Workload factor for young starters
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.[+] EnlargeAP 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.
"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.[+] EnlargeLeon 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.
TOP 150 PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 150 pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued. For starter- or reliever-specific rankings, see the "Pos Rnk" column. These rankings can also be seen split up by position.
Rnk Player, Team Pos
Rnk Player Pos
1 Clayton Kershaw, LAD SP1 1 76 Kevin Gregg, ChC RP21 78 2 Felix Hernandez, Sea SP2 2 77 Rick Porcello, Det SP56 105 3 Adam Wainwright, StL SP3 3 78 Zack Wheeler, NYM SP57 95 4 Justin Verlander, Det SP4 4 79 Jim Henderson, Mil RP22 72 5 Yu Darvish, Tex SP5 5 80 Heath Bell, Ari RP23 67 6 Max Scherzer, Det SP6 7 81 Trevor Cahill, Ari SP58 81 7 Cliff Lee, Phi SP7 6 82 Andrew Bailey, Bos RP24 76 8 Madison Bumgarner, SF SP8 9 83 Rex Brothers, Col RP25 89 9 Stephen Strasburg, Wsh SP9 8 84 Tom Wilhelmsen, Sea RP26 55 10 Craig Kimbrel, Atl RP1 11 85 Jason Vargas, LAA SP59 88 11 Aroldis Chapman, Cin RP2 12 86 Tim Hudson, Atl SP60 97 12 Jordan Zimmermann, Wsh SP10 10 87 Chris Perez, Cle RP27 92 13 Matt Harvey, NYM SP11 14 88 Jonathon Niese, NYM SP61 82 14 Cole Hamels, Phi SP12 13 89 Wandy Rodriguez, Pit SP62 79 15 Chris Sale, CWS SP13 16 90 Francisco Liriano, Pit SP63 87 16 Gio Gonzalez, Wsh SP14 18 91 Gerrit Cole, Pit SP64 122 17 Mike Minor, Atl SP15 17 92 Jake Peavy, CWS SP65 93 18 Mariano Rivera, NYY RP3 15 93 Bartolo Colon, Oak SP66 107 19 CC Sabathia, NYY SP16 23 94 Andrew Cashner, SD SP67 100 20 Matt Cain, SF SP17 31 95 Mike Leake, Cin SP68 119 21 Zack Greinke, LAD SP18 20 96 Jose Veras, Hou RP28 109 22 Shelby Miller, StL SP19 26 97 Travis Wood, ChC SP69 114 23 Jeff Samardzija, ChC SP20 22 98 Brandon Beachy, Atl SP70 84 24 Jason Grilli, Pit RP4 27 99 Ryan Dempster, Bos SP71 85 25 Mat Latos, Cin SP21 25 100 Trevor Rosenthal, StL RP29 101 26 Addison Reed, CWS RP5 29 101 David Phelps, NYY SP72 102 27 Jered Weaver, LAA SP22 21 102 Jeremy Hellickson, TB SP73 91 28 Homer Bailey, Cin SP23 32 103 Corey Kluber, Cle SP74 NR 29 Hisashi Iwakuma, Sea SP24 37 104 Jose Valverde, Det RP30 83 30 James Shields, KC SP25 33 105 Rafael Betancourt, Col RP31 104 31 Jonathan Papelbon, Phi RP6 34 106 Steve Cishek, Mia RP32 148 32 Hiroki Kuroda, NYY SP26 36 107 Kyle Lohse, Mil SP75 94 33 Clay Buchholz, Bos SP27 30 108 Jorge De La Rosa, Col SP76 110 34 Rafael Soriano, Wsh RP7 42 109 Brandon Morrow, Tor SP77 103 35 Edward Mujica, StL RP8 41 110 Ian Kennedy, Ari SP78 112 36 Lance Lynn, StL SP28 35 111 Dan Straily, Oak SP79 115 37 Kenley Jansen, LAD RP9 77 112 Miguel Gonzalez, Bal SP80 136 38 Johnny Cueto, Cin SP29 38 113 Jhoulys Chacin, Col SP81 125 39 Jim Johnson, Bal RP10 53 114 Mark Melancon, Pit RP33 118 40 Doug Fister, Det SP30 48 115 John Lackey, Bos SP82 116 41 Sergio Romo, SF RP11 39 116 David Robertson, NYY RP34 117 42 Greg Holland, KC RP12 52 117 Andy Pettitte, NYY SP83 106 43 Joe Nathan, Tex RP13 43 118 Joaquin Benoit, Det RP35 139 44 Jon Lester, Bos SP31 28 119 Tim Lincecum, SF SP84 111 45 Alex Cobb, TB SP32 40 120 A.J. Griffin, Oak SP85 108 46 Glen Perkins, Min RP14 47 121 Dan Haren, Wsh SP86 99 47 David Price, TB SP33 46 122 Brandon McCarthy, Ari SP87 124 48 Anibal Sanchez, Det SP34 19 123 Alexi Ogando, Tex SP88 127 49 Patrick Corbin, Ari SP35 50 124 Tony Cingrani, Cin SP89 98 50 Hyun-Jin Ryu, LAD SP36 45 125 Luke Gregerson, SD RP36 121 51 Matt Moore, TB SP37 24 126 Kyle Kendrick, Phi SP90 113 52 Julio Teheran, Atl SP38 54 127 Dillon Gee, NYM SP91 NR 53 Casey Janssen, Tor RP15 61 128 Jeff Locke, Pit SP92 137 54 Kris Medlen, Atl SP39 49 129 David Hernandez, Ari RP37 120 55 Fernando Rodney, TB RP16 51 130 Bud Norris, Hou SP93 135 56 R.A. Dickey, Tor SP40 56 131 Ryan Madson, LAA RP38 123 57 Grant Balfour, Oak RP17 59 132 Marco Estrada, Mil SP94 141 58 A.J. Burnett, Pit SP41 44 133 Joel Peralta, TB RP39 126 59 Jarrod Parker, Oak SP42 63 134 Jacob Turner, Mia SP95 142 60 Jose Fernandez, Mia SP43 65 135 Wade Miley, Ari SP96 134 61 Josh Johnson, Tor SP44 71 136 Eric Stults, SD SP97 145 62 Chris Tillman, Bal SP45 62 137 Vinnie Pestano, Cle RP40 129 63 C.J. Wilson, LAA SP46 64 138 Edwin Jackson, ChC SP98 NR 64 Matt Garza, ChC SP47 57 139 Brett Anderson, Oak SP99 131 65 Ervin Santana, KC SP48 75 140 Brandon League, LAD RP41 96 66 Justin Masterson, Cle SP49 68 141 Ryan Cook, Oak RP42 130 67 Derek Holland, Tex SP50 58 142 Tyler Clippard, Wsh RP43 143 68 Tommy Milone, Oak SP51 60 143 Jesse Crain, CWS RP44 NR 69 Yovani Gallardo, Mil SP52 80 144 Samuel Deduno, Min SP100 149 70 Ernesto Frieri, LAA RP18 73 145 Drew Smyly, Det RP45 NR 71 Bobby Parnell, NYM RP19 69 146 Michael Wacha, StL SP101 66 72 Phil Hughes, NYY SP53 74 147 Ross Detwiler, Wsh SP102 NR 73 Huston Street, SD RP20 86 148 John Axford, Mil RP46 NR 74 Paul Maholm, Atl SP54 70 149 Felix Doubront, Bos SP103 128 75 Ricky Nolasco, Mia SP55 90 150 Bronson Arroyo, Cin SP103 132
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