How to handle Phil Hughes

Friends vs. Italian Friends
How do you get to the New Yankee Stadium?

As we all know, the Yankees are taking a very conservative approach to handling Phil Hughes. He’s the top pitching prospect in baseball, and the last thing the team wants is to let him loose and risk an injury. To an extent, this makes sense; there have been studies that demonstrate the negative effects of increasing a young pitcher’s workload by more than 30 innings a year. True, you have to throw more to get stronger, but the Yankees are just trying to moderate how much more Hughes throws.

At what point, though, do the Yankees cut bait and let him pitch as many innings as he can handle? He’ll be limited to around 180 innings this year, 30 more than he threw in 2006. Are they going to impose a 210-inning limit in 2008?

Perhaps we’re not asking the best questions here. After all, 180 innings for Phil Hughes is much different than 180 innings for Chien-Ming Wang. The typical reaction here is to revert to pitch count, which has been the trend as of late. But does pitch count even give us an adequate idea of a pitcher’s workload?

For a quick rundown of the Pitch Count Phenomenon, check out Tom Verducci’s article from this week’s SI (I don’t know why I still subscribe to the magazine if they make everything available online). Yeah yeah, I know some Yanks fans still have a sour taste in their mouth from Verucci’s recent article bemoaning the Yankees philosophy, but the Matsuzaka/pitch count article is a good read.

Now, head over to CBS Sportsline and check out the article about how the Mariners are handling King Felix. Most of the article is fluff, but there are some interesting tidbits in there, including:

As for Hernandez’s workload, the Mariners still will monitor him closely. But if it’s the seventh inning and Hernandez is dominating, you probably won’t see him automatically yanked from the game like he was so often last year.

Instead of simply counting innings, manager Mike Hargrove and pitching coach Rafael Chaves will place more emphasis this year on total pitches thrown and, particularly, on the stress of those pitches and innings.

If Hernandez is sailing, his delivery is in sync and everything is smooth, the green light will remain in place.

I couldn’t possibly react to that revelation better than Jeff at Lookout Landing, who pointed out the CBS article:

That’s not stupid – that’s perfect. It’s exactly how a young pitcher should be treated. Counting innings is what’s silly; 200 frames for Gil Meche are way different than 200 frames for, say, Roy Halladay, and the total barely even gives you an approximation of workload and stress level. It’s something of a barometer, since a guy with 100 innings will generally have less wear and tear than someone with twice as many, but it’s incredibly inefficient, to the point where it’s not even worth monitoring when there are better alternatives available. Which there are.

Innings sometimes provide a ballpark estimate, but pitch context and mechanical consistency tell you much much more. If Pitcher A throws 90 pitches and allows ten baserunners in five innings, while Pitcher B throws 110 pitches and allows six baserunners in seven innings, Pitcher A’s going to be doing more damage to himself, since he’s working in more stressful situations. That’s what wears a guy out and puts him at risk for injury – having to focus on every individual pitch with men on is way more tiring than cruising through the bottom of the order with the bases empty. That much we know. So why not account for it when you’re keeping track of a young pitcher’s progress?

If coaches and front offices are going to be so mindful of a pitcher’s workload, does it not make more sense to try to get as micro a view as possible of said workload? The more you generalize, the more vague your findings are going to be.

If Hughes dominates AAA, there seems little reason to keep innings limits on him. Then, once he gets to the majors, you can monitor him in the same way. This will provide a better view of his workload and possibly clear him to work beyond the 180-inning limit imposed on him. You never know, the Yankees may need some extra innings from him down the stretch.

Mike, I know you’ve got two cents about this.

Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images

Friends vs. Italian Friends
How do you get to the New Yankee Stadium?
  • Mike A.

    Throw, throw and throw some more. Pitch in a game, long toss the day after, throw a bullpen the next day, long toss some more, then pitch again. You won’t build up anyone’s arm strength by keeping him on a pitch/inning count.

    If young, cheap and efficient pitchers weren’t so valuable because of the ridiculous cost of pitching these days, you wouldn’t even hear about any of this pitch count garbage. Do you think that Sandy Koufax, Tom Seaver, or even Roger Clemens were kept on pitch counts when they were young? Hell no.

    If you treat’em like babies, you end up with babies.

  • Mike A.

    One more thing: Letting young prospects dominate for 4 or 5 innings, then yanking them because of a pitch count accomplishes very little. Young pitchers need to face adversity and battle through it. That’s the only way to prepare them for the bigs.

    Did you know that Hughes didn’t face a single bases loaded situation while at Trenton last year? What did he learn from that? Absolutely nothing.

    That’s why alot of these kids look shell-shocked when they hit the bigs.

  • Joseph P.

    Yanking them after 4 or 5 innings also precludes them from facing a lineup a third time through — or if they’re particularly dominant, even finishing the second go-round.

  • Mike A.

    You’ve got to let them pitch. They do not become better pitchers by not pitching because of pitch counts.

    It’s as simple as that.

    This whole topic in general drives me nuts, because pitch/inning limits are asinine.

  • Dave

    “Pitcher A’s going to be doing more damage to himself, since he’s working in more stressful situations”

    Intuitively this sounds like it makes sense. There has been a lot of conversation about this topic. Is there any empirical support for that statement? I don’t see anything other than anecdotal information and unsupported opinion published on the net. Do you have a source for any empirical work done on this?

  • Joseph P.

    Dave, I really wish I did. Unfortunately, it would take time that I don’t have to perform this kind of research. To get a decent sample, you’d have to look through thousands of game logs, record each situation and how many pitches were thrown in each. Then you’d have to go and find logs of players time spent on the DL, and when it was spent (which I still haven’t found at all).

    I’m going to try to record data of this nature for the Yanks this year.

  • JP

    I think if you based the pitch count on how much stress he had in each inning, you might see a couple scenes where Hughes and Torre might look more like Rocky and Mickey. Torre has absolutely no restraint when a pitchers had enough.