb. 17 and concluded June 10. Though the Orioles haven't publicly announced Gausman's innings cap, rumored numbers range from 150-175, the latter a reasonable high-end guess. He's seemingly right on pace, but after his poor performance during his initial big league stint, the Orioles might take a more conservative approach to his next recall due to workload concerns. Worry level: High.

Julio Teheran, Atlanta Braves (22 years old; 192 innings pace; 137 1/3 innings in 2012; 54 2/3-inning increase): Here's another curious case from multiple angles, the first and most obvious being that the Braves, who have Brandon Beachy working his way back from Tommy John surgery (recent setback notwithstanding), have alternatives if they want to ease off Teheran's workload. The Braves appear destined for the postseason, meaning they might want to save some of Teheran's innings for October. Plus, the right-hander's recent breakthrough has actually advanced his season pace for innings. Sure, Teheran has tallied 137 1/3, 164 1/3 and 142 2/3 innings the past three seasons working backward, but would the Braves dare to push him to 190 and beyond? I say no, and it's the main reason he hasn't soared higher in my rankings. Worry level: High.

Shelby Miller, St. Louis Cardinals (22 years old; 199 2/3 innings pace; 150 1/3 innings in 2012; 49 1/3-inning increase): After Harvey, Miller is arguably the next most relevant pitcher subject to an innings cap. Conveniently enough, Miller ranks exactly one spot higher than Harvey among starting pitchers on our Player Rater (seventh, to Harvey's eighth). Though Miller's professional innings totals have gone from 104 1/3 to 139 2/3 to 150 1/3, the Cardinals have the most compelling reason of all to monitor his workload. They're also probably playoff-bound, and Miller would be, at worst, their No. 3 starter in October. Per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in mid-May, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak acknowledged Miller's workload concern, though it is unclear whether it would manifest as a hard innings limit. If there is to be a 2013 "Stephen Strasburg" (referencing his 2012 playoff absence), Miller is it. Worry level: Moderate.

Finally, what of those "worry levels" for Wacha and the Mets kids?

Wacha's worry level: High.
Wheeler's worry level: Low.
Harvey's worry level: Moderate.

Adjust your rest-of-year rankings accordingly. Or just check 'em out below.

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