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  • If We Like It, Then We Need to Put a Limit On It.

    At the time of the 2012 draft, a lot was made of the fact the Twins took a number of hard-throwing college relievers. Shortly after that, we found out the plan was to convert these pitchers into starters.

    As we approach the stretch-run, some of these ďnewĒ starting pitchers are heading into unchartered waters when it comes to innings. My curiosity got the best of me and I did a little research.
    First, I looked at the 2011 draft class and all of those pitchers that became full-season starting pitchers in 2012. There were five: Madison Boer, Matthew Summers, Steven Gruver, Jason Wheeler and Tim Shibuya. In their finals years of college and first taste of pro ball, these five averaged 135.2 combined innings pitched. The outliers were Jason Wheeler, who didnít pitch professionally, at 103 innings and Tim Shibuya, who pitched 73 2/3 innings for Elizabethton and totaled 184 combined. The other three all fell plus or minus 10 of the average.

    Letís fast forward to their first full-seasons in pro ball: Tim Shibuya had shoulder issues which limited him to only 74 innings. (Could that have been a result of the heavy workload the previous year?) Steven Gruver shifted into a swing role and saw his innings drop by 10%.

    Matt Summers saw his workload increase by 8% and Madison Boer saw his increase by 11%. Jason Wheeler, who, again, didnít pitch professionally in 2011, saw his innings increase by 52%. But if you figure that he would have gotten around the average of the other guys in E-Town (not considering the overworked Shibuya), it would have put his increase at around 20%.

    I also wanted to consider the most recent college-reliever-to-full-season-starter that I could remember: Carlos Gutierrez. Gutierrez pitched a combined 65 2/3 innings in 2008 before seeing his innings increase to 107 (+62%) in 2009 and 126 (+18%) in 2010 before, you guessed it, experiencing arm issues and a move back to the bullpen. Gutierrez was also a first-round pick and a more costly investment. You would think the Twins would have been a little more patient with an arm that had already underwent Tommy John surgery as a collegiate.

    Now letís consider last yearís crop. There are four pitchers that fit the criteria: Mason Melotakis, Tyler Duffey, D.J. Baxendale and Taylor Rogers. The average of these four was much different: only 108.7 innings which includes Rogers, who pitched 152 2/3 combined innings, a total that is higher than every non-Shibuyan pitcher mentioned.

    Baxendale and Rogers average innings were actually around 140, which is close to the previous yearís study. So the assumption is that their increase would probably go up somewhere between 10% and 20%. That would put Baxendale at between 140 and 150 innings. (Heís at 101 2/3 as of today.) It would put Taylor Rogers somewhere between 170 and 180 innings. Heís only pitched 89 1/3 so far this year after spending some time on the disabled list. (Hmmm... see previous paragraph).

    The two that really stand out to me are Mason Melotakis and Tyler Duffery. Mason Melotakis has had a pretty good season starting for Cedar Rapids. But heís eclipsed last seasonís total (86) already and the team still has nearly 40 games to play (plus the playoffs). If Melotakis starts every sixth game for the rest of the season and pitches five innings each start, heís looking at around 120 innings (which is a 40% increase). Not quite in the Gutierrez range, but definitely a large increase.

    Tyler Duffey, on the other hand, has already exceeded his total from last year by 52%. If Duffey were shut down today, his workload would be eerily similar to what the Twins did to Carlos Gutierrez. He has adjusted to High-A ball quite well after his promotion from Cedar Rapids, and the Miracle have qualified for the playoffs too.

    Continuing to trot him out there every five days could lead to issues down the line. How many more innings can you justify putting on his young arm? All pitchers are different. Some arms are simply more resilient, but when you have a guy who has exceeded expectations like Duffey has, when is it time to go all Stephen Strasburg on him and shut him down? If Duffey were to get to 120 innings in 2013 and increase to 150 in 2014, you can take the reins off of him in 2015.

    Maybe thatís being too cautious. If thatís even a real thing with pitchers today.

    What are your thoughts, should innings matter? How should the Twins be handling their pitchers at the lower levels?
    This article was originally published in blog: If We Like It, Then We Need to Put a Limit On It. started by Jeremy Nygaard
    Comments 14 Comments
    1. AM.'s Avatar
      AM. -
      Nice piece, as I hadn't thought about this. I've thought that this strategy of trying to turn college closers into viable starters is a great way to find low-mileage college arms, that might have been pigeon-holed as relief pitchers, and thus under priced. But actually developing them into starters takes a lot of work, and you make a good point that they should be cautious. The Guitierrez example is a good one to learn from, hopefully.
    1. Larsbars08's Avatar
      Larsbars08 -
      I can't remember who wrote it, but there was an article about Dylan Bundy needing Tommy John's surgery. The gist was that it wasn't clear that putting a hard inning's cap on young pitchers was actually useful in preventing injuries. I can't remember if it was on baseball prospectus, baseball america or on fangraphs, but they had some interesting data.

      Now I'm not saying that there shouldn't be some sort of plan, but I'm not sure there is any hard evidence that suggests limiting these guys to roughly 20% inning increases each year makes a real difference.
    1. howieramone's Avatar
      howieramone -
      Good article Jeremy. I really didn't care for taking a bunch of relievers in the 2012 draft, but those who rank drafts had no problem with in it. I'm more comfortable with everyone's a starter until they prove they're not and those who remain starters the longest are your best prospects. It seems to me most arm problems occur in the first year or so of pro ball and that's why I like Ryan's philosophy of trading for those with 1-2+ years of pro ball. Pitching with always be a numbers game.
    1. AROG's Avatar
      AROG -
      I really like the article. You put a ton of research into it. I believe their philosophy revolves around the innings pitched but differently then you would originally expect. Also, you need to take into account the amount of innings these college arms were throwing in fall ball.

