Innings limits on young pitchers have become standard operating procedure with most organizations. The young pitchers who were shut down last year as a precautionary measure included Danny Duffy of Kansas City, Michael Pineda of Seattle and Jordan Zimmerman of Washington, a club that already has a governor on the 2012 workload of Stephen Strasburg.
But what happens to the best intentions when a young pitcher is in a pennant race? In virtually every case a team will keep sending the young pitcher to the mound while suddenly finding faith in "good mechanics" and "hard work." The Rangers (Derek Holland and Matt Harrison), Cardinals (Jaime Garcia), Brewers (Yovani Gallardo), Diamondbacks (Daniel Hudson) and Rays (Jeremy Hellickson) all pushed young pitchers aggressively last year for a shot at the World Series.
The extra work comes with a price. And the toll usually shows up the following season.
For more than a decade I've been tracking this price, which I call the Year After Effect, and which some places, including internal metrics used by at least one organization, referred to as the Verducci Effect. I began tracking it because Rick Peterson, when entrusted as the Oakland pitching coach with the golden arms of Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, believed in managing the innings for a pitcher from one year to the next. Too big a jump for too young a pitcher would put a pitcher at risk the next season for injury or regression.
From his philosophy I used a rule of thumb to track pitchers at risk: Any 25-and-under pitcher who increased his innings by 30 or more I considered to be at risk. (In some cases, to account for those coming off injuries or a change in roles, I used the previous innings high regardless of when it occurred.) I also considered only those pitchers who reached the major leagues. Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik, for instance, agrees that major league innings create more stress than minor league innings, so the effect is more profound.
The Effect has become easy to see over the years. In just the past six years, for instance, I flagged 55 pitchers at risk for an injury or regression based on their workload in the previous season. Forty-six of them, or 84 percent, did get hurt or post a worse ERA in the Year After.
Two out of the nine pitchers I red flagged last year actually stayed healthy or improved: Gio Gonzalez of Oakland (since traded to Washington) and Ivan Nova of the Yankees. More typical, though, were the regressions last year by David Price, Phil Hughes, Mat Latos and Brett Cecil, all of whom I red-flagged -- and all lost life on their fastball and saw their ERA jump by more than half a run. (The troubles for Hughes and Cecil were especially alarming and showed immediately in spring training.) Similar scenarios occurred with pitchers I red-flagged in the past, including Cole Hamels, Chad Billingsley, Rick Porcello, Mike Pelfrey, Josh Johnson, Joba Chamberlain and Scott Kazmir.
Despite industry awareness of workloads for young pitchers, the 2012 Red Flag List is one of the longest since I began tracking the Year After Effect. I found 14 pitchers at risk because of how they were pushed last season.
Why so many? Six of them were pushed because their teams were contending; the chance to win the World Series trumps development.
However, that still leaves eight pitchers who wound up in the at-risk category for piling up extra innings with teams out of contention. In some cases it was because pitchers with low ceilings are more apt to be pushed than are pitchers with high ceilings. (For instance, in 2010 the Blue Jays shut down Brandon Morrow but continued to give the ball to Cecil, who wound up with an innings increase of 41 1/3 and paid for it.)
Bear in mind this is not a highly scientific study. It is a rule of thumb used to gauge what by now has become a kind of industry standard of trying to keep young arms healthy. And keep this qualifier in mind: In general, the level of risk seems to be inversely proportional to age and size.
This year I have divided the Red Flag List into two categories: the six pitchers put at risk while pitching for contenders into the postseason, and the eight pitchers who busted through the threshold while pitching for teams out of contention. (Their listed age is their age at the halfway mark of last season.)
1. Derek Holland, 24, Rangers (+71 1/3). He threw 222 innings, a huge jump from his previous high (150 2/3 in 2008) and even more from what he threw in 2010 (134 1/3). He pitched six times in the postseason, including two relief appearances and 25-out scoreless gem of a start in World Series Game 4. He maintained his stuff well through his seventh month of last year, but the real test of his grind will be how he bounces back this year.
2. Jaime Garcia, 24, Cardinals (+57). His workload, like that of Hamels of the 2008 world champion Phillies, is part of the price of winning a world title. The Cardinals shut down Garcia late in 2010 because of his increase in innings. But such thinking did not apply last year while St. Louis chased down Atlanta for the NL wild card and then made a postseason run to the world championship. Garcia threw 25 2/3 postseason innings.
