The Arm Pitch Counts Forgot

Back in the early days of my blog, one of my pet issues was the way the Florida Marlins and their manager, Jeff Torborg, were using 25-year-old righty A.J. Burnett. In fact, the very first blog entry I ever wrote, way back on August 1, 2002, was not-so-cleverly titled “A.J. Burnett and Jeff Torborg.” I ended the entry with the following:

Burnett has been great this year and he looks like he will be a stud for years to come. But the way he is being treated makes me think he is in line for some arm troubles.

Turns out, Burnett started having “arm troubles” almost immediately after that. He missed several starts at the end of the 2002 season with elbow soreness, made four starts in early 2003, and then shut things down for good and underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery in May of 2003.

Frequently criticizing a team for overworking a young pitcher and then watching as that same pitcher goes down with a major arm injury looks like a great prediction, but in reality it was just dumb luck. Yes, I thought Burnett was headed for trouble because of the huge pitch counts he was racking up under Torborg. And yes, he ended up running into that trouble almost immediately after I began writing about it. But I could have just as easily gotten worked up over another young pitcher.

For instance, if there were such things as blogs back in 1998 and I happened to be writing one instead of worrying about passing my driver’s test, I may have noticed a 23-year-old pitcher who was being worked very hard by those same Marlins. In fact, the case could very easily be made that this 23-year-old pitcher — let’s call him “Pitcher X” because that sounds nice and mysterious — was worked far harder in 1998 than Burnett was in 2002:

               AGE        IP     IP/GS       PIT     PIT/GS
Burnett         25     204.1      6.95     3,248      109.5   
Pitcher X       23     234.1      7.10     3,926      119.0

Innings have never been a sore spot for me, because on their own they don’t tell you anything. Instead, I have always focused on pitches, and specifically high-pitch outings. Well, not only was Pitcher X two years younger than Burnett and not only did he throw 15% more innings, he did so while racking up 21% more pitches. In other words, while I got all worked up about Florida regularly letting Burnett go past 120 pitches in a start, Pitcher X averaged 119 pitches per start.

From the start of the 2002 season until he started experiencing elbow soreness in late August, Burnett made 27 starts. He threw at least 110 pitches 17 times (63%), threw at least 120 pitches 10 times (37%), and threw at least 125 pitches seven times (26%). He also had one start where he logged over 130 pitches (4%). All of which is nothing when you compare it to Pitcher X’s workload in 1998. Pitcher X threw at least 120 pitches in 17 of his 33 starts (52%) and threw at least 130 pitches a remarkable 10 times (30%). Pitcher X’s season-high, as a 23-year-old, was an almost unbelievable 152 pitches.

Had I been doing such things in 1998, I would have criticized the Marlins on a regular basis, just like I did with Burnett. I would have wondered why they needed to work a young pitcher so hard when they weren’t even in playoff contention, just like I did with Burnett. I would have said something like “the way he is being treated makes me think he is in line for some arm troubles,” just like I did with Burnett. And you know what? I would have been wrong.

Because more than seven years after I would have first predicted doom for Livan Hernandez, he is not only still going strong and perhaps pitching better than he ever has, he is racking up pitch counts that make me squirm. The right arm that pitch counts seem to have forgotten tossed nine innings of two-run ball the other night against its old team, the Marlins, racking up an otherwise cringe-inducing 150 pitches.

Of course, Hernandez is 30 years old now, he’s averaged 230 innings in his seven full seasons in the majors, and hasn’t started fewer than 30 games in a season since his rookie year. Here’s a look at his workload since 1998:

YEAR     AGE     GS        IP     RNK       PIT     RNK     PIT/GS
1998      23     33     234.1       5     3,926       2      119.0
1999      24     30     199.2      22     3,385      12      112.8
2000      25     33     240.0       5     3,825       2      115.9
2001      26     34     226.2       7     3,684       4      108.4
2002      27     33     216.0      10     3,466       8      105.0
2003      28     33     233.1       1     3,582       3      108.5
2004      29     35     255.0       1     3,926       1      112.2
2005      30     13      91.1       1     1,514       1      116.5

Hernandez has ranked among the top 10 in the league in pitches thrown seven times and innings pitched six times, leading the league in each twice. Only Randy Johnson has tossed more pitches or thrown more innings since 1998. And Johnson was 34 years old in 1998, whereas Hernandez was 23. Hernandez was worked as hard as any pitcher of this era, from as early an age as any pitcher of this era, and it doesn’t seem to have hurt him one bit. Here’s hoping Carlos Zambrano is as lucky.

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