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.