September 10, 2009
When is Enough?
We're coming up against the post-season as well as concerns for younger pitcher's workloads this season. While this is obviously progress-it's better that teams follow and worry about their charges wearing down or blowing out the odd shoulder or elbow-it's also important to frame concern over how much is too much for the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw, the Tigers' Rick Porcello, or the Yankees' Joba Chamberlain. It's good to be concerned, especially with pitchers aged 24 or younger-Chamberlain's in his age-23 season, Kershaw his age-21 campaign, and Porcello's a precocious 20. However, in light of recent successes so many playoff teams have enjoyed keeping their better under-24 starters in working order into the postseason and then on into the following season, it's important to recognize that this sort of reasonable caution is an example of a lesson already learned.
In this case, it's important to recognize how a period in time can frame a debate. In the so-called wild-card era, running from 1995 through to 2008, there have been 56 different pitcher/seasons where hurlers aged 24 or younger have started post-season games for their teams. That may sound like a lot, but keep in mind that the period includes all of those veteran-laden rotations on perennial contenders in Atlanta or the Bronx. To narrow our focus towards its beginning, there were 15 different who pitchers made post-season starts in their age-24 seasons or younger from 1995-2000, for a total of 18 different post-season appearances (Andy Pettitte, Ismael Valdez, and Jaret Wright each appeared in two postseasons before their age-25 seasons). Of those 15 different pitchers, nine of them melted down pretty publicly and messily, while only six endured:
Enduring Youngsters (Age) Glory's Casualties (Age) Ismael Valdez '95-96 (21) Bob Wolcott '95 (21) Andy Pettitte '95-96 (23) Rocky Coppinger '96 (22) Livan Hernandez '97 (21) Alan Benes '96 (24) Kevin Millwood '99 (24) Tony Saunders '97 (23) Barry Zito '00 (22) Shawn Estes '97 (24) Tim Hudson '00 (24) Jaret Wright '97-98 (21) Kerry Wood '98 (21) Rick Ankiel '00 (20) Jim Parque '00 (24)
You might feel we're cheating to include Ankiel, Saunders, and Wright among the failures. Ankiel's obviously something of an odd case, since the career-ending case of Blassitis on the mound that cropped up in that very postseason can't be directly, provably attributable to his workload. Saunders actually handled a heavier workload in '98... only to see his career go down the tubes in '99 when he broke his arm throwing a pitch; he never made it back. Wright handled a slightly heavier load in '98, making 32 starts in both seasons but facing slightly more batters in the second year; he also pitched less effectively, and started breaking down in '99 as a 23-year-old. It just took the Indians two years to break him, instead of one.
So, that was an ugly period for young pitchers, and that contributed a lot to the debate of the time over whether or not young pitchers needed to be protected more aggressively, something which Rany Jazayerli and Keith Woolner started documenting using a counting stat called Pitcher Abuse Points. Whether the debate had an impact or not, things seemed to improve shortly afterwards: CC Sabathia, Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, and John Lackey all handled the challenge of tacking on post-season work onto full workloads in 2001 and 2002 before appearing in their first playoff starts. Interestingly enough the youngest of them, Sabathia, was also given the lightest workload, facing 763 batters across 33 turns in 2001.
For better or for worse, the spectacular flameout of Mark Prior after his 2003 season helped obscure the fact that Johan Santana, Carlos Zambrano, Josh Beckett, and Dontrelle Willis all made their first post-season starts while aged 24 or younger, and all of them survived and handled similar or heavier loads afterwards. Notably, Santana started 2003 in the pen, and was monitored carefully by the Twins, while Beckett was handled gingerly and wound up with a relatively light workload (25 starts, 149 IP, and 627 batters faced), but that arguably helped prep him perfectly for the single heaviest post-season workload of any starting pitcher aged 24 or younger-42
Still, concern for Prior's spectacular meltdown after he had faced 960 batters across 33 starts in his age-22 season (combining his regular-season and post-season data) gave concerned pitch-counters a martyr, and it's the specter of Mark Prior that haunts suggestions over what's to be done with Kershaw or Chamberlain or Porcello. It's also important to note that of all the starting pitchers aged 24 or under to make post-season starts in the wild-card era of play, Prior has the highest single-season workload in terms of batters faced per start. Here's a list of the top 10 in terms of batters faced per start, followed by the figures for Kershaw, Chamberlain, and Porcello through yesterday's action to give you a point of comparison:
So, to put Prior into proper context as his generation's poster boy for overwork, he was seeing the most batters per start of any starter aged 24 or under who appeared in the post-season in the last 14 years, and he was among the youngest. Unlike the older Mulder or Valdez, each of who handled heavy loads the previous seasons, Prior had never had to reach those kinds of heights before. Of this group, we've got three flameouts-Prior, and then arguing over the nature of Carmona's problems, and dickering over whether Wade Miller's brief blaze of glory and slow decline was really all that disappointing (or a suggestion of what's ahead for the slowly declining Big Z). Hamels' presence on the list is telling-folks might be complaining about his work ethic or whatever, but that's the highest tally of innings and starts of any young starter from 1995 to the present. His early-season problems might not be all that surprising in that light, but his lower per-game workload than Prior and better-established capacity to carry this load after handling a full slate of assignments in '07 perhaps suggests that Hamels is more like the former youngster who held the record for IP for an under-24 post-season starter before him-Andy Pettitte.
It's also interesting to note that we've had more starters under the age of 24 drawing post-season assignments in the last three years, with at least seven different youngsters in each postseason, and eight different under-24 hurlers taking turns in 2007. Consider last season's group:
Keeping in mind that Gallardo was coming back from a knee injury to contribute at the last instant, he was nevertheless monitored carefully. With the arguable exception of Kazmir, who's been solid since coming off of the DL and has thrown eight quality starts in his last 10 (while also getting dealt to the Angels), that's a group of pitchers all having good years in 2009, and showing few signs of trouble. They were all handled carefully while also generally carrying heavier loads than this year's trio of tyros. So, while the ghost of Mark Prior's worth noting, it's also important to remember that the lesson's already been heeded within the industry.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .