Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Handling of young pitcher has changed

The biggest debate in the baseball world over the course of the last few months has been surrounding the Washington Nationals and their decision to shut-down Stephen Strasburg, one of the best young starting pitchers in the game. He is pitching in his first full season at the big league level and he only pitched at the end of last season since he was recovering from Tommy John surgery. Nationals fans see their team in first place and they want Strasburg to help the franchise reach the playoffs for the first time since the team moved to DC. Even with pressure from outside sources, the front office for the team is holding their ground and telling the media that Strasburg will be shut down at some point in the next couple weeks.

Almost a decade ago, the Cubs were in a similar position with a young pitcher of their own but their approach to handling their young arm was a little different. As Tom Verducci wrote about in his piece yesterday, the Cubs and their coaching staff seemed to beat Mark Prior into the ground in his first season as a big league pitcher. He had pitched almost 170 innings by the time September rolled around and he would average 125 pitches in his last nine starts of the 2003 season. It was by far his best season as a professional but he would never be the same from that point forward. Some blame his overuse and others look at his poor mechanics but teams have never looked at young pitchers the same way since Prior's breakdown.

With his minor league seasons taken into account, Prior had thrown 379 innings by the time of his age 22 season. This number seems to be large for a player and it also includes some of those outings with high pitch counts that aren't common in the present day game. Prior was the number two pick out of college in the 2001 draft and the Twins had the same pick in the draft that took place the year before Prior left college. The Twins took Adam Johnson, a right-handed pitcher, out of Cal State Fullerton. He didn't have quite the pedigree of Prior but he was trying to work his way to the big leagues through the Twins farm system. By the time he reached the end of his age 22 season, he had thrown 357 innings in the minor leagues, a number very close to Prior's total number of innings.

Johnson would be out of the Twins organization after the 2004 season as he went on to play in independent leagues, the Mexican League, and eventually he joined the A's farm system. Prior would pitch over 100 innings in 2004 and 2005 but he hasn't pitched at the big league level since 2006. Were the Cubs and Twins following the same plan by pushing their young pitchers too hard?

Things have sure changed in recent years for young pitchers. As touched on before, the Nationals have a lot of money and one surgery under their belt with Strasburg. This has caused them to be very cautious when it comes to their precious arm. As the baseball landscape has changed so has the approach to innings limits and pitch counts for different players. Matt Garza was taken by the Twins in the first round of the 2005 draft and the team watched his innings limit more in his younger years. A shift happened in the baseball world and it's hard to get through this time of the year without hearing about minor league pitchers reaching their limit and being shut down for the year or sent to the bullpen.

Flash-forward to the present day and it seems as if every player is forced to undergo some kind of operation during their career with Tommy John surgery leading the way. Stephan Strasburg might seem like the case study to follow for teams looking to model their innings limits and pitch counts for a pitcher. The nice things for the Nationals has been to see how fellow starter Jordan Zimmerman has done since his own injury. The team followed a strict pitch count with him during his first full season back in 2011 and now the team has been rewarded with him having his best season as a professional. The limits worked for Zimmerman and the team hopes that the same will hold true for Strasburg.

Fans of the Twins minor league system have been following the recovery of former first round pick Kyle Gibson as he makes his way back from Tommy John surgery. He is currently pitching with the Rochester Red Wings and it sounds like the team is happy to see him finish the year with that club. From there, he will most likely go to the instructional leagues or to the Arizona Fall League to continue his comeback. The Twins will be in a similar position to the Nationals next season with Gibson as he will be in his first full season since the surgery. There will undoubtedly be an innings limit for the right-handed pitcher in 2013 and he might have to be shut down early much like Strasburg.

The Cubs pushed Mark Prior to the limit and the rest is baseball history. Now the world of pitching is all about innings limits, 100 pitch outings, and trying to find the right combination of rest and recovery. Tommy John surgeries seem to be a right of passage to make it to the big leagues and this comes in an era that has seen plenty of perfect games and no hitters. With baseball toughening their stance on PEDs, pitchers seem to have gotten back a little bit more of their edge on the mound and this makes young arms all the more valuable. Baseball will never be the same because of Mark Prior but he can't have imagined that it would be for this reason.

1 comment:

Jim Crikket said...

I would hope that, with Gibson, the Twins would be smarter than the Nationals have been. I've yet to see the team come up with a logical reason for not spacing out Strasburg's innings by skipping a start here or there or taking some other approach that would allow them to stretch his innings through the end of the season. I'm all for caution with a talented arm, but it should be intelligent caution and I just can't see that Washington's approach has been all that intelligent.