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March 12, 2009

Wait 'Til Next Year

Racking Up the Abuse Points

by Bryan Smith

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Lost amid the goodwill surrounding Fresno State's Hollywood-like championship run in Omaha last season was the story of Tanner Scheppers. When the Independent League St. Paul Saints open their season this April, Scheppers' name will return to the box scores for the first time in 11 months, as the former Bulldogs' ace seeks to prove that he's healthy and to renew his pro prospect status. However, as with Alex Wilson at Texas A&M, concerns about his previous injury are likely to prevent a return to top 10 overall status, and for that, Scheppers (and Wilson, too) has one thing to blame: his workload.

Last season, Scheppers made 11 starts and one relief appearance for Fresno State before going down with an arm injury that would end his season prematurely, forcing him out of the playoff run that made his teammates famous. These are his pitch totals per start:


Date    NP
2/23    84
2/29    99
3/08   110
3/14    97
3/20   120
3/25    95
3/30   120
4/12   106
4/18   130
4/25   134
5/02    10 (relief)
5/04   137

Ladies and gentleman of the jury, I rest my case. (If you think that this kind of thing will stay out of the courtroom forever, you're wrong. I know of one college prospect who was advised by a doctor to sue his coach.) In the span of the last 17 days of his season-during which the average MLB starting pitcher, with five days rest between starts, would throw a maximum of around 400 pitches-Scheppers threw 411. In late March, Scheppers was put on a major league schedule, with three starts in 11 days, and was maxed out at 335 pitches. Add to that the pressure of dozens of scouts with radar guns waiting on every pitch-a situation just begging for young kids to overthrow-and an injury seemed inevitable.

This is not an isolated incident as much as it is just another a tragic anecdote. Of course, the timing of injuries doesn't always coincide so closely with the draft (Alex Wilson and Jeff Niemann were hurt the year before, Kenny Baugh was hurt year(s) after). The problem with the trajectory of the college baseball season is that, as the pressure builds, injuries deplete the pitching staff, and coaches begin to demand more and more from their aces. In Omaha last year, North Carolina ace (and 2009 draft prospect) Alex White went from opening the CWS for his team with 107 pitches on June 15, to becoming a trusted reliever with appearances on June 19 (29 pitches), June 21 (34), and June 22 (18).

As the season enters conference play and the weekends begin to have larger consequences, it's going to be difficult for coaches to resist abusing their top talents. For some, it's already started to happen. I've pointed out the trials of Josh Spence this season, the junior college transfer turned Arizona State ace. While the Sun Devils don't track raw pitch totals, Spence faced 21 batters on opening night, would face 29 more (throwing 122 pitches!) on three days rest against Missouri on February 24, and 26 more batters on March 1. There's just no way to justify 76 batters in the season's first nine days, and perhaps Coach Pat Murphy realized this, giving Spence last weekend off against Holy Cross.

I don't really understand why Brandon Workman, who pitched a no-hitter against Penn State on a Sunday, wasn't given a full week's rest-the team decided to pitch him the next Saturday. I promise this isn't results-based analysis picking on Workman's worst start of the season, but it's indisputably sloppy coaching. I don't understand why Kyle Gibson goes out for the eighth against Ball State last weekend, because while he did get those career-high 12th and 13th strikeouts, he also finished with 114 pitches. In early March!

Looking at the other top draft prospects, I'm a bit more encouraged. Kendal Volz has been given a week's rest between each start, and he has yet to throw more than 104 pitches. Baylor coach Steve Smith is unlikely to push Volz, a reliever over the summer, beyond his means. And we've seen no reason to particularly fear for the workloads of Mike Minor, Alex White, or Andy Oliver.

If nothing else, I can promise that this space will do its best to highlight further cringe-worthy usage patterns as the season goes on and teams become far more tempted to shorten their pitching staffs. It makes me root subtly against San Diego State-who have taken San Diego in four-of-five this season, and beat UCLA on Wednesday-if only because I hope Tony Gwynn won't ride Steven Strasburg too hard. Through three starts, Strasburg has faced a palatable 79 batters, but without a raw pitch total, it's hard to really know if it's been too much, too early. If we need yet another reason to demand far more transparency in college statistics, it's that abusive college coaches, even those that put up big win totals, should not have so much leeway with developing young arms.

