January 22, 1999
Pitcher Usage and Result Patterns: Houston Astros
Focus on 1998 Astros starting pitchingYou might think things would get a little easier for Larry Dierker after his first season when he took over a ill-used Astros' pitching staff and fashioned it into the best rotation outside of Mazzoneville. That wasn't going to be the case. The Astros headed into 1998 without three-fifths of the rotation that finished the 1997 season. Darryl Kile moved on to Planet Coors, and Chris Holt and Ramon Garcia were both lost for the season with rotator cuff and elbow woes (respectively), it was time to see if Dierker could pull several rabbits out of a hat. Pick up Sean Bergman from the Padres, promote Jose Lima from the bullpen, and shuffle your fifth starter until GM Gerry Hunsicker can fleece Woody Woodward at the trading deadline
Shane Reynolds is the Astros' oldest established starter and was asked to carry the heaviest workload. Reynolds didn't miss a turn during the season and was moved up in the rotation when days off allowed. Now 30 years old, Reynolds has managed to avoid serious reconstructive surgeries despite heavy abuse by Terry Collins. He averaged only 100 pitches per game, suggesting that the trend may continue. Like most of the Houston starters, he actually threw fewer pitches the more days off he had between outings. After stumbling out of the blocks (1 QS in his first 4 starts), Reynolds was very effective, posting a 69% QS+BQS for the season.
Dierker seems to be testing the Prototypical Pitcher's Body Theory, using Mike Hampton as the guinea pig. Hampton, he of the diminutive physique, has now assembled consecutive 200+ IP seasons before turning 26. He was the Astros' #2 starter and pitched well until a strained groin sidelined him for three starts at the end of June. He was apparently rushed back to the rotation too soon, as he struggled with only 3 QS in his next 9 starts, which had even Larry Dierker second-guessing himself publicly for letting him come back. However, Hampton finished strong, logging 7 QS+BQS in his final 8 outings. He has been worked relatively hard at a young age and should be monitored closely in 1999.
Entering the season, it appeared that The Excitable Boy, Jose Lima, would work out of the bullpen, as he has for most of his big league career. But necessity is the mother of invention, and the Wrangler delivered a masterstroke. He inserted Lima into the rotation, and Lima shot from the gate, logging 10 QS in his first 11 trips to the mound. Probably unaccustomed to throwing that many pitches, he had only 2 QS+BQS in his next 7 starts. Dierker remedied the problem by giving him nine days off at the All-Star break. Lima recovered and went 12 for 15 QS+BQS to finish the season.
Mid-season slumps from starters two through four and virtually nothing from the five-hole had Dierker looking for a new horse at the end of July. Horse-stealing used to be a crime in Texas, but the Randy Johnson deal must mean they don't prosecute those cases any more. Probably at Johnson's insistence, Dierker rode him hard. The Big Unit averaged more pitches per start than he did under Piniella's whip and only took a fifth day off when it fell on his scheduled start day. Unable to "focus" in Seattle, Johnson was ferocious with Houston, reeling off 10 QS in 11 tries. However, it might be time for Johnson to swallow his pride and accept an occasional extra day off. Reports that his heat was down into the low 90s at the end of the season indicate that 4000+ pitches took a toll on the 35-year-old.
A spot starter/long reliever with San Diego, Sean Bergman opened the campaign as Dierker's fifth starter. He missed a few turns in late April with assorted nicks and returned as the fourth starter--a role he kept for the remainder of the pre-Johnson period. Though Bergman easily surpassed his previous career high for innings pitched in a season, he held up well as Dierker kept his pitch counts low and gave him plenty of rest (8 starts with 6+ days' rest).
After putting up good numbers at New Orleans in 1997, Dierker and pitching coach Vern Ruhle hoped that John Halama was ready to pitch the 1998 season in the big leagues. Apparently he wasn't, as he pitched poorly in his first three starts. Quality starts in two of his next three outings didn't prevent a return trip to the Big Easy, where he pitched well the rest of the year. As the PTBNL in the trade for Randy Johnson, Halama will now be toiling in the shadow of Mt. Piniella, about as extreme a change from one management style to another as you could think of.
