2014 Season Preview: Innings Eaters

Spring Training Game Thread: Yankees @ Pirates
Update: Pro scouting dept. head Will Kuntz leaves Yankees for MLS
HIROK and TANAK. (Mike Carlson/Getty)
HIROK and TANAK. (Mike Carlson/Getty)

It wasn’t all that long ago that it felt like a miracle whenever a Yankees’ starter completed six full innings of work. At least it felt like a miracle to me. In fact, from 2006-08, the team’s starters completed six full innings only 284 times out of 486 regular season games, or 58%. Over the last three seasons, that number is 67%. Doesn’t seem like a big difference, but it is one extra start of 6+ innings out of every ten games.

Thankfully things have changed in recent years and I think the reasons are obvious. The Yankees haven’t only added better starters over the last few seasons, but they’ve added more durable starters as well. They’ve been getting not just more innings, but more quality innings, and in turn the workload on the bullpen has been reduced. It makes the entire staff better when the starter can go deep into the game.

This coming season, the Yankees again figure to have a few starters who can be counted on to soak up innings and complete those six innings of every five days. Given the questionable state of the middle of the bullpen, having the starter take the ball deep into the game will be more important to the club in 2014 than it was at any point in the last few years. Who is going to eat up those innings? Let’s preview.

(Stacy Revere/Getty)
(Stacy Revere/Getty)

CC Sabathia
Let’s get this out of the way early: Sabathia was terrible last year. The reasons are whatever the reasons are, but the bottom line is that he ranked 76th with a 4.78 ERA and 72nd with 0.3 bWAR out of 81 qualified starters. Terrible. From 2009-12, even bad Sabathia starts were hardly disasters, usually something like four runs in six innings than six innings in four innings. That wasn’t always the case last summer.

And yet, despite all his struggles, Sabathia still managed to throw 200+ innings for the seventh straight year. Mark Buehrle, James Shields, and Justin Verlander are the only pitchers who can make that claim. Sabathia’s 211 innings were the 16th most in baseball, and he completed six full innings in 24 of his 32 starts. He completed seven full innings 17 times, the 12th most in baseball. CC’s effectiveness is waning but he remains a workhorse of the first order, someone the Yankees can rely on to spare the bullpen every five days. I have very little doubt he will continue to eat innings in 2014.

Hiroki Kuroda
An oblique strain and a concussion caused Kuroda to miss nearly three full months in 2009, but he’s thrown at least 196 innings in the four seasons since. He’s also thrown at least 200 innings in each of the last three seasons. Kuroda, true to his workhorse form, completed six innings 24 times and seven innings 14 times in his 32 starts last season. Remember when I said the Yankees were not just getting more innings, but more quality innings out of their starters in recent years? That describes Kuroda perfectly.

Both the Yankees and Kuroda have indicated they will look for ways to lighten the load on their top right-hander this summer, mostly because he’s 39 years old and has faded late in each of the last two regular seasons. How will they accomplish that? I have no idea. Maybe they won’t send him out for that one extra inning, maybe they’ll use off-days to give him extra rest, maybe they’ll do that and more. Kuroda may intentionally be turned into a 180-inning starter this year, which is still a ton of innings even if it falls short of the hallowed 200-inning plateau.

Masahiro Tanaka
After three televised Grapefruit League outings, we still don’t really know what to expect out of Tanaka this coming season. We know the scouting report and all that, but until he gets on a big league mound and pitches every fifth day in the regular season, there’s just no way to know what he can give the Yankees in 2014. He could be great, he could be awful, he could be something in between.

(via @NPBTracker)
(via @NPBTracker)

What we do know is that Tanaka was pretty durable during his time with the Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan, missing a little bit of time with shoulder inflammation in 2008, 2009, and 2012. Tanaka threw 212 innings last season and has averaged 203.2 innings per season over the last three years, which works out to 7.9 innings per start. That was pitching ever seventh day and not a pace he will maintain in MLB, but it shows Tanaka is used to pitching deep into the game.

