Skirting the Strasburg Syndrome: How teams will manage workloads of young starters
The Nationals' decision to shut down Stephen Stasburg last year rated as one of the 2012 season's biggest controversies, as Washington chose to limit his innings in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery despite its push for the postseason. The Nats were lambasted for doing so, and the loss of their ace haunted then during a Division Series in which they got just one quality start out of five en route to a shockingly early exit at the hands of the Cardinals.
With the Mets skipping Matt Harvey's final turn before the All-Star break, the Cardinals skipping Shelby Miller's first turn after the break and the Marlins planning to shut down Jose Fernandez later this year, workload management is back in the headlines. A quick look at some of the top pitchers who could be affected shows that while teams are mindful of not overworking their young starters, they're willing to consider other approaches besides total shutdown, particularly if they harbor postseason hopes. The pitchers are listed alphabetically.
Gerrit Cole, Pirates
The disconnect between Cole's stuff — triple-digit heat and a sharp slider — and his meager strikeout rate (5.4 per nine through seven starts) is often brought up as a mark against his major league readiness, but there's a method to the 22-year-old righty's madness. Cole has focused on efficiency, getting outs via contact early in counts, and the approach is working. He's averaging just 3.45 pitches per plate appearance compared to the NL average of 3.80, and despite his reliance on contact, his high ground ball rate (51 percent) and command of the strike zone have helped him limit the homers and walks (0.4 and 1.9 per nine) to the point that his 3.89 ERA is actually lagging behind his 3.23 Fielding Independent Pitching. After throwing 132 innings last year, he's at 109 2/3 this year, which puts him on pace for 191, but it doesn't sound as though the Pirates plan to back him off heavily as the push for what they hope is their first playoff berth in 21 years. From Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
“We believe he's in a very good place to manage whatever's asked of him this season,” [manager Clint] Hurdle said. “Everything has been monitored and measured systematically. We're going to be smart. And we're going to challenge him as well, because we want to grow him when it's appropriate. But there's not anything saying right now that he's going to be cut off prematurely. We think he's got the frame, the strength and the repeatable delivery to handle it.”
For all of that, if Cole's performance does start to suffer as his innings pile up, the team does have pitching depth in the form of swingman Jeanmar Gomez and (hopefully) Wandy Rodriguez, who's aiming for a late August return from forearm tightness. Still, it wouldn't be a surprise to see them acquire some back-end insurance, particularly if concerns about the latter linger.
Jose Fernandez, Marlins
One of the lone bright spots for the Marlins this year, the 20-year-old Fernandez has not only survived the rare jump from High-A to the majors, he has thrived. Through 18 starts and 104 2/3 innings, he's put up a 2.75 ERA while striking out 8.9 per nine, good enough to earn All-Star honors while ranking as the league's second-youngest player (Bryce Harper is about 2 1/2 months younger). On Friday, the Miami Herald reported that the team will shut their phenom down around the 170 inning mark, which he should reach sometime in September. "What we said [earlier this year] was 150 to 170 innings," manager Mike Redmond told reporters on Thursday. "Obviously we're going to push for closer to 170." The number makes sense given that Fernandez threw 134 innings last year.
With a 6.21 ERA through five starts and four relief appearances totaling 33 1/3 innings, Gausman hasn't exactly set the majors ablaze thus far. In fact he was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk on July 9 to keep him busy; he threw 4 1/3 innings of relief on July 14, then 3 1/3 as a starter on July 21, and will continue to be stretched out in hopes he can remain an option for the Orioles' rotation. The 22-year-old righty has totaled just 108 innings since being chosen as the No. 4 pick in last year's draft, including 93 innings this year. Including his final year at Louisiana State University, he threw 123 2/3 innings in 2012.
As they did last year, the Orioles are shuttling pitchers in and out of the rotation to manage workloads and deal with injuries. That means they're not dependent upon Gausman, but assuming he returns to the rotation and maintains enough consistency to stay there, he should wind up somewhere around 160 total innings.
Matt Harvey, Mets
As noted last week, the Mets' decision to skip the 24-year-old Harvey's final first-half turn was based upon three factors: his season workload, a blister on his right index finger and a desire for him to start the All-Star Game at Citi Field. Coming off a career high of 169 1/3 innings split between Triple-A Buffalo and the majors last year, Harvey currently projects to throw 226 innings if given a full complement of 33 starts. Though New York hasn't announced a limit, he figures to wind up somewhere in the 200-210 range instead, with the team preferring to pull him earlier in games to preserve his availability in September, and possibly going to a six-man rotation when the time comes. That could also help the Mets manage the workload of 23-year-old Zack Wheeler, who's on pace for 176 innings, up from last year's high of 149.
Shelby Miller, Cardinals
With Jaime Garcia undergoing season-ending surgery and Chris Carpenter sidelined by a nerve problem, the 22-year-old rookie righty has quickly become an important cog in the Cardinals' rotation. In 18 starts totaling 104 2/3 innings (numbers that exactly match those of Fernandez), Miller has posted a 2.92 ERA while striking out 9.6 per nine, the third-highest rate in the league. That said, he's been dragging lately, with a 5.40 ERA and just 23 1/3 innings over his last five turns. Instead of shutting Miller down in September, the Cards used the All-Star break to buy him some time. They pushed his final start before the break back two days to July 10, then pushed everybody in the rotation back a day with a July 12 start from swingman Joe Kelly, forestalling Miller's next turn until Tuesday night. His previous high is 153 1/3 innings, set last year; St. Louis hasn't announced a numeric limit but figures to stop him short of 200.Brandon Beachy