What Ruined the Yankees’ Young Pitchers?

(originally published April 18, 2011)

The Yankees placed Phil Hughes, their 24-year-old former wunderkind, on the disabled list this week , attributing his loss of velocity to a “tired arm.”  Their other former wunderkind, 25-year-old Joba Chamberlain, has settled for now into the role of seventh-inning specialist, a useful occupation but a far cry from the potential for greatness he flashed in his debut season.

What did the Yankees do wrong with these two?  How did such franchise foundations turn shaky?  What did the Giants do right with their similarly young pitchers Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain?

The answer, most likely, is nothing.

Pitching is injury.  The human arm is not constructed to withstand the strain of hurling a baseball at 90 miles an hour over and over and over.  The muscles, ligaments, tendons, and assorted fascia and tissues are stressed greatly during the acceleration phase leading up to the release of the ball, and as much or more during the rapid deceleration that takes place in half the time after the pitch is on its way.

Pitchers used to throw 300 innings in a four-man rotation.  They also used to be selling insurance or used cars by the time they were 30, but most old-timers don’t tell you that part of the story.  Every pitcher you hear about who has had Tommy John surgery is a pitcher who would have been in another line of work years ago.  Today, when they’ve worn out the ulnar collateral ligament in their pitching arm, they get a new one and often return to their previous levels of ability.

Still, they get hurt.  Pitch counts can’t stop it.  Five-man rotations don’t prevent it.  Weight-training, improved diet, yoga, stretching, and increased medical supervision aren’t the answer – because there is no “answer.”

The Yankees tried to control the circumstances of their two young potential aces, using The Joba Rules to set limits, rarely letting Hughes throw as many as 110 pitches as a starter.  Neither restriction helped.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, 20-year-old Matt Cain joined the Giants’ rotation in August 2005, threw 100 or more pitches in seven of eight starts that first season, topped 110 (with a high of 131) fourteen times at age 21, and survived a similar workload the next three seasons.  Last year, he peaked with 223.1 innings and an additional 21.1 in the playoffs.

The story is similar for Lincecum, who was 22 when he joined the Giants’ rotation in 2007, and immediate started throwing 100+ pitches, hitting that mark in 11 of his first 17 starts.   The next year, his first Cy Young season, he worked 227 innings, and topped 110 pitches twelve times in the second half of the season alone (with one four-game stretch of 132, 92, 127, and 138).

What did the Giants do that the Yankees didn’t?

They kept the two in the starting rotation – but that means they worked harder than the Yankee pair.  Lincecum was a bit older when he came to the majors, but the Giants rode Cain harder younger than the Yankees ever did with Hughes or Chamberlain.

Mostly, the Giants got lucky.  Their two key starters have been able to tolerate the workload, even at very young ages.  Because of that, they’ve got a World Championship banner.

This doesn’t mean there’s a formula to follow that will deliver similar results.  The majority of young pitchers will get hurt.  Old pitchers, too.  Pitching is injury.

There are many outstanding young pitchers in the game today.  Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, David Price, Mat Latos, Trevor Cahill, Yovani Gallardo, Tommy Hanson, Gio Gonzalez — all have shown the ability to be a dominant starter.  Each has had at least one season in the last two in which he threw more than 180 innings before age 25.  (Felix Hernandez has had five such seasons.)

Ten years ago, the full list for the 1999 and 2000 seasons consisted of the following names: Sidney Ponson, Ryan Dempster, Jeff Weaver, Randy Wolf, Eric Milton, Kevin Millwood, Jose Rosado, Javier Vazquez, Freddy Garcia, Kris Benson, Tim Hudson, Matt Clement, Steve Woodard, Jeff Suppan, Livan Hernandez, Scott Elarton, Brian Meadows, and Kelvim Escobar.


Maybe it was an unusually poor time for young pitchers.  Teams were already cognizant of keeping a young starter’s innings count low.  The steroids era was at its peak; perhaps today’s testing for performance enhancers including amphetamines has created a favorable environment in which pitchers can throw more innings safely, as they could in the 1960s when the higher mound and bigger strike zone depressed offenses across the game.

Still, young pitchers get hurt.

The only answer for a team is to have as many good young arms as it can, to increase its chance of getting lucky.  How do we know if it has succeeded?

Only in retrospect.

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