Handling Young Pitchers

This article was initially meant to be one piece, but there was too much information to analyze. In order to save everyone from one massive article, I’ve decided to split this piece into two parts. Part two will run in the coming days.

While traveling for the holidays, I find that a good book makes a flight much more enjoyable. Last night, I began my journey through The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2011. While I have found many of the articles intriguing, Craig Wright’s How to Handle a Pitcher was particularly interesting. In the article Wright examines the Texas Rangers new approach to pitching, argues against current pitch count restrictions and explains how to handle young pitchers. In this piece, we are going to focus on young pitcher workloads. With more prospects reaching the majors at younger ages, how difficult is it for team to prevent long-term injuries to their prospects while pushing them just enough to maintain short-term success?

In this article, Wright explains that “younger pitchers in their formative years need to be handled with exceptional care that eases to general monitoring in the prime seasons.” This belief has been widely accepted by both teams and analysts as pitchers in their formative years, defined as ages 18-24, are no longer pushed like Frank Tanana and Dwight Gooden were early in their careers.

One of the major advantages to restricting pitchers in their formative years is that it allows teams to gather more information on their prized prospects. It gives teams the opportunity to see how the pitcher responds after a small innings increase, or a higher pitch count than usual, without pushing that pitcher past their limit. Teams can also learn how injuries or fatigue can affect their prospects. Not all players heal at a similar rate, so knowing whether one pitcher will heal in two weeks rather than six weeks can be advantageous to managers and coaches.

The main issue with this pitching strategy is that it’s tough for teams to completely obey. Like Tanana and Gooden, the best pitching prospects will reach the majors while still in their formative stages. The truth is, it’s difficult for teams to hold back their young prospects when a) that pitcher is living up to expectations, and b) their team is in the middle of a pennant race. Even though it is widely believed that pitchers are handled more carefully today, there are still reasons for concern. For example, Felix Hernandez nearly threw 200 innings as a 20 year old and Clayton Kershaw experienced nearly a 70 inning workload increase between his age 20-21 seasons.

How will these workloads affect Hernandez and Kershaw? Entering 2011, Hernandez will officially exit his formative years according to Wright’s research. If his formative years are indicative of his prime seasons, it appears Hernandez can be relied upon as a pitcher who can endure a lot of innings (he did throw 249.2 last season). At the same time, it’s unclear how a high workload during his formative years will affect his future. One analyst could point to Hernandez’s formative years and tell you that it proves he is a workhorse, another might tell you that he’s built up a lot of innings on a young arm. Which analyst is wrong?

Kershaw, meanwhile, is still in his formative years and it will be interesting to see how far the Los Angeles Dodgers are willing to push their young ace. How to handle a pitcher like Kershaw is one of the toughest tasks in baseball. Kershaw is the Dodgers best pitcher, meaning the more innings he throws, the better the Dodgers should perform. If the Dodgers find themselves in a playoff race next season, their best chance at making the post-season may depend on starting Kershaw on short rest. While pushing Kershaw could pay off in the short term, the Dodgers could be in a situation where they ruin his long term success.

While teams have gotten better at managing the workloads of their young starters, there is still a chance teams are pushing young starters too hard. When you line up Felix Hernandez’s ages with his innings pitched, it’s easy to worry about his future. However, Hernandez has handled the innings workload without any major issues. Wright doesn’t really use current pitchers when discussing this issue in his article, but I would be interested to hear his thoughts on the subject.

In part two, I will examine Wright’s arguments against current pitch count restrictions.

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Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.

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