Welcome to September, Kids

The Tigers' Justin Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman bring the scary heat that wins in October, but whether they--and several other young phenoms--survive the strain of a stretch drive remains to be seen
August 27, 2006

Like fraternitybrothers exchanging the house handshake, the past and present Motown pitchingphenoms extended their famous right arms toward each other in the spartanvisiting manager's office at Fenway Park on Aug. 14. "So, you must be therookie," said the older of the two, still possessed of that famously goofygrin and curly hair. This day happened to be the older man's birthday, but evenat 52, Mark Fidrych exuded youthfulness, even if the golden locks that oncespilled out from under a Tigers cap had turned to gray. ¶ On the other end ofthe handshake, the second coming of Fidrych smiled. "Glad to meet you,"23-year-old Justin Verlander replied. As Fidrych did in that magical summer 30years ago, Verlander has captivated baseball fans with a performance that,while lacking the Bird's showmanship, could win him the American League Rookieof the Year award (his 15 wins through Monday was tied for second best in theleague) and the ERA title (his 3.05 was second).

Brothers in arms,the two righthanders talked pitching, of course. "How come when you guysthrow a hundred pitches, it's only the sixth inning," Fidrych queried,"and when I threw a hundred it was the ninth?" The conversation--as allintramural chats between coal miners, circus acrobats, retirees and pitcherstend to--quickly came around to the preservation of health.

Fidrych, visitingfrom his home in Northborough, Mass., where he drives a commercial truck, gaveVerlander a pointer. He told the rookie that when he was pitching, he used toland on a bent front leg as he released the baseball. Verlander, the Birdnoted, sometimes lands on a stiff leg. "That will put more stress on yourarm over time," Fidrych said.

In that momenteverything that's both wonderful and worrisome about great young pitchers wasnever more evident. Fidrych's '76 season earned him a place on the MountRushmore of rookie prodigies, alongside Herb Score, Fernando Valenzuela andDwight Gooden. None of those pitchers, however, will make the Hall of Fame,testifying to the tenuous nature of pitching at a young age.

Fidrych threw 2501/3 innings as a rookie but only 162 more over the rest of his major leaguecareer, which lasted only five years. His arm gave out from the workload ofthrowing 24 complete games that season for an otherwise irrelevant Detroit teamthat finished 24 games out of first place. He threw six straight complete gamesin August, two of them extra-inning games while on three days of rest.

Verlander, whoseconsiderable gifts include a fastball that has been clocked as high as 101 mph,and at 99 in the ninth inning, had thrown 153 1/3 innings at week's end,putting him on pace for 200 innings. That should scare the tar out of Tigersmanager Jim Leyland and his omnipresent Marlboros. While hardly Birdlike, 200innings is a frightful leap from the 130 innings Verlander threw last season asa first-year pro. The industry standard now is to limit young pitchers toannual increases of about 30 innings.

But Leyland's nottoo worried about his prodigy. With "agents, pitch counts, big contractsand MRIs," he notes, young pitchers are treated like Fabergé eggs. Thisseason has revealed a whole crate of them who, like Verlander, could very welldecide the pennant races--and beyond. Most of the young hurlers being relied onin September have never pitched a six-month season before (minor leaguestypically wrap up around Labor Day) or have already exceeded their pro high ininnings pitched. For instance, the Los Angeles Angels, who nursed 23-year-oldErvin Santana into October last year, are counting on righthander Jered Weaver,23, who has already doubled the 76 innings he threw last year, and lefthanderJoe Saunders, 25, who needed to gulp cough syrup at 6 a.m. to finally fallasleep before his first start at Yankee Stadium on Aug. 11. Saunders won thatnight, as he and Weaver almost always have this season. The two rookies were acombined 13--1 at week's end, and Weaver's 9--0 start equaled the AL record setby Whitey Ford for most wins to begin a career.

The NationalLeague race will be influenced by rookie starters in Los Angeles (ChadBillingsley); San Francisco (Matt Cain); Arizona (Enrique Gonzalez); Houston(Jason Hirsh); New York (John Maine); Philadelphia (Cole Hamels); and Florida(Josh Johnson, Scott Olsen, Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez).

In the AL, inaddition to Los Angeles, Boston (Jon Lester); Minnesota (Matt Garza, BoofBonser and Francisco Liriano, who is expected back soon from a strainedligament in his left elbow); Texas (Edinson Volquez); and Detroit (Verlanderand Zach Miner) will be turning to young starters playing in September for thefirst time. August has already been cruel for several of these youngsters,including Gonzalez (5.64 ERA this month, compared with 4.96 before); Johnson(5.06 since Aug. 1, 2.50 before); Olsen (8.53 and 3.79); Lester (8.24 and3.49); and Verlander (5.09 and 2.69). "I'm in uncharted waters, and I knowit," Verlander says. "I don't know what it will be like until I gothrough it. But I feel like I'm doing everything I can to stay strong."

