While baseball in 2010 became The Year of the Pitcher, with offensive numbers dialed back to 1992 levels, the story beneath the story is that clubs are doing a better job than ever developing young pitchers. That might not sound right in a year in which the highest profile pitcher, Stephen Strasburg, blew out his elbow and we mourned the passing of two iconic workhorses, Bob Feller and Robin Roberts, whose innings workloads remind us how much the game has changed.
The truth, though, is that more than ever is known about the science of how to develop pitchers, thus complementing the art of such development. (Or is it the mystery?) Advances in the understanding of biomechanics, nutrition, training and statistics have raised the quality and quantity of pitching. Think of it as baseball's research and development.
One small part of such understanding is monitoring the innings of young pitchers from one year to the next. More than a decade ago, drawing on the advice of pitching coach Rick Peterson, I developed a rule of thumb that pitchers 25 and younger should not increase their workload by more than 30 innings. It's the same theory as training for a marathon: you risk injury by jumping from a 10K to the marathon instead of incremental increases. I called it the Year After Effect because the wear and tear often was followed by regression or injury the next year.
The concept of capping innings for young pitchers has become an industry standard. One AL general manager told me during spring training last year that his club's organizational pitching reports now include a "VE" column -- for Verducci Effect, a measurement of innings increase.
The point is that clubs have more information to consider and it has coincided with a tremendous wave of young pitching that has changed the look of major league baseball.
Last year, for instance, 29-and-younger pitchers made 3,497 starts, the second most in the 13 seasons with 30 teams and a 21 percent increase from 1999.
But let's drop the age threshold even further and look at young pitchers not just making a start here and there, but those making a full-time impact on rotations. Look at the year-by-year trend of 25-and-younger pitchers making 25 starts -- a 25/25 Club, if you will:
There have been only three seasons with more 25/25 pitchers than we had last year: 2008 and, in a very different era and with fewer teams, 1970 and 1969. Of course, today teams don't let their young pitchers rack up the innings that they did 40 years ago. Check out this comparison, which examines how many of those 25/25 pitchers threw 200 innings:
In recent years a new term has come into the game to prevent injuries, not just treat them: prehabilitation. Governing the workload of young pitchers has become standard procedure. Shutting down healthy pitchers in September, for instance, is a common occurrence. Last year that group included Mike Leake of Cincinnati, Brandon Morrow of Toronto and Jake Arrieta of Baltimore.
That doesn't mean the Verducci Effect has gone away. Circumstances still lead to big innings jumps. Last year I red-flagged 10 such pitchers, and four of them were hurt or regressed (the Padres' Cesar Carrillo, the Astros' Bud Norris, the Reds' Homer Bailey and the Tigers' Rick Porcello) and two had so-so results (the Yankees' Joba Chamberlain and the Rays' Wade Davis). But four others had breakout years (the Padres' Mat Latos, the Mariners' Felix Hernandez, who won the AL Cy Young award, the Marlins' Josh Johnson and the Tigers' Max Scherzer), as strong a showing against the Verducci Effect since I started tracking it. The "risks" seem more calculated.
Now it's time to identify the red-flagged pitchers of 2011 -- the 25-and-younger pitchers whose workload last year jumped by more than 30 innings. (All innings are considered: minors, Arizona Fall League, majors and postseason. Pitchers such as Jaime Garcia of St. Louis, who made a big jump from 2009 but were close to a total from previous pro seasons, were not included.)
Remember, this is a rule of thumb meant simply to identify pitchers who pushed the envelope to put them more at risk than others. And keep in mind that as Hernandez, Johnson and Scherzer proved last year, the risk is much lower for bigger-bodied pitchers who are at the older end of the age spectrum.
As happened last year, some pitchers pose much less of a risk of regression. Price, for instance, who turns 26 this season, and Hughes, who turns 25, fit the lower-risk profile: big bodies on the older side of the spectrum. Here are some thumbnail looks at the others on the list:
Bumgarner: A pennant race and three rounds of postseason play added to Bumgarner's workload, calling to mind how the Phillies' Cole Hamels regressed in 2009 after his taxing 2008 championship season. Bumgarner, though, is armed with a far sturdier build, similar to Andy Pettitte. The Giants are known to push young pitchers, and it's worked well with Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum.
Sanabia: The Marlins didn't run up high pitch counts with Sanabia, who exceeded 100 pitches just three times in his 12 big league starts. But he did complain of elbow stiffness at the end of his season.
Latos, Wood, Nova: A pennant race can change the best of plans. Like Price, Hughes and Bumgarner, these three starters were needed in pennant races. It's not easy to make the list two straight years, but Latos took jumps of more than 60 innings in each of the past two years.
Beachy, Cecil, Gonzalez: These three fall under the pushed-but-watched-closely category. The Jays, for instance, shut down Morrow but kept giving the ball to Cecil. (He did suffer from fatigue and decreased velocity in September). And the Athletics, one of the biggest supporters of innings limits, let Gonzalez exceed 200 innings because he was throwing so well (2.59 ERA in the second half).
Gee: He made 33 starts between Triple-A and the majors, though age (he turns 25 in April) may be on the side of the former college pitcher.