By Tom Verducci
January 22, 2013
The Nationals shut down Stephen Strasburg last September but he's still in danger for this season.
Stephen Green/SI

Not long ago an aunt and uncle gave me a worn department store gift box filled with newspaper clips about my late father, Tony Verducci, a highly successful football and baseball coach at Seton Hall Prep in New Jersey. Buried in the pile of yellowed newsprint was a 1973 column by Lloyd S. Glicken of the Newark Star-Ledger that bore news for me. Glicken wrote that my father, on the advice of the late Mets manager Gil Hodges, limited his pitchers to a maximum of 90 pitches, and in fact the previous season had removed a pitcher with a no-hitter after four innings because of the pitch count.

"Gil, who married my cousin, told me it was a good idea for young pitchers," my father said in the column. "It saves their arms. They do it in the minors to keep a young pitcher from throwing too much."

I was shocked. I never knew this: my father was implementing strict pitch counts with his pitchers 40 years ago. That season, his fifth, he won his 100th game, improving his record to 100-29.

Hodges had died the previous year, 1972, at age 47. Not only a great first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers and the manager of the 1969 New York Mets, Hodges also was an innovator in developing young pitchers. With his pitching coach, Rube Walker, Hodges helped popularize the five-man rotation. He joined a Mets organization in 1968 loaded with young arms and set the foundation for nearly all of them to enjoy long, healthy careers; Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Nolan Ryan, Dick Selma, Jim McAndrew, Jim Bibby, Gary Gentry, Rich Folkers, Jon Matlack, Tug McGraw and Steve Renko all were between 18 and 24 years old when Hodges arrived. Their longevity is a testament to how they were developed in the Mets system.

Forty years later, people still argue about how to develop young pitchers and whether to put governors on them. The debate reached a record volume last year when the postseason-bound Nationals shut down ace Stephen Strasburg as a preventative measure.

Actually, what the Nationals did dovetails with what has become accepted wisdom across the industry: monitoring the innings of a healthy young starter to limit the increase in year-to-year workload. Teams believe "too much, too soon" when it comes to increased innings for young pitchers puts them at risk of injury or regression -- in the same way it would be with a sudden, large increase in volume for any physical activity (running, strength training, etc.), especially for younger athletes.

I've been tracking innings jumps for young pitchers for more than a decade, using protocols established by Rick Peterson, the former Oakland pitching coach who oversaw the health and development of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito, the real backbone of the Moneyball A's. (They started 58 percent of Oakland's games from 2000-04.) Peterson believed pitchers 25 and under should not exceed an innings increase of more than 30, though even he did so once with Mulder. I've tracked major league pitchers who exceeded the threshold, using all innings in a calendar year (postseason, minors and Arizona Fall League included, though not spring training).

The Year-After Effect, as I called the risk after a big innings jumps, is not a scientific, predictive system. It's a rule of thumb to identify pitchers who may be at risk because of a sharp increase in workload. The older the pitcher, the bigger the body type and the closer to the 30-inning threshold is their increase, the less they seem to be at risk. Think Matt Harrison of the Rangers, who took a jump of 36 1/3 innings at age 25 in 2011 and pitched very well the next year.

Last year I identified 14 young pitchers coming off workload increases of 30 innings or more. Nine of them suffered injuries or significant regression: Derek Holland, Dylan Axelrod, Jaime Garcia, Liam Hendricks, Eric Surkamp, Chris Schwinden, Daniel Hudson, Zach Stewart and Michael Pineda.

This year I found 11 pitchers with a red flag, including Strasburg (even using the more conservative jump from his previous high from 2010, not his injury-shortened 2011). While every team now watches innings jumps, not all agree on precisely how to do so. I'll give the 2013 list, then follow it with examples from two organizations that represent the far ends of the spectrum when it comes to monitoring young pitchers: the White Sox, whose old-school approach favors more throwing and individualized workloads, and the Cardinals, whose new-school approach emphasizes increasing innings by no more than 15-20 percent per year. The list:

In more than a decade of tracking such innings jumps for young pitchers, I've never seen anything close to the increase the White Sox gave Sale, the reed-thin lefthander who converted from the bullpen to rotation and understandably faded down the stretch (3-5, 4.22 in his last nine starts). The biggest previous jumps belonged to Paul Maholm (+98 1/3 for the 2005 Pirates) and Runelvys Hernandez (+92 for the 2002 Royals).

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Does this mean Sale and his teammate, Jose Quintana, who is number three on the watch list (+63 innings) are in trouble? Not necessarily. It does mean they bear watching. But first you have to understand that the White Sox are the rare team these days that does not work from a standard protocol when it comes to innings for young pitchers.