Few assignmentsin baseball are more difficult than getting a rookie pitcher, especially in theoffense-heavy AL, to grind through 200 innings and live to tell about it withhis shoulder and elbow intact. Ask that rookie to do so into a seventhmonth--the postseason--and the degree of difficulty rises much higher. Considerthat in the 11 seasons since the wild-card format was born in 1995:

•Only eightrookies have thrown 200 innings in a season, none of them for a team that madethe playoffs. Six of those eight pitchers developed serious arm problems withintwo years, and seven of them experienced a major innings drop the very nextseason (box, below). The one exception is Oakland's Joe Blanton, who in hissecond season is on pace for 201 innings. The A's righthander, however, hasseen a considerable jump in his ERA (from 3.53 to 4.47), batting averageagainst (.236 to .302) and a decline in strikeouts per nine innings (5.19 to4.76).

•Not includingLivan and Orlando Hernandez, who were seasoned international stars, only sixrookie starters--Jaret Wright, John Lackey, C.C. Sabathia, Bud Smith, BobWolcott and Barry Zito--have won a postseason game.

•Only 14 pitchers25 and under have won a postseason start, and none of the 88 postseason teamsin the wild-card era have had two 25-and-under starters win games in the samepostseason.

With Verlanderand fellow 23-year-old flamethrower Jeremy Bonderman, the Tigers--like theTwins and the Angels (with their trios of youngsters) and the Athletics (theduo of Blanton and Danny Haren)--are attempting to alter that history. (The24-year-old Miner would likely yield his rotation spot to lefthanders NateRobertson, 28, and Kenny Rogers, 41, the club's only pitcher to have thrown 200innings in a season.) Moreover, Detroit's bullpen relies heavily on rookiesetup man Joel Zumaya, 21, whose fastball has been clocked as high as 102 mphand who has held opponents to a .176 batting average.

"If they getin [the playoffs], they're going to cause trouble," says Boston designatedhitter David Ortiz. "You know why? Power pitching. That's what wins in theplayoffs, because the strike zone tightens up and you need stuff, not finesse,to get hitters out. Detroit is like Chicago was last year--only better. Morepower. The only question with them is how the young guys hold up."

Says aninsouciant Leyland, "I hope they pitch a lot of innings. That would meanthey're doing good. If they don't pitch a lot of innings, they're not pitchingvery good."

Nonetheless,Detroit has carefully monitored its young pitchers, particularly Verlander.Leyland, for instance, used the All-Star break to juggle his rotation and giveVerlander 10 days off and, when the rookie complained of arm fatigue after anAug. 1 start, the manager gave him a nine-day break. The Tigers have also movedhis between-starts throwing sessions from a bullpen mound to flat ground tolessen the stress on his arm, and they are considering using a six-man rotationin September, largely to give Verlander an extra day in between starts.

"After astart, the next day I'm real sore," Verlander says. "I feel like crap.It's a weird feeling. You're tired, and your shoulder feels sore, dull.Throwing is an unnatural motion. And if I throw 100 pitches and the majority ofthem are 96 miles an hour, then the muscles in the back of my shoulder, therotator cuff, slam on the brakes a hundred times. So it's like brake padsgetting worn down. You feel it.

"But that'swhy you put in the work between starts, the running and conditioning.September? I love it. Bring it on. If I don't want the ball in those big spots,then I shouldn't be in this game. And if anything, because I'm young I shouldbe able to withstand it."

Verlander reliesheavily on the counsel of Rogers and Bonderman, who might be the same age asthe rookie but is already pitching in his fourth big league season. "If I'mstarting my own team, Bonderman is one of the five starters I would pick, noquestion," Boston ace Curt Schilling says. "He's a great example of aguy who went through those lessons in his early years and really learned fromit."

"The onething I tell [Verlander] all the time is to listen to your body," saysBonderman, who is second in the league in strikeouts (163) and on track to seehis ERA (3.86) decrease for the fourth straight year.

The Angels'Weaver, who missed one start last month with biceps tendinitis, has heard thesame mixed message from his body as Verlander. "I've never been this deep[into a season]," Weaver said. "Obviously, I've got to maintain mystrength and conditioning. I'm getting adjusted to doing that, and it's been agrind. But I feel like I'm getting back to healthy.... So, I don't thinkthere's going to be anything--knock on wood--that's going to keep me fromgetting deep in the season."

