Handle With Care: Young Pitchers Use Has Changed
The big debate in the baseball world has been the Washington Nationals decision to shut-down Stephen Strasburg, one of the best young starting pitchers in the game. He is pitching in his first full season at the big league level as he only pitched at the end of last season since he was recovering from Tommy John surgery. Nationals fans see their team in first place and they want Strasburg to help the franchise reach the playoffs for the first time since the team moved to DC. But despite pressure from outside sources, the front office for the team is holding their ground and telling the media that Strasburg will be shut down at some point in the next couple weeks.
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Handling of young pitchers has changed
Almost a decade ago, the Cubs were in a similar position with a young pitcher of their own.
As Tom Verducci wrote about yesterday, the Cubs and their coaching staff seemed to beat Mark Prior into the ground in his first season as a big league pitcher. He had pitched almost 170 innings by the time September rolled around and averaged 125 pitches in his last nine starts of the 2003 season. It was by far his best season as a professional but he would never be the same. Some blame his overuse and others look at his poor mechanics but teams have never looked at young pitchers the same way since Prior's breakdown.
With his minor league seasons taken into account, Prior had thrown 379 innings by the time of his age 22 season, which included some high pitch counts that aren't common in the present day game. Prior was the number two pick out of college in the 2001 draft. The Twins had the same pick in the previous year and took Adam Johnson, a right-handed pitcher, out of Cal State Fullerton. He didn't have the pedigree or expectations of Prior but he was trying to work his way to the big leagues through the Twins farm system. By the time he reached the end of his age 22 season, he had thrown 357 innings in the minor leagues, a number very close to Prior's total number of innings.
Johnson was out of the Twins organization after the 2004 season as he went on to play in independent leagues, the Mexican League, and eventually he joined the A's farm system. Prior pitched over 100 innings in 2004 and 2005 but hasn't pitched at the big league level since 2006. Were the Cubs and Twins following the same plan by pushing their young pitchers too hard?
As baseball's landscape has changed, so has the approach to innings limits and pitch counts for different players. Matt Garza was taken by the Twins in the first round of the 2005 draft and the team watched his innings limit more in his younger years. A shift happened in the baseball world and it's hard to get through this time of the year without hearing about minor league pitchers reaching their limit and being shut down for the year or sent to the bullpen. And it seems as if every player undergoes some kind of operation during their career with Tommy John surgery leading the way.
As touched on before, the Nationals have a lot of money and one surgery under their belt with Strasburg. This has caused them to be very cautious when it comes to their precious arm. The Nationals have been down this road before. Fellow starter Jordan Zimmerman had his own injury, and the team followed a strict pitch count with him during his first full season back in 2011. Now the Nationals has been rewarded with him having his best season as a professional. The limits worked for Zimmerman and the team hopes that the same will hold true for Strasburg.
Fans of the Twins minor league system have been following the recovery of former first round pick Kyle Gibson as he makes his way back from Tommy John surgery. He is currently pitching with the Rochester Red Wings and it sounds like the team is happy to see him finish the year with that club. From there, he will most likely go to the instructional leagues or to the Arizona Fall League to continue his comeback. Next year, Gibson will be in a similar position to Strasburg this year, as he will be in his first full season since the surgery. There will undoubtedly be an innings limit for the right-handed pitcher in 2013 and he might need to be shut down early much like Strasburg.
The Cubs pushed Mark Prior to the limit and the rest is baseball history. Now the world of pitching is all about innings limits, 100 pitch outings, and trying to find the right combination of rest and recovery. Tommy John surgeries seem to be a right of passage to make it to the big leagues and this comes in an era that has seen plenty of perfect games and no hitters. With baseball toughening their stance on PEDs, pitchers seem to have more of their edge on the mound and this makes young arms all the more valuable. Mark Prior may have changed baseball forever, but he can't have imagined that it would be for this reason.