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?

    • The short answers to your questions are: (a) we don't know (but see more evidence below that it WOULD be more stressful), and (b) we don't know, so (c) err on the side of caution and have ManBan pitch 2011 in the minors. As we've discussed, there are no right answers here, no absolute rule of thumb we can rely upon to safely shepherd this kid to age 25, just Wright's admonition to be very cautious. Very cautious = minor leagues.

      You and I agree that mission one with this kid is to give him a solid year of training and development. If Banuelos pitches in NY in 2011, it's going to be very hard to mesh this mission with the big Mission with a capital "M", which is winning a World Championship. There would probably come a point in the season when Girardi would need to choose which of these two missions is most important.

      If these arguments don't work for you, then let's try some of the arguments Kevin Goldstein used in his ESPN Insider piece: (1) 20 year old starting pitchers in the bigs are rarities (I've detailed above just how rare), (2) 17 pitchers this decade have come up to the bigs as starters prior to their 21st birthday; on average they had pitched more than 140 innings in the year prior to their debuts, (3) we DO want to increase Banuelos' innings pitched over 2010, but Goldsteain quotes a scout to say that "medical people will tell you that if you jump Banuelos' innings in a big league environment, that would be an even bigger risk", and (4) even if the Yankees opened the year with Banuelos in their rotation, they'd almost certainly be unable to finish it with him, or have him available for the postseason.

      I tried to stress that I don't consider you and I to be in disagreement on any point except as to the conclusion we've each reached: I think caution = minors, and you are at least willing to explore whether Banuelos could safely pitch his innings limit in the majors. Reasonable minds may differ, but I think the more reasonable position is mine.

  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.

    • Vince, your points are valid.

      Palmer pitched 208 innings at age 20, but quickly developed arm problems and pitched very little at age 21 and not at all at age 22. He recovered to become one of the best pitchers I can remember seeing. I don't know enough about his arm problems or his surgery to reach a firm conclusion — it could be that his arm problems prove my point, or that his arm problems were minor but he benefited from a lot of rest at ages 21 and 22, or maybe he belongs in the 15% category with Vida Blue.

      Bob Feller was a once in a lifetime pitcher, and I hate to draw any conclusions from a guy who's just a statistical outlier. But if you push, I'll acknowledge that Feller pitched what appears to modern eyes to be an INSANE number of innings between ages 19 and 22 — more than 300 innings a year on average. But then he got to "rest" his arm for three years while he fought in WWII. I've seen patterns for pitchers like Feller — for example, Warren Spahn had more than 200 innings pitched a year (albeit in the minors) at ages 20 to 21, then went off to do his three years in WWII, and if memory serves HE turned out OK too. So perhaps we can conclude that pitchers can bear up under a full load at a young age, so long as they follow the full load with a long period of rest (rest here meaning not pitching), again at a young age.

      Spahn, Feller and Palmer are three HOFers. It's hard to generalize from their cases. This is why I pulled 40 years of data for this article, to make sure I was reaching a conclusion based on a complete and modern sample of all 20-21 year olds with 199+ innings pitched per year. The sample got me to look at records of pitchers I'd forgotten about, and a few pitchers I'd never heard of.

      It's possible if we looked instead at the 40 years from 1930 to 1970, we'd reach a different conclusion. Of course, baseball was a little different back then, and even if we concluded that pitchers in Feller's day could safely join a 4-man starting rotation at age 19, it wouldn't tell us how to make this practice safe today.

      I should be clear: SOME 20 year olds can pitch today full time without a problem. Wright acknowledges that. The problem is how we figure out who they are before they prove the question for us with a catastrophic injury.

      • You could also add Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan to the pre-25 list. Seaver came up at 22 and with is near perfect and consistent mechanics started throwing 200+ innings with well over 30 starts for almost his entire career. Ryan being a reliever early in his career didn't put too much strain on his arm early on. Of course he was a freak of nature so I am not too sure this is a fair addition.

        But there is one aspect that affected all these guys that I totally forgot. Feller pitched his entire career on the higher mound. Whereas Palmer, Seaver, and Ryan pitched in the minors and their early MLB years on the higher mound. I would submit that since that made it easier on their arms they were able to pitch more innings in their youths thereby building up their strength. So perhaps everything I have said is useless when talking about ManBan. How about that???

        • Your 2nd sentence – Tom Seaver came up at 22; with ManBan at 20 now, I don't think there would be any arguments at bringing him up at 22.

          I would hate to bring him up now, and break him – if not his arm, then perhaps just the mental thing – has everyone forgotten Kennedy? He was a throw in just last year – and is just now amounting to something, after being prematurely annointed and brought up to the show.

          I'd like to win this year; I'd love to win for the next 7-8 years. ;)

          • Jay, Tom Terrific pitched over 200 innings in AAA ball as a 21-year old. I don't know what his pitching load might have been like prior to age 21 — I know he pitched at U.S.C. Seaver had a picture-perfect career, and I don't think any team today would work a pitcher as hard as Seaver was worked prior to age 25. I think Seaver belongs in my 15% category: he was a pitcher who could handle a big workload at an unusually young age. We know that such pitchers exist, we just don't know how to identify them prior to seeing how their careers turn out. So I agree with Vince on Seaver.

