The Tenth Inning – Week 22 ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>
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As mentioned last week, this column is a day late because of the Labor Day holiday. In looking at last week, however, I think we pretty much covered the traditional power rankings in an untraditional way, so let’s move on instead to something that has bothered me for some time – a rant, if you will. Allow me the forum and humor me by reading what I think is a big problem in baseball right now.
There’s a classic case-study being performed right now in, of all places, the fishbowl that is New York City. Yankees starting pitcher Joba Chamberlain is currently under an “innings watch,” or as I like to say, “being babied.” Last time I check, this kid – who is younger than I am – can throw that little tiny, around, white object we call a baseball better than all but maybe 30-50 people in the entire universe. He’s not getting paid big bucks quite yet, but after just three seasons he’s clearly well on his way. Why, then, are the Yankees being so overly cautious with his innings and pitches? This virtually unprecedented method of monitoring innings and removing a starter after only three innings has left the Yankees open to some criticism, and has also left Joba a bit irritated at the lack of pitching he’s actually done over the past month or so of the season. So, again – why do it?
For a reference point, we need to look no further back than October of 2008, or as some in Philadelphia might call it, the last time Cole Hamels pitched two good games in a row. See, Hamels had never built up any sort of substantial innings total in the minor leagues. Even in h is first two seasons at the major league level, Hamels had suffered a couple of minor injuries that caused him to miss a handful of starts, resulting in 132.1 innings in his first season and 183.1 in his second season. In 2008, however, Hamels remained healthy for the entire season, starting 33 games and tossing 227.1 innings in the regular season. He only added to that total in his five postseason starts, firing an additional 35 innings to bring his season total of innings pitched to 262.1. His struggles this season to remain consistent have been well-documented, and the Yankees looked at their roster and at Joba (who, like Hamels was in ’08, is in his third major league season) and decided that the team was good enough to reach the postseason and the priority with Chamberlain had to be to protect his arm for October and, more importantly, beyond.
While the thinking of the Yankees is certainly up for debate, I will go as far as to say that, given all of the circumstances, their method is, in my opinion, a good one. Joba’s presence, whether in the rotation or bullpen, is clearly more important in the fall than in the spring or summer. Likewise, we can debate the move of including him in the starting rotation in the first place, which the Yankees have screwed up royally, but again, different discussion for a different day. Instead, I think it makes more sense to examine the root of the problem as a whole – from Hamels to Joba to any other pitcher that has debuted in the majors in the last five years. Why is it that throwing 200+ innings is suddenly so dangerous to a pitcher’s arm and career that teams will do anything to keep anyone on their staff from reaching that total, if possible?
The problem begins in the minor leagues and often times before the minor leagues. As a college baseball broadcaster, I have seen first-hand the number of pitchers who start throwing for their schools in February and have their season wrap up by Memorial Day, only to begin a summer season that carries on nearly to Labor Day. In many cases, starting pitchers wind up throwing around 70-80 innings for their college teams and at least that many more for the summer team. Overall, it’s likely 150 innings for the better starters, meaning they are quite capable of throwing a higher total the following season and on after that.
Something happens when these players reach the minor leagues, however. The game of baseball has become so predicated on numbers (even more so than is usually the case) and for whatever reason, studies seem to show that the more innings someone throws, the more likely they’ll get hurt, and the more pitches someone throws, the more likely they’ll give up hits and runs. While the basic premise is likely accurate, the only way to overcome that is to build up a tolerance against it. As any good athletic trainer knows, if someone is training and only works until the muscle being worked reaches a natural limit, then that is all the muscle will ever know. In order to run a marathon, the legs and lungs must be trained to first run 2 miles, then 4, then 8, and so on until the entire body can perform the task of running 26.1 miles. Thus, to translate it to baseball, if a pitcher only ever throws 75-80 pitches, then that particular pitcher will never be able to perform at a major league level beyond that point because the body will not know how to handle that.
Relating a story I overheard in a minor league press box, sans names – a manager was running a minor league ballclub affiliated with a parent club that swore by pitch counts. As soon as the pitcher reached his assigned number, regardless of count or situation, the manager was instructed to remove that pitcher from the game. In one particular game, the starter had a one-run lead and pitched into the seventh inning, where he faced a bases loaded, 2-out situation. The pitcher had just reached his pitch count by walking that last batter to load the bases, and out came the manager. After a brief discussion, he retreated to the dugout and left the starter in the game to face the next batter. The pitcher promptly got a pop up on the second pitch of the at bat, ending the inning, and his team went on to win the game. Afterwards, a rep from the major league club stormed into the clubhouse and began berating the manager for leaving the pitcher in past his pitch total. The manager calmly replied that he asked his pitcher if he could get the final out, and was told yes, so he left him in. The manager pointed out that two key things happened in that final at-bat – one, the pitcher proved to the club that even in a big spot, he could bear down and get a crucial out, and two, the pitcher proved to HIMSELF that he could do the same thing. Those two things, the manager countered, were better than any result that would have come from handing the ball over to the bullpen, and the team rep was left with no reply.
The story illustrates a major flaw in the idea of pitch counts and innings totals – how will these pitchers ever know what they can do if they don’t try? Perhaps if Hamels had been pushed a little more coming up through the system, his body would have been better prepared for a season in which he threw 262 innings. Perhaps in Joba hadn’t been “babied” for the last three seasons in NY, he would be at a point now in his career where he could throw close to 200 innings a season and not have to worry about if his arm would hold up for October. Most of the injuries suffered by major league pitchers nowadays come from a pitcher trying to do as the pitcher in the story did – bear down and get a big out when they’re tired and fatigued – except their bodies and, more specifically, their arms have never been put into that situation.
So my plea to major league ballclubs – if you want to decrease the number of injuries and inconsistencies from year to year, have your pitchers increase their workload and increase the number of tough situations they face, rather than decrease those areas. It’s an inverse relationship that will pay dividends to the first team that finally realizes that maybe, if their ace is going to go 250+ innings one year, maybe he should have thrown more than 180 the season before. After all, I can’t run 5 miles without gasping for air, but thanks to the Joba rules, I’m running a marathon next weekend.
Wish me luck!
Last week’s answer: The Chicago White Sox and the original Washington Senators (now Minnesota Twins) are the only two pre-expansion franchises that remain under 10,000 homeruns all-time after the Pittsburgh Pirates reached the mark last week.
2009 Playoff “Dead List”
This week, watch for…
Look for my column, “The Tenth Inning,” every Monday for the UltimateCapper
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