Teams Take Widely Varied Approaches To Developing Top Young Arms
In every start during his first full pro season, Pirates righthander Jameson Taillon, the first high school pitcher taken in the 2010 draft, knew that he'd never see the sixth inning.
"They've told me my pitch count is five innings no matter what, that or 75 pitches," Taillon said last year when asked about his outings.
If he used his 75 pitches well, he could last five innings. If the teenage righthander used them poorly, he would be done by the third or fourth inning. But even if he economized like a Prius driver hypermiling, Taillon wasn't going to pitch more than five innings. A 15-up, 15-down, 40-pitch outing would have brought a pat on the back and a trip to the showers.
The first time Dylan Bundy, the first high school pitcher taken in the 2011 draft, stood on the mound officially as a pro, he didn't face one stomach-churning moment. Three innings, nine batters, nine outs and just 45 pitches later his night was over. Six days later, Bundy returned to the mound to do the same thing, retiring all nine hitters he faced, this time needing just 31 pitches. Two games, six innings, 76 pitches.
That's become the norm with the best high school arms. Start them out slow and keep the away from high pitch or inning counts.
Compared to those approaches, the Diamondbacks handling of Archie Bradley, the second high school arm selected in the 2011 draft, seems to border on the extreme. It took Taillon 28 pro starts to see what pitching in the sixth inning felt like; Bradley threw six innings in his second pro start. The Orioles let Bundy throw 76 pitches in his first two starts; Bradley threw 85 in his first appearance.
The approaches are as different as Jamie Moyer and Aroldis Chapman fastballs. But while anyone can tell you that Chapman's fastball is at least 30 mph harder than Moyer's, no one can definitively tell you which approach is the proper way to develop a young pitcher. Even some of the coaches designing the pitching programs will tell you that.
"While you try to make the best decision for the player and the organization, there are a lot of variables. I can't tell you that there is a magical formula out there," Diamondbacks pitching coordinator Mel Stottlemyre Jr. said.
There is nothing more thrilling for a minor league pitching coach or pitching coordinator than when your team drafts an elite high school arm in the first round. They're getting a great arm, usually attached to a great frame, that has all kinds of potential but also needs of nurturing to reach the goal of a successful big league career. However, for that pitching coach or coordinator, there is also nothing more dangerous than seeing that your team draft an elite high school arm in the first round. High school pitchers often take years to develop. And a lot of them either fail or get hurt—of the 83 high school pitchers selected in the first round between 1992 and 2006, 47 failed to make the majors and 38 of them missed significant time because of injury in one of their first six pro seasons.
If something goes wrong, someone is going to have to take the blame. And over the past 20 years, that has led to a lot of conservative approaches to developing pitchers. But in 2012, there are as many different approaches as there are changeup grips. To get a better idea, we surveyed four clubs that have recently drafted elite high school pitchers.
Art Vs. Science
When it comes to young pitchers, many teams are worried about how many innings they throw. But as Pirates pitching coordinator Jim Benedict sees it, not all innings are the same.
"It's a touchy subject. If you look at the art vs. the science. You have 200 IP by a Jamie Moyer or 200 IP by a Rob Dibble. The science part is we're going to go 25 IP above last year for Moyer and 25 more for Dibble because that's science. The art of it is how does he do it? Does he have a durable delivery, does he throw a slider or a curveball . . .
"You have a $10 million investment. If you are doing the art part and the art backfires, then no one is doing the art part again. It's so much easier to do the math. There is less accountability (that way). There aren't a lot of artists anymore. We've been fortunate enough to have management trust the process here."
Two years ago, Benedict got to dabble with some art. He made the case that Justin Wilson should pitch in the playoffs despite the fact that he had reached his innings limit for the year. Wilson ended up being Altoona's ace in the playoffs. He threw 13 scoreless inning as the Curve won the Eastern League title.
"We count the third start in April equal to that? I don't, but the mathematician would," Benedict said. "The art guy would say this is more important."
But as Benedict himself will point out, what the Pirates have done involves a whole lot of science as well. During Taillon's first full pro season, he was on one of the strictest pitch and innings limits of any recent elite high school pitcher.
