As Cole Hamels mysteriously struggles through 2009, Yankee fans that aghast over Joba Chamberlain's innings limit should take note. This is exactly what the Yankees are guarding against. This is where the "Plus 40" rule for young pitchers comes into play.
In 2006, Hamels threw 181-1/3 innings as a 22-year-old rookie splitting time in the minors. His 2007 workload was almost the same: 190 innings, including the playoffs.
Then 2008 came along. The Phillies took home the World Series, and a 24-year-old Hamels was the ace of the staff, leading the NL in WHIP while finishing sixth in ERA and strikeouts. But he did throw a ton of innings—262 to be exact. That's a jump of 72 innings.
Hamels' ERA went from 3.06 to 4.77 this season and his WHIP has ballooned from 1.08 to 1.33.
The "Plus 40" rule is a guideline, not a hard number. Tim Lincecum increased his workload by 50 innings from 2007 to 2008 and he seems to be fine.
But 72 is a major jump. I'm not a Phillies fan, so I haven't seen much of Hamels this year. If you have, and you've heard the scuttlebutt behind his current struggles and I'm wrong here, please tell me.
What's Chamberlain looking at if he stays in the rotation? Depending on how many times he goes in the postseason (assuming the Yankees make it) a 70 inning increase might be the low end. He's averaging five-and-a-half innings per start. The Yankees have 49 games remaining. Chamberlain, who pitched last night, could be looking at another eight starts in the regular season.
Eight starts would, at his current pace, add about 45 more innings to his total, putting him at 166 by the end of the season. He's likely to only see one start at most in any postseason series. If the Yankees make the ALCS, he could throw another 10 innings, putting him at 176 total. An increase of 76 innings.
We're in Cole Hamels territory now.
And remember, this is an estimate based on his current average, which, let's face it, is on the low end. Recently, he'd begun pitching better, averaging six-and-a-half innings over his past five starts.
If we use that number as a guideline for the rest of the year, you'd be changing his total to about 186 innings. The Yankees probably would prefer him in the 150 range.
Now look, I know for every pitcher done in by an excessive workload at a young age, you can find one that survived it. But why risk it? Are 30 to 40 extra innings this season really worth it?
Response to possible objection, "There's risk in everything! You can't guard against it all.": True, but not being able to guard against every risk is no excuse for not guarding against the ones you can.
I also know the Phillies won the World Series last season, which probably earned them, and Hamels, a grace period. And the Yankees have a shot to win it this year. I get that.
But the Yankees are expected to win every year, especially by the fans. (Maybe Philadelphia works the same way. Let me know, Phils fans.) If they ride Chamberlain to a title this season and he misses a chunk of time next year due to injury, or becomes ineffective, do you think Yankee fans will say "It's ok, we won the Series last year?"
I highly doubt that. More likely, people will rip Girardi for overusing him and blast Cashman for not having a viable alternative to replace him. Why do I think that? Because Cashman and Girardi get ripped for everything bad that happens to the team, and the Yankees only have the best record in the Majors and are on a torrid run right now.
If you're a GM or manager, especially in New York, why wouldn't you cover your bases?
The Yankees will not miss out on the playoff because Chad Gaudin takes two or three starts from Chamberlin. Heck, at the end of the day, the Yankees probably don't even need Chamberlain in the rotation in the postseason to win it all. Would he help? Obviously.
But the Yankees are going to ride A.J. Burnett and CC Sabathia (not to mention their lineup) this postseason. Andy Pettitte's a perfectly viable third starter who's not exactly a stranger to the postseason.
Four-man rotations are all the rage in the playoffs, but heck, with all the off-days, you could probably go to a three-man and not kill your staff if you had the right guy at the top.
Using the 2008 ALCS and the 2009 Yankees staff as an example:
If you wanted to work your ace on three days rest, this is how it would go down.
Game One Oct. 10: Sabathia
Game Two Oct. 11: Burnett
Game Three Oct. 13: Pettitte
Game Four Oct. 14: Sabathia on short rest
Game Five Oct. 16: Burnett on normal rest
Game Six Oct. 18: Pettitte on normal rest
Game Seven Oct. 19: Sabathia on normal rest
Hardly an exertion. Sabathia would make one start on short rest in this scenario. Everyone else works on normal rest. I'm not saying this is how the Yankees would play it, because obviously, the moves they're making now with Chamberlain are done with an eye to the postseason.
I'm simply doing it to illustrate the point that, if worse came to worse, the Yankees could survive without Chamberlain this year
Chamberlain is a big-time weapon for the Yankees. And there's no doubt he's a better pitcher than any other guy they have right now to replace him. But I don't blame the Yankees for being cautious with him.