Roundtable: Minor league workhorses

Major league teams scream for another "innings eater" in their rotation. A pitcher that crosses the 200-inning threshold consistently will always be in high demand. Ironically, you rarely hear about such a workhorse in the minor leagues. Pitch counts, inning limits, shutting a prospect down are the norm.

If it is expected that a major league pitcher should be able to attain the gold standard of 200-innings, should minor league pitchers be used in more or less innings?

Jerry Beach,
Boston Red Sox

I'm neither a pitching coach nor a parent, but it seems to me that nurturing young pitchers is a lot like sending an 18- or 21-year-old child into the real world. Like with the child, the maturation process of a pitching prospect will be hastened if he's given more responsibility.

Isn't a pitcher most tested — physically and mentally — in the later innings? Test him as early as possible in the sixth and seventh inning. Let him not only build up stamina, arm strength and character, but also let him make and learn from his mistakes. If his struggles grow deep enough to harm or ruin his development, then the team can always scale back his inning count — just like the parents who leaves the door open in case their child needs to regain his footing.

A generation ago, pitchers were allowed to develop at a rapid pace. It didn't seem to hurt Curt Schilling, who threw 186 innings as a 20-year-old in 1987, 166 innings in 1988 and 194 innings in 1989. This year, the leader in innings pitched among Red Sox minor leaguers was Tommy Hottovy, a 25-year-old who threw 163 innings in 28 starts.

"When I came up—and I think through the early ‘90s—you had three, four, five, six hundred minor league innings accumulated not over six or seven years but over three, four, five years," Schilling told Diehard last season. "I learned how to pitch. I learned what my true value was as a starting pitcher. Ultimately, it's winning. But it was about innings and they fostered that."

If it's good enough for Schilling (207-138 with a 3.44 ERA and two World Series rings), it's good enough for me.

Bobby Vangelatos,
Toronto Blue Jays

In 2004, the New York Mets drafted Scott Hyde, a right-handed pitcher from George Fox University. Hyde was considered a steal out of the small Division-III school. In his division's three-game playoff, Hyde pitched nine innings in game one. Two days later he tossed two innings out of the bullpen, and the next day was allowed to throw 140 innings. Hyde also went on to pitch 40 innings in short-season for the Mets that same year. In the off-season he had surgery and has yet to pitch in a game - missing the entire 2005 and 2006 seasons.

Organizations should put pitch limits on their pitchers in the minor leagues. Pitching 200 innings over a six-month period will not cause injury to a pitcher with sound mechanics. What will cause injury is when a pitcher is allowed to throw 110 and 120 pitches consistently in a game. Since he's fatigued at that stage, he cheats with his mechanics, and puts more pressure on his shoulder and elbow - increasing the probability of an injury.

Chuck Hixson,
Philadelphia Phillies

Baseball at the major league level has become so specialized that teams now look for pitchers to give them six or, possibly, seven good innings before they turn things over to the bullpen. Gone are the days when starters felt they failed if they didn't pitch at least eight innings.

When young pitchers - especially those just out of high school - hit the pro ranks, they need to be developed slowly. Once they hit the High-A or Double-A level, they should be groomed to throw more innings. If a pitcher is only given the opportunity to throw five innings consistently in the minors, that's what he's going to learn and how his arm will develop. The bigger focus when it comes to developing pitchers should be on teaching them to be aggressive enough to not push their pitch counts through the roof, which would give them the opportunity to throw more innings on the same amount of pitches.

Kevin J. Cunningham,
San Francisco Giants

At the risk of sounding ambivalent, there isn't one answer that applies to everyone.

There are plenty of pitchers who could use and benefit from the challenge of pitching deeper into games. But, there are many pitchers who are being used improperly, possibly too much, as they struggle later in outings and tire as the season progresses.

The biggest concern is the health of young arms and that health can depend on so many factors that you really need to go on a case-by-case basis. You want to build up strength, but you don't want to overload, nor overextend arms that have been injured. Health also requires managing what is being thrown, not just how much. A good example is Francisco Liriano. His talent is undeniable, but his elbow problems may stem from his power slider. If he can't throw that anymore, will he be as effective? But, if he keeps throwing it, will injuries hound what's left of an ever-shortening career?

I'd love to see more starting pitchers aim for seven innings or more every time they go out. Many are capable of it. Pushing inning limits must be accompanied by proper coaching, teaching a pitcher how to pitch into quick and easy outs – instead of nibbling for a strikeout, like some pitchers are prone – and find ways to pitch more innings with less pitches thrown.

George Von Benko,
Pittsburgh Pirates

They should pitch more innings. One, for the experience of learning how to pitch and of understanding your craft and two, why not build them up?

It goes back to the time a prospect is signed. I can see monitoring a draft choice's workload - especially kids coming out of Division-I college programs when, in many instances, they were overused. The first year you get them you bless yourself and hope and pray that you are not six months away from "Tommy John" surgery. You nurse them there. But, from that point forward, you have to increase the maximum requirement. Bells and whistles go off at 150 innings in the minors and that is, quite honestly, ridiculous. The best way to avoid injury is to build up arm strength and to do that you need innings.

Ray Mileur,
St. Louis Cardinals

Establishing limits on innings pitched and pitch counts for pitchers in the minor leagues is a tool that can contribute to preventing injuries, but applying these limits alone is not the answer. Limiting innings and pitch counts is only part of the big picture in protecting pitchers. Teams need to focus on all the aspects of a pitcher's health. This includes establishing an individual "prehab" program to help prevent injuries, as well the monitoring of a pitcher's functional anatomy, mechanics, workload, nutritional and conditioning programs.

I do have serious reservations about a pitcher's workload being increased by more than 50 innings from one season to the next, because I believe it significantly increases the probability for injury.

A starting major league pitcher averages about 105 pitches and 6.3 innings per start, which amounts to an average of 17 pitches per inning. A Triple-A pitcher who is expected to move into a major league rotation the following season should, therefore, be pitching an average of six innings and be kept near a 100-pitch count per start to meet the demands.

Tigs Town Top Stories