Throughoutbaseball, teams are protecting young pitchers by having them throw less thanthose from previous generations. The Mariners say they will cap the innings ofFelix Hernandez, 20, at around 190 innings to avoid a dangerous jump from the172 1/3 he threw last year. The Pirates and the Marlins, who have used rookiestarters extensively this year, are considering six-man rotations in September.The Yankees don't allow top prospect Philip Hughes to throw more than fiveinnings in his Double A starts. The Twins, as they did with Garza this month,conduct strength tests of a pitcher's shoulder and elbow immediately uponcalling him up from the minors.

"Liriano isphenomenal, Weaver is special and Verlander is special," says Detroitgeneral manager Dave Dombrowski. "But if you had looked for the same kindof pitchers in 1997, you would have picked Jaret Wright and Carl Pavano, whoboth got hurt. The reality is, you may think a guy is special but you have towait until a pitcher gets through his first couple of years healthy until youreally can believe it."

Says Leyland,when asked about Verlander's pitching down the stretch, "He'll make it,easy. I believe in protecting pitchers as much as anybody, but at the same timethis is a big boy's game. You know what I mean?"

On Aug. 16, twodays after meeting Fidrych, Verlander walked a career-high seven batters and,without command of his curveball and changeup, lost to the Red Sox 6--4. Thegrind of the season, he insisted, was not a factor. But who could know forsure? Even with the careful monitoring of innings, pitch counts andconditioning, eventually a young pitcher like Verlander, having thrown moreinnings over more months than ever before, reaches a rite of passage calledSeptember.

History Says...

Of the eightpitchers who, since 1995, have thrown 200 innings in their rookie seasons,seven saw a significant drop-off the following season, and only Freddy Garciaand Matt Morris regained their rookie form.

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hard copy or pdf.]

STEVE SPARKS, Mil 1995 202 88 Out all of '97 before bouncing among seven teams from '98 through thisyear
MATT MORRIS, StL 1997 217 113 Missed all of '99 and most of 2000, but averaged nearly 16 wins from '01 to'05
CHRIS HOLT, Hou 1997 209 2/3 0 After missing all of '98 was 20--38 before retiring at end of 2001season
JASON DICKSON, Ana 1997 203 2/3 122 Was 13--9 with 4.29 ERA as a rookie; 12--12 with a 6.07 ERA thereafter
ROLANDO ARROJO, TB 1998 202 140 2/3 All-Star as rookie (14--12, 3.56 ERA); used mostly out of bullpen by2001
FREDDY GARCIA, Sea 1999 201 1/3 124 1/3 Most durable of the bunch--on track for sixth straight season of 200+innings
GUSTAVO CHACIN, Tor 2005 203 51 1/3* May return this week after landing on DL in June with elbow injury
JOE BLANTON, Oak (right) 2005 201 1/3 155* Has stayed healthy in sophomore season, though key numbers havesuffered
*stats through Sunday

The Insider

More fallout from the latest Boston Massacre from TomVerducci at SI.com/baseball.

"If they get in the playoffs, they're going toCAUSE TROUBLE," says Ortiz. "Know why? Power pitching. That's what winsin the playoffs."

PHOTOPhotograph by Gregory HeislerSIZZLE OR FIZZLE? Both 23, Verlander (far left) and Bonderman face this: No team in the wild-card era has had two under-25 starters win in the same postseason. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (VERLANDER) PHOTOAL TIELEMANS (BONDERMAN) PHOTOANDY ALTENBURGER/ICON SMIGENERATION NEXT In the Tigers' season-opening rotation--from right, Verlander, Mike Maroth, Bonderman, Rogers and Robertson--only Rogers is over 30. PHOTOAL TIELEMANS (LEYLAND) BOYS TOMEN Leyland has taken steps to guard against arm fatigue but is adamant that hewill not baby his youngsters. PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMON (BLANTON) PHOTOPhotograph by Chuck SolomonJered Weaver,23His 9--0 debutequals that of Whitey Ford for the best start to a career by an American Leaguepitcher. PHOTOJOHN PYLE/CAL SPORT MEDIA (BILLINGSLEY)Chad Billingsley,22At week's end theDodgers rookie had not allowed more than one run in any of his last fourstarts. PHOTOBRUCE KLUCKHOHN (LIRIANO)FranciscoLiriano, 22Johan Santana anda healthy Liriano would give the Twins the game's deadliest one-two punch. PHOTOMITCHELL LAYTON (MAINE)John Maine,25The Orioles'castoff fortified a depleted Mets staff with a 26-scoreless-inning streak. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH (SANTANA)Ervin Santana,23Along with Weaverand Joe Saunders, he's one of three Angels starters under age 26.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)