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Protecting the Young Pitchers

Could Brian Matusz be shut down for the season soon? (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
Could Brian Matusz be shut down for the season soon? (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
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Pitching is everything in today's game. Andy MacPhail can tell you that; he just spent four years primarily building a tremendous amount of pitching depth in an effort to build a championship core rotation. And it all stands on the edge of a surgeon's knife. All it takes is five little pop sounds, and suddenly we're looking at a rotation of Adam Eatons and Kevin Millwoods for another year or two. Protecting the young pitching has to be a top priority for Buck Showalter and his staff.

Many of you are probably familiar with the great Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci's Year-After Effect. For those who aren't, the theory is that young pitchers who are pushed too far too quickly are at a substantially higher risk of injuring their arms or at least becoming less effective. The rule of thumb that Verducci put forth, which has been adopted by many media outlets (including former Orioles GM Mike Flanagan, who mentioned it on a recent broadcast) is that pitchers 25 and younger need to be held under 30 innings beyond their previous career high.

Verducci's rule is a nice starting place for conversation, and indeed you see young pitchers shut down before the end of the season every year in all kinds of different situations. Toronto's Brandon Morrow, who is having a splendid year, is being shut down on Friday, for example. The Yankees had their stupidly popular "Joba Rules". But the Verducci Effect doesn't stand up to a good fisking.

For one thing, consider the arbitrariness of the endpoints. What exactly changes at age 26? Why the nice round number of 30 innings? Are all young pitchers built equally? Okay, so Tom Verducci will admit that it is just a rule of thumb and not a strict guideline. But the fact is that young pitchers aren't the only players at serious risk of needing Tommy John surgery, or of shredding their shoulders. Consider Billy Wagner, Paul Byrd, Chris Carpenter, Mike Hampton, and many others who had the surgery in their thirties.

And further, consider that an innings workload is neither an accurate estimate of the stress pitching takes on an arm (not all innings are created equal, obviously), and workload increases aren't necessarily to blame for a pitcher's lack of health or effectiveness. You can read more about the flaws of blindly believing in the Verducci Effect here. The bottom line, though, is this: pitching is an unnatural act, and we simply can't predict who will get hurt and who won't. The world is a scary, unpredictable place.

But that's not what I came to tell you about. Came to talk about the draft.

Or rather, the pitchers we've brought in primarily through the draft, with all the promise of the future in their elbows and shoulders. Right now, we have five young pitchers who all figure to pitch or be shut down in the coming weeks, rightly or wrongly. What can we expect from each of them in terms of pitching for the Orioles, or being shut down until Pitchers and Catchers?

Zach Britton is the popular kid in the minors right now. A top ten prospect with impressive numbers between AA and AAA this year (3.38 FIP in AAA) and heralded stuff, Britton undoubtedly figures into the 2011 plans, but right now he is the low man on the totem pole, and with Chris Tillman expected to be called up (and Rick VandenHurk in the mix as well) it'd be awfully hard to fit a start in for Britton. Which means Britton'll probably see one more start for the Tides and call it a very successful year.

Chris Tillman and his Odyssey of Frustration are reportedly coming back to Baltimore with the end of Norfolk's lackluster season. How he figures to get any time starting is beyond me. It will do no one any favors to move to a six-man rotation and make everyone adjust to odd time off between starts (the Orioles already have four off days in thirty games mucking things up). What I do know is that Buck Showalter needs to see Tillman start at least once just to see him, and that Chris Tillman has more than earned his spot in the rotation. It might behoove the Orioles to shutdown one of the other young pitchers soon and get young Chris in there for a start or two, shut him down and then let the brass see Troy Patton or VandenHurk or whoever else is on the docket.

This brings us, naturally, to the three guys you're most familiar with: Brian Matusz, Brad Bergesen, and Jake Arrieta. For what it's worth, Arrieta is the only one of the three who is beyond his previous career high in batters faced and innings pitched. If the rotation is left uninterrupted, Arrieta would make five more starts and the other two six more starts, so even if the Orioles follow the Verducci rule of thumb, I would think that Matusz and Bergesen could easily pitch through to the end of the season, while Arrieta would be shut down sooner.

But this is a terribly inexact science. The Verducci Effect has found a foothold in the popular conscience, but should not be taken as gospel. The scary truth is that in all probability one or more of these guys I've mentioned will get hurt, and there's absolutely nothing the Orioles can do about it. Well, nothing they can more than they already have. They've been careful - for the most part - to keep the young guns from racking up the excessive pitch counts that seemingly doomed the infamous Mark Prior and Kerry Wood duo in Chicago. They've been careful not to leave the young guns out in the game when they clearly had nothing. They've been as good to these guys as can be expected, and that's all you can really ask for.