How To Lose A Pitcher In Ten Starts

June 6, 2007 – 12:00 am by McD

Pitching is the baseball topic of the moment. Basically, everyone is worried that this latest bumper crop of pitching prospects is going to flame-out or get injured, because they could be mishandled by their respective organizations. First, there is a fantastic article by Buzz Bissinger about Kerry Wood, which you should read if you haven’t already. It is, among other things, a laundry list of the ways that Wood was mishandled by the Cubs. He threw too many pitches, had bad mechanics, didn’t pitch enough innings at the minor league level, wasn’t taught how to maintain healthy mechanics when tired, and, worst of all, no one helped him at any point. It also mentions how the Cubs did virtually the same thing to Mark Prior.

With the major injury to Francisco Liriano and the smaller one to Yankee prospect Phil Hughes, the issue of preserving pitching prospects is becoming a major one. No one is quite sure how to keep their guys healthy. Actually, that’s not true. There is a wealth of knowledge out there about how to keep pitchers healthy. It’s important that teams develop their pitchers’ arms over time before they get called up, so that the workload in professional baseball isn’t a shock to them. Also, teams need to stress solid mechanics for their young pitchers not just because it’ll help them pitch better, but also because pitchers most often get hurt due to inconsistent windups when they pitching tired. This all sounds like common sense even to the average baseball fan, but the amazing part is that many teams are completely ignoring these rules when it comes to their own prospects.

Just as the article about Kerry Wood and his travails was published, the Reds have announced that super-prospect Homer Bailey will start for them on Friday against the first-place Cleveland Indians. One of the most important statistics mentioned in Bissinger’s article is that pitchers should throw at least 400 innings in the minors before being called up. That way, they will have strengthened their arms so that all the muscles (etc.) are used to pitching, and also so that they can work on maintaining their mechanics when fatigued. Bad mechanics when tired is what most often leads to injury for pitchers. Bailey has thrown just 254.2 innings in his entire professional career. He has struck a ton of guys out and has amazing stuff, but this is absolutely a hallmark of impending disaster for the Reds. It’s also worth mentioning that they are currently 10 games out of first place and their pitching staff ranks 26th in Major League Baseball with a 4.74 team ERA. They can afford to let Bailey mature a bit in the minors. The kid just turned 21, why rush him?

Also, this article about the Giants’ phenoms Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain has to make San Francisco fans cringe. To paraphrase: Tim Lincecum threw a ton of pitches in college (130 pitches was “another day at the office” for him at Washington), refuses to ice his arm, and throws across his body because he steps toward third base a little, instead of directly toward home, as is the conventional form. Oh, he’s also listed at 5’11” and 170 pounds. Right, I’ve seen the kid, he barely clears 160 pounds soaking wet with his pockets full of change. For comparison, that’s about the same size as Pedro Martinez and look at all the injury issues he’s had over his career. Manager Bruce Bochy also professes having no problem leaving Lincecum in for 125-150 pitches. Lincecum also only pitched 60-65 innings total in the minors before being called up to San Francisco.

As Padres fans, we have some experience with Bochy’s penchant for abusing pitchers. He essentially ended Sterling Hitchcock’s career during the 2000 season by overusing him. On April 30, 2000, Hitchcock started against Atlanta, went 7.1 innings and struck out 10 Braves while throwing 148 pitches. His three previous starts had been 122, 125, and 106-pitch outings. In his next start, May 5 against Arizona, he only threw 81 pitches (43 for strikes) in 5 innings, and struggled to clear 80 miles-per-hour on his fastball. He started four more times that May, even throwing 110 pitches in one start, but went on the disabled list May 26. He then had major reconstructive elbow surgery later that year. All we can say to Giants fan is, good luck with that.

The situation with injured prospects is more evidence that MLB teams are completely reactionary in the way they treat their players and spend money on free-agents. The Yankees only brought up Phil Hughes because of injuries and their awful pitching staff, but we don’t need to tell you about the Yankees wasting money and prospects in a desperate attempt to win right away. The Reds are struggling, so up comes Homer Bailey on Friday. The Giants had some injuries, so up came Lincecum. Wood and Prior were almost criminally overused by the Cubs. All of this adds up to injured pitchers and unfulfilled potential.

