Ditching the Kid Gloves

Corey Brock brings word that right-hander Mat Latos’ workload won’t be as closely monitored in 2011 as it was last year. Latos is understandably excited about this, saying “It’s a weight lifted off my shoulders.”

I am a little less excited, but this is a knee-jerk reaction.

One problem with the alleged Verducci Effect is that it plants a seed of doubt in our minds. It lends credence to our fears, regardless of whether said effect holds up to scrutiny, that Latos could be at risk.

Such fears caused this observer to momentarily cringe at the thought that Latos, who pitched 184 2/3 innings last year at age 22, might be asked to work even harder in 2011. Then I remembered that knowledge is an excellent remedy for fear and examined the data.

Since 2001, 16 pitchers have worked at least as many innings as Latos at age 22. All are currently active (although we stretch the definition by including Mark Prior, who pitched 1 inning at Triple-A last year after missing three seasons due to injury). Here is the full list (name, year, IP):

  1. Mark Buehrle, 2001, 221.1
  2. Carlos Zambrano, 2003 214
  3. Mark Prior, 2003, 211.1
  4. Clayton Kershaw, 2010, 204.1
  5. Felix Hernandez, 2008, 200.2
  6. Matt Cain, 2007, 200.0
  7. CC Sabathia, 2003, 197.2
  8. Dontrelle Willis, 2004, 197
  9. Trevor Cahill, 2010, 196.2
  10. Oliver Perez, 2004, 196
  11. Jake Peavy, 2003, 194.2
  12. Brett Myers, 2003, 193
  13. Jon Garland, 2002, 192.2
  14. Rich Harden, 2004, 189.2
  15. Jeremy Bonderman, 2005, 189
  16. Jair Jurrjens, 2008, 188.1

By definition, these are special young men. Most guys their age — even the ones who pitch professionally for a living — are not taking their turn in a big-league rotation. Here’s the average line of those pitchers at age 22:

No. GS    IP   H  R ER HR BB  SO  ERA   BA  OBP  SLG
16  31 199.0 182 87 80 19 72 162 3.59 .244 .315 .381

Here’s how they did (except Kershaw and Cahill, who haven’t gotten there yet) the following year:

No. GS    IP   H  R ER HR BB  SO  ERA   BA  OBP  SLG
14  30 188.2 174 80 74 18 66 153 3.52 .246 .314 .387

Let’s put those two together, using ratios for easier digestion:

Age No. GS    IP  ERA  H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9  BA   OBP  SLG
 22 16  31 199.0 3.59 8.23 0.84 3.25 7.31 .244 .315 .381
 23 14  30 188.2 3.52 8.32 0.86 3.13 7.30 .246 .314 .387

At an aggregate level, there is virtually no difference between age 22 and age 23 seasons of pitchers who worked harder than Latos did at age 22.

Because no two snowflakes are alike, we must also take a closer look at individual cases. Here are the deltas from age 22 to to age 23 in durability (GS and IP) and effectiveness (ERA+) for the 14 pitchers who have completed their age 23 campaigns. Positive numbers are good:

Pitcher    GS    IP ERA+
Buehrle    +2 +17.2 -14
Zambrano   -1  -4.1 +21
Prior      -9 -92.2 -69
Hernandez  +3 +38.0 +49
Cain       +2 +17.2  -5
Sabathia    0  -9.2 -16
Willis     +2 +39.2 +50
Perez     -10 -93.0 -73
Peavy      -5 -28.1 +75
Myers      -1 -17.0  -9
Garland    -1  -1.0  +4
Harden    -12 -61.2 +59
Bonderman  +5 +25.0 +18
Jurrjens   +3 +26.2 +44

Some observations:

  • The only two that completely tanked were Prior and Perez. There have been questions about the way Prior was handled in Chicago, and I’ve never liked the fact that Perez and his inconsistent mechanics stuck in the big leagues after just four starts above A-ball. But we’re making excuses; what’s done is done.
  • Myers was marginally less effective at age 23. Peavy and Harden improved, but both spent time on the disabled list.
  • Hernandez, Willis, and Jurrjens all took huge leaps forward. Bonderman made more modest gains.
  • Taking a longer view, Buehrle, Zambrano, Sabathia, Peavy, Myers, and Garland have enjoyed sustained success over several years. Hernandez and Cain have done the same over a shorter time period but appear to be head down a similar path.
  • Prior and Perez never recovered. Willis saw his game deteriorate quickly and hasn’t been effective since his age 24 season. Harden has pitched well when healthy, which is almost never. Bonderman took a step backward at age 24. He has battled injuries and ineffectiveness ever since. Jurrjens broke down at the same age and we don’t yet know how he’ll respond to that.

This is hardly a definitive study (heck, it’s not even a study at all), but it provides enough recent counterexamples to suggest that increased workload — in and of itself — won’t condemn Latos to some horrible fate. Still, all else being equal, I’d just as soon see the Padres be protective of Latos. He represents a huge chunk of the organization’s hope going forward, and you don’t want to see the team get careless with him.

Of course, all else isn’t equal and we don’t know all the variables, but the same can be said of life itself. Bad things happen to young pitchers. You take the necessary precautions, let them pitch, and hope for the best.

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8 Responses »

  1. I think my biggest concern going into this season is the lack of a true innings eater in the rotation. Richard threw 200 innings last year but it was only his first season doing so and while Harang has done it three times, that was three years and a Dusty Baker ago. With a revolving door in the fifth spot and unknown quantities in the third and fourth (Stauffer and Harang), it seems like a lot of responsibility is going to fall on Latos and Richard, so I’m not sure kid gloves could even be an option.

  2. @Ray

    Mine too.

    Harang could be healthy, LeBlanc or Luebke could be league-average for long enough, Castro could be a viable mid-year addition. I don’t see how it would make any sense to promote Kelly this year, maybe not even in September, so I’ll leave him out. It’d sure be nice to have another pitcher who’s a “should” instead of a “could.”

    Then again, if they insist on a 7 man pen despite playing so many games in pitcher’s parks, they can unload some SP innings on the relievers. That is, as long as Black doesn’t bury one or two of the RP so far down the depth chart they might as well be selling ice cream to the fans.

  3. I don’t see the Padres getting away with the six likely starters either. I strongly suspect Jed has something up his sleeve, either a late pre-season trade or a move during the season, maybe well before the trading deadline. He’s so good at keeping his groundwork private that we probably won’t know about any moves until they happen.

  4. isn’t Kevin Milwood still a FA?
    should the Padres at least offer him a ST invite? perhaps, they did and he turned the team down.

    it’ll be interesting to see what would happen to LeBlanc, Moseley, Luebke.
    So, the starters are Latos, Richard, Harang, Stauffer, and one of the three above. Hmm…lots of uncertainty.

    btw, what is the Padres going to do with Baxter and Durango?

  5. re; Harang … here’s his game logs from 2008 …


    He did post some wiked pitch counts *after* the “8-day stretch” … including 6 shutout innings at Colorado … and a complete game shutout of the Cardinals at home … which was immediately followed by a 122-pitch outing in his penultimate start …

    Should Dusty Baker be charged with crimes against humanity? Or was Aaron pretty complicit in the events?

    Let’s hope that Balsley can get him back to 2007 form … at this point, sounds like there’s hope anyway …