July 14, 2011
Innings Caps: Hidden Championship Killers
As I was reviewing the first half of the Dodgers season over at my own blog this week (shameless plug here), one topic that came up was the solid performance of rookie starter Rubby de la Rosa. Forced into the rotation about a month ago when fifth starter Jon Garland’s season ended due to injury, he’s offered the club plenty of value (3.74 ERA / 3.94 SIERA), striking out more than a man per inning while doing some on-the-job learning with his control at the major league level. While his debut has been a nice surprise, he is also already nearing a career high in innings pitched with 85 2/3 combined innings under his belt between the minors and majors this year. His previous high was 110 1/3 innings last season, which followed three years in which he totaled just 69 2/3 frames. The Dodgers are woefully out of the chase, so the priority must be on preserving the 22-year-old for the future–not pushing him beyond his limits this year in pursuit of an October run which will almost certainly not come.
This article isn’t about the Dodgers, however; it’s about rookie starters like de la Rosa who may see their appearances limited down the stretch in the name of preservation. Like fantasy football players who must always worry about whether their starting quarterback will be benched in Week 17 should their team have clinched, losing some of this year’s more productive pitchers could have a huge impact on the baseball races both in reality and in the fantasy worlds.
Let’s start by identifying the appropriate pitchers in the discussion, which takes a few steps. Simply identifying the rookie starters who have thrown more than 50 combined IP so far (an admittedly arbitrary cutoff) is a good start, but this still leaves us with well over 20 names. Since I doubt anyone’s really all that concerned about a guy like Guillermo Moscoso and his 5.83 SIERA, let’s narrow it down to rookie pitchers who have both thrown at least 50 combined innings and are valuable enough that they’ve earned at least 0.5 WAR thus far.
That gets us down to the pitchers in the list below. We should all know by now that there is no magic number that, once reached, will define whether or not a pitcher gets injured, and so clearly there’s more to this than just numbers. Determining factors for how much is too much can include a team’s philosophy, place in the standings, quality of alternatives, and the player’s health history–and we’ll get to those as well.
*”But Zimmermann and Ogando aren’t rookies!” you might protest. That’s true. However, Zimmermann did miss much of 2010 due to Tommy John surgery, and the Nationals have been clearthat their prized prospect has an innings cap this year. Ogando is in his first year starting, and his 2011 workload has nearly surpassed that of his entire minor league career, so he’s worth investigating too.
Eyeballing this list, we can see that the collection of young pitchers can easily be broken up into a few groups.
Gee has the highest previous total of anyone here and isn’t a highly-regarded prospect; either way, the Mets don’t really have much to replace him with anyway. I’ll admit that my opinion of Worley plummeted when he allowed 12 hits in just three innings the first time I saw him in person earlier this year, but he’s allowed just 12 in four starts since. He’s barely halfway to his previous high, and the Phillies may yet get back some of their injured starters to take some of the load off. Nova is no longer much of an issue as he was optioned to the minors last week in order to make room for Phil Hughes.
Britton, Chatwood, and Hellickson have each had roughly the same workload this year as well as similar high water marks in the past, but their situations are still quite unique. Britton’s promising season went south for an Orioles team which is going nowhere; while the quick-and-dirty stats show that he impressed over his first ten starts (.615 OPS against, 2.35 ERA), his most recent eight were troubling (.819 OPS against, 6.86 ERA), culminating in not making it out of the first inning against Boston on Friday.That earned him a demotion to Double-A over the weekend, though there’s some thought that this move was made in large part to preserve a year of service time since he is scheduled to return on July 30. His workload will be easier to preserve in the minors, though if he doesn’t start pitching more effectively, whether he’s available or not won’t matter.
Chatwood’s 3.62 ERA is belied by a 5.50 SIERA, largely because he has as many walks as strikeouts and is in fact leading the league in free passes. Like the Mets and Dodgers, the Angels don’t have a lot of other choices in the rotation, so the plan here seems to be to keep Chatwood’s innings down by skipping him whenever possible rather than shutting him down. Mike Scioscia says they would like to keep him south of 170 innings, which would allow him to start 10-12 more games.
In Tampa, Joe Maddon is in line with his former mentor Scioscia by saying that Hellickson will be limited to about 180 innings. Last Friday’s rainout in New York allowed them to skip his start, and with the rotation reset provided by the break, he’ll get at least two full weeks of rest before going again, likely on July 17.
His season will end in late August or early September, when he hits 160 innings -- the limit the Nats set in his first full season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in August 2009. And any pitches he can save can only extend his season.
The Nationals are flirting with .500, which is a successful season for them, though there’s certainly no playoff run in their future that losing Zimmermann could detract from. That’s not the case in Texas,though, where the Rangers will start the second half with just a one-game lead over the Angels, and Ogando has already blown past his previous innings high by nearly 30 innings. The Rangers haven’t made any concrete statements regarding Ogando’s future, but the plan seems to be in flux; after floating the possibility of sending him down after a few rough June starts, Ogando has rebounded with two quality July games, with most evidence suggesting he isn’t wearing down. Meanwhile, the club has put Scott Feldman, the most likely candidate to replace him in the rotation, on waivers, suggesting no change is imminent.
We also have recent history to look at as it’s only been a year since the Rangers converted another reliever into a starter. C.J. Wilson hadn’t thrown even 100 innings since 2006 yet went 228.1 (including the playoffs) last year. It’s not enough to merely compare the two–Wilson had pitched five seasons in the bigs by that point while Ogando had been banned from the country for five years after a visa scandal–but it does help us to look at the Rangers as an organization that is willing to go beyond simple innings limits in determining how far to push. At the very least, he is being skipped in his first post-break start, allowing him 12 days of restbefore going back out on July 19. Watch him carefully, but it appears he won’t be on as tight of a leash as Zimmermann.
Finally, we get to the most interesting situation of all, which is Michael Pineda in Seattle. The 22-year-old and Rookie of the Year contender has immediately become an invaluable member of the Mariners staff. Much has been madeof the Mariners‘ apparent decision to not put any innings limit on him, instead rather progressively focusing on inning-by-inning and game-by-game pitch counts. Horrendous final start before the break aside, Pineda has been outstanding, and seeing him shut down would be a huge blow to both the Mariners‘ fledgling playoff hopes and the rosters of fantasy teams everywhere. For the moment, it appears Seattle is not inclined to do that, though falling further out of the chase could certainly impact that line of thinking.
If we’ve learned anything from this exercise, it’s that no two situations are alike. You’ll see some teams let a young pitcher go as long as they’re healthy and effective, some will skip and stretch to manage to get the player through the season, and some will just turn the prospect loose until a particular limit is reached, regardless of when that is. As teams continue to try to unlock the key to keeping young pitchers healthy, we’ll soon see how each approach worked for this year’s crop of hurlers.