“Verducci Effect” Candidates for 2009

Over the past few years, Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci has compiled a list of starting pitchers that he considers to be particularly risky heading into the next season. Verducci’s list is based on the concept that a young starter (age 25 or below) is at an increased risk of injury if he surpasses his innings pitched total from the previous season by 30 frames or more. As he so often does, Verducci summed up his reasoning in a very articulate manner:

“Why can’t they throw 200 innings? Simply put, they’re not conditioned for it yet. It’s like training for a marathon. You need to build stamina incrementally. The unofficial industry standard is that no young pitcher should throw more than 30 more innings than he did the previous season. It’s a general rule of thumb, and one I’ve been tracking for about a decade. When teams violate the incremental safeguard, it’s amazing how often they pay for it.”

Just as a runner must build up strength and endurance over a gradual period of time, a hurler must incrementally boost his workload, lest his arm suffer the pitching equivalent of a cold-turkey 26.2 mile run. The list of talented youngsters who have seemingly fallen victim to the “Verducci Effect” is both sizable and significant. Among those who crossed the 30+ threshold in 2005 and 2006 were Francisco Liriano, Gustavo Chacin, Adam Loewen, Scott Mathieson and Anibal Sanchez. Here’s a look at the list of seven guys that Verducci identified as high-risk entering 2008:

Ian Kennedy, +61 IP

5.45 FIP, 26 BB in 39.2 major league innings, DL stint for a strained right lat.

Fausto Carmona, +56.1 IP

0.83 K/BB ratio in 120.2 IP, DL stint for a left hip strain.

Ubaldo Jimenez, +41.2 IP

No problems here– Jimenez posted a very nice 3.83 FIP.

Tom Gorzelanny, +40.1 IP

Gorzelanny was an absolute mess this past season, with a 6.35 FIP, a demotion to the minors and a DL stint for a left middle finger injury.

Dustin McGowan, +38.2 IP

McGowan’s ascent was curtailed by a shoulder injury that required season-ending surgery.

Chad Gaudin, +36 IP

Gaudin posted a pretty solid 4.14 FIP, but he did take a trip to the DL in the spring for a nagging hip injury.

Yovani Gallardo, +33 IP

Gallardo also suffered a serious injury in ’08, but his was of the traumatic sort, as he tore his ACL covering first base at Wrigley Field. It’s hard to pin that on anything but bad luck.

So, out of the seven identified, five served DL stints that seem related to the increased workload, and Kennedy, Carmona and Gorzelanny endured nightmarish seasons. Jimenez was really the only one to come out unscathed, though Gallardo’s health issues certainly seem unrelated.

With the rule of 30 in mind, let’s take a look at a preliminary list of young starters who fall under the “Verducci Effect” for 2009. For the purposes of this list, I excluded pitchers who missed all of 2007 due to injury (such as Liriano), and included only those pitchers who will be 25 or younger on opening day 2009. I wanted to compile a list of guys pitching both seasons, who saw a big jump in IP from ’07 to ’08.

There is also some debate as to how much minor league innings should be “weighed” in the equation. There are some who feel that minor league frames are not as high stress as major league innings, but I have decided to count them as equal here.

Dana Eveland (age 25), +151.1 IP

Eveland tossed just 37.2 innings in 2007 while in the D-Backs’ minor league system, as he dealt with a finger injury. The hefty lefty appeared to tire down the stretch, as he surrendered a .311/.379/.468 line after the all-star break.

Gregory Reynolds
(23), +74.2 IP

Also known as “the guy picked before Evan Longoria“, this Stanford product already hit the minor league DL with a shoulder impingement in July.

Gregory Smith (24, soon 25), +74.1 IP

There are already plenty of reasons to expect this LSU product to trend downward next season, and the big increase in innings won’t help.

Charlie Morton (25), +74 IP

Jon Lester (25), +74 IP

Lester is admittedly a unique case, and it’s hard to say whether or not he faces the same injury risk as some of these other guys or not. For what it’s worth, Lester was sitting 90-91 MPH with his fastball in the early months of the season, but was firing 94 MPH bullets by the time September rolled around.

Cole Hamels (24), +72.1 IP

Hamels was no stranger to injury coming up through the Phillies’ farm system, and a whopping 35 postseason innings gave him a combined 262.1 frames tossed during the 2008 season. He’s incredibly gifted, but his health does bear watching.

Chad Billingsley (24), +65.1 IP

Chad beat the rule of 30 to the punch, as he unfortunately slipped on some ice and broke his leg outside of his Pennsylvania home (which begs the question, if you work in LA, why live in Pennsylvania?)

John Danks (23), +62.2 IP

Danks took some huge strides forward in 2008, but he’ll have to combat a big innings increase to maintain his status as one of the better starters in the American League.

Matt Harrison (23), +51 IP

Tim Lincecum (24), +49.2 IP

Giants manager Bruce Bochy did not seem to use much discretion with Lincecum in ’08, bringing him back into a game after a lengthy rain delay and allowing him to toss at least 110 pitches in 18 of his 33 starts. We’ve all heard the arguments of Lincecum’s “rubber arm” and freakishness, but Tim racked up the highest Pitcher Abuse Points score by a wide margin, and accumulated such a lofty workload for a cellar-dweller. From a cost/benefit standpoint, was it really worth pushing the guy so hard?

Mike Pelfrey (24, soon 25), +48 IP

Pelfrey improved his control in ’08 (2.87 BB/9), though the 6-7 righty continued to post finesse-type strikeout numbers (4.93 per nine innings). Is a fastball-centric pitcher like Pelfrey (81.2% usage), who rarely snaps off a slider or a curve, less likely to feel the effects of a big increase in innings? Thoughts?

Peter will have more on Pelfrey in the coming days.

Clayton Kershaw (20, soon 21), +47 IP

The Dodgers have tried to be careful with their big southpaw who comes equipped with mid-90’s gas and a devastating slow curve, but Kershaw still crossed the innings threshold by a decent margin. Considering his age and enormous importance to the franchise, expect Kershaw to be kept on a pretty strict innings limit in 2009.

Jair Jurrjens (22, soon 23), +45 IP

Jurrjens was solid for Atlanta this past season. He did have some shoulder issues in the minors, however, and tossed nearly 190 frames in 2008.

Matt Garza (25), +38.1 IP

Garza’s 25 postseason innings pushed him into Verducci territory.

Brandon Morrow (24), +32 IP

Because he was strangely pigeonholed in the bullpen for the better part of two seasons, this 2006 first-rounder has not been given the opportunity to gradually build up his arm strength in the minors. The Mariners began to transition Morrow into a starter last season, and new management seems to be going ahead with the plan. If Morrow begins the season in the rotation, he is going to soar past the 95.1 innings he threw in 2008. This situation calls to mind the Joba Chamberlain conundrum from last season. Of course, none of this would be an issue had Morrow been given the development time and innings necessary to incrementally increase his workload.

That’s the list: 15 in all. It’s important to point out that this is just one piece of evidence to take into account when evaluating a starter’s expected level of performance in the coming season. This is not a hard and fast rule; there are exceptions. However, it is an interesting and useful tool, as the risk of injury does seem to climb as a young starter gets beyond that 30 inning rule. By no means should you shy away from some of the top-tier performers on this list. Just keep in mind that their respective workloads did increase greatly, and it wouldn’t be unprecedented if injury or attrition set in for some of these guys in 2009.

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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.

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I hope that Pelfrey does not falter next year, and rather, that he improves. Can’t say the same for Hamels though.