"There are math times," Benedict said. "The Taillons of the world, let's build off each start. We want to set him up for the upper levels . . . so keeping him going over a five-month period was more important than stringing together long outings."
Benedict says developing a pitcher like Taillon is like painting a picture (notice the reference to art). And a big part of that picture is sketching the rough outlines in Class A.
"You have to lay a foundation in A ball to have longevity," Benedict said. "That full season in the Sally League, you can't replace it. It's the biggest grind, the worst travel. The goal is to finish the season. He may never have that type of year again where he starts and finishes in the same place until he reaches the big leagues."
Taillon made every scheduled start last year and he's been placed on a more lenient approach this season.
The Cardinals have also had plenty of recent experience with young, elite arms. The Cardinals picked Shelby Miller 19th overall in the 2009 draft, nabbing him that late only because of his bonus demands. They are also developing Carlos Martinez, a 20-year-old Dominican righthander whose fastball can touch 100 mph. Both Miller, 21, and Martinez are the kind of elite arms that teams hope to build a rotation around, if they can manage to stay healthy while developing in the minors.
So how do you get pitchers enough innings without overworking them? The Cardinals are trying to do it by tweaking their old pitch limits.
In the first month of the season, every Cardinals starting pitcher was on a universal pitch limit that has become a part of most every team's minor league guidelines. But once May arrived, St. Louis started treating its pitchers differently.
"Rather than setting a hard-and-fast number of pitches, I would set up a three-game composite," said Cardinals pitching coordinator Brent Strom, who also runs the Strom Baseball Institute.
Each pitcher gets his own composite number based on mechanical efficiency of his delivery, injury history, previous workload and a variety of other factors. For example, Strom gave a quick estimate of Martinez's composite number:
"Let's say we give him a three-game window of 310 pitches with a max of 115 (for any one game). Let's say Carlos goes into a game and he gets into the eighth with runners on first and second and hits the 100-pitch mark. Rather than taking him out, (Springfield manager) Mike Shildt has the leeway to take him to 115 pitches," Stom said.
The hope is that with that leeway, a pitcher like Martinez will get a chance to learn how to get out of a late-inning jam in the minors without throwing significantly more pitches than he would under a strict 100-pitch rule.
Under strict limits, Strom has seen young pitchers in the past get their first taste of pitching the late innings of a tight game in the big leagues.
When Strom was working with the Royals in 2000, he watched rookie Chad Durbin put together the best start of his young career against an impressive Indians' lineup. Needing to save a bad bullpen, Durbin was asked to try to finish the game out, although he ended being pulled with one out in the ninth. The Royals
"After the game, Durbin said, 'I've never seen the eighth inning of a start, let alone the ninth,' " Strom said.
If the Cardinals' approach works, that won't happen when their starting prospects reach the majors. Last year, Miller was allowed to work 108 pitches for eight shutout innings against Arkansas. He finished last season with another eight-inning outing.
Slow Start, Fast Finish
Orioles righthander Dylan Bundy won't likely get to work into the eighth inning this year, but he will get to work much deeper into games than was apparent in his first few starts.
Baltimore kept its best pitching prospect on a three-inning limit for his first three starts, even when it took just 31 pitches to throw three perfect innings in his second outing. He was lengthened out to four innings for his next three starts, and the plan was to soon stretch him to five innings.
From afar it could look like the Orioles were treating Bundy like he was made of balsa wood. But the Orioles see it as helping ensure he finishes the season strong.
"We're very conservative on the front end," Orioles pitching coordinator Rick Peterson said. "At the back end (of the season), he'll be a normal pitcher."
The Orioles want Bundy to pitch into September without throwing more than 130 innings overall this year, so they are limiting his innings in April and May.
Bundy will be on a more flexible, but still tighter-than-normal innings limit during the middle third of the season. Then as July turns to August, the Orioles will let him loose like any other starter in their system, and they hope he will continue doing that through the minor leaue playoffs.