      Their philosophy seems to be one that has a minimum standard of what an arm can throw over a full year of ball. Having dead arm or muscle soreness in the shoulder isn't an arm problem, its building strength in the arm. They believe that anyone that has a healthy arm should be able to pitch about 130 innings in a year, provided they are spaced properly. By having relievers live up to that in their first year as a pro lets you see if they can handle starting. As a reliever if you don't have your best stuff you suffer through one inning and your done. As a starter, what you do without your best stuff defines your career.
    1. TRex's Avatar
      TRex -
      I know it is a bit of a straw-man, but one thing that could significantly affect your analysis is whether the pitchers mentioned threw in the Instructional League last year. I know there are not stats reported for these games, but it seems like a nice, low-leverage way of stretching out those relievers you planned to insert into the rotation next year. If you imagine it is like the AFL, pitchers could log another 20-25 innings.
    1. Siehbiscuit's Avatar
      Siehbiscuit -
      How much of the drafting of college relievers turn them starters is to really make them MLB starters? Obviously, there is something to getting low-mileage arms, but could getting these relievers to develop there secondary pitches, before returning them to relievers again be in the cards? I just havent ever heard of the draft relievers to make them starters strategy ever before.
    1. Jeremy Nygaard's Avatar
      Jeremy Nygaard -
      There are obviously tons of other variables. I wish I had all the data in front of me that the Twins probably have. But I would guess the Twins and prospects have at least some idea coming into the season how many innings guys are going to pitch, at least I hope they do.
    1. nicksaviking's Avatar
      nicksaviking -
      Nice article. Plenty of reason to shut these guys down. Perhaps Melotakis could get bumped to Ft. Myers and he Duffy and Rogers could alternate starts for the rest of the year or form some kind of auxillary rotation.

      Also to consider is Luke Bard, though it seems he premptively got hurt, likely to delibrately throw off this study.
    1. Willihammer's Avatar
      Willihammer -
      Interesting topic. I suspect that as hard throwers are generally good for more innings than soft tossers. Not to say its wise to push the limit with anyone but I would expect Duffey and other fireballers to fare better than guys like Shibuya and Rogers.
    1. Jim H's Avatar
      Jim H -
      I don't think there are any easy answers, or one formula when it comes to protecting young arms. Most of these guys were likely not all that protected in high school and college. Even the relievers were likely used in ways that could make you cringe. As someone pointed out on another thread, innings usage can sometimes tell only part of the story. For instance even in the majors, relievers often warmup without ever getting into a game. Or sometimes they are asked to warmup multiple times before they are put into the game. If this happens 3 or 4 games in a row, it probably tougher on an arm than what a starter on a regular usuage goes through. Even though they haven't pitched many innings.

      Back in the day, when I umped high school baseball, the amount of pitches some of those kids made could be extremely high, even though the innings weren't that high. 30 or 40 pitches an inning wasn't unusual, thanks to control issues and defense issues. Having a kid pitch 3 times in week wasn't unusual either, because of the way the games were compressed. Just a couple of years ago I watched a high school game where the coach called every pitch from the dugout. In an early spring game(in North Dakota) he let his starter pitch 7 innings and had him throw over half breaking balls. I am sure the kid threw 200 pitches. There isn't much sense out there when it comes to protecting young arms. I doubt if many young pitchers get to the minors without some sort of arm or shoulder damage.

      All that being said, you do have to pitch to learn how to pitch. I don't think Bert is particularly right about pitch limits and such. But it is a fine line. A college pitcher coming into the minors being limited too much, well it is going to take years for him to build up the arm strength to pitch 200 innings in a season. At some point they have to pitch. In order develop all their pitches. To just learn how to pitch.
    1. howieramone's Avatar
      howieramone -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jim H View Post
      . In an early spring game(in North Dakota) he let his starter pitch 7 innings and had him throw over half breaking balls.
      Jim your example made my arm hurt. I pitched in North Dakota in college and rarely threw my curve until the end of the season. Simply too cold and could never get a feel for it. I ran sprints between innings to keep a sweat on, so the number of pitches was no problem. Really didn't use the curve unless the sun came out.

      Go Vikings!
    1. SD Buhr's Avatar
      SD Buhr -
      You can probably add Brett Lee in CR to your list. He threw less than 50 innings for Elizabethton last year and he's now over 90 for the Kernels in his first year as a full time starting pitcher.

      The 6 man rotation has helped limit innings for Lee and Melotakis in CR, but they both could be inching up on some sort of limit. They've been the two most reliably consistent starters for the Kernels, so it would be nice to do whatever must be done to make sure they've still got some innings in the tank for the playoffs in September.
    1. Thrylos's Avatar
      Thrylos -
      Makes sense, but a word of caution: Not everybody responds to an increase in innings (stretch) the same way. Lots of it has to do with the prep work these guys did in the off-season, the way they take care of themselves, the shape they are and their genetics.

      Cookie cutter approaches rarely work. Individual assessments needed.
    1. Jeremy Nygaard's Avatar
      Jeremy Nygaard -
      I didn't include Lee cause he would have been pitching in EST games and I don't have any idea how much he threw.

      Thrylos, I get that there is no canned formula for determining an innings-count, but staying healthy after seeing a spike in IP appears to be exception, not the rule.
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