Why Banuelos Is Not Ready For Prime Time

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.

26 thoughts on “Why Banuelos Is Not Ready For Prime Time

  1. I think most of this is simply related to a totally different question than whether Banuelos is ready to pitch in the majors. Wright's work pertains to workloads, and that's another question entirely than whether Banuelos should get his work in at the major league level or in the minors this year. And while I think it's probably true that major league innings are more stressful than minor league innings, the two questions that doesn't answer are:

    a) how much more stressful and,

    b) is that necessarily a bad thing, or is a bit more of a challenge a good thing for a developing pitcher?

  2. I am not sure how far back you really want to go with this but you could include Bob Feller and Jim Palmer here. Both had 200 inning seasons at or before age 21 and they turned out fairly well. Now Palmer did miss almost two years with injuries which may be part of your point and Feller miss three years due to WW2. Of course one could say that those three years were not spent throwing a ball and possibly straining his arm. Of course being in a war was no picnic either.

    Just throwing it out there.

  3. The Yankees need to take a cautious approach with their young pitchers, and to be more consistent in the way that they use these pitchers. Having starters bounce around between the pen and the rotation for the sake of innings conservation is a good way to get pitchers hurt (throwing too hard in short spurts/high leverage situations, warming up and preparing differently than they are accustomed as a result of the transition from starter to reliever). I am all for ManBan working in AA and proving he deserves a bump to AAA at some point, limiting his starts to conserve innings. Those who are demanding the Yanks bring him up to MLB to work out of the pen are being shortsighted; those who think he is ready to be a MLB starter are not viewing the situation realistically – he is a 20 year old with hardly any professional innings.

  4. What everyone needs to remember is that throwing a baseball is not a natural motion for the shoulder and elbow. Let the arm develop and gain strength in the minors. hes only 20 years old. Provided there are no major injuries, he will be pitching in the majors without restrictions at 22 years old.

  5. Your study showed how many guys who were heavily used fizzled out, but how does that compare to those great prospects who fizzle anyway? I havent looked a lot into the stats and really wouldnt know how to, but wouldnt the more important consideration be the marginal risk compared to bringing him along slowly as opposed to the absolute risk?

  6. What do you guys think will be the minor league plan for Banuelos this year? I think that he should stay on a regular starting schedule but should only throw 3-4 innings every start. That way he's taking the ball everytime his turn in the rotation comes up but keeping his innings limit down. And by late May/June you start letting him throw 5-6 per start to stretch him out to start in the Majors if need be. In my opinion he will be in the Major League bullpen for the stretch run similar to what Joba and Phil did. He's just WAY too far along to be kept in Trenton or SWB this entire season. We may have our own version of King Felix

  7. Couldn't agree with you more Mike, it would just feel awful to watch Banuelos dominate the whole year in the minors and have no innings left to throw for the Yanks come August. Hopefully Brackman will be able to hold things down if Garcia gets hurt or is inneffective. Would love to see a rotation next year of CC, Phil, AJ, Nova, Insert Killer B here.

  8. Makes one wonder what his career arc would have been like if Joba had been allowed to pitch (as a starter) 100 innings in the minors in 2007, 140 in 2008, and come up as a starter to the big leagues in 2009 at age 23…