            Nolan Ryan is a completely different case — he's actually an example used by Wright in his article of the benefits of not working pitchers too hard prior to age 25. True, Ryan pitched 202 innings at age 19, which according to Wright "you didn't like to see in a teenager even back in that era", but then spent most of the next year in military service. From age 21-24, Ryan's innings were limited not by design, but because of control problems and difficulties with finger blisters: his innings count for those years was 134, 89, 131 and 152. Wright ranks Ryan's "formative profile" as the highest he's ever evaluated.

            Your point about mound heights is excellent. It reminds us that pitching conditions change, and that we have to be wary of making too much about what pitchers could do (or what we think they could do) way back in the long ago.

        • There was an article in the hardball times about pitchers on higher mounds, I believe Neyer pointed it out when he was still working for ESPN, and it concluded that there is no evidence a higher mound led to less injuries, but just the opposite. It puts more strain on the arm somehow… I'll look for the article and link if I can find it.

          • http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/03/0803

            "We found that compared to flat ground, pitchers using a 10-inch mound experience an increase in superior shear and adduction torque in the shoulder — meaning there's a greater amount of stress on the joint surface and surrounding structures. That greater stress may result in injury to the shoulder including tearing of the rotator cuff or labrum which may result in surgery and long-term rehabilitation. It also can make it difficult for the athlete to replicate the same throw and develop a consistent strike," Dr. Raasch says.

  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.

    • Exactly. Why do I write these long pieces when you can sum it up in one paragraph? Thumbs up.

  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.

    • I agree 99%. In the majors, age 22, with restrictions and careful monitoring, but making a significant contribution. like Phil Hughes last year.

      • I think Manny will be in that position that Hughes was in last year, next year at age 21. I think his innings limit will be between 160 and 180 next year, and he will get those in the Major leagues. It would not suprise me to see him get 15 or 20 innings working out of the bullpen at the end of this year. But for Manny to pitch in the majors this year, we either looking at the joba rules all over again or risk serious injury to his arm..

        • Wright tells us that a 21 year old arm requires considerably more care than a 24 year old arm. But as the Yanks get more experience with Banuelos, perhaps they'll have the data required to safely move him to the majors next year. I think the better plan is to start him in the minors next year, but we'll be in a better position to judge this next year.

  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?

    • Mark, good point. It's possible that young prospects "fizzle" at the same rate no matter how they're handled. If my 15% – 60% rule fits ALL young prospects regardless of how hard they're worked, then I haven't succeeded in proving very much. But I don't see a way to do a comparative study like the one you're suggesting. We don't have enough experience yet with great prospects developed under an innings-limited approach. Sure, many pitchers have had their innings limited prior to age 25, but this was rarely by design — it was more often a result of military service (Feller, Spahn), or the fact that the player developed more slowly and was not able to make a full contribution at a young age (Ryan).

      One of the beauties of baseball is that it is such a complex area to study! As a rule, we cannot knock any of these questions out of the park with a single brilliant exercise in statistics. We can only chip away at these questions a little bit at a time. I think Wright has done that here,quite well. He hasn't proven how a 20-year old hot prospect like Banuelos should be handled, he's just given us relevant information and a strong word of caution.

  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

    • Let's not get ahead of ourselves T-Wil, Hernandez is more than likely a once in a generation pitcher, while Banuelos isn't considered the best pitching prospect in the minors. I'm not saying don't be excited, but let's not feed the hyperbole machine.

    • T-Wil, I'm not the expert. But I think priority one is for Banuelos to pitch this year in a way that best fosters his development. I think that means starting in a minor league rotation with a reasonably strict pitch count limit and a very strict innings limit. This is part of my friendly argument with Brien here: I think that any plan designed to get Banuelos to the big leagues this year is a plan that potentially shortchanges his development this year. But Brien would give you a different answer, just showing that reasonable minds can differ.

      As to whether Banuelos is too far developed to pitch in the minors, I say let him prove that by dominating the minors. If he does that, then you can come back to me to say that Banuelos can only complete his development by pitching against major league competition … and I'll write a new post where we can discuss this! That's a problem the Yankees would love to have to solve.

    • I dont agree. If he only pitches 3-4 innings at a time, he doesnt learn how to make his pitches when hes tired at the end of game.

  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.

    • I think putting your eggs in the Brackman basket is entirely more plausible considering what i think is the Yankees stance on young pitchers. As we can clearly note here moving Banuelos to the Bigs does more than just expose him to better hitting, it will in no doubt put considerable pressure on the pitcher and the organization to manage expectations.

      The org is in a no win situation: you leave him down in the minors and he dominates, you've wasted his talent. Bring him to the bigs as a starter and shut him down when he reaches 140: all the talking heads will start the "Free Manny" chant. Bring him up as a reliever (my personal preference) and people say that you're messing him up like you did Joba (even though I think it's a naive opinion to say the yankees screwed him up). I don't remember any other team that consistently gets put in these positions!

  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…

    • I'm inclined to blame most of Joba's problems on Joba. But like you, I wonder what might have been if the Yankees' plan for Joba in 2007 and 2008 had been to focus 100% on what was right for his development, and 0% on how Joba could contribute to the success of the major league club. All that being said, we can't fault the Yankees for making Joba throw too many innings too soon.

      I don't know what to make of Joba, to be honest. Not every case is going to neatly fit into the best of general rules.