The Yankees have indicated they will try to work some extra rest in for Tanaka throughout the season, and may start him in the fourth game of the season rather than the third for that very reason — an off-day means his second start would come with an extra day of rest as the number four starter rather than regular rest as the number three. Can he give the team six or so innings every time out? I hope so, but he have to see how efficient he is first. The club will try to give their new starter some extra rest here and there, but make no mistake, he’s being counting on for lots of high-end innings right away.

Ivan Nova?
It wasn’t until his sixth professional season, when he took a comebacker to the ankle in July 2011, that Nova missed a scheduled start. He was insanely durable throughout his minor league career, and he’s thrown at least 140 innings every season since 2008. Nova did miss three weeks with shoulder inflammation in 2012 and four weeks with triceps inflammation in 2013, so he’s not an ironman, but by and large he’s been an innings guy throughout his career.

The question now is whether Nova can be counted on an innings eater in 2014. It’s not just the two relatively minor arm problems the last two seasons, it’s the unpredictability of his performance as well. He’s been very up and down over the last three seasons, not an uncommon problem for a young starting pitcher. Nova’s a big guy (listed at 6-foot-4 and 225 lbs.) and his delivery seems to be pretty smooth, two traits that portend workhorseishness. Can he make the jump to become a consistent 180+ or even 200+ innings guy this season? I hope so. Nova’s is a pretty important piece of the franchise going forward and taking that next step would be a nice development.

* * *

The Yankees have said Michael Pineda will have an innings limit because, well, duh. Of course he will. The kid threw 171 innings for the Mariners a few years ago but it’s hard to think that number means anything after a major shoulder surgery and two lost years. They have to be careful and build Pineda back up slowly. In no way should he be counted on to chew up innings, even if the bullpen was taxed the night before.

David Phelps (94.1 IP), Adam Warren (77 IP), and Vidal Nuno (45 IP) all threw fewer than a hundred innings in 2013, but none of them are particularly young (Nuno is the youngest at 26) and they all have multiple 100+ inning seasons to their credit (Phelps and Warren have multiple 150+ inning seasons). I think the Yankees would let all three throw upwards of 150 innings this season, maybe more depending on how they’re performing.

Sabathia (performance), Kuroda (age), Tanaka (transition), and Nova (unpredictable) all come into the season with questions but they all have the ability to be top-notch innings guys. This isn’t some far-fetched idea either, we’re asking these guys to do something they did just last year and over the last several years as well (aside from Nova). The benefits of having durable starting pitchers is obvious and the Yankees are in line to have several of them in 2014.

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Spring Training Game Thread: Yankees @ Pirates
Update: Pro scouting dept. head Will Kuntz leaves Yankees for MLS
  • Paisa

    I really hope this limit Kuroda’s innings thing doesn’t turn into the usual Yankee innings paranoia fiasco. Guys have pitched well this spring, but the way I see it this bullpen is still fragile. It might just be more important to protect those guys throughout the season than a 40-year old Kuroda who, although he’s faded down the stretch these last couple of years, has been pretty damn reliable. Let ‘em go and see what happens.

    • Jorge Steinbrenner

      “the usual Yankee innings paranoia fiasco”

      They’ll be picking at Joba’s remains until there is nothing left.

      • I’m One

        That may take some time. He’s a pretty big guy. (Good thing this wasn’t a discussion about Montero’s remains!)

  • Steve (different one)

    Thankfully things have changed in recent years and I think the reasons are obvious. The Yankees haven’t only added better starters over the last few seasons, but they’ve added more durable starters as well.

    This and the significant decrease in the offensive environment.

  • Eddardo Nuney

    The problem with CC is that he ate innings pitching to a 4.73 ERA. He needs to pitch better and win.

    Kuroda shouldn’t be an innings eater. He tired down the stretch. Use the plethora of young arms like Phelps, Warren, Nuno to help these old guys stay fresh for when it matters.

    Tanaka will be their ace. All the Japanese do is eat innings because that’s how they’re trained over there. They are babied here in the US and that’s why there’s so many arm injuries. He’s not as old as Hiroki so he’ll be able to eat plenty of innings for us.

