(Photo by Associated Press)
The last time I wrote about “The Verducci Effect” — the theory by Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci that targets young pitchers in danger of “injury or significant regression” — it was after the 2009 season. I pointed out that Felix Hernandez fit the criteria laid out by Verducci in his research , tagging vulnerable pitchers: Those under the age of 25 that increase their workload by 30 or more innings from one year to the next.
Not only did King Felix not fall victim of that threat (which Verducci himself terms “the Year-After Effect”) in 2010; he won the American League Cy Young Award with his most brilliant season.
That said, the Verducci Effect remains a valid concern for all young pitchers. Will Carroll, who has written extensively on baseball injuries, did his own independent research that validated Verducci’s theory that pitchers who violate the so-called “Rule of 30” are susceptible to injury.
Verducci himself wrote last Janurary, in his annual list of vulnerable pitchers for 2011, that one American League general manager told him that his club has a column called “VE” — for Verducci Effect — in their organizational pitching reports, to measure innings increases.
I bring this up because at the end of last year, I noticed that Michael Pineda fell within the paramaters of the Verducci Effect. I tucked that thought away for a future blog post. In light of the events of this past week — Pineda’s pending trade to the Yankees — I figured now is as good a time as any.
Pineda, who turns 23 on Wednesday, worked 139 1/3 innings in 2010, making 25 starts while splitting his time between Double-A and Triple-A. Last year, he made 28 starts for the Mariners and worked 171 innings (plus one in the All-Star Game that I’m going to count because he was throwing all-out in that game). That’s an increase of 32 2/3 innings — on the borderline of the Verducci Effect, but still a qualifier.
As Hernandez proves, being on that list is not a surefire prediction of doom. Tim Lincecum won his second Cy Young Award in a season red-flagged by Verducci. Of the 11 pitchers on last year’s list, four — Madison Bumgarner, Gio Gonzalez, Dillon Gee and Ivan Nova — come through with flying colors. They posted years that were comparable or better than the previous season. Another Brandon Beachy, had a stint on the DL, but it was for a strained oblique, which wouldn’t seem to be related to his workload.
But six others who were singled out as candidates for the Verducci Effect did indeed backslide. Most notably: Alex Sanabia (age 22, 66 1/3 innings increase) of Florida spent the first four months on the disabled list with an elbow injury. Phil Hughes (age 24, 46 innings increase) of the Yankees had shoulder problems all year, and his ERA rose to 5.79. Brett Cecil (age 24, 41 1/3 innings increase) of the Blue Jays went 4-11 with a 4.73 ERA after going 15-7, 4.22 the previous year. Travis Wood (age 23, 38 1/3 innings increase) of the Reds saw his ERA go up from 3.51 to 4.84, his WHIP from 1.081 to 1.491.
Also, Mat Latos (age 23, 61 2/3 innings increase) of the Padres saw his ERA rise from 2.92 to 3.47, while David Price (age 25, 58 2/3 innings increase) of the Rays declined from 19-6, 2.72 to 12-13, 3.49. But Latos and Price were both still workhorses, so I gave them an asterisk.
There are a couple of reasons to think Pineda could avoid the ill-effects of his innings increase. One is that he’s a huge man — 6-foot-7, 260 pounds. Verducci himself has noted that bigger pitchers may be able to withstand the extra workload better (though the pitcher he talked about, 6-foot-7, 250-pound Mike Pelfrey, of the Mets saw his ERA rise from 3.72 to 5.03 that year).
But also, the Mariners were meticulous in monitoring Pineda’s workload, just as they had been previously with Hernandez. In the second half of the season, here were the days between Pineda starts: 6, 10, 5, 6, 10, 6, 6, 6, 6, 6, 7, 11. And then he was shut down after his start on Sept. 21. Pineda was hardly abused last year; if anything, he was babied — and properly so.
I fully expect Pineda to win big with the Yankees, considering the lineup that’s going to be supporting him. But I think the vulnerability of pitchers must be factored in when evaluating this trade. The blunt fact is that there is no guarantee Pineda will stay healthy. The sordid history of young phenom pitchers suggests otherwise, as Dave Cameron pointed out when writing a piece way back in June of 2011 advocating that the Mariners consider trading PIneda (rather than Hernandez). He pointed to 22-year-olds who looked like world-beaters, but never reached the heights to which it appeared they were headed — the likes of Mark Prior, Scott Kazmir, Rich Harden, Dontrelle Willis, Oliver Perez, and Anibal Sanchez. I could add 10 more names of young pitchers who flamed out without fulfilling their potential, usually as the result of injury.
Felix Hernandez, at least so far, has been the exception. Obviously, there are others. Maybe Pineda will be, too. I sincerely hope so — he’s a very likeable young man, one you can’t help but root for. But pitchers also have been, and always will be, a delicate species. Particularly hard-throwing young pitchers. Pineda had two stints on the DL with elbow issues in 2009. Fans who project Pineda as a surefire All-Star for years to come are showing a lot of faith in his health and continued ascendency. They might be right, but history shows that it is far from a guarantee.