---

Baseball Prospectus NCAA Top 25: March 12, 2009

 1. Texas
 2. Louisiana State
 3. North Carolina
 4. Texas A&M
 5. Cal State Fullerton
 6. Georgia
 7. Baylor
 8. Georgia Tech
 9. UC Irvine
10. TCU
11. Rice
12. Miami
13. Arizona State
14. Clemson
15. Ole Miss
16. San Diego
17. Oklahoma
18. Oklahoma State
19. Coastal Carolina
20. Florida
21. South Carolina
22. Pepperdine
23. Stanford
24. Oregon State
25. Arkansas

This week provided too many opportunities to overreact, and, perhaps to a fault, I'm choosing to stick with my analysis: I just can't throw away Clemson and Stanford for losing a series to top three teams. UCLA was probably the last team out of the rankings, and I have no doubt that we'll see them again at some point this season. Recognition of Pepperdine, which was long overdue, has been rectified this week-the Waves are just 2-3 on Saturdays, but a flawless record on Fridays behind Nate Newman indicates an underrated West Coast star. Also, this is a team with 14 home runs in 13 games, so they'll win games even when the pitching isn't there. Oregon State also edged into the rankings over UC Riverside, principally because they beat the Highlanders this weekend.

---

Weekend Preview: Premier Match-Ups

Friday: Kent State at Kennesaw State, Kyle Smith vs. Kyle Heckathorn. I'm going off the beaten path to see a couple of interesting small school prospects this week. Not often do you find 6-foot-6 power right-handers at such schools, and those of you in the area should be looking up directions to Kennesaw to see this pair. There's little question that the unanimous better prospect will be Heckathorn, who despite an early season 5.40 ERA, has 20 strikeouts in 15 innings thanks to a mid-90s fastball. Blame his team defense-currently putting up a disastrous .601 DER, for the early season struggles. Expect Heckathorn, as with Ben Tootle at Jacksonville State, to profile as a future reliever, since his secondary pitches lag behind.

He'll have no easy time with the Kent State offense, which is putting up 9.6 runs per game, or with his opponent Smith. The Flashes' ace has a good sinker/slider game, and with his size, he gets excellent tilt on his pitches. Smith has yet to give up an extra-base hit through 11 innings this season, and while the strikeouts aren't there yet (just seven so far), hitters are not making good contact. Expect more of the same this weekend, as Smith may be forced to answer zeroes with zeroes against Heckathorn.

Saturday: Ole Miss at Vanderbilt, Drew Pomeranz vs. Caleb Cotham. When I played tennis, we always accused the team that put their best player in the second spot of "stacking." And I'm accusing the Rebels of doing it, though we can't penalize Mike Bianco too much for pitching Pomeranz on Saturdays-the southpaw began the season being suspended following an off-season DUI arrest. Still, while the mixed-up weekend rotation costs us the battle of SEC southpaws in Pomeranz vs. Mike Minor, Cotham isn't a bad substitute. The right-hander has won all three of his starts, allowing just 10 hits in 21 innings. We'll see how Pomeranz handles this impressive Commodores offense, led by dynamic freshman sophomore Jason Esposito. In 14 games, he's hitting .357/.403/.589, with seven steals and just one error. Look out for a Sonny Gray sighting in the bullpen-Gray and Esposito are Tim Corbin's next batch of first-round picks (after Mike Minor makes it four in the past three years this June).

Sunday: Baylor at Texas A&M, TBA vs. Barret Loux. There's no disputing that the Bears' rotation is solid, it's just that the rotation is in flux. At the beginning of the season, Sundays belonged to summer standout Craig Fritsch, but coach Steve Smith opted to move ace Kendal Volz to Saturdays, and Fritsch took over the Friday night role. Last weekend, projected Saturday starter Shawn Tolleson was taken out of the rotation, and a hodgepodge of relievers took the Sunday spot. However, with the mid-week game against Texas postponed this week, it's now been eight days since right fielder Aaron Miller shut down TCU over five innings on March 4. Miller, a blue-chip recruit who has been plagued by inconsistency at the plate, might just convince scouts that his power-lefty arm is the better tool. I remember similar debates coming up about Mitch Moreland at Mississippi State not long ago. I'm also excited to see how the dynamic Aggies' weekend rotation, currently boasting 74 strikeouts in 52 combined innings, handles their first Big 12 test. Should be a great series.

