Upon being named general manager of the Atlanta Braves three months ago, Alex Anthopolous inherited a blessing and a curse, and they are one in the same. The Braves are sitting on a cache of 10 highly-rated starting pitchers between 19 and 24 years old who have yet to pitch a full season in the majors: nine first-round picks and an international free agent who is one of the game’s best lefthanded prospects.
The blessing is the deepest inventory of young pitching in baseball for a team that could contend as soon as this year. The curse is teams still haven’t figured out how to keep young arms healthy.
One of Anthopolous’ first orders of business was to check what kind of mileage the organization put on their young arms last season. He immediately noticed that Luiz Gohara at age 21 jumped from 81 1/3 innings to 153 innings, a whopping 88% increase.
“I definitely noticed that,” Anthopolous said. “And [Mike] Soroka and [Kolby] Allard in Double A, they threw a lot of innings for their age. That’s not to say that’s critical or wrong. But candidly, those jumped off the page a bit.”
Let’s get something straight: there is no one, proven way to develop pitching. Pitchers enter pro ball with different mechanics, biomechanics, backgrounds, ages, wear and tear, etc. Treating everybody the same would be madness. But there are markers of potential trouble and there are studies that show the two greatest risks for injury are poor mechanics and fatigue.
For two decades I’ve been tracking when major league teams put their young pitchers at risk by pushing the fatigue factor. I began by looking at big league pitchers 25 and under who added 30 innings from their previous season. It was meant as a rule of thumb rather than a hard-and-fast one; pitchers on the younger and smaller side of the spectrum, for instance, would be more at risk of regression. I called this The Year After Effect, because often injury or regression showed up the year after a young pitcher was pushed.
Meanwhile, every team in baseball began monitoring year-to-year innings jumps. (One AL team logged them under “VE,” for Verducci Effect.) In recent years, taking a cue from several of those teams, I began applying a percentage jump (30%) as the red flag marker instead of a strict count of innings. Further still, I began looking at mechanics, age and size to see if any of those pitchers with red flags were at more risk than others. In other words, not every 30% jump is the same.
At this time last year, for instance, I red-flagged 12 pitchers who took an innings jump of 30% or more; 11 of those 12 threw fewer innings in 2017, including Dodgers phenom Julio Urias, who broke down with shoulder trouble. Further, applying other risk factors, I tagged four pitchers as “high risk.” Three of those four “high risk” pitchers broke down. There is more on them and the 2017 report card below.
In short, the methodology has evolved—just as innings limits have evolved for Anthopolous.
“I think there’s definitely merit to it,” he said. “I definitely bought into it my first few years [as Toronto GM] and those guys who were protected still broke down. It’s not just black and white, this total innings bump. Where is he in terms of workload, arm action, stress innings? … I think there’s a lot more that can go into it.
“Do I have an innings number in mind [this year]? You know they’re not going to throw 200, but I don’t believe in a locked number over the course of the year.”
It’s time for the annual Year After Effect report, this time in four stages: 1) The 2018 pitchers at risk. 2) Anthopolous’s Toronto lessons. 3) The 2018 Braves and 4) The 2017 Report Card.
1. 2018 Pitchers at Risk
After a dozen pitchers made the list last year, only three are on the watch list this year, the lowest number since I’ve been tracking young major league pitchers. There is no doubt teams are being more careful with their young arms, but it’s also a reflection of starters throwing fewer innings in general as more and more relievers chew up more and more innings.
*"Increase" denotes the increase over the pitcher's other previous pro innings high.
Luiz Gohara, Braves
Dylan Bundy, Orioles
Luis Severino, Yankees
1. Luiz Gohara, Braves
The Mariners signed Gohara out of Brazil at age 16 and sent him to Pulaski, Va., where many of his teammates were 22 and 23 years old—so it should not have been a surprise that he endured maturity and conditioning issues. Seattle unwisely traded him after the 2016 season to Atlanta for Shea Simmons and Mallex Smith, whom they flipped in a deal for Drew Smyly.
Gohara began last year with the Florida Fire Frogs in Class A ball and finished it as the hardest throwing lefthanded starter in the majors (average fastball velo: 96.4). Despite the added innings and despite being out of the race, the Braves ran him out to the mound five times in September—giving him 30 starts on the year—including his final two on four days rest. He pitched six innings four times, making him the only pitcher that young to do so in the past four seasons.
Gohara became the youngest Braves lefty with five starts since Odalis Perez in 1999. That happened to be Perez’s Year After Effect season. After the Braves gave him a 91% innings jump in 1998, Perez blew out his elbow in 1999.
