Injury a Risk For Young Pitchers In 2009

Victor FiloromoCorrespondent IMarch 27, 2009

ST PETERSBURG, FL - OCTOBER 19:  Relief pitcher David Price #14 of the Tampa Bay Rays delivers a pitch against the Boston Red Sox in game seven of the American League Championship Series during the 2008 MLB playoffs on October 19, 2008 at Tropicana Field in St Petersburg, Florida. The Rays defeated the Red Sox 3-1 to win the series 4-3. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Cole Hamels most likely won't be on the mound when Opening Night comes around next Sunday for the Philadelphia Phillies.

His trip from sunny Clearwater to Philadelphia last week to see doctors about his elbow tightness means he won't debut until the team's fourth game against Colorado.

David Price won't open the 2009 season with the Tampa Bay Rays.

He will be in the minors, where the Rays will closely monitor his early-season workload hopefully he will be fresh for the dog days of summer.

Across baseball, there's a growing fear of young, organizational cornerstone pitchers doing severe damage to their million dollar arms.

Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci coined the "Rule of 30" to describe pitchers 25 years of age or younger who threw 30 or more innings than the previous season.

Heading into 2009, more teams are trying to do ensure their young pitchers do not get hurt.

As for Verducci's rule, some of the evidence is staggering.

Before 2008, Verducci identified eight pitchers as potential victims of the rule.

They included Ian Kennedy, Fausto Carmona, Ubaldo Jimenez, Tom Gorzelanny, Dustin McGowan, Chad Gaudin, and Yovani Gallardo.

To clarify, Verducci's rule isn't all about injury. It also takes into account that some of these pitchers are generally ineffective, even if not hurt. 

Of those eight, only Jimenez defied the logic and pitched well last year.

The others either struggled at the Major League level, injured themselves, or faced a combination of both.

So it shouldn't take much to understand why Phillies fans, coaches, and teammates of Hamels are holding their breath with the 25-year-old.

He pitched 262.1 innings in 2008, a stellar post-season where he won the World Series MVP and lead the Phillies to their first championship since 1980.

The increase came after he pitched 189.1 innings in 2007.

The doctors told Hamels it was merely inflammation to his left elbow, a good sign indeed for the Phillies' ace.

However, he is now behind schedule, and will have to turn over Opening Night duties to Brett Myers.

Others in Jeopardy

Along with Hamels, there are a handful of others who would fall into Verducci's category of pitchers at risk.

Boston's Jon Lester saw a 76 inning increase last season, a year after he came into the national spotlight by helping the Red Sox clinch game four of the 2007 World Series.

He battled Lymphoma at the end of 2006, and returned to baseball in early April of 2007, working up his stamina and strength in the minors.

Midway through the season, he joined the Red Sox and pitched in 12 games, 11 of them starts.

Last year, Lester pitched a no-hitter against the Royals on May 19, the pinnacle of his career thus far.

However, his increase in innings will be closely watched this season.

San Francisco Giants phenom Tim Lincecum will also be under close scrutiny this season.

He saw a 49-inning increase, winning the Cy Young in the process.

With help from his father, Lincecum has claimed he has the perfect pitching motion that relieves stress on his elbow.

To be honest, he appears to be on the right track with the unique delivery he owns.

He finished the season with an 18-5 record, a 2.62 ERA, and 265 strikeouts.

Lincecum has a bright future on the horizon, but it's important that manager Bruce Bochy cuts down on his pitch counts in 2009.

Last year, Lincecum had games of 138, 132, 127, 122, and 121 pitches.

Using Lincecum that deep into the game for a team not in contention last year was unruly and borderline insanity from Bochy.

Preserving him for the future is the most important factor.

Steps Being Taken

Meanwhile, some teams are doing the right thing and taking steps to avoid putting pressure on their young pitchers.

The Rays are putting Price in the minors to start the season so they can limit his workload.

He pitched 129.1 innings in 2008 including the post-season.

Tampa's GM Andrew Friedman and the rest of the organization has made it a rule that they refuse to increase a pitcher's workload by more than 25 innings.

Manager Joe Maddon explained that he wouldn't mind having Price in the starting rotation to begin the season.

Naturally, a manager wants the best players on this team. He does, however, understand that it's important to protect Price, something Tampa is looking to do.

Along with the Rays, the Arizona Diamondbacks are looking to keep one of their stars, Max Scherzer, under wraps as well.

General Manager Josh Byrnes said in an interview last week that they will try to hold him to 170 innings. Scherzer pitched 140 last season.

It has become obvious that the young pitchers in the majors or heading toward the bigs are being watched more closely.

Mechanics are being scrutinized more than ever, with teams trying to ensure they don't get the next Mark Prior or Kerry Wood.

Pitch counts, innings pitched, and mechanics are all important factors in these tough decisions.

At times, this seemingly simple concept of protecting the future is ignored.

Sadly, what's often missing is some common sense.


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