Year-After Effect: Cole, Fernandez, Wacha among pitchers at risk

Tuesday January 21st, 2014

Gerrit Cole helped the Pirates return to the postseason in 2013 but he saw a major increase in his workload.
Keith Srakocic/AP

Major league teams are in a bidding war this week for a pitcher who has been used at an early age far more than any team would even think about using a young pitcher. Masahiro Tanaka has thrown 1,315 innings through his age-24 season for Japan's Rakuten Eagles.

To give you an idea of how outrageous that number is compared to American industry standards, Tanaka has thrown almost 30 percent more pro innings than the Tigers' Rick Porcello, who has thrown 1,021⅔ innings and, like Tanaka, was a high school draftee and who was born in 1988. Tanaka's workload also blows away other top MLB pitchers who also signed out of high school and also just finished their age-24 season, such as the Rays' Chris Archer (927⅔) and Matt Moore (838⅓), the Brewers' Wily Peralta (833) and the A's Jarrod Parker (750⅓).

Whereas the Japanese believe in letting pitchers throw often even in their youth, the American conventional wisdom is one of putting governors on young pitchers. Every major league organization has adopted protocols to limit workload on young pitchers -- be it measured in pitches or innings.

As this philosophy developed, I have been tracking the rare occasions when teams push young pitchers. I have tracked these innings increases since the late 1990s, when former Oakland pitching coach Rick Peterson told me about his cautious "innings increase" plan to protect young starters such as Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. His idea was that a young pitcher who still is building arm and body strength was risking injury or regression if a team suddenly gave him a significant increase in innings -- kind of like asking somebody to run a marathon when he's been training for 10Ks. The idea was based on research in the field of biomechanics that found that the two greatest risks for throwing injuries are poor mechanics and overuse.

The thumbnail measurement I used with Peterson's theory is to flag any increase of more than 30 innings for any 25-and-under pitcher. It's not hard-and-fast science and it's not meant to be downright predicative; it's simply a measurement of risk -- at least in terms of the risk when young pitchers are pushed beyond the established industry standards. I called it the Year After Effect because anecdotally many pitchers regressed in the year after the innings jump. To be fair, many did not.

(If I applied the same rule of thumb to Tanaka's career, I would have red-flagged him only after 2011, when at age 22 his workload increased by 36⅔ innings. The next year he suffered from shoulder fatigue and was shut down briefly. He pitched 53⅓ fewer innings that year.)

The way Major League Baseball works now, every team begins the season with a governor on its young pitchers. Factors such as age, injury history, size, pitch repertoire, mechanics and amateur experience all influence the "cap" of innings an organization places on each young starter. You see it every September -- teams shut down healthy young starters as a preventive measure because they reached their designated "cap," as famously happened with Stephen Strasburg in Washington in 2012 and more routinely with Taijuan Walker in Seattle last year.

Here's another example: The Cardinals began 2013 with the idea of limiting Michael Wacha to a range of 160-180 innings. Wacha was the 19th overall pick of the 2012 draft who threw 134 innings that year between his work at Texas A&M and the minors. St. Louis' ideal innings jump for Wacha was between 26 and 46 innings -- including the possibility of being available if the Cardinals made the postseason.

"We tried to beg and borrow from his innings during the summer for that very reason," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. "Granted, if you don't play into October, you can't get those innings back. It's a risk you take."

The Cardinals often pitched Wacha with an extra day of rest in the minors. They held him to five or six innings per start in the middle of the summer. They used him six times out of the bullpen in the majors. They managed to get him to October with 149⅔ innings -- that is, with room to spare.

Wacha then became a postseason sensation as St. Louis reached Game 6 of the World Series -- where he appeared to finally run out of gas in the last of his five postseason starts. He finished with 179⅔ innings, representing a 45⅔-inning jump. That's a cause for concern, but not a full-scale alarm.

"He was definitely at the higher end of what we had in mind," Mozeliak said. "But given the time off we gave him in the summer he came through it just fine."

It's worth mentioning here how the Cardinals treated fellow rookie Shelby Miller, a former high school draftee who has been on a traditional "staircased" innings plan as a professional: 104⅓, 139⅔, 153⅔ and, with a jump of 20⅔ innings last year, 174⅓. By the end of the season, with Miller appearing a bit fatigued, St. Louis judged that Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly were better starting options, so they assigned Miller to long relief duty when the postseason began. But as the Division and League Championship Series unfolded without the right spot for a long reliever, Miller (he threw one inning in NLDS Game 2) began to collect so much rust the Cardinals preferred not to use him out of caution for his development -- especially as a former high school draftee.

"It's one of the many things you look at," Mozeliak said. "The college player could be throwing 160 pitches in a game routinely, though he's doing that once a week -- though I'm not sure that's not tougher on a pitcher than throwing 100 pitches every fifth day."

About the plan to use Miller in long relief, Mozeliak said, "When that never came to fruition, it was something like two and a half, three weeks at the point without work, and you need to be fair to him and his development."

Wacha, being "definitely on the higher end" of St. Louis' own innings model, winds up on my red flag list for 2014. I found nine other 25-or-under major league pitchers who took on an innings jump of at least 30 innings in 2013. Here they are, with all innings (majors, minors, college and Arizona Fall League where applicable) considered:

Pitcher, TeamAgeInnings PitchedIncrease
Gerrit Cole, Pirates22196 1/3+64 1/3
Erik Johnson, White Sox23169 2/3+62 2/3*
James Paxton, Mariners24169 2/3+50 2/3
Taylor Jordan, Nationals24142+47 2/3
Michael Wacha, Cardinals21179 2/3+45 2/3
Sonny Gray, Athletics23195 1/3+43 1/3
Danny Salazar, Indians23149+41 2/3
Andre Rienzo, White Sox25169+41
Yordano Ventura, Royals22150+40 2/3
Jose Fernandez, Marlins20172 2/3+38 2/3

* = previous high from 2011

Does it mean these pitchers are a breakdown waiting to happen? No. It simply means their teams pushed them beyond industry standards, and in some cases -- Fernandez and Ventura because of their innings, Rienzo because of his age -- the push is too slight to be a major concern.