3. Yovani Gallardo, 25, Brewers (+41 1/3). He pitched five times in 12 days in the postseason, accounting for 26 innings that put him into the danger zone. This is Gallardo's second time on the list. He took a 33-inning jump in 2007, the year of his big league debut, and then threw just 24 innings the next season because of knee injuries.
4. Daniel Hudson, 24, Diamondbacks (+38 2/3). Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson brings an old-school competitiveness to the dugout. Arizona's starters threw more innings than any rotation except Philadelphia's. Hudson pitched well down the stretch and Arizona was trying to win a World Series, so Gibson had no need to curtail Hudson's work.
5. Jeremy Hellickson, 24, Rays (+37 1/3). The Rays have their own rule of thumb. They generally prefer to bump their pitchers' workload by no more than 20 percent annually. (Price took a playoff-influenced 36 percent jump in 2010 and saw his ERA swell by 0.77 last year.) For Hellickson, the 20 percent rule would have meant an increase of 31 innings, so he was not far off their target, even with a pennant race and the postseason (one start lasting four innings) influencing his work. The Rays also did a good job finding him extra rest in between starts. Beginning in late May, Hellickson pitched on the fifth day only six times in his final 21 starts.
6. Matt Harrison, 25, Rangers (+36 1/3). He spent most of 2010 in the bullpen, so Harrison took what looks like an alarming leap of 115 1/3 innings. But Harrison was developed as a starter and threw as many as 167 2/3 innings in 2008, which is used as the baseline here. He did turn 26 in September and is listed at 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, so Harrison does have age and size on his side.
1. Dylan Axelrod, 25, White Sox (+60). The White Sox were 9 ½ games out with 18 games to play and let Axelrod and Zach Stewart start seven of those meaningless games to exceed the threshold. Pitching coach Don Cooper is as good as anybody in the business at getting his pitchers to the mound consistently, so it's hard to quibble with his track record. Besides, Axelrod does have age on his side (he actually turned 26 in late July) and he is a control pitcher and former 30th-round pick who was released as a reliever from the San Diego system in 2009, signed out of independent ball and had never before pitched in the big leagues. Would you want to be the one to tell him that he could not make his big league debut because of an innings limit?
2. Liam Hendriks, 22, Twins (+54). At 22, the Perth, Austrialia, native was permitted to make his major league debut and three more starts in a meaningless September for Minnesota.
3. Eric Surkamp, 23, Giants (+44). The lefty from North Carolina State has a swing-and-miss curveball that recalls the Zito of his prime. Surkamp began the year in high-A ball and finished it with six games in the big leagues, proving once again that San Francisco may be the most aggressive team in baseball when it comes to letting young pitchers throw.
4. Chris Schwinden, 24, Mets (+43). He became the Mets' version of Axelrod -- or their next version of Dillon Gee, whom I red flagged last year before he hit a second-half wall (5.25 ERA). The Mets were supposed to give one courtesy September appearance to Schwinden, a guy with an underwhelming fastball who has become an overachiever, but because of injuries on the staff he made four of them to go well beyond his previous high, from 2009.
5. Nathan Eovaldi, 21, Dodgers (+39 1/3). The youngest pitcher on the list, Eovaldi made six starts for the Dodgers after his August promotion from Double-A before they put him in the bullpen for most of September due to innings restrictions. Eovaldi had Tommy John surgery as a high school junior and never before had topped 100 innings in a season.
6. Mike Leake, 23, Reds (+36 2/3). Reds GM Walt Jocketty targeted an increase of between 20 and 30 innings for Leake in 2010, but allowed him to slightly surpass that goal. Leake also made his minor-league debut this year, getting two tuneup games in Triple-A. Leake bears watching because he is not a prototypical workhorse. In two major league seasons, the 185-pound Leake is 14-5 in the first half and 6-8 in the second.
7. Michael Pineda, 22, Mariners (+31 2/3). Pineda showed signs of wear last season. He was 2-6 with a 5.38 ERA in his final 13 starts. The Mariners were concerned about his innings, so they dialed back his work in September, giving him just three starts in the month and doing so with six, six and 10 days of rest. That last start - he threw 81 pitches in four innings, then was shut down for the season -- put him over the threshold. Now, after having been traded last week, he will battle the Year-After Effect in a Yankees uniform.
8. Zach Stewart, 24, White Sox (+31 2/3). Stewart logged 168 innings over a season in which he was traded from the Blue Jays to the White Sox. Chicago started him eight times after the trade, all with an extra day of rest, including once when he flirted with a perfect game.