    Nova will be their #2. He was their ace last year down the stretch and he can easily gobble up 6-8 innings per start.

  • Yankee$ (Formerly Pseudoyanks)

    Putting Tanaka in the 4th rotation spot might translate into fresh bullpens when Pineda (assuming he is 5th) starts. That could have been an unspoken reason for doing that.

  • BFDeal

    Tanaka channeling his inner Oscar Gamble.

    • TWTR

      He can definitely afford the Rolls that Gamble used to drive, actually a fleet of them.

    • Jorge Steinbrenner

      I don’t want his knees wasting away by trying to emulate his hitting stance, though.

    • vicki

      (for anybody looking for a fun read i recommend “Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s” by my pal dan epstein.)

      • dkidd

        great book!

        introduced me to the SI cover photo of dick allen juggling baseballs while smoking a cig

        • vicki

          you exhibit great taste, as always.

  • Hearn

    Another great, future Hall of Famer, sh!t don’t smell Red Sox prospect:

    http://www.mlbtraderumors.com/.....rnway.html

    • Jorge Steinbrenner

      Must be a typo. Could be an Onion article.

      The Sox system is infallible. They produce prospects the likes of which make you ejaculate at the sheer mention of their name.

      Oh shit, I just stepped on Lars Anderson while I was tripping over Casey Kelly while kicking the living shit out of Craig Hansen.

      • TWTR

        It has merely become a strong asset for them. I don’t understand the hyperbole either way.

  • LarryM Fl

    In keeping with the article that Mike has written on starter durability. I believe the Yankees can go 8 deep with the front four and Phelps, Warren, Nuno and Pineda. IMHO Pineda will be on a limited innings total so he will be the last resort or opportune starter. I just cannot see the Yankees blowing on his shoulder with overuse. Maybe if a playoff birth, Pineda could be assigned to the bullpen for flame throwing time for and inning here or there.

    So with these 8 guys and the sun, moon and stars aligned in perfect order. The starters and bullpen can get it done. Its the infield that presents the major issue with the age of its components.

    • TWTR

      The challenge could be, if they make the playoffs, what happens if Pineda is really good, but two of the other starters are not. Do they manage Pineda’s IP so that he can pitch in the playoffs, or do they still shut him down?

      • jjyank

        You gotta make it to the playoffs first. If Pineda is the best option by the start of the season, he should be pitching in the bigs. There will only be so many bullets in that arm for 2014, and if those bullets are getting hitters out consistently, I want them being fired at MLB hitters.

        I’ll worry about Pineda’s innings when the bridge presents itself. This strategy probably leads to Pineda getting shut down (or possibly moved to the bullpen) towards the end of the season, and that would be a bad thing if he’s one of their 5 best starters at that point. But I feel like that’s just the way it needs to be. The team can’t hold him back now in the hopes of using him for a playoff run. They need to qualify for the playoffs first.

        • TWTR

          I neglected to mention that I was assuming some degree of playoff-making cushion.

          I definitely think he will start the season in the ML, but what I was referring to is if, as the season wears on, let’s say in mid- to late-August, it looks like they have lead, at least in the WC race.

          Do they shut Pineda down for a couple of starts to save some bullets for the playoffs? Or, as the original comment suggested, do they relegate him to the pen in the playoffs?

          Or, if he is pitching well in mid-July while the team is playing well, do they start to limit the IP of his starts that early in anticipation of a late season/playoff contribution?

          I guess my overall point is that there may or may not be one way to handle him, but if they are confronted with these choices, they are already ahead of the game, actually way, way ahead.

      • Preston

        I think it might have made more sense to do what the Braves did with Kris Medlen where they started him in the bullpen, got him used to pitching against MLB hitters and then stretched him out and moved him into the rotation for the stretch run. If he can’t hack it in the pen, he probably wouldn’t have hacked it as a starter and if he can’t make the transition back to starting after pitching in the bullpen after a few months of building arm strength he certainly wouldn’t have been able to do it after ST. The other option is what the Nats did in 2012, where they shut him down. Then if you don’t win the WS everybody asks what if, and God forbid he gets hurt anyways after you handled him with kid gloves. Or you could go for the win now strategy and pitch him past his limit and then if he gets hurt it’s because you “burned him out”. The Medlen strategy just seems to be the safer bet.