Bryan Smith is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bryan's other articles. You can contact Bryan by clicking here

Related Content:  Tanner Scheppers,  The Who,  Ace

18 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Fresh Hops

I would be really pleased to see the NCAA step in and set a pitch count rule: the pitcher must be removed upon completion of the plate appearance in which he throws his 99th pitch. Perhaps a days-off between starts rule would be good too; how about "a pitcher must be given a number of days off between games equal to the number of pitches he threw in his last game divided by 20, rounded down."

Such a rule protects not only future big leaguers but also kids who are never going to see a professional game in their life but who could spend many years and many thousand dollars with a chronic joint problem.

It's really the only way to solve this problem because coaches have no incentive not to overwork their aces, especially when they're chasing a CWS, and the long term costs fall only to players.

Mar 12, 2009 10:40 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Will Carroll
BP staff

The NCAA has told me, both on and off the record, in the past year that they have no interest in instituting a pitch count without the proposal coming from the coaches.

Mar 12, 2009 19:58 PM
 
BillJohnson

Does MLB have enough clout with the coaches that the big-league teams themselves could initiate the push for such a rule?

Mar 13, 2009 08:22 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Bryan Smith
BP staff

In a word, no. Scouting directors and college coaches sit down for a meeting once a year, but I don't think the MLB folk would have the audacity to try and tell the coaches how to do their jobs (and that's what it would be perceived as). I don't think college baseball has a single malicious coach, so in their heart of hearts, there's not a NCAA coach that thinks he's endangering his players' futures.

This is really a job of the NCAA, and as Will said, they have shown no interest in following Little League's lead ... which does upset me.

Mar 13, 2009 08:53 AM
 
Ben Solow

It seems to me that high school players (or better, their parents) should be able to figure out who's getting their arms blown out by college coaches and stay away from those schools. While a pitch count is a good idea, the problem should also help resolve itself as good recruits decide to stay away from schools that ruin potential careers.

Mar 13, 2009 15:14 PM
rating: 0
 
oystertoadfish

natsfarm.com, a Nationals farm system blog, has made estimates of Strasburg's pitch counts in his three starts so far. They're visible in the top right, under "Strasburg Watch", and I've copied them below:

"
as of 3/6
3-0 20.1IP 1.77 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 45K/4BB
Strikeouts & pitch count (Total/Strikes)

1. vs Bethune-Cookman 11K & 105/?
2. vs Nevada 16K & 115/77
3. vs San Diego 18K & 116/79
"
...That doesn't look so good, does it?

Mar 12, 2009 12:03 PM
rating: 1
 
mymrbig

Wow, not good at all. At least he isn't pitching any mid-week relief and he doesn't tend to have any particularly long innings. I'm a believer that one long inning is potentially much worse than spreading out 115 pitches over 7+ IP. Still, it should be a rare occurence that a college starter throws 115 pitches and it shouldn't happen twice in the first 3 weeks of the season.

Mar 12, 2009 13:43 PM
rating: 0
 
rsambrook

I wonder if a college pitcher has ever refused to pitch to protect his arm? You would have to think that the thought would cross their mind.

If I were Strasburg, knowing that if I didn't pitch another college inning I would be guaranteed millions of dollars at the draft, would have to at least consider the possibility of protecting my arm if I was called upon to pitch relief shortly after a 120 pitch start?

Mar 12, 2009 12:15 PM
rating: 0
 
Drungo

At least the NCAA is taking on the task of figuring out which of their pitchers is among the half dozen of each generation who can throw superhuman numbers of innings. From a MLB point of view it's nice to do the culling of the weak (or maybe not exceptionally strong) on somebody else's dime.

Mar 12, 2009 13:14 PM
rating: 0
 
sjdiehl

While I agree that there are many college pitchers that get hurt there, there are too many cases in which college pitchers are run through the ringer, get large signing bonuses, and get hurt quickly (or have chronic arm injuries) after they get to the majors.