"We go by our own philosophy," pitching coach Don Cooper said. "I don't compare us to other guys. I don't know Stephen Strasburg A to Z. I know Chris Sale from A to Z. I know Jake Peavy from A to Z. I know our guys. I look at them and decide what's best for them."

It's hard to argue with Cooper's success, especially when it comes to getting starting pitchers to take the ball deep into games with regularity. Since 2003, Cooper's first full season as the Chicago pitching coach, here are the franchises with the most times a pitcher has thrown 200 innings in a season:

1. White Sox: 25

2. Angels, Diamodnbacks: 18

4. Giants: 17

5. Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs, Cardinals: 16

And now, as if Royals fans needed reminding of how the franchise has flunked pitching development, here are the worst teams at producing 200-inning seasons over the past 10 years:

1. Royals, Orioles, Pirates: 6

4. Padres: 8

5. Rockies: 9

Cooper's pitchers far and away are the most reliable. He must be doing something right. His young pitchers often crack the +30-inning barrier: Mark Buehrle (2001), John Danks (2008), Dylan Axelrod and Zach Stewart (2011) and now Sale and Quintana. It's an old school philosophy. Cooper does not begin with innings limits in mind, but will adjust work schedules, bullpen sessions and even pitch selections as needed. Last season, for instance, Cooper built in rest for Sale by using the All-Star break (12 days off), an extra day or more between starts (17 of his 30 starts) and even a short assignment to the bullpen.

Cooper watches for signs of wear and tear, but as long as a pitcher keeps a good delivery intact and is healthy, he will keep sending the pitcher to the mound rather than letting a pre-determined innings limit force a shutdown.

"I want our guys to be the best they can be," Cooper said. "How do you do that? You let them go. The best guys are the guys who can do it year after year. Those are the pitchers that are the most valuable guys to have, especially in the American League.

"Pitchers are the horses to a degree and we're the jockey. Sometimes you have to know when to canter, and sometimes you have to go to the whip. I've been doing this 12 years. The key is everything works off having a good delivery. Show me a starter who's got a horse[bleep] delivery and a long career. You can't do it."

Sale did wear down toward the end of the season. He made six of those final nine starts on regular rest. Cooper did note that Sale, in order to prepare for his first full season starting, did more off-season throwing last year. This year, Cooper said, "I'd like to think there are no governors on him." Cooper did say he will need to amend throwing programs for all pitchers this spring because of the World Baseball Classic; the tournament has caused a longer spring training with as many as three off days.

Now consider the case of Kelly and the Cardinals, an otherwise conservative organization that pushed Garcia in a world championship season in 2011 (Garcia's odd mechanics may be more to blame for his physical problems).

Asked about the organizational philosophy on young pitchers and innings limits, general manager John Mozeliak said, "Our preference is to monitor them and give them no more than a 15 to 20 percent increase each year."

Kelly threw 132 innings in 2011. A 20 percent increase would have added 26 1/3 innings, giving him a preferred 2012 workload of a Strasburg-like 158 1/3. Instead, between stints with Triple-A Memphis and St. Louis, including some bullpen work and the postseason, Kelly added 55 innings, a 42 percent jump to 187.

"He's not someone we look at in quite the same way [as others]," Mozeliak said. "He doesn't have a lot of innings and experience. He didn't throw a lot in college. He's a very athletic young man and he's almost fresher than someone who threw robust innings in the past.

"His case is a case of someone who does need to throw. Having the sort of role where it changed from starter to reliever, he benefited from that. It did help manage his innings. He also gained a lot of valuable experience -- being stuck into the rotation and giving him the chance to work on his secondary stuff was important."

Mozeliak said Kelly will begin spring training with an opportunity to earn a spot in the rotation, as will Lance Lynn, Trevor Rosenthal and Shelby Miller. The Cardinals drafted all four pitchers in either 2008 or 2009.

In a perfect world for the Cardinals this year, neither Rosenthal (140 1/3 innings last year) nor Miller (153 2/3), both 22, would throw as many innings as did Kelly last year. As they discovered with Garcia and Kelly, however, the Cardinals understand how the opportunity to win a pennant complicates development plans.

Last year, facing the same decision with their aces in that late-season pressurized environment, the White Sox and Nationals arrived at different decisions. Sale kept pitching; Strasburg did not. Both organizations believe it made the best choice. Perhaps not even time will tell. As a 40-year-old yellowed newspaper clipping reminded me, the search to keep young arms healthy is ongoing and a universal answer is ever elusive.

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