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.