In addition to elite velocity, Gohara features a nasty slider and a functional changeup. He most often is compared to CC Sabathia, in part because of their bulk (Gohara is 6’ 3” and weighs about 240), but there are key differences in the way they throw. Sabathia has pristine mechanics in which he gets out over his front side very well, using his lower half to generate power and extension. Gohara throws in a “tall” position with a stiff front side, with little bend in his front knee without truly getting over his front leg. Sabathia is three inches taller than Gohara, but because of how he uses his legs throws with a release point that is almost half a foot closer to the ground. Gohara throws more like Drew Pomeranz and Carlos Rodon than he does Sabathia. Gohara last season had the eighth-highest release point of any lefthander with at least 200 fastballs.
Risk level: High.
2. Dylan Bundy, Orioles
After three injury-plagued seasons, Baltimore arranged a “transition” season for Bundy in 2016, in which he spent the first half in the bullpen and second half in the rotation. The move paid dividends in 2017 when Bundy stayed healthy and made 28 starts.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter is most decidedly not a fan of innings limits, but when you look even closer at how Baltimore treated Bundy you see the care they gave him over these past two seasons. Showalter started Bundy on four days of rest 12 times in his first 20 starts. But he gave him extra rest in seven of his final eight starts down the stretch. Bundy did falter in three September starts (7.53 ERA), when his velocity slipped and he increased his slider usage to a season high (30%), before Baltimore shut him down because of hamstring issues.
The good news for Baltimore is that Bundy is 25 years old and has a powerful lower half that he uses extremely well in his delivery, though he has room to firm up his front side.
Risk Level: Medium.
3. Luis Severino, Yankees.
One pitch during ALCS Game 6 sent Yankees manager Joe Girardi sprinting to the mound to check on Severino. It had been a wayward changeup, after which Severino shook his arm. Severino was fine, but Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild watched Severino closely because they worried about his innings. Severino did not reach 80 pitches or five innings in his two ALCS starts.
Severino finished with 209 1/3 innings. His 193 1/3 regular season innings at age 23 were the most by a Yankees pitcher that young in almost half a century, since Steve Kline in 1971. Severino, who turns 24 this month, has worked hard to gain strength. He has a clean, athletic delivery with exceptional arm deceleration. If he can close the gap in his release point from his fastball to his slider, which is a few inches lower, he will be even nastier.
Risk Level: Medium.
2. Lessons from Toronto
Anthopolous was sitting on a boatload of pitching talent before. In the Blue Jays’ system in 2012, all between 19 and 22 years old, were Noah Syndergaard, Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, Anthony DeSclafani, Daniel Norris, Drew Hutchison, Joe Musgrove and Justin Nicolino. From 2009–12 Toronto used 12 first-round picks on pitchers, only three of whom actually wound up pitching for the Blue Jays.
“Early on in Toronto I was so … stubborn is the wrong word … strong-willed about protecting these guys, watching every inning,” he said. “My thought back then was that it seemed like high school guys break down more than college kids. The workload in college is about 110 innings. They throw once a week and are into their strength.
“So if we’re taking these high school kids, we can simulate their work like they’re in college. Wait until they’re 21, when they have their man strength. And we still had guys break down. And we had issues at the big league level.”
After many breakdowns in 2012 and 2013, Anthopolous re-examined his philosophy on developing pitchers. He did away with firm innings targets and was guided more by “micro-targets”—side sessions, high-pitch innings, recovery days, etc.
“I thought we got better in ’14 and ’15,” he said. “To this day I don’t think anybody has the answers. I thought [with the Dodgers] we monitored Julio Urias as well as anybody and [a breakdown] happened. In Toronto we protected Drew Hutchison and he still had Tommy John.
“Innings limits alone are not the panacea. It was almost to protect yourself, almost like, ‘If they can’t pitch they can’t get hurt.’ Year-by-year is important, but I don’t think it’s black and white. It’s day-to-day, start to start.
“Stress innings I think are big. Every doctor will tell you they are more prone to injury when they’re tired. The difference between a major league inning and a minor league innings is huge. Those long innings really take a toll. What is your side work? Should you skip sides?
“Everybody talks about how those Braves teams threw two sides [between starts]. I asked [Greg] Maddux about it in spring training. He said he skipped sides a ton. Where’s the recovery? Where’s the rest? No one clearly has the answers yet.”
