Tuesday, August 27, 2013
Matt Harvey and the caution question
By Buster Olney
The Mets did everything to protect Matt Harvey. They served his interests. What about theirs?
The New York Mets painted within all of the prescribed 21st-century lines in their handling of Matt Harvey. Drafted in 2010, Harvey didn’t pitch in any games at the end of that summer after signing, and in his first year in professional baseball, he tossed 135 2/3 innings in 26 starts in Class A and Double-A.
In 2012, Harvey accumulated just 110 innings in 20 starts in Triple-A before being promoted to the big leagues and throwing another 59.1 innings in 10 starts, for a total of 169.1 for the entire year. This season, the Mets were suitably conservative in their handling of the young star, limiting him to 178 1/3 innings in his first 26 starts, while never allowing him to throw more than 121 pitches in any outing.
A decade ago, before pitch and innings limits became standard operating procedure, the best young pitcher in the game had nine starts of more than 121 pitches; in six starts in September that year, Mark Priorhad pitch counts of 131, 129, 109, 124, 131 and 133. He is now, seemingly, a cautionary tale.
The kind the Mets can point to as they have done everything right in their handling of Matt Harvey, according to current conventional wisdom in baseball, just as the Nationals did with Stephen Strasburg. But Harvey apparently blew out his elbow, just as Strasburg did. And as the search for the perfect formula for handling young pitchers continues without uniform success, some officials are beginning to believe that with all of the uncertainty about physiology and pitch history and mechanics that there is really only one hard truth about young pitchers: You control them for six years in their major league careers.
So you might as well pitch them, because you just never know.
To be clear, the evaluators who talked about this shift in thought on Monday evening, in the aftermath of the announcement that Harvey has a serious elbow injury, are not advocating abuse of pitchers. They aren’t suggesting that managers and pitching coaches should keep going to the whip and ignoring pitch counts.
What they are saying is that no clear evidence that the cushiony handling of pitchers necessarily makes a difference in keeping them healthy, given that there is so much unknown about how and why pitchers break down. Teams have tried to carefully design systems that simultaneously develop and protect pitchers, while maximizing every bit of their service time.
But some evaluators are starting to wonder whether a magic formula really even exists, and that teams should have a much simpler approach. “When they’re ready to pitch in the big leagues, call them up and pitch them,” said one official.
The Giants used Tim Lincecum early, they used him often. It paid off.
One example cited Monday was that of Tim Lincecum, the Giants’ first-round pick in 2006. He had slipped to them at No. 10 overall that year partly because of concerns about his small frame and his unusual mechanics, and about whether he would hold up.
Lincecum started eight games in the minors at the end of 2006, and opened 2007 in Triple-A and dominated hitters, allowing 12 hits in 31 innings, with 46 strikeouts.
The Giants then defied the thinking that was common then, and still is, and promoted Lincecum to the big leagues on May 6, rather than waiting until midseason in an effort to manipulate his service-time clock. And when Lincecum got to the big leagues, he pitched -- a lot.
He finished his first full season in professional baseball with almost 180 innings, and in 2008 he tossed 227 innings.
Lincecum is 29 years old now, and his stuff has greatly regressed since those first years. But as one evaluator said Monday, “Brian Sabean got it right.”
The Giants’ control of Lincecum ends this fall, when he goes into free agency, and nobody can argue that San Francisco hasn’t gotten excellent return on his time with the team: about 1,400 innings, two Cy Young Awards, two championships, massive crowds. The success of Lincecum and the team has meant tens of millions of dollars to the organization, and given the rise in popularity of the franchise in recent seasons, the handling of the right-hander will continue to pay off.
The Giants’ focus was not on keeping Lincecum healthy long-term; their priority has been getting production from him in the years for which they have controlled him and paid him. When he was ready to pitch in the big leagues, they pitched him.
The same could be said for the Phillies’ handling of Cole Hamels. The left-hander threw 183 1/3 innings when he was 23 years old, and when he was 24, he pitched 262 1/3 innings, in Philadelphia’s run to the World Series -- far more than teams usually do under current thinking. When Charlie Manuel was asked the next spring about that, he smiled and noted that there aren’t a lot of opportunities to win a championship -- which has been a boon to the Phillies. Hamels continues to be successful, and last summer, he signed a six-year deal with Philadelphia.
The Dodgers have been aggressive but not reckless in their use of Clayton Kershaw, and the same can be said for the Mariners’ handling of Felix Hernandez. By the time Hernandez was the same age that Harvey is now, he already had five seasons of 190 or more innings in the big leagues -- more innings than Harvey’s thrown in any year. Hernandez threw 238 2/3 innings at age 23, 249 2/3 innings at 24, and he’s again on track to throw about 230 innings for the fifth time in his career.
