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Follies of youth

Year-After Effect could strike many young arms in '07

Posted: Tuesday November 28, 2006 11:55AM; Updated: Tuesday November 28, 2006 11:03PM
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Jered Weaver went 11-2 with a 2.56 ERA last season, but 200 total innings on his arm could catch up with him in 2007.
Jered Weaver went 11-2 with a 2.56 ERA last season, but 200 total innings on his arm could catch up with him in 2007.
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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, 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:

Year-After Effect Candidates
Player Team Age IP Increase
Cole Hamels Phillies 23 181.1 +80.1*
Justin Verlander Tigers 23 207.2 +70.2
Anibal Sanchez Marlins 22 200 +64
Jered Weaver Angels 24 200 +56
Sean Marshall Cubs 24 147.1 +53.1
Scott Olsen Marlins 22 187 +50.2*
Jeremy Bonderman Tigers 24 234.1 +45.1
Adam Loewen Orioles 22 183.1 +41.1
Anthony Reyes Cardinals 25 187 +39.1
Scott Mathieson Phillies 22 164.1 +33*
Boof Bonser Twins 25 192.2 +31.1*
*-players exceeding their previous professional high

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.

Player Team Age IP Increase
Chien-Ming Wang Yankees 26 231.1 +80
Rich Hill Cubs 26 199.1 +45
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