Mar 13, 2009 06:31 AM
rating: 0
 
mymrbig

Because Baugh and Niemann were mentioned, I'll throw a quick comment in support of Coach Graham (Rice). I don't think you can deny that some of his pitchers threw too many pitches in the late 90's and early 00's. But over the last few seasons he seems to have become much more cognizant of this fact and it has become pretty rare that a Rice pitcher throws a ton of pitches, really since Savery's sophomore year. Berry might not be quite the prospect that Baugh/Skaggs/Niemann/Humber/Townsend/Savery were, but his pitch counts have been very reasonable, and so were Savery's during his sophomore and junior seasons.

Mar 12, 2009 13:47 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Bryan Smith
BP staff

Yes, I have said in the past that I respect Coach Graham -- I think since the Niemann/Townsend/Humber era, he's made a cognizant change to do more to protect his pitchers. I think Savery is a poor example, because his light sophomore/junior workloads were a result of consistent arm soreness from an abusive freshman season. I don't know what to make of Cole St. Clair's usage, but I'm not sure I blame Graham there. With Berry, however, he's been very reasonable, and I don't think Rice will be the butt-end of these jokes that they were from 1996-2006.

Mar 13, 2009 08:56 AM
 
mymrbig

I get annoyed when I see someone still refering to "Rice pitchers" like it is still the same red flag it was earlier in the decade. You didn't do this, but I just felt like jumping in to help educate the masses.

I use Savery's freshman year as a "line in the sand" for Graham's use of pitchers not just because of Savery's use (you are right that his sophomore and junior usage was impacted by his lingering arm problems), but because Graham also used his other pitchers differently.

Here are the total games with 121+ pitches thrown for Rice pitchers since 2002 (courtesy of Boyd's World), along with random totals for a few of the top collegiate pitching prospects:
2002 - 8 (Crowder lead Rice with 4, Verlander had 8)
2003 - 10 (Niemann with 3, Verlander had 11)
2004 - 9 (Humber with 5, Wade LeBlanc had 6)
2005 - 12 (Savery with 5, Lincecum had 9, Wade LeBlanc had 7)
2006 - 3 (David Price had 5 for Vanderbilt, Wade LeBlanc had 8)
2007 - 0 (David Price had 10)
2008 - 1

So while Rice's pitchers did throw too many pitches too often, Coach Graham wasn't nearly as bad as his reputation and certainly wasn't as bad as some of the other coaches out there. Moreover, I think it speaks well of Coach Graham that he completely changed his ways once the workload of college pitchers really started becoming a hot-button issue. And anyone who had ever met Coach Graham would know he would never, ever do anything to knowingly harm his players. I can guarantee there are some coaches more interested in winning, and Graham isn't one of them.

Are you still reading?

Mar 13, 2009 10:14 AM
rating: 0
 
Pietaster07

No Florida State in top 25? Definitely better than Florida!

Mar 12, 2009 16:15 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Bryan Smith
BP staff

That really is the benchmark, isn't it? But why do you think Florida State is better than Florida? Certainly the pitching staff is worse, and certainly the defense is worse. I think the offense might be a little better, but it's hard to tell given the ridiculous park effects that cloud those numbers. I like Florida's hitters better, I know that. The Gators took a hit in my head after being swept by Miami, but the Seminoles have hardly impressed in the early going.

Mar 13, 2009 09:01 AM
 
sbnirish77

Unlke football and basketball, the number of scholarships for baseball is very limited with players splitting scholarships very common. The temptation for the coach to ride his few horses, especially at schools on the fringe, is immense and contributes to the problem.

Asking a non-scholarship layer to fill the role of your stud on that fifth day will probably be reflected in the team's record and quickly get that coach fired.

Mar 13, 2009 12:13 PM
rating: 0
 
schmub

Do you think LSU should worry about Ranaudo breaking down as the year progresses? His pitch counts have been reasonable thus far: 87, 90, 97, and 110. However, do you think the nearly entire season he missed last year will affect his durability this year?

By the way, Friday night in Baton Rouge featured two impressive starts. Paxton from Kentucky went 6 innings, gave up three earned runs, and struck out 14 of the 26 batters he faced. Ranaudo also went six, giving up three earned, and striking out 13 of the 29 he faced.

Mar 14, 2009 09:14 AM
rating: 0
 
harderj

I haven't been following too closely, but what do you think of Virginia (15-0 against not too tough competition)?

Miami's visit next weekend will be telling...

Mar 16, 2009 11:02 AM
rating: 0
 
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