PHOENIX – Philadelphia left-hander Cole Hamels threw 262 1/3 innings in the regular season and playoffs last season, a jump of more than 70 innings from the previous year.
He struggled to stay healthy this spring and in his first start his fastball averaged about 86 mph, a decrease of roughly 5 mph from previous seasons.
After Thursday’s start, Hamels is now 0-2 and has a 9.69 ERA.
Arizona Diamondbacks right-hander Max Scherzer doesn’t think it’s all just a coincidence.
“It means the evidence is real,” Scherzer said.
And it is a reason Scherzer agrees that the Diamondbacks’ plan to bring him along slowly is the right thing to do.
In this age of pitch counts and big-bonus draft picks, teams are more careful than ever with young pitching, their most prized possession. The Diamondbacks are no different and will do what they can to keep their second-year flame-thrower healthy as he begins his career.
“This is a much more common way of handling this thing now than it was years ago when guys pitched well and kept getting the ball every five days,” Diamondbacks pitching coach Bryan Price said. “I think we’re a lot more conscientious now of young arms and not overtaxing.”
The signs are everywhere. Pitchers generally are barely used in the summer immediately after they are drafted. The slightest physical ailment often is enough to sideline a prospect for days if not weeks.
And most teams subscribe to a 30-inning rule by which they try to gradually increase a pitcher’s annual innings total.
Scherzer not only understands; he is all for it. Late last season, a year in which shoulder fatigue cost him a month’s worth of innings, he understood that for him to be installed in the 2009 rotation he would need to make up for lost time and was more than willing to pitch in the Arizona Fall League at the conclusion of the regular season.
Scherzer remembers reading an article in Sports Illustrated, perhaps 10 years ago, on the risks involved with violating the 30-inning increase. Writer Tom Verducci called it the “Year-After Effect.”
Verducci said he remembers watching Atlanta’s Kevin Millwood labor through a World Series start in 1999 and wondered what the extra month of postseason work might mean in terms of wear and tear on a young pitcher’s arm. Not long after, he spoke with then-Oakland pitching coach Rick Peterson.
“He was the one who really turned me on to the fact that with young guys, you have to staircase their innings,” Verducci said. “The analogy was you’re not going to run a marathon by running 5Ks. You’re going to have to work your way up to 26 miles.”
All told, Scherzer threw 139 1/3 innings last year in game situations: 56 in the majors, 53 in Triple-A, 24 in the Arizona Fall League and 6 1/3 in instructional league.
The Diamondbacks say they are tentatively shooting for 170 to 175 innings out of him this season. They say they won’t pull Scherzer from games earlier than normal if he is pitching well but might have to skip him in the rotation from time to time in order to hit the target.
“They’re looking out for me,” Scherzer said. “They want to win. I want to win. That’s what comes first. But at the same time, you have to keep the bigger picture in mind and make sure I can stay healthy.”