The Orioles brought in Peterson during the offseason as part of the front-office shakeup, and with him came an emphasis on biomechanics. Peterson has long worked with Dr. James Andrews and Dr. Glenn Fleisig of the American Sports Medicine Institute, headquartered in Birmingham, Ala—both Andrews and Fleisig are part of Peterson's 3P Sports pitching program. This spring, the Orioles became the first team to ever pay to bring the AMSI's biomechanical analysis equipment to to spring training. As part of that program, the Orioles had Bundy's pitching mechanics, and even his long-toss mechanics, analyzed in exacting detail. Bundy's delivery, flexibility and strength all looked quite good in slow-motion, but the Orioles did find some things to tweak.
"More than anything else it was range of motion and I would say rhythm. It wasn't that his movements were off, but some timing mechanisms were off," Peterson said. "Once we showed him some of these minor adjustments, he got it right away. He said 'this feels so much better.' "
While there are plenty of disagreements on how to best develop a young pitcher, Peterson points out that there are areas of general agreement.
"Everyone would agree the number one criteria early on in your career is to master a consistent delivery. Number two is fastball command. Number three is the development of a changeup and a quality breaking ball," Peterson said.
Studies have convinced Peterson that developing the changeup is more important than than developing a good breaking ball. Having both pitches is best, but pitchers with a fastball/changeup-heavy approach have a better success rate in the big leagues than fastball/breaking ball pitchers. It's no coincidence that the Orioles have worked hard with Bundy to develop his changeup this spring..
No Simple Formula
Of the four teams sampled, the Diamondbacks may have the least conventional approach. Barring injury, Bradley will throw more innings than Taillon, Miller or Bundy in their first season. The Diamondbacks will let him throw between 140 and 160 innings this year, depending on whether he's pitching in the minor league playoffs.
"There are times we've protected guys and we've tried to limit their innings and they've had significant injuries," said Stottlemyre, the Diamondbacks pitching coordinator. "Everyone has different philosophies on progressions—the amount of innings a newly drafted pitcher should pitch. We've changed over time. A while back we really protected players. At times you can overprotect these guys."
So the Diamondbacks have decided that they are throwing out the old innings-limiting approach and stretching their guys out. As Stottlemyre explains it, they couldn't find any proof that there was a magic health benefit to limiting innings.
"If everyone had that magical formula we'd all follow those guidelines," he said. "On my end, I lean toward the aggressive side, hence the six innings in (Bradley's) second outing. By no means do we want to build five to six-inning starters. We try to prepare our starters to go deep in games. With that in mind comes innings and pitches. I can't tell you there is a number of innings a pitcher has to go through before he's ready for the big leagues because every pitcher is different. But with innings and pitches come experience."
The Diamondbacks want their pitchers to pitch tired—not exhausted, but with the fatigue that teaches him how to succeed without his best stuff.
"I want our pitchers at some point to feel tired," Stottlemyre said. "I want to see mentally, can they push and get through it? Not to a point of injury, but if you're going to throw 32 starts in the big leagues, you will get tired,"
Ever Changing Approaches
The Diamondbacks and Cardinals' approaches may ensure their pitchers will enter the big leagues ready to work deep into games. The Pirates' approach that helped Taillon get through his first full season in perfect health may allow him to blossom in his second full pro season. The Orioles' plan may ensure that Bundy is logging competitive innings in a playoff series this September.
Or one of those pitchers could suffer a significant injury. If so, we'll likely never know if it was preventable
We may never know which approach is the best one, but the approaches will continue to evolve, as will the coaching.
Strom coached first-round pick Scott Elarton in his first full pro season in 1995. Elarton worked 150 innings that year, stayed healthy and made it to the majors three years later. He ended up throwing more than 1,000 big league innings in a 10-year career. By most standards, Elarton counts as a moderate success story. But Strom can only think of what he knows now, that he would work on Elarton's range of motion and stability, things that he didn't know much about nearly 20 years ago.
"I'm a much better pitching coach now," he said. "Mistakes were made. I'm more excited about what I'm doing now."
Pitching coaches will keep learning and pitchers will keep coming. We know that approaches will change. What we don't know with any certainty is which approach is best—pitching just doesn't allow many certainties.