3. The 2018 Braves
Four Top 100 prospect lists included eight Braves pitchers (which does not include Sean Newcombe and Lucas Sims, who arrived last year). To give you an idea of such depth, Fangraphs liked Kyle Wright best, Baseball America liked Gohara best and MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus liked Kolby Allard best. Here are the 10 gems.
* denotes overall pick in first round.
HS OR College
Ian Anderson, RHP
Joey Wentz, LHP
Mike Soroka, RHP
Kolby Allard, LHP
Luiz Gohara, LHP
Touki Touissant, RHP
Kyle Wright, RHP
Lucas Sims, RHP
Max Fried, LHP
Sean Newcombe, LHP
“This is a really talented group,” said Anthopolous, who, comparing it to the youngsters he had in Toronto, added, “potentially it belongs with that group, though that group had a little more power. Kyle Wright is probably the biggest flamethrower. There’s a lot of really good arms here.”
The Braves likely have two spots open in their rotation after Julio Teheran, Mike Foltynewicz and Brandon McCarthy. And no, Anthopolous does not sound like a big fan of six-man rotations, preferring to stick with five starters through off days to build in rest. The problem with a six-man rotation, he said, is that it limits your bench and “the biggest challenge is your veteran starters hate the extra days off.”
You might have noticed the Braves are heavy with high school arms. (Toussaint, Fried and Newcombe, incidentally, were acquired in trades). The flameout rate of such arms is astounding. From 2000–09, teams drafted 90 high school pitchers in the first round; 34 of them have never won a game in the major leagues, a 38% failure rate.
If you limit the window to 2000–04—allowing more time for a career to play out—18 of the 45 high school first-rounders never won a big league game (40%). Some grabbed a cup of coffee, leaving 62% of first-round high school pitchers that never won more than 10 games in the big leagues. The best-case scenario belongs to pitchers such as Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Cole Hamels.
“From a position player viewpoint,” Anthopolous said, “when your team is built on all these young arms, we felt like we need to be as good a defensive team as we can. We really wanted to focus on defense, eliminate the stress innings.
“The biggest change for us in Toronto in 2015 wasn’t David Price. Once we changed the defense all of a sudden our rotation got better. It’s the one thing you can do to make the 12 guys on your staff better.”
Sound familiar? In 1991, when Braves GM John Schuerholz was sitting on a pile of great young arms, he emphasized defense, acquiring infielders Terry Pendleton, Sid Bream and Rafael Belliard and improving the playing surface at Fulton County Stadium. The Braves immediately went from last in the majors in defensive efficiency to third.
4. The 2017 Report Card
Eleven of the 12 pitchers identified threw fewer innings in 2017. (The exception was Reynaldo Lopez of the White Sox.) Over the past four seasons, 26 of 32 pitchers I identified as at risk threw fewer innings, an 81% rate of decline. But several of those declines were so small as to be insignificant.
Here are the four pitchers I pegged as “high risk:”
Reynaldo Lopez, White Sox: Powered through 30 starts and 168.1 innings. One concern: his average fastball velocity dropped from 96.7 to 94.7.
Aaron Sanchez, Blue Jays: Limited to just 10 starts and 44 innings because of blister issues.
Rob Whalen, Mariners: Limited to just 11 starts and 60.2 innings because of shoulder inflammation and personal issues. (Whalen would step away from the game during 2017 due to those personal issues. He has since recovered in better physical and mental health.)
Brock Stewart, Dodgers: Limited to just 10 starts and 52 innings because of shoulder issues.
Pitchers get hurt. We know that. But Whalen is the perfect example that I’ve seen over the years of how some injuries should be avoidable. By the time the Braves shut down Whalen on Aug. 23, 2016, they had increased his innings by 49% and his shoulder was barking. Somehow, the Mariners traded for him. Predictably, he showed up at spring training with his shoulder still bothering him.
Said Whalen then, “When I got to 150 innings last year, which was my career high, I was kind of shot at that point. I was throwing all arm again, and my shoulder took the bulk of it. Throughout the offseason, it didn’t feel good when I was throwing.”
That is the kind of “year after” story I’ve heard too many times. From Kevin Millwood to Cole Hamels to Phil Hughes to Michael Wacha to James Paxton to Lance McCullers to Rob Whalen, you see the wear and tear of a big innings jump show up the next year. The symptoms could be reduced velocity or shoulder inflammation, not necessarily a major injury. Innings limits have evolved as more data become available, but developing young pitchers and keeping them healthy remains one of the biggest mysteries in baseball.
“As an industry we have to constantly cross check,” Anthopolous said. “The way we were protecting these guys—and I was front and center—it doesn’t mean it’s wrong, but it clearly hasn’t solved it.”