Pitching health a quandary for MLB teams
Teams attempting to find ways to keep their staffs off the DL
At one point last week, the Padres started their 13th different pitcher this season, and Andrew Cashner gave them something to shout about. Yes, that's 13 different starters, and none of them are named Casey Kelly or Robbie Erlin, all of whom were projected to come up from their farm system by the All-Star Break.
The Rockies have gone through 11 starters, and they now are on a four-man rotation with a pitch count. The Royals have used 10. So have the Blue Jays, who in one week lost three-fifths of their rotation in a span of four games. The Rangers were the last team to have to use the disabled list this season, and now have gone through 10 starters, and the Yankees currently have Andy Pettitte and C.C. Sabathia -- not to mention Mariano Rivera -- on the DL.
"The teams that keep their rotations healthy over the course of a season are going to be in the races," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said. That, of course, has been the hallmark of this five-year run of success by the Tampa Bay Rays. The problem is that they, too, have had to put pitchers on the DL, resorting to Alex Cobb, Chris Archer and Cesar Ramos to start nine games.
Through the weekend, 230 different pitchers have started games in the Major Leagues. In contrast, 272 pitchers were used all of last season, with 273 being used in 2010. However, there were 245 pitchers used before the All-Star Break in 2009; that season, there were 306 pitchers used for the entire season, two shy of the record of 308 pitchers used in 2002, when hitters reigned supreme.
"This is something we talk about all the time," says Padres general manager Josh Byrnes. "It's a tremendous concern." Not to mention expense.
When general managers, trainers, pitching coaches and former pitchers talk, there are a number of theories as to what contributes to the pitching injury blight. Many feel from the time they are teenagers, kids purely don't throw enough. Some feel that kids throw too many breaking balls too early in their non-professional careers. As Byrnes said, "There seem to be a lot of young pitchers in the Minors and the Majors who rely too much too early on breaking balls, like cutters and sliders."
Some officials believe that the transition from starting once a week in high school and college to going out there every fifth day takes a toll. Hence, Buck Showalter and Baltimore Minor League pitching coordinator Rick Peterson have had phenom Dylan Bundy on a program where he starts every fifth day for the season, with a close monitoring of his pitches and workload, just to get him a year of professionalization.
There is growing concern that pitchers (and positional players) overtrain in the offseason.
"Too many players take almost no time off," one general manager said. "They go into these really tough workout and conditioning routines, but too many of them aren't baseball-specific. Then when they max to 100 percent, they pull something."
Brad Lidge, who suffered a sports hernia, suggests that players do so much core training that they are overtrained and break down. "Who ever heard of a sports hernia 30 years ago?" asks Lidge. Or oblique strains. Lat injuries.
"One thing I hear a lot of former pitchers say is that today's pitchers train too much in the gym and they don't run enough," Byrnes said. They don't throw enough, either, which is what makes Trevor Bauer's unique program something every team will study. Bauer has great arm action and tremendous stuff, but if his long toss and other preparations hold up like those of Justin Verlander -- or until this season, Roy Halladay -- he may begin his own wave.
In 1978, one of the reasons the Indians traded Dennis Eckersley is that they felt his delivery would shorten his career. Through trial and error and a couple of shoulder tweaks, Eckersley pitched until his mid-40's and made it to Cooperstown. While he did train, he didn't train for the Olympics per se, but he began throwing two weeks after every season.
The Rockies have begun a radical program to try to deal with the altitude of Denver. This season, with the heat and fires, has been a pitcher's nightmare, but this is the 20th season of Major League Baseball in Denver, and just four Rockies pitchers have thrown 190 or more innings in consecutive seasons. Ubaldo Jimenez did it three straight years, from 2008-2010, and is searching for his delivery in Cleveland. Jeff Francis did it in 2006 and '07; at the end of the '07 season, Francis was 47-34, and has gone 15-33 since.
Pedro Astacio did it three straight years from 1998-2000, and while he pitched well for Houston after being traded there, he was never the same. Darryl Kile did it in 1998 and '99, posted 5.20 and 6.61 ERAs and returned to St. Louis to win 20 games in 2000 before tragically passing away.
In 2011, Chacin threw 194 innings and subsequently got injured. In 2009, Jason Marquis threw 216 innings; his has been a vagabond journey ever since. Look how long it's taken Aaron Cook to come back after his 2006 and '08 innings, going from 211 1/3 innings in 2008 to 158 to 127 2/3 to 97 -- before his current comeback in Boston, where his sinker was so good Friday that he threw an 81-pitch shutout in Seattle without a swing and miss.
"We have to make radical changes in our approach to developing pitchers," Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd said.
"The fact is that the more we know, the less we know," says Byrnes. "We thought Cory Luebke was someone who would be a staple of our rotation. Good delivery. Never been on a medical report. Then he has Tommy John surgery."
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.