Tom Verducci, the longtime baseball writer for Sports Illustrated, and one of the best in the business, has gained considerable attention for his theory highlighting the risk to a certain class of pitchers: those under the age of 25 that increase their workload by 30 or more innings from one year to the next.
Those pitchers, Verducci wrote last April, “are at risk of injury or significant regression.” This theory — proven out in a great many cases, but not 100 percent foolproof — even has been given a name in baseball circles: The Verducci Effect.
Gulp. In perusing the brilliant 2009 statistics of Felix Hernandez today while mulling over his Cy Young chances against Zack Greinke, it struck me: King Felix fits all the criteria for the Verducci Effect.
Under 25: He turned 23 in April. Check.
Increase in workload by 30 or more innings: Hernandez worked 200 2/3 innings in 2008, and 238 2/3 innings this year, an increase of 38. Check.
So is it panic time for Mariners’ fans? Hardly, though it’s not something just to write off, either.
In his April, 2009 column, Verducci red-flagged 10 pitchers as being in danger: Jon Lester (+83.1 innings from 2007 to 2008), Cole Hamels (+79), Chad Billingsley (+51.2), Tim Lincecum (+49.2), Clayton Kershaw (+49), Dana Eveland (+48.1), Mike Pelfrey (+48), John Danks (+45.2), Jair Jurrjens (+45) and Jon Niese (+40.2).
A couple of things jump out at me. One, in all those cases the increases were more than Felix’s, and in many cases, much greater. Two, while many of the above pitchers suffered notable declines in performances (which I’ll detail in a bit), none suffered significant arm injuries, which is the No. 1 fear of Verducci Effect candidates. There are many such examples in the past, as Verducci writes about in the story I linked and also this one from a year earlier, such as Francisco Liriano, Gustavo Chacin, Anibal Sanchez, Adam Loewen, Scott Mathieson, Fausto Carmona, Yovani Gallardo, Chad Gaucin, Dustin McGowan and Ian Kennedy.
The third thing that jumped out, perhaps most emphatically, is the pitchers from the list who overcame the Verducci Effect in 2009. Let’s start with our own Lincecum, who has made a career of defying stereotypes and supposed truisms. When Lincecum started the year with a 7.56 ERA after two starts, Verducci might have thought he was onto something. But Lincecum, obviously, has not succumbed to any effect except perhaps the Bob Gibson Effect; in some ways, Lincecum has had a better season in 2009 than in his Cy Young 2008 — a lower ERA, for starters (2.48, compared to 2.62), and virtually the same number of strikeouts (265 to 261).
Another pitcher flagged by Verducci, the Braves’ Jurrjens, is another that had a superior season in 2009 — increasing his workload from 188 to 215 innings, and lowering his ERA by more than a point, from 3.68 to 2.60. Boston’s Lester had his ERA go up nominally (from 3.21 to 3.41), but he still had an outstanding year and upped his strikeout total from 152 to 225 in just seven fewer innings.
Those are three strong examples of young pitchers that increased their workload from one year to the next– by as many as 83 innings in Lester’s case — and didn’t just survive, but thrived. Kershaw of the Dodgers, who had a 2.78 ERA with 185 strikeouts in 171 innings, is another. So it’s no guarantee that Hernandez is destined to nosedive next year.
But there are some cautionary tales. Hamels, last year’s World Series hero, saw his ERA rise by more than a point as he tumbled from 14-10, 3.09 to 10-11, 4.32. His innings dropped from 227 to 193, his strikeouts from 196 to 168. Hamels had elbow issues in spring training but still made his full regimen of 32 starts.
Billingsley was an All-Star on the strength of a superb first half, but he has a 5.20 ERA after the All-Star break and is winless since Aug. 18. Pelfrey’s ERA rose from 3.72 to 5.03. Eveland spent much of the year in the minors and saw his ERA soar to 7.16 in 13 games with the A’s. Danks of the White Sox had a very similar year from 2008 to ’09 but saw his ERA rise from 3.32 to 3.77. The Mets’ Niese tore his hamstring, so the results on him are inconclusive.
The bottom line: Qualifying for the Verducci Effect is a definite red flag, but it does not condemn a pitcher to misery. It can be overcome. The Mariners certainly didn’t abuse Hernandez — the most pitches he had in a game was 120 against the A’s in his next-to-last start as he pushed to make his Cy Young case. Yet Hernandez unquestionably had a heavy workload. He threw more pitches (3,627) than anyone in the majors expect Justin Verlander (3,931). He exceeded 100 pitches in 30 of his 34 starts, including the last 27 in a row. But it’s hard to second-guess the Mariners on any aspect of his workload — he pitched so much because he was so dominant, and an increase of 38 innings for a guy who has already had three full seasons in the majors does not seem excessive to me..
It will be something to monitor, however, as 2010 unfolds.
(Photo by Associated Press)