Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Pitchers and the 200-inning barrier

In the wake of reports that the Red Sox are about to lavish $30 million on lefthanded ace Jon Lester, one has to wonder just what the Red Sox are about to get in return for their investment.

Here are the facts:
1. Jon Lester is 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds.
2. Counting the playoffs, Jon Lester threw 237 innings last season.
3. The 200-inning barrier is a dangerous barrier to break, particularly for a young pitcher.

How dangerous?

Sixty-four pitchers threw at least 200 innings in a season in either 2005 or 2006 (or both). Forty-four of those pitchers -- almost 70 percent -- have had some sort of injury issue in the years since.

Almost 70 percent. That's an astonishing statistic.

Not convinced of how astonishing it is? Here's the list of pitchers who threw 200 innings in 2005 and/or 2006 and then landed on the disabled list or saw their ERA go into the toilet or broke down in some form: Aaron Cook, Aaron Harang, A.J. Burnett, Barry Zito, Bartolo Colon, Brett Myers, Chris Capuano, Chris Carpenter, Cliff Lee, Curt Schilling, Dontrelle Willis, Ervin Santana, Freddy Garcia, Gustavo Chacin, Horacio Ramirez, Jake Peavy, Jake Westbrook, Jason Jennings, Jason Johnson, Jason Schmidt, Jeff Weaver, Jeremy Bonderman, John Lackey, John Smoltz, Jon Lieber, Jose Contreras, Josh Beckett, Josh Towers, Kenny Rogers, Kevin Millwood, Mark Mulder, Miguel Batista, Mike Maroth, Nate Robertson, Noah Lowry, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Rodrigo Lopez, Tim Hudson, Tim Wakefield, Tom Glavine, Vicente Padilla and Zach Duke.

Some breakdowns were fairly minor; Beckett, for example, saw his workload catch up with him at the end of the season and during the postseason, but he never landed on the disabled list. Others, though, weren't so fortunate:

* Chris Capuano broke out in a big way in 2005, winning 18 games with a 3.99 ERA for a Milwaukee team that was just starting to find its identity. Rickie Weeks and J.J. Hardy both were 22 years old; Prince Fielder was 21. Ben Sheets only was on the disabled list twice. It was heady times in Brewer-land. Capuano had already undergone the obligatory Tommy John surgery; he was poised to join Sheets as a one-two punch that could overwhelm the National League.

He took on even more of the load in 2006 as Sheets spent even more time on the disabled list. He tossed two complete-game shutouts and compiled a 4.03 ERA; he struck out just as many hitters as the year before but cut his walk total almost in half. Bill Hall had a huge season at third base for the Brewers, and Prince Fielder and Carlos Lee each hit 28 home runs. It looked like the entire team -- with Capuano at the forefront -- was about to take a huge leap forward.

And then his workload -- 219 innings in 2005 and 221 1/3 innings in 2006 -- caught up with him.

He scuffled in 2007, going 5-12 with a 5.10 ERA and spending most of the month of June on the disabled list with a strained groin. ("We might have a problem here," he told his pitching coach minutes before a scheduled start.) At spring training in 2008, his elbow started to hurt. He underwent Tommy John surgery in mid-May and is hoping -- hoping -- to be ready to pitch again by mid-May this year.

* Gustavo Chacin won 13 games to go along with a 3.72 ERA in 203 innings pitched for the Blue Jays in 2005. His rookie season was good enough, in fact, that he finished in fifth place in American League Rookie of the Year voting - ahead of Joe Blanton, Nick Swisher and Scott Kazmir.

Things started innocuously enough the next year; he won five of his first six starts despite a relatively mediocre 4.50 ERA. At that point, actually, he led an injury-depleted pitching staff in victories. (Free-agent signee A.J. Burnett was on the disabled list, and Josh Towers, who had thrown 208 2/3 innings the year before, was 0-7 with a 10.09 ERA through seven starts.) By early May, though, things started to go downhill. Elbow soreness forced him from a start on May 10, and he ended up on the disabled list. The same soreness returned on June 9.

