If you troll the comments sections around here, you know that I’ve mentioned the name of Craig Wright. Wright is one of the most important voices on the question of how to handle the development of young pitchers. He wrote an article for this year’s Hardball Times Baseball Annual on this subject, and I personally consider the article to be the best single piece in the Annual.
(Much of the following analysis is taken from Wright’s chapter “How to Handle a Pitcher” in this year’s Hardball Times Baseball Annual. If you don’t have a copy of this book, you can read a summary of this chapter here.)
Wright is no basement-dwelling blogger – he’s been a consultant to the Texas Rangers and LA Dodgers, among other teams. He’s no newcomer to this field – he wrote on the topic of handling pitchers in the book “The Diamond Appraised”, back in 1987. And he’s no coddler of pitchers – Wright believes that certain pitchers can throw over 150 pitches in a game with minimal risk of injury.
But when it comes to young pitchers, Wright is cautious:
… younger pitchers in their formative years need to be handled with exceptional care that eases to general monitoring in their prime seasons.
Why “exceptional care”? Because pitching strains a pitcher’s elbow and shoulder, and the body’s joints are the last part of the body to physically mature. As a rule, this maturation is not complete until age 25.
The further you go back before the maturation process is complete, the more vulnerable the shoulder is to [abuse from pitching]. That is, you can relax the protection of a 24-year old arm compared to a 23-year old. But you want to be even more careful with the arm of a pitcher who is 20 to 22, and extremely careful in the professional workload you give to a teenager.
Wright discusses great pitchers whose careers were cut short because they were worked too hard when they were young: Denny McLain, Mark Fidrych, Dave Rozema, Gary Nolan, Frank Tanana, Fernando Valenzuela, Steve Avery, Mark Prior, Dwight Gooden, Bobby Witt. The list is long and daunting.
Wright describes in depth the careers of a few of these pitchers. Some of you may be old enough to remember Frank Tanana, but you may not remember how good he was when he first hit the major leagues. Wright says that Tanana and Dwight Gooden were the two best young pitchers he ever saw, and he has the figures to back up this opinion. From his debut in 1973 (at age 20) until a couple of weeks shy of his 25th birthday, Tanana was the best pitcher in baseball – his ERA during this period was 30% below league average. That’s the best relative ERA for any pitcher younger than age 25 during the Live Ball era of baseball. Then Tanana’s fastball “suddenly vanished”. His 1978 ERA shot up by over two points mid-season, and remained at roughly league average for the rest of his career.
What happened to Tanana? Well, Tanana threw nearly 1200 innings before the age of 25. He threw 246 major league innings at age 19. In some of his starts, he had pitch counts over 180. By age 25, Tanana had developed shoulder problems – he could not throw with his old velocity, and it hurt his shoulder to even try. So, Tanana fell back on his other skills – good control, a variety of breaking balls – and was able to pitch at a major league level through age 39. But he was never anything more than a good pitcher after he hurt his shoulder.
Most of the pitchers on Wright’s list did not fare as well as Tanana. Denny McLain won only 21 games after age 25. Fernando Valenzuela had an ERA around 5.00 after age 25. After age 28, Dwight Gooden averaged just 112 innings pitched a year with an ERA worse than league average. Dennis Eckersley made it to the Hall of Fame, but primarily as a relief pitcher; he experienced shoulder problems that made it impossible for him to continue as a starter.
The names on Wright’s list should give us pause. Lest you think that Wright cherry-picked these names to make a point, I consulted baseball-reference.com to gather a list of all pitchers since 1971 who’d thrown at least 199 innings in a season at age 21 or younger. There are 20 pitchers on this list; seven of them are also on Wright’s list, and another five could have made Wright’s list: Roger Erickson (threw 265 innings for the Twins at age 21, topped 123 innings in just one other season in his career; out of baseball by age 26), Jerry Garvin (threw 244 innings at age 21 and 144 innings at age 22, never threw more than 82 innings in any other season; out of baseball by age 26), Brett Saberhagen (pitched 235 innings at age 21, injured his shoulder at age 23, after age 25 had only three seasons where he pitched more than 155 innings), Don Gullet (threw 217 innings at age 20, out of baseball by age 27 with extensive shoulder and rotator cuff problems) and perhaps Don “Caveman” Robinson (228 innings thrown at age 21, career four surgeries on his throwing shoulder and two on his throwing elbow). Three pitchers on the baseball-reference.com list had long and successful careers (Vida Blue, Bert Blyleven and so far CC Sabathia). The remaining five pitchers on the baseball-reference.com list do not fit into any obvious category: Britt Burns, Tom Underwood, Mark Lemongello (problems with the law), Ed Correa and Storm Davis.
Do the math: of the 20 pitchers since 1971 who threw at least 199 major league innings before age 22, only 15% went on to have great careers. 60% of these pitchers showed a significant early career drop in durability and effectiveness. As Wright himself wrote in his Hardball Times article, the evidence here is “overwhelming”: young pitchers need to be handled with exceptional care.
Of course, no one is proposing that Manny Banuelos pitch 200+ innings this year. All acknowledge that the Yankees will impose an innings limit on Banuelos – perhaps 140 innings, perhaps 150. ESPN Insider Kevin Goldstein thinks the Banuelos innings limit will be 100-125, which would be my recommendation also, though I’m no expert and I’m happy to leave the number selection to the people employed by the Yankees to make these decisions.
But if we’re to apply Wright’s prescription of “exceptional care” to Manny Banuelos, then we should have Banuelos pitch his 2011 limit of innings in the minor leagues. In the minors, Banuelos can learn his craft without having to perform to our exacting specifications. In the majors, Banuelos would pitch before large crowds under great pressure, and he might be tempted to throw a little too hard, or a little too long, or on a day when his arm doesn’t feel exactly right.
On this point I look to the work of a second expert on handling pitchers, Rany Jazayerli at Baseball Prospectus. Jazayerli is probably best known for his studies (along with Keith Woolner) on the relationship between high pitch counts and pitcher injuries. Jazayerli repeatedly makes the point that pitchers risk getting hurt when they pitch fatigued. This is the reason why we have pitch counts, and innings counts – we’re trying to avoid situations where a pitcher (in particular, a young pitcher) is throwing when his arm is tired, when his mechanics may be off, and when he’s most prone to injury.
It’s only natural to assume that pitching in the major leagues (even with an innings limit, and a pitch count limit) is more tiring than pitching in the minors: major league pitching is more pressure-packed, more stressful – or to use a phrase popular in sabermetric circles, major league pitching is “high leverage” compared to pitching in the minors. In the majors, Banuelos may feel too “amped” to even notice that he’s tired.
Granted, the handling of pitchers is more of an art than a science. Wright advises us to use exceptional care with a pitcher like Banuelos, but he doesn’t tell us how much care is “exceptional”. Reasonable minds may differ, which goes to explain why Brien and I disagree on this point. But if we can’t exactly say how much is too much when it comes to a pitcher like Banuelos, then let’s lower our expectations and try to be patient. As much as I’d love to see Banuelos pitching in Yankee Stadium in 2011, it’s more important to me that he be an ace on the Yankees’ staff in 2015, and in 2025 (when he’ll be just 34 years old).
To maximize Banuelos’ value long-term, Banuelos should pitch in the minors in 2011. He should probably pitch in the minors for most of 2012 as well.
Or we could throw caution to the wind this year, in which case Banuelos could be the youngest and most entertaining pitcher seen in the Bronx in quite some time. He could be our Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, he could inspire his own brand of “Fernandomania”. Which, if you think about the truncated careers of Fidrych and Fernando, are two reasons why we don’t want to see this happen to Banuelos.