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March 11, 2002
The Marlin in Charge: Can We Learn from Torborg's Past?
A few weeks ago at the BP Pizza Feed in Los Angeles, one of the attendees--sorry, I don't remember who--asked me what we could expect from Jeff Torborg in Florida. The Marlins, as you know, have a large stable of young starting pitchers, including perhaps the game's top prospect, 22-year-old right-hander Josh Beckett. The questioner wanted to know if there was anything we could glean from Torborg's history that would indicate how he might handle the pitching talent on hand.
At the time, I had no response. Unfortunately, I hadn't given the matter much thought, and the answer I provided was, translating roughly, "blrxgh."
Thanks to Retrosheet and the genius of Keith Woolner, I can now take a pretty good look at Torborg's record. The short answer is that there's some reason to be concerned for the arms of Beckett, Brad Penny, and Ryan Dempster.
In the three seasons in which Torborg spent time as their manager, the Indians would finish fourth, 11th, and 11th in the American League in complete games. I have no breakdowns for 1977, when Wayne Garland finished third in the AL with 21 complete games, and a 22-year-old Dennis Eckersley racked up 12 CGs in 33 starts. It's worth noting, though, that the 1977 Indians are the only Frank Robinson-managed team that has ever finished in the top half of its league in complete games. That's not conclusive evidence, but it's at least an indication that Torborg rode the two right-handers pretty hard in his three-and-a-half months in charge.
In 1978, Torborg lost Garland, who would spend the next nine seasons being known as one of the great free-agent busts. Torborg would get 15 complete games--an unremarkable total for that era--from 26-year-old Rick Waits, and a smattering of CGs from 24-year-old Mike Paxton and 23-year-old David Clyde. Without pitch counts it's hard to say for sure, but Torborg certainly does not appear to be noticeably abusive of the arms he had.
In 1979, the Indians racked up 13 of their 28 complete games under Torborg in a little more than half a season, and again, none of those were thrown by young pitchers. In fact, Torborg was downright easy on the arms compared to his successor. Under Dave Garcia, the Tribe would toss 15 complete games in 66 starts. On the whole, there was little to no evidence that Jeff Torborg overused pitchers, especially young pitchers, during his time in Cleveland.
The 1989 Chicago White Sox were not a good team, finishing last in the AL West with a 69-92 record. They were tenth in the AL in runs scored and 11th in ERA. Expectations were low, coming off three straight fifth-place finishes, and five of six losing seasons since the 1983 division title.
Torborg reached Chicago just as their development program was coughing up a bunch of good young pitchers. In '89, the Sox's top four pitchers by starts and innings were 25 years old or younger, and the veteran pitchers he inherited, Jerry Reuss and Richard Dotson, were traded away during the season to make room for more young pitchers.
Torborg's nominal ace in 1989 was 23-year-old Melido Perez. Perez was ineffective in the first half of the season, but caught fire after the All-Star break. Torborg rode him hard during this stretch, having him throw 100 or more pitches in nine of 14 post-break starts. That included four straight starts over 100 in July and August, and a late-season run of 118-127-108-119-139. Keep in mind that the Sox weren't within shouting distance of contention during this.
Before the break, Torborg's favorite pitcher had been Eric King, a 25-year-old acquired over the previous winter from the Tigers. Torborg forced King to the DL in just 13 starts. In ten starts from April 16 through June 3, King averaged 113.4 pitches, a stretch that ended with starts of 124, 88, and 133 pitches over 12 days. As with Perez, Torborg was simply riding an effective pitcher as long as he remained effective.
There were other examples of Torborg not paying much attention to pitch counts: 24-year-old rookie Greg Hibbard tossed 135 pitches on September 2; another 24-year-old, Steve Rosenberg, threw 126 on July 29. Torborg's usage patterns were pretty clear: guys who were effective would pitch until they weren't, and there was no indication from him that pitch counts were an issue.
In 1990, Torborg was introduced to the future of the White Sox in the form of Jack McDowell and Alex Fernandez. The 1990 season started late, following a lockout and an abbreviated spring training, so pitch counts were way down throughout April. In the second half, as the surprising White Sox tried to keep pace with the A's, Torborg went to the whip: Perez threw 141, 119, 95, 125, 126, and 122 pitches in a six-start stretch from August 11 through September 7. McDowell broke the 120-pitch mark nine times in his last 22 starts, including his final two, which were in meaningless games. He threw 132, 99, and 135 pitches over 11 days in August, and threw an I'm-not-making-this-up 154 in just seven innings against the Red Sox on September 14.
