Stephen Strasburg has just explosively landed on the major league landscape, and already the Washington Nationals are talking about when and how they will shut him down for the year.
“There will come a time when he reaches 100-110 innings, and we will shut him down,” Stan Kasten, the Nationals’ president, said the day after the 21-year-old Strasburg soared beyond the hype that preceded his debut with his seven-inning, 14-strikeout domination of the Pittsburgh Pirates. “I don’t know how that will be split up. We could give him more rest between starts.”
If Strasburg averages seven innings a start, he would have 14 starts after his second outing in Cleveland Sunday. If he pitches on regular four days’ rest, he would come to the end of his season before the end of August.
The Nationals figure that with about 130 innings combined in college and the Arizona Fall League last year, Strasburg should be restricted to about 150 total this year.
Apparently referring to a study done a few years ago by Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, Kasten said historical evidence shows that young pitchers face potential injury if they increase their number of innings too drastically from year to year.
But Kasten was in Atlanta when Tom Glavine was a rookie in 1987 and John Smoltz in 1988, and both pitched until age 42, building Hall of Fame careers despite a huge increase in innings pitched from their first year to the second. Glavine went from 50 1/3 to 195 1/3, Smoltz from 64 to 208.
“It was a different era,” Kasten said.
What does the era have to do with pitchers’ elbows and shoulders? The human body is stronger and more fit than it has ever been. Why should young pitchers develop problems now that young pitchers didn’t encounter 25 years ago?
“You can tell me that all you want,” Kasten said. “I can’t explain it to you, but I am suggesting this is a different era. Humans are better but yet the evidence shows a correlation between too fast a ramp up for young pitchers and injuries later so we’re trying to be careful.”
In today’s treatment of pitchers, baseball has adopted drastically different practices than were used in past eras. The four-man starting rotation evolved into five, pitch counts came into existence, starters were required to last only five or six innings as bullpens became prominent, so-called quality starts (3 earned runs in 6 innings) giving pitchers a false sense of success and young pitchers are pampered more than ever.
Now, however, hope is on the horizon for those of us who want to see baseball head back toward the days when pitchers were allowed and had to pitch. Call it the Ryan Renaissance.
Nolan Ryan is the Hall of Fame pitcher who struck out more batters and threw more no-hitters than any pitcher in history. Today he is the president of the Texas Rangers and has taken an unusually active role – for a club president – in the team’s baseball operations. He has taken an especially big interest in the Rangers’ pitching, and the result is reflected in the team’s standing at the top of the American League West.
Unhappy with the state of the Rangers’ pitching, Ryan directed the pitchers to become accustomed to throwing more strikes and lasting more innings by throwing fewer pitches.
“We want the pitchers to go deeper into games and be more efficient with their pitches, throw more strikes and last longer; we increased their pitch count,” Ryan said in a telephone interview last week. “As far as the health issue, we haven’t had any problems. The problem we’ve had with our starting pitchers this year is they haven’t been efficient with their pitches.”
I asked Ryan his view of the general developments with pitching.
“Baseball has conditioned our starting pitchers not to pitch deep into games,” Ryan, 63, said. “They’re trying to protect them. And they’re broadening the use of the bullpen. The mindset of the people who run the game has changed. We’re not using our pitchers the way we can.”
And to use them the way he thinks they should be used?
“We have to change the mindset of pitchers and make them want to pitch later in games, change conditioning,” he said. “Rich Harden said he threw more in spring training than he had ever thrown in a year in his career. It’s an adjustment for people.
“It’s not something you can do in the big leagues. We’re adjusting in the minor leagues. We had to start it with our major league pitchers, but they were young. We didn’t have a veteran staff in the big leagues, pitchers with five or 10 years who weren’t accustomed to it. We did it with Kevin Millwood last year and he bought into it. Harden was exposed to it for the first time this year.”
While he disagrees with the general treatment of starting pitchers, Ryan sees the wisdom in handling young pitchers with care, making sure they don’t throw too many innings too soon.
