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June 29, 2011
The BP Broadside
Pineda to Infinity and Beyond
In the early days of BP, the group had a catch-phrase for young pitchers coined by Gary Huckabay: TINSTAAPP: There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect. I’m not sure if Gary picked it up from Robert Heinlein or Milton Friedman, both of whom got some mileage out of “There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch” back in the last century, but regardless of the inspiration, Gary’s point was that young pitchers are so susceptible to both injury and random fluctuations in performance that you could never take their prospect status at face value.
The Mariners have mapped out a couple scenarios for the remaining three months of the season with their entire five-man rotation, which is the only starting group that has not missed a game yet this year. [Manager Eric] Wedge… indicated the team would primarily just keep the five starters in the same rotation and monitor innings and tough situations as they arise.
At the risk of translating incorrectly from a great distance, Wedge seems to be saying that he is not going to drop Pineda into the bullpen, randomly send him down, or skip his starts for a week at a time. He is just going to make an effort not to be stupid.
Note his emphasis on pitch counts rather than innings. One area in which a correlation to injury has been convincingly theorized is not in total innings or even total pitch counts, but in per-inning pitch counts, which is to say that if both Pitcher A and Pitcher B throw 135 pitches in a game, but Pitcher A throws 50 pitches in the third and Pitcher B just has a nice steady 15 per frame, Pitcher A is much more likely to have done himself damage.
Pineda is not running up complete games, he’s not on a pace for 200 innings—210 seems about right—and his pitch counts, at least on a game-to-game basis, have been very conservative. His high for the season is 106 and he has crossed the 100-pitch threshold just four times.
Chamberlain was sent to the bullpen out of spring training with an amorphous promise that he would transition to the rotation; the idea was to prevent injury by minimizing his workload. The highly anticipated move came on June 3, and Chamberlain pitched quite well as a starter, but he got hurt anyway, missing most of August with rotator cuff tendonitis… Chamberlain was probably no safer in the pen than he was in the rotation, and his injury may have actually been caused by an awkward spill he took trying to get out of the way of a Pudge throw to second that came at him head-high earlier in the same inning that he was hurt. Nonetheless, upon his return he was back among the relievers.
And then in BP 2010:
What a mess. It's possible that no pitcher in the history of baseball has suffered through as many team-inflicted head games as Chamberlain. Though not pitching up to expectations, he was nonetheless the club's most successful starter in the early going, posting a 3.89 ERA in 15 starts that were often shortened due to a combination of strikeouts and nibbling eating up the pitcher's strict pitch counts. A couple of rough starts heading into the All-Star break raised anxiety levels, but Chamberlain came roaring out of the hiatus, allowing just two runs in three starts comprising 21 2/3 innings. At that point, the Yankees initiated the Joba Rules 2.0 in order to hold the young pitcher to no more than 160 innings on the season, skipping starts and then shortening them, which had the effect of turning Joba's starts into bad relief appearances. From the New Rules' imposition on, his ERA was 7.52, as he was so clearly rattled by the constant threat of being pulled about two minutes into the game and then not pitching again for a week that he was unable to concentrate. If the Joba Rules are in conflict with the goal of developing Chamberlain into a consistently successful major-league pitcher, then it isn’t clear what the Yankees are accomplishing. The Rules were supposed to be out the window for 2010, but the acquisition of Javier Vazquez likely pushes Chamberlain back to the pen—perhaps the best role for Joba after all, and a tacit admission that in their eagerness to spare him injury, the Yankees killed a potentially great starter with kindness.
Last season, the Yankees tried to apply some of the same magic to Hughes, creating an arbitrary 175-inning limit, and when Hughes went over 100 innings roughly halfway through the season, they forced him to skip starts to stay under the cap. Despite these maneuvers, both pitchers got hurt. Chamberlain is gone for the year and more, having required Tommy John surgery, while Hughes is trying to work his way back from “right shoulder inflammation,” a problem which has seriously impacted his ability to achieve and maintain velocity.