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The Braves, The Rotation and Handling Young Pitching

Mike Ehrmann

The idea for this post came about after watching Peter Hjort (aka Mr. Capitol Avenue) shell out a #MondayMorningRant on Twitter after the Gavin Floyd signing yesterday. The general thought behind it was that the most all if not the whole staff, while good pitchers, are not the durable type that you see many teams riding into the postseason. Each pitcher is hardly capable of hitting the 200IP mark, and then are worn out come playoff time. I believe the term he used was that they are being "babied"; the overall point being the rotation isn’t exactly build for playoff success.

What follows is probably closer to a cluster of data, thoughts and ideas, but, at least in my opinion, I think is a fairly interesting topic of how pitchers in the organization are being handled.

The first place I decided to start was with the data. For my search, I narrowed it down to starters over the past two seasons that had thrown a combined 150 innings. I originally set the limit at 200, but it ruled out a lot of rookies who had pitched in 2012, including one Julio Teheran who threw 192 innings last season. The search resulted in 160 starters, a decent size sample to start with.

From there, I added pitches thrown and games started to the search to then create a pitches per start statistic. It’s nothing ground breaking, but it give us a fairly solid idea of how deep into games pitchers go. For guys like Kris Medlen, only pitches thrown in games started were counted, so any pitches thrown in relief appearances did not skew the results. Basically what I wanted to see was where Braves starters ranked in the league for pitches thrown per start.

Overall, the results weren’t normally distributed; the mean was 97.0 while the median was 95.5, meaning the distribution was skewed to the right and there was a higher quantity of pitchers on the upper end of the spectrum. The highest result was, who else, but Justin Verlander at 111.3 pitches per start, about 2.5 pitches per start above second place. Last place was Jeff Francis at 79.4. No other pitcher was below 83.

As for the Braves…

Player Rank Pitches/GS +/- Lg Avg Percentile
Mike Minor 69 96.6 -0.4% 57%
Paul Maholm 83 95.7 -1.4% 48%
Julio Teheran 85 95.5 -1.6% 47%
Kris Medlen 87 95.1 -2.0% 46%
Tim Hudson 93 94.5 -2.6% 42%
Gavin Floyd 111 93.5 -3.7% 31%
Tommy Hanson 118 93.1 -4.2% 26%
Brandon Beachy* N/A 97.3 N/A N/A

*Beachy was not included in the sample. I used his career numbers and chose not compare him to the rest of the league.

As you can see, I did include some guys who are no longer with the club, as well as Mr. Gavin Floyd. In general, they are right around or below league average and within a pitch or two around 95. I was amazed how close all these guys were, especially the youngins like Minor, Medlen and Teheran. Even the elder of the group like Hudson and Maholm fell right into the same range.

My first reaction to this was, well, it is kind of expected when you have a club that has been able to trot out the best bullpen in the league over the past couple of seasons. You have to believe the decision to yank starters, who are mid-to-top of the rotation guys, are primarily based on the fact that if you can shorten games, you are going to. This goes hand in hand with relievers in the bullpen who have been racking up a plethora of innings over the past couple of seasons.

So, is not having durable pitchers a problem? It could be. But you’re kind of asking for trouble if you can, year after year, run out one of the best bullpens in the game and then not leverage it to the max.

Can this problem be fixed? I think so… maybe.

One general train of though that has been brought up in baseball circles - which I know it has been mentioned multiple times in the past by TC guys - is to max out the usage of cost controlled pitchers. For a system like the Braves, who are constantly churning our homegrown talent on the mound, the idea of extending pitchers has never been much of a priority compared to position players. The three biggest names being considered for extensions this off-season are all position players. So, why not get everything out of your homegrown, low-cost talent, before they go else where. Instead of "babying" the starters with innings limits, why not let them throw 200+ innings and not worry about the effects down the road (if there even are any).

A better way to understand this might be to look at the Rays the past two off seasons. Before the 2013 season, they traded James Shields, who happens to be number 2 out of 160 pitchers in our list above. As a fairly young pitcher, he threw 200+ innings six times with the Rays before they traded him and wound up with a steal of a return in Wil Myers. Now look to this off-season where they have put David Price on the trading block. In three of his five seasons with the Rays he has thrown 200+ innings, throwing the 13th most pitches per start over the past two seasons. He also appears to be bringing back quite a haul for his services if/when a trade goes down.

As the Braves projected payroll continues to slip relative to the rest of the league because of a lack of a luxurious TV deal, they will have to turn into a organization run like…. yes, the Rays. While they already do a fairly good job developing the system and finding undervalued talent, there margin for error (Dan Uggla, BJ Upton) will continue to shrink if they want to remain competitive.

This comes full circle back to the original philosophy of developing pitchers to throw... a lot. However, I don’t think there is exactly a clear answer. On one hand you can take advantage of a major asset in the bullpen, limiting how deep a starter goes, or you can preach going deep into games (starting early on in development) and hopefully reap the rewards later on (with potential trade value). While it may not wind up being the most beneficial decision for an individual player’s long-term health, I will say I am in favor of maxing the usage of the young cost controlled pitchers during their development and while they are still with the team, while still being sensitive to injury.

This philosophy also goes against the grain of what appears to be happening in baseball in a macro sense. It is no secret starters are going fewer innings compared to past seasons with relievers being used on a more frequent basis, even since the 1990’s. I think the game will eventually trend to where "starters" continue to throw fewer and fewer innings, but throw on a more frequent basis. As we learn more about the game from past results with concepts such as having a reliever enter instead of allowing a starter to face a lineup for a third time, seem to point in the direction of shorter outings. But that's a major topic for another day.

In the end, there is no guaranteed track or one size fits all development for every pitcher, all humans are different. Not every pitcher will turn into a David Price and James Shields that can constantly throw 200+ innings. That being said, I wouldn’t be against letting guys like Minor and Teheran work deeper into games and ride them out as much as possible. This isn’t exactly a "running them into the ground" approach, but a "maxing out talent while you have it" approach.

Overall, I think this is an intriguing topic and would love to hear alternative opinions.

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