September 29, 2000
The Daily Prospectus
A Nod to Tony
Most of you probably remember the hullaballoo back in May after Rick Ankiel tossed 121 pitches in a start against the Marlins. Those of us prone to paranoia in that area were quick to excoriate LaRussa for his handling of his talented left-hander. We weren't the only ones drawing swords: Ankiel's agent, Scott Boras, made it known that he wasn't happy about the start. There was talk that he had an understanding with the organization about limiting Ankiel's workload until he became older.
The noise died fairly quickly, and the whole incident provided an important object lesson about overreacting to one data point. Since that start, Tony LaRussa has handled Rick Ankiel as well as any young pitcher has been handled in recent memory.
In his first nine starts, Ankiel topped 110 pitches four times, with the 121-pitch start his ninth. Since then, in 21 starts, he has thrown more than 110 pitches just three times, with a high of 112 pitches. Ankiel's workload, in fact, has been remarkably consistent, in part because he hasn't really been bombed in any start. Since May 21, he's thrown fewer than 90 pitches just once, with a low of 85.
I don't think this is coincidence, or the influence of Scott Boras, or even that LaRussa keeps a copy of Rany Jazayerli's Pitcher Abuse Points system tacked on his office wall. I think LaRussa has a damn good idea how to develop a young starting pitcher, an idea that stems in part from what went wrong with the last good ones he had, Alan Benes and Matt Morris.
Alan Benes was a victim of his own effectiveness in 1997. In four months as a 25-year-old, he made 23 starts and posted a 2.89 ERA. In the last 21 of those starts, he threw at least 100 pitches. For the season, he had 514 PAPs, an average of 22.3 per start for a Workload of 48.1, which is in the danger zone. Benes's 1997 season was cut short by a broken finger, not arm trouble, but he underwent multiple shoulder surgeries in 1998 and has yet to return to his 1997 form.
Morris was great for the Cardinals in 1997, making 33 starts as a 22-year-old and posting a 3.19 ERA. His pitch counts don't look very bad, actually: a high of 121 in his only start over 120. He had nine straight starts over 100 at one point, but racked up just 264 PAPs, exactly eight per start, for a Workload of 20.8. That's a figure that reflects good handling, not bad.
Nevertheless, Morris missed almost all of the first half of 1998 with a strained right shoulder. He returned after the All-Star Game and after some careful handling, was again effective and carrying a good-sized workload. On August 4 of that season, he threw 131 pitches, after not breaking 94 all year. That began a run of nine starts in ten over 100 pitches, broken by his final start of the season.
Morris's pitch counts, in and of themselves, aren't daunting. The 131-pitch start was clearly irresponsible; given the Cardinals weren't playing any meaningful baseball in September, it probably would have been a better idea to baby Morris rather than have him toss 103 pitches or more in his first five September starts.
Morris had Tommy John surgery the next spring and missed 16 months.
So it was against this background that the raging against LaRussa occurred. Benes and Morris had been handled in a questionable manner and suffered major injuries. Would Ankiel be another victim? If LaRussa was willing to work Ankiel past 120 pitches in May, what would happen in a pennant race? After all, Kerry Wood was worked so hard by the Cubs in 1998, as a 20-year-old, that he is only now returning to something that even resembles his pre-surgery form.
LaRussa didn't come close. Ankiel, for the entire season, has 175 PAPs, or less than six per start. Just 78 of those have come since the May 25 start against Florida. His Workload of 16.5 doesn't even register on the radar screen.
By contrast, Alan Benes had 169 PAPs in three starts in July of 1997. Wood had 120 in a three-start stretch in July of 1998. Livan Hernandez or Randy Johnson may rack up that many in the time it takes you to read this.
I think a lot of things went into Tony LaRussa's handling of Rick Ankiel this year. The prior experiences with Morris and Benes; Ankiel's extreme youth; the greater scrutiny given young pitchers' workloads; the other innings-munchers the Cardinals had in the rotation; the lack of a real challenge in the division; maybe even an agent with an eye on his client's future.
No matter what the reasons, though, Tony LaRussa didn't do what many of us expected. Instead, he reined in his young charge, resisting the temptation to stretch him out or complete a game "for his confidence" or use him to soak up a tired bullpen's innings. He limited Ankiel's workload and for his troubles, has a healthy and effective pitcher ready for the postseason.
Nice job, Tony. Very nice job.
Joe Sheehan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.