Padres leading way as teams exercise caution with young arms
It's not just about Stephen Strasburg. All around baseball, as young pitchers break down, organizations search for ways to keep them healthy. Increasingly, one of those ways is to limit innings.
One of the more telling examples of this proactive approach occurred recently with Padres prospect Donn Roach, a 22-year-old righthander in Double A. Immediately after Roach was named Texas League Pitcher of the Week, and with a 1.88 ERA over 105 1/3 innings this year and with his arm feeling great, the Padres told him he was done for the year. They shut him down for precautionary reasons.
Why? Roach threw 70 1/3 innings last year as a reliever in the Angels' system. Roach, a third-round pick, was one of nine players drafted in 2010 from the College of Southern Nevada. (You may have heard of one of them: Bryce Harper.) Los Angeles converted Roach to a starter this year, then traded him and infielder Alexi Amarista to the Padres on May 3 to get reliever Ernesto Frieri. Though the trade was quickly portrayed as a heist by the Angels -- Frieri did not allow a run until after the All-Star break -- San Diego turned a setup reliever into a starting second baseman with an .804 OPS and a got a potential major league starting pitcher who went 11-2 with a 1.025 WHIP this year to go along with that 1.88 ERA.
Roach threw in only 18 games this year, 16 of them starts. But with Roach already piling up a 35-inning jump at age 22, San Diego saw no sense in pushing him further.
Remember, too, that no team has watched more pitchers go down this year than the Padres. Robbie Erlin, 21 (elbow), Juan Oramas, 22 (Tommy John surgery), Joe Wieland, 22 (Tommy John surgery), Casey Kelly, 22 (elbow), Anthony Bass, 24 (shoulder inflammation), Andrew Cashner, 25 (shoulder strain), Cory Luebke, 27 (Tommy John surgery) and Tim Stauffer, 30 (elbow strain) all have been sidelined because of arm injuries.
"We're working on it," general manager Josh Byrnes said about studying why the rash of injuries occurred. "So far it was breaking ball volume in one case, there was a general sense of too much flat ground [work] -- flat ground sliders -- and [manager] Buddy Black thinks the elbows may be due to how much it has become a cutter-sinker game these days. If you can throw those pitches naturally, great, but when pitchers have to manipulate the ball to try to get that movement, like with Stauffer, you can hurt your arm. We've had three lat strains this year. We have people on staff here 10, 15 years who've never seen that many.
"So we're looking at a lot of things. We're collecting information on a lot of topics, such as reaching out to agents to make sure they stay close to their guys, especially with teenage arms, [because] the young pitcher is not going to tell us he's fatigued."
Strasburg has some company in terms of trying to pitch a team into the postseason while his team keeps a careful eye on his innings. Here are the top 25-and-under pitchers on winning teams who may have their workload scaled back while in a pennant race (innings totals include major and minor leagues):
Three years ago St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Kyle Lohse was hit by a pitch on the forearm while trying to bunt. He spent a year trying to get healthy and figure out what was wrong. As soon as his pitch count would approach 50, his hand would begin to go numb -- the way a foot feels when it falls "asleep." Doctors finally diagnosed a condition sometimes found in distance runners and motocross riders but never before in a pitcher: exertional compartment syndrome, in which the sheath covering the forearm muscle does not allow the muscle to expand. He had a choice: forget about ever starting again -- he would have to be used only in short relief roles -- or undergo a surgical procedure unknown to pitchers.
He had the surgery in May 2010. Doctors sliced the sheath so that the muscle would not be constricted. After working his way back, Lohse quietly has become one of the best pitchers in the NL since the start of last year. "I feel like I'm throwing better and with more control than ever before," he said.
Since the start of last season, Lohse is 23-10 with a 3.16 ERA. In that time he ranks fourth in the league in walks per nine innings, sixth in wins and 10th in ERA. He throws more first-pitch strikes than anybody this side of Cliff Lee, has one of the lowest rates of pitches per inning, and he has found the religion of the two-seamer, which he uses to pitch to contact instead of the four-seamer he tried to blow past hitters in his younger days.
"I don't care about strikeouts," he said. "I want to get the hitter out as quickly as I can."
In this era when strikeouts are more common than ever, Lohse is a rarity: a pitcher -- especially a righthanded pitcher -- who disdains velocity and relies on being crafty to pitch at an elite level. This year Lohse is striking out only 5.15 batters per nine innings while posting a 2.80 ERA. Only one pitcher in the past 17 years has qualified with an ERA below 3.00 with a strikeout rate below 5.2: Tom Glavine in 2002.
Lohse, a free agent at the end of the season when his four-year, $41 million deal expires, has put himself in line for another big pay day because post-op he has proved to be durable and has a sustainable approach to pitching as he ages through his 30s.
He has had no complications from the surgery -- none significant, anyway. With the sheath sliced and the muscle allowed to expand, his right forearm can swell to be as much as three inches bigger than his left forearm. And sometimes instead of icing his elbow or shoulder after a game, he might ice his forearm.