Too much, too soon
Seven young pitchers who could be injury risks in '08
Posted: Tuesday February 5, 2008 12:31PM; Updated: Tuesday February 5, 2008 2:55PM
So the Yankees have let Johan Santana pass to the Mets and smartly bet the future on Phil Hughes, 21, Joba Chamberlain, 21, and Ian Kennedy, 23. Throw in Chien Ming Wang, 27, and the Yankees have the bulk of their starts covered for years. Now let's see if they can stick to their plan through 2008.
You can bet right now that Nardi Contreras, the Yankees' organizational pitching guru, has mapped out ideal workloads for Hughes, Chamblerlain and Kennedy -- which is one reason why you're hearing talk now about Chamberlain starting the year in the bullpen. The Yankees are risking his health and his future if they think Chamberlain is going to start 32 times and throw 210 innings. He needs to be carefully managed, whether it be bullpen duty, skipped turns in the rotation, extra days between starts, shutdown periods and, yes, all of the above.
Similar problems exist for Hughes and Kennedy. None of them should be allowed to throw 200 innings this year. And now you get New York's dilemma: How do you get to the World Series, which is the organizational mandate, with three starters who shouldn't throw 200 innings, including the postseason? You either build in all the safeguards above, which means holding an inventory of eight starters at all times and being confident enough not to pitch the kids at times even when they're healthy, or you panic and push them and risk the future.
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.
Pitchers generally feel the effects of abusive increases in workload the next year, not the season in which they were pushed. In other words, you might be able to finish that marathon for which you didn't properly train, but your body will have hell to pay for it. I call it the Year After Effect.
Here's the way I track it: Find major league pitchers 25-and-under who broke the 30-inning rule. In some cases a pitcher's innings the previous season may have been artificially depressed, such as by injury, so I'll use his professional high for the baseline, or, in the case of a recent draftee like Kennedy, his college workload. All innings count (minors, majors, postseason).
In 2005 and '06 I found 17 pitchers I defined as at-risk of the YAE. None made it through the next year without an injury or a higher ERA. Ten of them broke down, the most seriously hurt being Francisco Liriano, Gustavo Chacin, Adam Loewen, Scott Mathieson and Anibel Sanchez. Eleven of them had worse ERAs, by an average of about a run and a half. Remember, it's a general rule; there are exceptions, the superlative Justin Verlander being one.
The Yankees already have put one of their prime young pitchers at unnecessary risk, as you'll see below. With the YAE in mind, here are the 2008 maximum workloads (playoffs included) that Contreras should consider if he wants to make the Yankees' passing on Santana look like a smart move for the next six years:
Kennedy: 195 innings
Hughes: 176 innings
Chamberlain: 149 innings
Keep in mind what the Boston Red Sox did with Clay Buchholz last year. The kid, who turned 23 in August, threw a no-hitter in his second big league start. As the Red Sox scrambled down the stretch to fortify their bullpen (Eric Gagne, anybody?), Buchholz looked like a perfect option in front of Jonathan Papelbon. But the Red Sox resisted pushing Buchholz and shut him down in September and the postseason. His innings increase in 2007? They shut him down right at +29, just under the YAE threshold. Now he's healthy and on track to throw no more than 178 innings this year.