November 28, 2006


Follies of youth: Year-After Effect could strike many young arms in '07 (Tom Verducci, November 28, 2006, Sports Illustrated)

I've been tracking the [Year-After Effect] for about a decade now. It's based on a general rule of thumb among executives and pitching coaches: young pitchers should not have their innings workload increased by more than 25 or 30 innings per year. It's the same principle as training for a marathon; you get to 26.1 miles incrementally, not by jumping directly from a 10K. The body cannot easily withstand being pushed so far behind its previous capacity for work, at least not without consequences. Typically, those consequences occur the next season, not the year in which the body is pushed.

When I've looked at major league pitchers 25-and-younger who were pushed 30 or more innings beyond their previous season (or, in cases such as injury-shortened years, their previous pro high), I've been amazed how often those pitchers broke down with a serious injury the next season or took a major step backward in their development. (The season total includes all innings in the minors, majors and postseason. )

For example, let's look at the YAE for the Class of 2005, the young pitchers who were pushed beyond the 30-inning threshold that season: Matt Cain (+33.1 innings at age 20), Francisco Liriano (+34.2 at 21), Gustavo Chacin (+35.2 at 24), Zach Duke (+44.1 at 22), Scott Kazmir (+51.2 at 21) and Paul Maholm (+98.1 at 23). Liriano (elbow), Chacin (elbow) and Kazmir (shoulder) all suffered significant injuries. Cain (+1.82), Duke (+2.66) and Maholm (+2.58) all saw dramatic rises in their ERAs.

The bottom line: a dramatic increase in innings on a young pitcher elevates the risk of injury or a setback to their development. This has been true for years. The Kansas City Royals were negligent with young pitchers for years, pushing young arms such as Chad Durbin (+49 in 2001), Runelvys Hernandez (+92 in 2002) and Zack Greinke (+33.2 in 2004). Even breakout young stars took a step back because of the YAE, such as Kevin Millwood (+78.1 in 1999), Dontrelle Willis (+52 in 2003), Horatio Ramirez (+34 in 2003) and Mark Prior (+67 in 2003).

Like any rule of thumb, there are exceptions, especially for big-bodied pitchers. C.C. Sabathia (+40 in 2001) and Carlos Zambrano (+72.1 in 2003) proved the YAE is not one-size-fits-all.

Now the bad news for the Class of 2006. I can't remember more young pitchers getting pushed this hard in all the years I've been tracking the YAE. I found 11 pitchers 25-and-under who went more than 30 innings beyond their 2005 log, or (where marked with an asterisk) their previous professional high.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 28, 2006 2:15 PM

Like I said, the Tigers won't make the playoffs next year.

Posted by: Bob at November 28, 2006 4:48 PM

Consider the expert care Seattle has given Felix Hernandez. The Mariners increased his innings by 23 at age 19 in 2005 and by 18.2 in 2006. He should be in fine shape for a breakout year in 2007, with less concern about having to manage his innings. Of course, the Mariners' plan was easy to execute for one simple reason: they never were very close to the postseason in those years.

So the key to developing as a young pitcher is to sign with a crummy team which has no incentive to push you in September.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at November 28, 2006 11:51 PM

Just not enough controls around this data for it to be anything but sensationalized tripe. It appears to be a well-thought-out study, but actually Verducci is looking at random data. He takes no accounting of rest-between-starts, pitch counts, or the hard-to-track off-season pitch load; and then there is the arm conditioning work every pitcher should be doing to strenghthen the small muscles of his shoulder and the ligaments of his elbow; and then there's how quickly mechanical flaws in the pitching motion being corrected. As the parent of a varsity high school pitcher, I find all of these factors impact arm health.

Lots of better ways to look at this: what are the Cubs doing that keeps their top two pitchers from ever being healthy, besides, of course, the Baker effect. How did the Braves bring along their fine young studs of the early 90's? [lots of long toss, lots of innings] What kind of tabs are organizations keeping on their pitchers in the off season, what kind of regimens? what's working?

90 innings with a bad mechanical flaw that over-stresses a pitcher's elbow or shoulder is harder on a pitcher of any age than 200 innings of fluid pitching mechanics (Verlander). Young pitchers are more likely to have and not-know-how-to-correct pitching motion problems than more seasoned pitchers.

The definition of "load" on a pitcher's arm is too fuzzy for this study to be of value. "Innings pitched" is far too raw a value for "load" to help reduce pitching injuries.

Posted by: Palmcroft at November 29, 2006 10:28 AM