PITCHERS’ ABUSE

BY: Richard W. Humphrey

Texas beat Detroit Thursday night 10-4. It was a battle of titans as the Tigers led the Central Division, while Texas led the West. Texas led the American League in staff ERA, while Detroit was second. Detroit led the league in batting average and runs scored, while Texas was third in batting average, but led both Major Leagues in home runs. The pitching matchup on paper was one of the best of the season with Justin Verlander going for Detroit and Yu Darvish for Texas.

It was thus surprising then when neither pitcher threw to form early in the game. Texas took a 1-0 lead into the third inning, which proved to be truly historic. Detroit took the lead with three runs in the top half. The Rangers came back with seven in the bottom half, for a total of 10 runs scored in a single inning off two of the best pitchers in the game. All seven Ranger runs were charged to Verlander, who did not finish the inning. It was not only his shortest outing of the year, but the first time in his career that he surrendered seven runs in an inning. His ERA zoomed from 1.93 before the game to 3.17, as he got tagged with the loss to even his record at 4-4.

After seven innings, the Rangers led 10-4, and Darvish had thrown 115 pitches. It was indeed shocking to see Darvish come out of the dugout to start the eighth, and the move caused a media firestorm. Darvish needed 15 more pitches to retire Detroit in the eighth. The question is why put the extra wear and tear on Darvish with a six run lead? Apparently General Manager Jon Daniels was also upset about the move too, as he met with manager Ron Washington after the game to discuss.

Washington later explained that he feared using his bullpen, which had been taxed earlier in the week in Oakland. With one game going into extra innings, the bullpen had thrown 10-1/3 innings in the three game series with the Athletics. Tanner Scheppers in particular was unavailable, and Joe Nathan has been shaky of late. Certainly, another day of rest would not hurt Nathan. Washington also feared getting into his bullpen too much to start the series, as Detroit is one of if not the top offensive club in the league, and rookies Nick Tepesch and Justin Grimm were scheduled to start Friday’s and Saturday’s games. Tepesch as it turned out lasted just five on Friday, requiring four bullpen innings.

On the other side of the question, it is noteworthy that the pen actually has an extra arm this weekend, thanks to the injury to Alexi Ogando. Reliever Cory Burns was called up from AAA for the weekend, and Monday’s scheduled starter, Josh Lindblom, scheduled to start Monday’s will not be activated until the day of the game. Secondly, the bullpen has been pretty darn good so far this year. Their record is 8-1, they have converted 100% of their save opportunities, and going into play Friday, they had thrown the fourth fewest innings of any bullpen in the league. Obviously, something good is going on here, such that it seems illogical that the Rangers’ manager feared getting six instead of three outs from his pen with a six run lead.

There is a statistic to measure wear and tear from high pitch counts. The pitchers’ abuse calculation has point rating system as follows: one point for every pitch thrown from 101 to 110, two points for pitches 111 to 120, three points for pitches 121-130, etc. Under this formula, Darvish collected 60 abuse points Thursday night. He would have collected only 20 if he had not pitched the eighth inning. It is also noteworthy that Darvish had thrown 127 pitches just two starts earlier against Boston, acculmulating 51 abuse points.

Darvish was accustomed to high pitch counts in Japan, but the style of Japanese baseball is to have six man rotations. He did actually finish fourth last year in abuse points, so he has shown to be a work horse. The American League leader in abuse points in each of the past three seasons is Verlander, who is having an ordinary season for him with notably lessened velocity this season.

The name that inevitably comes up in this discussion is Mark Prior. Prior was a highly regarded pitching prospect that would have been the number one pick in the draft had he not been a client of Scott Boras. The Cubs brought him to the Majors in 2002 at the age of 21. A year later, he had a banner season with an 18-6 record in 30 starts (211.1 innings) with a 2.43 ERA. It was good enough to finish third in the Cy Young Award voting, and ninth in the National League MVP Award voting. His WAR was +7.4, which led all National League pitchers. His WHIP was 1.103, third in the league. At age 22, the Cubs thought they had an ace for a decade.

It was simply not to be. He in fact won just 18 more games in his career, which lasted three more years. He has not appeared in a Major League game since 2006, when he was 25 years old. In retrospect, the arm problems that led to his career’s demise were traced to the 2003 season. He was simply pitched too much. He reached 130 pitches in a game four times in 2003. By comparison, all pitchers in the Majors collectively reached 130 pitches four times last year.

For sure the fear of over using Darvish is real. Pushing Darvish’s pitch count to win an important game is one thing. Two starts ago, the game was tied at 3-3 when he completed his final inning to run his pitch count to 127. He was needed to win that game. Thursday night however, it’s highly questionable that he was needed to win the game as the Rangers held a six run lead.

It will be interesting to see how Ron Washington handles Darvish in his coming starts. Unfortunately, there is not an off day before his next assignment to allow an extra day of rest. Washington is publicly receiving support from Nolan Ryan, who amassed legendary pitch count games in his hay day. Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland came to Washington’s defense too. However, irrespective of the logic, this was a mistake. Washington has proven to be a good learner as a manager. Hopefully for Ranger fans, he’s learned some more this time around.

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