“You really just don’t know how long these guys are going to last,” said an evaluator.
Throwing a baseball is an unnatural act. Every pitcher only has so much tread on his tires before needing a fix or completely erupting, and there’s just no telling how much.
Justin Verlander pitched in the minors just one season, in 2005, and threw 118 2/3 innings, with another 11 innings tacked on in the big leagues. In 2006, he increased that total by almost 75 percent, throwing 197 innings in the regular season and postseason. Seven years later -- more than 1,500 innings later -- Verlander is only now showing the first signs of regression. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, would anyone go back and alter the Tigers’ aggressive handling of Verlander?
Strasburg was drafted as the No. 1 overall pick in 2009, and the Nationals carefully structured his plan to limit his pitches and innings, and summoned him in 2010 in mid-June -- after enough time had passed so that he would not be eligible for arbitration until after the 2013 season.
Strasburg never threw more than 99 pitches in any of his outings that summer, and in his last game, he blew out his elbow. The Nationals shut him down at the end of 2012, in keeping with the pitch-count and innings prescription, even though the franchise made the postseason for the first time in more than three decades.
And then there is Dylan Bundy, whom the Orioles tried to protect as much as possible in 2012. He made 23 starts in the minors, and averaged fewer than five innings per outing, only exceeding 78 pitches on four occasions. He entered this season as the consensus top pitching prospect in MLB, but was shut down in spring training due to forearm soreness, which ended up being connected to a torn elbow ligament that required Tommy John surgery.
The Mets had intended to slow Harvey down at the end of this season -- and now he’s out indefinitely.
These are only a handful of examples, and surgeons like Dr. James Andrews have long argued that pitch limits for amateur pitchers are extremely important in maintaining the health of young pitchers. There are myriad stories about college pitchers who are abused, and nightmare stories of professional pitchers like David Cone throwing 166 pitches in a game.
But as carefully handled pitchers like Strasburg and Harvey break down, more officials could reach the conclusion that there is so much they don’t know, so much that they can’t control, and there are is still only that one hard truth: A team controls a pitcher for six years in his major league career.
It might as well pitch them when they’re ready. Because you just never know.
From ESPN Stats & Info: Harvey is near the top of the league in many major categories:
ERA: 2.27 (2nd in MLB)
WHIP: 0.93 (3rd)
K: 191 (4th)
Opp OPS: .530 (3rd)
• Harvey was having a historic season, especially for someone his age. His WHIP of 0.93 would rank second among pitchers in their age 24 season (or younger) in the live-ball era. Only Denny McLain, in 1968, was lower, at .91. Others nearby include Vida Blue (.95 in 1971), Roger Clemens (.97 in 1986) and Dwight Gooden (.97 in 1985). In addition to winning the Cy Young award, McLain, Blue and Clemens also won league MVP during the seasons in which they made this list.
• Harvey was also leading MLB in average fastball velocity (95.8). slider (89.7) and curveball (83.40).
• It’d make sense for the Yankees to give Phil Hughes a one-year qualifying offer as he goes onto the market this fall, in an effort to recoup a draft pick. But it could really hurt the free agency of Hughes, who continues to drift into middling status -- and teams might shy away from giving up a draft pick to sign him to a multiyear deal.
Hughes had another rough outing. He now leads MLB in starts of five innings or fewer, with 10. He also tied the Yankees' record for fewest wins as a starter through a pitcher's first 25 starts of the season. He's stuck on four.
• The St. Louis Cardinals are hitting .328 with runners in scoring position, after their big comeback win over the Reds, with 31 games remaining in the regular season, which is 17 points better than the all-time record. Allen Craig is hitting .452 with runners in scoring position, with 15 extra-base hits, 13 walks and 15 strikeouts.
Maybe it’s time to acknowledge that Craig -- who hit .400 with runners in scoring position last year -- and the 2013 Cardinals apparently have some acumen in this particular area, and take the analysis beyond "it’s just an outlier" and consider the specific adjustments they make. Because after more than 1,200 plate appearances in this situation this year, the Cardinals have earned more than “Small sample size,” “There’s a lot of luck involved” and “It’s bound to regress.”
A) Cubs hitters were 1-for-14 in at-bats ending with an off-speed pitch, including four strikeouts.
B) Threw 88 of 122 pitches (72.1 percent) to the outer half of the plate or further away. Cubs hitters were 3-for-19 in at-bats ending with a pitch in that location, including six strikeouts.
C) In particular, Greinke was effective with his changeup away to left-handed hitters. They were 0-for-5 in at-bats ending with a changeup away on Monday.
Greinke's changeup has been devastating recently. Since July 7, opposing hitters hit just .119 when they offer at it, and whiff 34.6 percent of the time.