Baseball is a game of patience. Even though there is a minor league system to develop players and help teams plan for the future, time and again, organizations have shown that they are unable to see the big picture. All they see from year to year is that they could either save their season by bringing up a highly-touted prospect or, if the team is good, that they could be even better if their super-prospect joins the rotation. Teams know they are relying on these prospects to be great for them for 8-15 years, but they can’t actually see beyond the current season. A knee-jerk reaction could actually damage a team’s chances for years to come. Maybe Homer Bailey comes up and pitches well this year for the Reds and beyond. But it’s much more likely that he’s just another in the long line of guys who were brought up too soon because their teams lacked the foresight and self-control to actually commit to the future.

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  1. 7 Responses to “How To Lose A Pitcher In Ten Starts”

  2. With all the resources at their command, you’d think that major league teams would invest in medical and biomechanical support for their pitchers, EARLY, not in reaction to injury. Think where Kerry’d be if he had the training he’s getting NOW back when he was first called up. You put your finger on it by calling it what it is: short-sightedness. Well said.

    By Anonymous on Jun 6, 2007

  3. I completely agre with you and overuse of a young arm. Although I think he might benefit from consistently starting, I think the Dodgers use of their projected ace of the future, Chad Billingsly is smarter than others. Limited use out of the bullpen before eventually starting.

    My question has always been, how did pitchers of previous eras not suffer dead arms like pitchers do today?

    By Darth on Jun 6, 2007

  4. “My question has always been, how did pitchers of previous eras not suffer dead arms like pitchers do today?”

    They didn’t throw as hard. They didn’t throw nearly as many (if any) breaking balls. And offenses weren’t as deep, allowing pitchers to not throw their best stuff to every hitter (apparently Livan Hernandez still practices the “coasting” school of pitching, which lets him throw an insane number of innings without ever getting hurt). You can find plenty of old-timey baseball talking heads who’ll wax nostalgic about how much tougher guys were in the old days, but it’s just not true. Pitchers work a lot harder now than they did 50 years ago, even if they throw a third fewer pitches.

    By thejustinsowa on Jun 6, 2007

  5. The innings thing is bullshit, as BP has shown. Good pitchers have always been brought up quickly. Bissinger talked to a few people who generalized from personal experience (remember, LaRussa was badly scarred by the Ankiel debacle, and was up close for Wood and Prior), took their word as truth, and then cherry picked examples to support his cause when a real study would show that what has actually happened doesn’t support those assertions. Bissinger tends not to question, tends not to confirm, what people in positions of authority tell him, and that’s a problem.

    By David A. on Jun 6, 2007

  6. Yeah, innings pitched is a horrible indicator and great prospects do tend to get called up early (one example off the top of my head: Mike Mussina). Also, college pitchers tend to climb the ranks faster. Pedro Martinez injury problems? Sure, he’s injured now but for his career? I don’t think he’s been hurt any more, if even as much, as the average MLB pitcher. You would think that coaches would teach kids not to overthrow every pitch but this is a problem that MLB coaches can’t easily overcome. Why? Because there are dickheads coaching in Babe Ruth and High School leagues who have kids throwing curves, sliders, sinkers, etc. Every level has a “win now” mentality. It’s pretty amazing that Kerry Wood could even make it to the majors throwing the way he does.

    By starkweather on Jun 6, 2007

  7. I read an article on the Seattle Times website that said Lincecum’s dad had put much research into the pitching delivery he designed. It’s supposed to maximize the efficiency of a smaller body.

    Who knows? It’s his kid and it seems like he’s not re-living his life though his son’s career, so maybe he’s on to something.

    Dice-K is one of many Japanese pitchers who don’t ice their arms, and there’s never been an unusual amount of injuries over there.

    Hitting styles aren’t as physically intense as pitching styles, but both Stan Musial and Ichiro had their detractors on the way up, who said they’d never make it with their stances being so against what conventional wisdom dictated.

    The experiment is in progress. Let’s hope it works out for Lincecum.

    By Anonymous on Jun 6, 2007

  8. Not that I disagree with you, but I do think the jury’s still out on the best way to handle young pitchers. If one embraces the Huckaby/Silver TNSTAAPP philosophy, then it makes sense for teams to use as many of a pitcher’s “bullets” in the majors as possible, if one considers significant injury or long-term unpredictability to be a probability in the case of most pitchers. However, that doesn’t change what managers should do once these young pitchers get to the majors, which is Handle with Care. To be honest, I had never considered Boch to be one of the worst offenders in this category — he’s certainly no Dusty Baker or Jack McKeon — but what he’s doing with Lincecum is borderline criminal.

    Anyway, just wanted to offer up some food for thought. Good blog.

    By Diesel on Jun 6, 2007

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