It was the way Torborg treated Alex Fernandez, though, that should be of greatest concern to Marlins fans. Fernandez joined the Sox on August 2, just two weeks shy of his 21st birthday, and just two months removed being the ace of the University of Miami. He made 13 starts in two months, completing three of them. We have pitch counts for ten of Fernandez's 13 starts. Here's his log:
August 2: 28 batters faced (5 H, 2 BB, 4 K, 1 HBP)
It's not clear why a 21-year-old who'd been worked like a contract programmer, who'd been pitching competitively since February, needed to throw 127 pitches in the meaningless last game of the season.
That's simply a terrifying September. Even a conservative estimate of the September 8 start has Fernandez up around 110 pitches in it, which means he threw around 600-620 pitches in five starts over 21 days, all of them as a just-barely 21-year-old, most of them in the crucible of a pennant race. That may not be reckless, but it's also not the careful handling you'd hope a team would give their newly-minted first-round pick.
In 1991 the Sox led the American League in complete games, but again finished second in the AL West, this time to the Minnesota Twins. Jack McDowell didn't have the high peaks he did in 1990, maxing out with a 138-pitch start in July. He did manage to lead the AL with 15 complete games, helping the Sox also lead the league in that category. Alex Fernandez, now a seasoned veteran, also was handled almost reasonably, with just five 120-pitch starts and a high game of 135 in September.
The development of an excellent bullpen no doubt contributed to the less extreme workloads--the Sox had five relievers with ERAs of 3.49 or better--and Torborg was shifting some of the rotation's burden to knuckleballer Charlie Hough, who did post some high-pitch-count games, although with little attendant risk.
New York, 1992-93
In that time, he wasn't given much young pitching to handle. Pete Schourek broke in at 23 with the 1991 Mets, made 21 starts, and other than a 121-pitch outing, had no workload issues of note. For the most part, Torborg had a veteran roster, and was asked not to develop talent, but to win with it.
He treated his veteran starters much the same way he had been handling pitchers all along: if they were pitching well, they stayed in the game. Dwight Gooden was up over 120 pitches a couple of times, and Sid Fernandez was worked very hard, crossing 130 pitches five times, including three times as the Mets played out the string in September.
And then there's David Cone:
April 6: 109 pitches
Well, that's a hell of a way to start the season. Cone was performing well, though, even after 610 pitches in 23 days. That last start was a two-hit shutout of the Astros that left his ERA at 2.23.
May 3: 126 pitches
Finally, Cone had an easy day. It wasn't a terrible outing, but allowing five runs in five innings is a good way to get sent home early.
May 19: 146 pitches
Cone's overall numbers were pretty good at this point, while his workload was being tempered by the occasional four-inning start.
June 26: 134 pitches
Wow. 826 pitches in six starts in a little less than a month. If this isn't the gold standard for pitcher slagging in the last 20 years, I really don't want to meet the guy who was worked harder.
July 28: 113 pitches
Cone was dealt to the Toronto Blue Jays after this, and to his credit, pitched well in September in helping the Jays to the AL East title.
Torborg's work with pitchers in New York was consistent with his work with them elsewhere: he rode his starters as long as they were pitching well. While he gets points for consistency, there's very little that can be said in defense of the way he treated David Cone's right arm.
In his time with the Expos, Torborg didn't do the cringeworthy things that he'd done while managing the White Sox and Mets. Javier Vazquez and Tony Armas Jr. were handled much more generously than McDowell and Cone and various Fernandezes before them. Armas broke 120 pitches just twice under Torborg, with a high of 126. Vazquez had three 120-pitch games, and a high of 123. Vazquez, ridiculously effective all year, had a remarkably consistent workload, actually, almost always between 100 and 115 pitches.
So what does all of this mean for the Marlins? Well, there are a couple of ways to look at it. One is that Torborg slagged the hell out of some pretty good pitchers while he was with the White Sox and Mets. Another is that, given the chance to do it again last year, he showed a restraint not evident in his previous two terms as manager.
There's something else, though. Take a look at the pitchers highlighted in this article:
These are the six pitchers who we can say were worked the hardest by Torborg. In a couple of cases, the treatment seemed to fall safely under the category of "pitcher abuse." Yet three of these pitchers would be among the best in the game in the years after their mishandling. Two others would do the best work of their career not long after the workload described above. Only Sid Fernandez, whose arm was only his biggest problem when there was a fork at the end of it, saw his career tail off under subsequent management.
I think Torborg will dole out workloads with the Marlins that will more closely reflect his time with the Expos than his stints with the White Sox and Mets. If he was going to show signs of his earlier style, it's likely that he would have done so with Vazquez or Armas last season. For whatever reason, he didn't, and I believe that's the best indicator as to what he'll do in the future.
If the Marlins do contend in the AL East--and that is a possibility--the pitch counts of Josh Beckett, Brad Penny, et al will be something to watch, to see if Torborg reverts to the form he showed in Chicago. Until then, I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, especially because there's scant evidence that any pitchers' careers have been derailed on his watch.