Follies of youth
Tom Verducci, SI.com
The 2006 season might be remembered as the coming of a new age of young pitchers. Nine pitchers received rookie of the year votes, including AL winner Justin Verlander, the first rookie starting pitcher to win the award in that league in a quarter of a century. Anibal Sanchez of Florida threw the first no-hitter in the majors in more than two years. Jered Weaver joined Whitey Ford as the only pitchers to begin their careers 9-0.
Get ready for the down side to all that young pitching success. It's called the 2007 season. More specifically, it's the Year-After Effect (YAE), the price teams almost always pay for pushing their young pitchers too far. And we could be due for a huge crash next season.
I've been tracking the YAE for about a decade now. It's based on a general rule of thumb among executives and pitching coaches: young pitchers should not have their innings workload increased by more than 25 or 30 innings per year. It's the same principle as training for a marathon; you get to 26.1 miles incrementally, not by jumping directly from a 10K. The body cannot easily withstand being pushed so far behind its previous capacity for work, at least not without consequences. Typically, those consequences occur the next season, not the year in which the body is pushed.
When I've looked at major league pitchers 25-and-younger who were pushed 30 or more innings beyond their previous season (or, in cases such as injury-shortened years, their previous pro high), I've been amazed how often those pitchers broke down with a serious injury the next season or took a major step backward in their development. (The season total includes all innings in the minors, majors and postseason. )
For example, let's look at the YAE for the Class of 2005, the young pitchers who were pushed beyond the 30-inning threshold that season: Matt Cain (+33.1 innings at age 20), Francisco Liriano (+34.2 at 21), Gustavo Chacin (+35.2 at 24), Zach Duke (+44.1 at 22), Scott Kazmir (+51.2 at 21) and Paul Maholm (+98.1 at 23). Liriano (elbow), Chacin (elbow) and Kazmir (shoulder) all suffered significant injuries. Cain (+1.82), Duke (+2.66) and Maholm (+2.58) all saw dramatic rises in their ERAs.
The bottom line: a dramatic increase in innings on a young pitcher elevates the risk of injury or a setback to their development. This has been true for years. The Kansas City Royals were negligent with young pitchers for years, pushing young arms such as Chad Durbin (+49 in 2001), Runelvys Hernandez (+92 in 2002) and Zack Greinke (+33.2 in 2004). Even breakout young stars took a step back because of the YAE, such as Kevin Millwood (+78.1 in 1999), Dontrelle Willis (+52 in 2003), Horatio Ramirez (+34 in 2003) and Mark Prior (+67 in 2003).
Like any rule of thumb, there are exceptions, especially for big-bodied pitchers. C.C. Sabathia (+40 in 2001) and Carlos Zambrano (+72.1 in 2003) proved the YAE is not one-size-fits-all.
Now the bad news for the Class of 2006. I can't remember more young pitchers getting pushed this hard in all the years I've been tracking the YAE. I found 11 pitchers 25-and-under who went more than 30 innings beyond their 2005 log, or (where marked with an asterisk) their previous professional high. Here are the pitchers at high risk for a breakdown or regression in 2007:
In addition, I believe two others, who are just outside the age range, may be at risk, just as 27-year-old Brandon Backe (+43.2 in 2005, elbow breakdown in 2006) was this season.
If teams know they are putting pitchers at risk, why are they pushing them? The competition. It's difficult to manage a pitcher's innings by moving him to the bench or the bullpen when a team is trying to win games and there are no outward signs of wear and tear. The Tigers, for instance, did give Verlander two nine-day breaks, but they rode their ace all the way to the World Series. What else could they have done?
Likewise, the Marlins pushed Olsen and Sanchez because they still had a shot at the wild card in mid-September, though you could quibble with Florida allowing Olsen to throw 101 pitches on the meaningless penultimate day of the season. Likewise, the non-competitive Cubs had little to gain by continuing to run Hill and Marshall out to the mound. Hill pitched well in September (1.93 ERA), though his pitch counts do seem unnecessarily high: 106, 111, 120, 118, 99 and 115. Marshall struggled in September (8.34 ERA).
The Tigers, Marlins and Phillies are particularly vulnerable next season because they each landed two pitchers on the at-risk list. The tendency is to believe that players develop in a linear manner, that a year of experience virtually guarantees improvement. The Angels, for instance, might be thinking, "Oh, great! We've got Jered Weaver for a whole season this year!" Well, the Pirates might have thought the same about Duke and Maholm.
Such thinking is particularly dangerous with pitchers because of the greater health risk when compared to position players. Young position players can play all they want, take as many swings as they want, and generally don't put themselves at a much greater risk of injury or setback the way pitchers do if they increase their workload.
The next great test of the YAE could be Yankees prospect Phillip Hughes, generally considered the top pitching prospect in the minors. The Yankees have been saying that Hughes will come to spring training to compete for the fifth spot in the rotation. Baloney. The guy is only 20 and threw only 146 innings last season, when New York kept him on strict pitch counts. Why would the Yankees break camp with him in the rotation when there's no way he should be throwing more than 175 innings next year (postseason included), not to mention starting his arbitration clock?
New York likely will treat Hughes the way Boston did Jon Lester at the start of last season: send him to the minors and keep a tight lid on his innings there, with an in-season callup in mind. Better to have a plan in place to manage innings than to turn a pitcher loose and worry about it later.
Consider the expert care Seattle has given Felix Hernandez. The Mariners increased his innings by 23 at age 19 in 2005 and by 18.2 in 2006. He should be in fine shape for a breakout year in 2007, with less concern about having to manage his innings. Of course, the Mariners' plan was easy to execute for one simple reason: they never were very close to the postseason in those years.