Had Pete Schourek pitched well after his elbow mended, maybe the Johnson trade wouldn't have happened. Fortunately for Astro fans, he didn't. Inserted for Halama, Schourek managed only 5 QS+BQS in 15 tries, despite gentle handling by Dierker. He was then sold off to the Red Sox, who were in search of the ever-popular crafty veteran for their playoff push.
Dierker deserves special recognition for how he handled blue-chip prospect Scott Elarton. Called up in June when Hampton strained his groin, Elarton got two starts before being moved to the bullpen. Dierker resisted the temptation to give Elarton a full-time slot in the rotation even though his starters were slumping. Instead, Elarton averaged a couple of relief appearances a week for the remainder of the season and pitched exceptionally well. He totaled 150 innings for the season between Houston and New Orleans--just about the right amount of work for a 22-year-old.
Dierker has been true to his word about having his starters carry a bigger load. None of the starters pitched significantly better with 5+ day's rest, indicating that they seem to be able to handle it. The starters' pitch counts were kept low, with the notable exception of Johnson--and that may be a macho thing on his part. Holt and Garcia both missed the entire 1998 season with arm problems following the heaviest usage in their careers in 1997. Lima and Bergman's career paths are similar to those of Holt's and Garcia's, although their styles differ (Lima and Bergman both throw harder than Garcia or Holt did, even before their surgeries). This bears watching next year. Hampton also seems high-risk, both because of his size and his workload at his age. Elarton has been groomed nicely and appears ready to step into the rotation. One skill that Dierker has demonstrated repeatedly is the ability to develop starting pitchers. How much of their success is due to the way he uses them is unclear.
Reynolds Days rest Lima Days rest 3 4 5 6+ Totals 4 5 6+ Totals Starts 1 24 8 2 35 Starts 21 9 3 33 QS 0 17 4 2 23 QS 15 5 2 22 %QS .00 .71 .50 1.00 .66 %QS .71 .56 .67 .67 BQS 0 0 1 0 1 BQS 1 1 0 2 %QS+BQS .00 .71 .63 1.00 .69 %QS+BQS .76 .67 .67 .73 Avg # pitches 98 104 95 87 100 Avg # pitches 103 103 96 102 Hampton Days rest Bergman Days rest 4 5 6+ Totals 4 5 6+ Totals Starts 21 10 1 32 Starts 14 5 8 27 QS 14 6 0 20 QS 8 3 3 14 %QS .67 .60 .00 .63 %QS .57 .60 .38 .52 BQS 1 1 0 2 BQS 0 0 0 0 %QS+BQS .71 .70 .00 .69 %QS+BQS .57 .60 .38 .52 Avg # pitches 105 94 78 101 Avg # pitches 91 78 89 88 Johnson Days rest Schourek Days rest 4 5 6+ Totals 4 5 6+ Totals Starts 9 2 0 11 Starts 9 4 2 15 QS 8 2 0 10 QS 3 1 0 4 %QS .89 1.00 .00 .91 %QS .33 .25 .00 .27 BQS 0 0 0 0 BQS 1 0 0 1 %QS+BQS .89 1.00 .00 .91 %QS+BQS .44 .25 .00 .33 Avg # pitches 121 128 0 122 Avg # pitches 92 85 87 90 Halama Days rest Elarton Days rest 4 5 6+ Totals 4 5 6+ Totals Starts 5 1 0 6 Starts 2 0 0 2 QS 1 1 0 2 QS 0 0 0 0 %QS .20 1.00 .00 .33 %QS .00 .00 .00 .00 BQS 0 0 0 0 BQS 1 0 0 1 %QS+BQS .20 1.00 .00 .33 %QS+BQS .50 .00 .00 .50 Avg # pitches 88 97 0 90 Avg # pitches 106 0 0 106 Miller Days rest 6+ Totals Starts 1 1 QS 0 0 %QS .00 .00 BQS 0 0 %QS+BQS .00 .00 Avg # pitches 68 68