Innings limits on young pitchers have become standard operating procedure with most organizations. The young pitchers who were shut down last year as a precautionary measure included Danny Duffy of Kansas City, Michael Pineda of Seattle and Jordan Zimmerman of Washington, a club that already has a governor on the 2012 workload of Stephen Strasburg.
But what happens to the best intentions when a young pitcher is in a pennant race? In virtually every case a team will keep sending the young pitcher to the mound while suddenly finding faith in "good mechanics" and "hard work." The Rangers (Derek Holland and Matt Harrison), Cardinals (Jaime Garcia), Brewers (Yovani Gallardo), Diamondbacks (Daniel Hudson) and Rays (Jeremy Hellickson) all pushed young pitchers aggressively last year for a shot at the World Series.
The extra work comes with a price. And the toll usually shows up the following season.
For more than a decade I've been tracking this price, which I call the Year After Effect, and which some places, including internal metrics used by at least one organization, referred to as the Verducci Effect. I began tracking it because Rick Peterson, when entrusted as the Oakland pitching coach with the golden arms of Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, believed in managing the innings for a pitcher from one year to the next. Too big a jump for too young a pitcher would put a pitcher at risk the next season for injury or regression.
From his philosophy I used a rule of thumb to track pitchers at risk: Any 25-and-under pitcher who increased his innings by 30 or more I considered to be at risk. (In some cases, to account for those coming off injuries or a change in roles, I used the previous innings high regardless of when it occurred.) I also considered only those pitchers who reached the major leagues. Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik, for instance, agrees that major league innings create more stress than minor league innings, so the effect is more profound.
The Effect has become easy to see over the years. In just the past six years, for instance, I flagged 55 pitchers at risk for an injury or regression based on their workload in the previous season. Forty-six of them, or 84 percent, did get hurt or post a worse ERA in the Year After.
Two out of the nine pitchers I red flagged last year actually stayed healthy or improved: Gio Gonzalez of Oakland (since traded to Washington) and Ivan Nova of the Yankees. More typical, though, were the regressions last year by David Price, Phil Hughes, Mat Latos and Brett Cecil, all of whom I red-flagged -- and all lost life on their fastball and saw their ERA jump by more than half a run. (The troubles for Hughes and Cecil were especially alarming and showed immediately in spring training.) Similar scenarios occurred with pitchers I red-flagged in the past, including Cole Hamels, Chad Billingsley, Rick Porcello, Mike Pelfrey, Josh Johnson, Joba Chamberlain and Scott Kazmir.
Despite industry awareness of workloads for young pitchers, the 2012 Red Flag List is one of the longest since I began tracking the Year After Effect. I found 14 pitchers at risk because of how they were pushed last season.
Why so many? Six of them were pushed because their teams were contending; the chance to win the World Series trumps development.
However, that still leaves eight pitchers who wound up in the at-risk category for piling up extra innings with teams out of contention. In some cases it was because pitchers with low ceilings are more apt to be pushed than are pitchers with high ceilings. (For instance, in 2010 the Blue Jays shut down Brandon Morrow but continued to give the ball to Cecil, who wound up with an innings increase of 41 1/3 and paid for it.)
Bear in mind this is not a highly scientific study. It is a rule of thumb used to gauge what by now has become a kind of industry standard of trying to keep young arms healthy. And keep this qualifier in mind: In general, the level of risk seems to be inversely proportional to age and size.
This year I have divided the Red Flag List into two categories: the six pitchers put at risk while pitching for contenders into the postseason, and the eight pitchers who busted through the threshold while pitching for teams out of contention. (Their listed age is their age at the halfway mark of last season.)