“We do that with our kids, like the kids we’ll be signing in the next week,” Ryan said, referring to the limits put on the increase in their number of innings. “We’ll limit their innings because we’re not sure how they were handled, mainly the high school kids in their senior year. They’re not accustomed to throwing as much as they will as professional ball players.
“The young kids will lose some velocity the first year or two they’re in our system. They’re not accustomed to the workload so we limit how many innings they throw.”
Then, he added, “each year we try to expand the number of innings and their pitch count. They run hand in hand. We increase the amount of innings each year. They go from 75 to 95 to 110. We try to build a foundation for when they get to the big leagues.”
When Kasten talked about this being a different era, he was right. It is different. But the difference has nothing to do with physical differences that prevent pitchers from doing what pitchers used to do. The difference exists because baseball doesn’t have enough, if any, people who think like Ryan.
In the years before and in which Ryan pitched, baseball people trained pitchers to pitch. They did not pamper them. Consider some examples of the number of innings that these Hall of Fame pitchers worked in their early years and the increase from year to year:
- Robin Roberts 146 2/3 to 226 2/3 to 304 1/3
- Ferguson Jenkins 12 1/3 to 184 1/3 to 289 1/3
- Tom Seaver 251 to 277 2/3 to 273 1/3
- Jim (Catfish) Hunter 133 to 176 2/3 to 259 2/3
In Ryan’s early years he didn’t pitch those innings because he had not become a regular starter with the Mets. But in the three years after he was traded to the Angels he pitched 284, 326 and 332 innings, starting 39, 39 and 41 games. He didn’t do that pitching every fifth day.
THE MAN WHO DISCOVERED STRASBURG
Stephen Strasburg, of course, was phenomenal in his first start. He actually exceeded advertisements. Some skeptics seemed to think it mattered that he was pitching against the lowly Pirates, but I don’t think so. His pitches and his command of them, I believe, would have made him dominant against any team.
I was especially impressed with his breaking ball, which I initially called a curveball but have since learned otherwise.
“His breaking ball is between a slider and a curve,” said Rusty Filter, who was Strasburg’s pitching coach at San Diego State. “That’s because of how hard he throws it. It ranges from 80 to 84.”
Filter, now the pitching coach at Stanford, can be credited with discovering Strasburg. After seeing him pitch, Filter persuaded a reluctant Tony Gwynn, the school’s Hall of Fame baseball coach, to recruit Strasburg.
“It’s a situation where the assistant coaches are on the road trying to find players,” Filter related. “They come back and report to the head coach. In this situation because he was local, we had all seen him pitch. I was higher on him than others. Stephen’s package wasn’t as clean as it is now. I was pretty sold on him. Coach Gwynn was not as sold on him as I was.”
But Filter prevailed and worked with the right-hander for the next three years and 243 1/3 innings. He does not claim to have foreseen how Strasburg would develop.
“I don’t think you could envision that for anybody,” Filter said. “He could pitch in high school. He just didn’t have the velocity. His velocity gained through college. Most guys with the velocity he has now develop their velocity sooner than Stephen did. He was 86-88. He might touch 89. He had a good breaking ball he was able to locate. As he progressed, his velocity increased dramatically.”
Against the Pirates last Tuesday, Strasburg threw his fastball regularly in the high 90s and occasionally exceeded 100 miles an hour.
He struck out the last seven batters he faced, using 30 of the 94 pitches he threw. He walked no one and got to three balls on only three batters, two of them among the Pirates’ first four hitters.
DIFFERENT ROOKIE, DIFFERENT TREATMENT
Mike Leake was drafted seven spots after Stephen Strasburg last June and signed for $12.83 million less. Yet Leake, a 22-year-old right-hander, began his major league career two months before Strasburg and has a 5-0 record and 2.68 earned run average in 12 starts for the Cincinnati Reds.
Obviously, the Reds did not delay Leake’s arrival in the majors to deprive him of valuable service time. They did not keep him in the minors with the excuse that he had not pitched in the minors and needed to work on things. In other words, the Reds did not do with Leake what the Nationals did with Strasburg.