        • LarryM Fl

          I like your idea of pen work maybe as long relief then if any innings are left in the barrel. Pitch him in a game as a starter if necessary. But there cannot be too many innings, less than 100.

          • Preston

            I just think that he’s the guy with the highest upside, but we know his innings are limited. If he’s going to be making starts wouldn’t we rather they be in August and September than April and May? I know that a win is a win no matter the month, but it’s kind of like late seasons games are comparable to the late innings of games, they are just higher leverage.

            • LarryM Fl

              I do not see if available for many starts at all at season. He has to stay in shape by pitching and we know that will be limited. Get what you can, build up his arm for 2015.

  • vicki

    maybe nova won’t need his annual “inflammation” visit down this season.

    • jjyank

      Let’s hope not. He’s out of options, isn’t he? So that little remedy isn’t an option anymore.

      • vicki

        pretty sure that’s why they call it inflammation and put him on the DL. when at times the issue has been the muscle between his ears.

  • jim p

    Rough, and optimistic, back of the envelope calculations. 9 innings, 162 games = 1,458, say 1460.

    200 CC = 32 starts
    190 Kuroda = 28 starts (occasional rest)
    200 Nova = 32 starts
    190 Tanaka = 27, 28 starts (occasional rest)
    120 Pineda = 18 starts then rest

    900 innings in 138 starts.
    Then, given the rest at least three starters need, we’ll have to get another 24 from Nuno, Phelps, Warren, and whoever else, so figure 140 innings.

    That makes 1,040 innings from starters, 400+ from relief pitchers.

    I don’t know what the typical number of innings a team gets from relief pitchers over a season, but 3-1/3 per game average does strike me as high. Maybe it isn’t.

    And if we are shifting Phelps and Warren from relief to spot-starts then this emphasizes how we’ll need to shore up the bullpen.

    • Preston

      http://www.fangraphs.com/leade.....8;sort=7,d

      Here’s the leader board for team relief innings. No teams bullpen was relied on for less than 400 innings (the Twins threw nearly 600!), and only two teams got more than 1,000 innings from starters. The Yankees had the 13th most innings by starters and the 13th fewest innings by relievers. So slightly above average. Whatever combination of guys get the starts in the 5th spot should be able to net more innings per start than Phil’s 5.01 per start, and I’m confident that Tanaka will go as deep into games as Andy. So we should at least be able to be above average if not move into the top third in that regard.

      • jim p

        Thanks for digging up the info.

        So my rough estimate might not be so far off if guys stay more or less healthy. I do think we have those three starters who will have to get rest during the season, so I’m pretty glad we have Warren & Phelps & Nuno. Do we have someone else? I can’t think of anyone right now.

        • Preston

          Nik Turley will be starting the year at AAA, and I like him more than Nuno. Jose Ramirez probably has better stuff than any of the prospects, but he’s had some injury issues and their are rumblings of moving him to the pen. I like Brett Marshall as a bounce-back candidate. He reminds me of Zach Mcallister, he was a guy people said would be a solid back end starter after AA, he struggled in his first shot at AAA and now everybody has forgotten about him. Now Mcallister is exactly what people thought he was in Cleveland. And hopefully fingers crossed Man Ban enters the picture by the second half. I don’t think the system is as pitching starved as people make it out to be.

    • 28 this year

      400/162 ~ 2.5ish not 3.33

      Knock out 40 innings from road losses, but that probably cancels out extra innings so leave it. I think CC and Nova will get over 200 innings. In addition, the combination of Nuno, Phelps, Warren will definitely add up more than 140 innings. I dont really see a problem with the present construction.

    • vicki

      per fangraphs, “starters” threw 969.2 last year; and bref has total innings at 1447.1.