"You feel for the kid," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said at the time. "We've got to take care of him."

Chacin was promptly shelled in his first start back in late August -- he surrendered five earned runs in 1 1/3 innings against Oakland. He's never been the same. A year ago, he went 1-7 in 11 starts for the Dunedin Blue Jays, Toronto's Single-A franchise. This spring, he's a non-roster invitee to the spring training camp of the Washington Nationals and is a longshot even to make that pitching-desperate roster.

* Ervin Santana is a goofy case -- particularly since the Angels should already have learned their lesson once.

Santana went 16-8 with a 4.28 ERA in 2006, teaming with John Lackey and Jared Weaver to give the Angels as impressive a young starting rotation as any in the American League. But that season, his first season beyond the 200-inning barrier, caught up with him right away. His ERA had jumped to 6.22 by the time the Angels shipped him off to Triple-A to rediscover himself, including 12.56 in the month of July.

Rather than back off on Santana when he showed signs of his old self the next spring, the Angels threw him right back in there.

"Hopefully, his struggles last year weren't for naught with Ervin," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said at the time, "and he understands more about his mechanics. He got in some bad habits last year. Hopefully, he got them cleaned up."

Santana then threw a career-high 219 innings a year ago in going 16-7 with a 3.49 ERA as the Angels put together the best record in the major leagues. With John Lackey fighting injuries and Kelvim Escobar sidelined for the season, he and Joe Saunders had as much to do with the Angels' 100 wins as anyone else. The Angels rewarded him early in spring training with a four-year, $30 million contract extension.

Then, of course, this happened.

There's no way to tell who's going to break down. Roy Oswalt stands 6 feet tall and weighs 170 pounds and hasn't broken down despite throwing 200 innings in each of the last five seasons. Tim Hudson stands 6 feet tall and weighs 170 pounds and underwent Tommy John surgery last summer after back-to-back 200-inning workloads.

At the end of the spectrum, Roy Halladay stands 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds and still is going strong despite throwing more than 200 innings three years in a row. Chris Carpenter, on the other hand, stands 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds and underwent Tommy John surgery in July of 2007.

Opponents to pitch limits and inning limits can point to plenty of success stories. Brandon Webb and Mark Buehrle still are going strong and show no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Greg Maddux, all 170 pounds of him, threw almost 5,000 innings in his 22 full seasons -- an average of 226 innings a year -- and endured exactly one stint on the disabled list.

But it's astounding to think that 69 percent of pitchers who hit the 200-inning barrier in 2005 or 2006 have run into issues in the two (or three) years since. Some of those pitchers -- including the electric Dontrelle Willis, who went 22-10 with a 2.63 ERA in 2005 -- have all but disappeared from the major-league radar.

The Red Sox could go right ahead with their plan to pitch Lester every five days, to let him pitch his arm off for 30 starts or 35 starts or whatever it takes for him to carry his team to another World Series or two.

But it's a gamble -- and it's a gamble that history shows doesn't have a great chance of paying off.


dbhammel said...

Interesting case, hope we dont get screwed. So since 70% of pitchers to top 200 innings got hurt, how many pitchers who didnt reach 200 innings get hurt? Cmon Brian, where is your control here?

Brian MacPherson said...

Problem with a control is that, as I'm looking at guys who didn't pitch 200 innings in either 2005 or 2006, the bulk either
a) didn't do so because they were already injured, or
b) had already pitched 200 innings, like in 2002 or 2003.

So I guess it's hard to draw a completely scientific conclusion. Maybe pitchers are just always going to get injured and it doesn't matter what you do. Maybe it's just a dumb idea to sign pitchers to five-year contracts.

dbhammel said...

Fair enough, maybe you could do a study for % of pitchers who get hurt based on increments of innings reached for first time in career?

Dan said...

I wouldn't exactly say that Mark Beurhle is still going strong. He may not be too injured, but he has been in steady decline the past few years. Hopefully the Red Sox will be careful, maybe give their huge depth in pitching work for them and give everyone extra rest.