“In spring training we had three pitchers for the fifth spot in the rotation, and Leake was one of them,” Walt Jocketty, the Reds’ general manager, said in a telephone interview last week. “Our position was we’re trying to put together a winning club. We want to be responsible economically, but sometimes you have to overlook that. We did that here.”
While the Reds have taken a different approach, they are not ignoring Leake’s workload. It has been a topic of interest for Jocketty, manager Dusty Baker and Bryan Price, the pitching coach.
“We’ve discussed it,” Jocketty said. “Right now if you kept him in the rotation, you would project him to pitch 190 innings. We’re not going to do that.”
Asked why the view has changed toward the way young pitchers are used, Jocketty said, “Why it has changed is we are more aware of potential injury and long-term health of the pitchers. Leake is a guy we hope will be around a long time. We’ll watch him. We may push him past where he has been in the past in innings.”
Might the Reds sit Leake down at some point? “You never say never,” Jocketty said, “but you have to be aware of the situation and approach it cautiously.”
The Reds do have other possibilities if and when they rest Leake. “We have two guys who could be here in July and help in the rotation,” the general manager said. Edinson Volquez is on his way back from Tommy John surgery, and Aroldis Chapman, the $30 million Cuban defector, is close to being ready to pitch in the majors, the Reds feel.
FROM CY TO SIGH?
The race for the Sigh Young award, which was initiated here last week, is hotter than the race for the Cy Young awards.
Kenshin Kawakami of Atlanta kept his record perfect at 0-8 while Kevin Millwood of Baltimore kept pace with him at 0-7. Charlie Morton of Pittsburgh, at 1-9, has not lost any ground on the disabled list. Zack Greinke of Kansas City lost again, fell to 1-8 and remained a strong candidate to become the first pitcher to go from Cy Young to Sigh Young.
ROOKIES’ WEEK THAT IS
As expected, last week was a popular week for the recall of minor league players, good minor league players, whose teams just might have delayed their arrival in the majors to affect their service time and their eventual eligibility for salary arbitration and free agency.
Called up to the majors last week, besides Stephen Strasburg, were outfielder Mike Stanton of Florida, catcher Carlos Santana of Cleveland, pitcher Brad Lincoln and outfielder Jose Tabata of Pittsburgh and pitcher Jake Arrieta of Baltimore.
After a similar influx of minor leaguers at the corresponding time a year ago, agent Paul Cohen remarked, “This is my 20th year in this business and for the majority of my career the majority of young players are not ready April 1, are not ready May 1. They’re not ready until June 1.”
BARRY’S PERSONAL MVP
The government plans to pursue its perjury case against Barry Bonds despite an appellate court ruling on evidence that is devastating to its case.
Prosecutors are suddenly in a difficult position. Without the evidence that was ruled out, the government will have an almost impossible task in its attempt to convict Bonds of lying to a grand jury in December 2003 about whether or not he used performance-enhancing substances.
However, the government would look foolish if it dropped the case years after initiating it. Better to have tried and lost the case than to have quit trying.
The key to the case remains Greg Anderson, Bonds’ former trainer, whom prosecutors need to identify the pieces of evidence the appellate court threw out. There’s no reason to think Anderson will testify since he has already served multiple prison terms for refusing to testify before grand juries in the case.
All criminals should have friends like Anderson, whether or not he is being paid for his silence. Anderson has been threatened with yet another prison term should he refuse to testify at the trial, but it’s unlikely that the threat will part his lips.
Bonds naturally would derive great satisfaction from an acquittal or a government decision to dismiss the case, but it would not resuscitate his reputation in the higher echelons of baseball, where he is found to be a repugnant person.
Meanwhile, if past events are an indication, do not be surprised if one or more names of players who tested positive for steroid use in the anonymous testing in 2003 come out in the next few days. It seems that each time a court decision has gone against the government in recent years, someone who has a copy of the supposedly confidential list or has access to it has leaked a name or two.