Last year, for instance, 11 pitchers were flagged, but seven of them exceeded the 30-inning limit only by six innings or less. (One of them, Matt Harvey of the Mets, blew out his elbow.) The other four pitchers with heavier increases came through just fine: Parker, Kelly and the White Sox' Chris Sale and Jose Quintana.

(The White Sox are the most aggressive club in baseball with young starters, with six of them flagged in the past three years: Johnson, Rienzo, Sale, Quintana, Dylan Axelrod and Zach Stewart.)

Innings limits have taken over the entire development process, not just when a pitcher reaches the big leagues. Tanaka threw 186 innings at age 18. Nine of the 10 pitchers on this year's list still haven't thrown that many innings in any pro season -- and some are turning 25 years old.

The days of just turning a pitcher loose are long dead. Fernandez, for instance, who was shut down after Sept. 11 despite being healthy, threw the most innings in any debut season since 2009, when Trevor Cahill, Ricky Romero and Brett Anderson neared 180. Since 2000, the most innings thrown in a debut season by a drafted pitcher is 190⅓ by Greg Smith of the 2008 Athletics.

Major league teams have become so conservative with workloads that pitchers almost always reach the big leagues now without learning how to pitch deep into games. Pitchers such as Cole and Fernandez, for instance, were conditioned to throw five innings in the minor leagues, but suddenly are asked to go deep against better hitters when they reach the majors. Here's one way to see that shift in protecting developing arms: look at the percentage increase of innings per start for some of these young pitchers:

Gerrit Cole5.08 5.9517.1%
Jose Fernandez5.366.1715.1%
Yordano Ventura4.755.2610.7%
Erik Johnson5.435.857.7%
Sonny Gray5.926.086.1%

You can see how young pitchers are so limited in the minors. Again, Tanaka stands as a stark contrast from the American pitching culture. At age 18 he averaged 6.65 innings per start. At age 24 he averaged 7.81.

Cole's increases in overall innings and innings per start seem alarming. But at 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, Cole has a classic power pitcher's build that is likely to withstand the increased load. Just as importantly, Pittsburgh was very conservative with his pitches.

The Pirates, as teams have learned to do post-Strasburg shutdown, never publicly defined the innings limit they had in mind on Cole. Manager Clint Hurdle said late in the season only that, "We're monitoring innings. Were finding a way to be smart with how many available innings he can pitch this year . . . We've tried to devise a plan we're going to follow to keep him in play through the end of the season and possibly an opportunity to pitch in October as well."

The Pirates needed Cole down the stretch. He started five times in September, only once with an extra day of rest. He made 33 starts last year, including two in the postseason. But Cole threw 100 pitches in only two of them.

Cole was so strong at the end of the season that in NLDS Game 5 Hurdle skipped veteran A. J. Burnett to give the ball to the rookie. Cole gave up two runs in five innings as Pittsburgh lost to St. Louis, 6-1.

Teams get plenty of criticism these days for "babying" pitchers, but the conservative approach seems to be working. It was tougher to get a hit in the majors last year than at any time since the designated hitter was introduced in 1973. The game is dictated by pitchers moreso now than any time in the past quarter century. Velocity continues to rise across the board. Young pitchers are making immediate impacts.

Yes, pitchers still get hurt; it always will be an inherent hazard of the job. But teams are cranking out so many good arms that deep bullpens are more than capable of picking up the slack left by "babied" starters.

Mozeliak knows better than any other general manager how a staff can flourish with young pitchers who have been developed conservatively. In addition to Wacha and Miller, the Cardinals developed Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal in the minors as starting pitchers. After the World Series, there was some talk that St. Louis would bring Martinez and Rosenthal to camp this year as starters, which would create competition for the five rotation spots and also allow the Cardinals to transition them back to the bullpen for the regular season if they desired.

Instead, Mozeliak said Martinez and Rosenthal will stay in the bullpen -- from the first day of spring training. Why? In part because of innings limits. Martinez, because of injuries and bullpen work, threw only 102⅔ innings. Rosenthal, who finished the year as the closer, threw 92⅓ innings. The Cardinals couldn't expect much more than about 140 innings out of them if they started this year.

Added Mozeliak, "I'm not sure another starter could replace what Carlos does in the bullpen if he did start, and with Trevor, it's also a question of how Jason Motte comes back [from Tommy John surgery]."

Innings limits have became standard operating procedure in how the 30 MLB clubs develop pitchers. So what if Max Scherzer is 29 years old and never has completed any of his 198 professional starts? It's not necessary or even recommended in today's game. Every club can agree upon that.

What's so fascinating is to see many of these same clubs falling over themselves trying to sign Tanaka for five or six years. The way he has been developed -- the early workload as a teenager, the high pitch count games, the 53 complete games -- is anathema to what MLB clubs have embraced today.

A generation ago? That's another story. Tanaka's 1,315 innings through age 24 would not have raised an eyebrow. Greg Maddux threw 1,402⅓ pro innings through age 24, and he turned out just fine: the winningest pitcher alive and who was voted into the Hall of Fame this month.

MLB teams no longer ask pitchers to work as much as Maddux did -- or Tanaka did in Japan. No matter. Tanaka appears to be good enough to engender such risk. Teams are willing to lay down more than $100 million on the bet that what never would be done with the likes of Wacha, Cole, Gray and Fernandez will be just fine for Tanaka.

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