What do Jesus Colome, Kevin Gregg, and Nick Masset all have in common besides not being on any of my teams? They're all on track to record over 110 innings pitched this year. Odds are they won't get there, but every year there are a handful of pitchers who reach the upper levels of innings for relievers, and some never make the return journey. When we talk about the possible overuse of relievers, the ghosts of Vladimir Nunez and Billy Koch come to mind. Let's look at the league leaders in relief innings pitched and see whether those innings have an effect on the pitchers' future performances.
Over the six-year period of 2000-2005, 61 relievers threw 85 or more innings in a season. Nine of those never threw as many innings the rest of their major league careers, and the jury is still out on currently injured pitchers such as Octavio Dotel. On the other hand, eight were able to do it two seasons in a row, and two -- Scot Shields and Salomon Torres -- have been able to pitch 85 or more innings the past three seasons. We'll look at both ends of the spectrum to determine what we should expect when a reliever hits that mark.
Of course, compared with the 200 innings starters are asked to pitch, 85 innings sounds like a warm-up. Keep in mind that relievers do not get four days of rest, are called upon to pitch two or even three nights in a row, and give maximum effort on almost every pitch. Relievers truly use every ounce of their talent in concentrated appearances. I used 85 because it truly looks like a plateau when you look at relievers by innings pitched.
No signs of relief
So for the 2000-2005 period, here's what the average seasons of those relievers with 85 or more innings looked like (note that "N(85)" is the number of relievers meeting our innings criterion, "W%" is win percentage, IP/RP is innings pitched per reliever, and Y1 is data for the year the pitcher met the innings criteria and Y2 is the next year):
You'll notice I have 59 pitchers in the table but mentioned 61 above. I threw out two pieces of data for the analysis: Steve Sparks' 107 innings in 2003 and Ryan Madson's 87 innings in 2005. In both cases, the pitcher was used as a starter for an appreciable amount of the follow-up season -- in Madson's case, just long enough to kill my ratios -- which added oranges to our apples of data. However, if a reliever made a spot start or two in the follow-up year, I included the data, as it did not involve a pitcher changing his routine the way Sparks and Madson did.
When comparing Y1 with Y2 in each season, notice that win percentage decreased (except in 2003) and WHIP and ERA increased. Most importantly, average innings pitched decreased dramatically in all seasons, with the overall average drop for that period being 28 percent. The drop in innings likely indicates two results: injury and/or poor performance.
For injury, the data offered a sad list of relievers whose membership in the 85-inning club meant they were on their way out of baseball. Besides Koch and Nunez, pitchers such as Pat Mahomes, Jose Santiago and Steve Karsay had their careers turn south after reaching 85 innings. For poor performance, in most circumstances, a pitcher reaches 85 innings because he is pitching well. If he does not pitch as well -- which can be the result of causes such as an erosion of talent from aging or from injury -- his innings will drop. A subsequent drop in innings the next year that can't be linked to injury likely comes from bad outings.
The curious cases of Shields and Torres
OK, so high innings can lead to injury and a drop in performance. Why hasn't this happened to Shields and Torres? How have they stayed comfortable above 85 innings since 2004 and not succumbed to injury or reduced playing time? Of course, there's no ignoring genetics or luck, but let's look at their seasons since 2003 and see whether there are any similarities:
Notice that both pitchers were used in a starting capacity in the year before their relief innings run, with Shields seeing 13 starts and Torres seeing 16. As stated above, starters have different conditions and throwing routines than relievers. Perhaps the stretching out of their arms for more innings in a season allowed them to keep the same high level of innings pitched in the next season. Of course, I can't back that medically, but it is something to throw into the mix with genetics and luck.
Although I wouldn't raise the red flag on either yet, note that each is on pace to give up uncharacteristic numbers of home runs and blown saves if he sees 90 innings. The reason I wouldn't raise the red flag yet is that nine innings is too small a sample to decide a season. But if their use in 2003 did help them, one could imagine that the protection likely would not exceed one season and that thereafter they'd be subject to the same injury and performance concerns as other pitchers. Along with the Angels and Pirates coaches, let's just go to yellow alert for now.
On my list
So besides Shields and Torres (weren't they mimes in the '70s?), here are the other relievers who pitched more than 85 innings last season: Scott Proctor (102.0), Jon Rauch (91.1), Geoff Geary (91.1), Chad Qualls (88.2), Aaron Heilman (87), Hector Carrasco (86.1) and Ruddy Lugo (85.0). Currently, four of the seven have ERAs higher than 4.50 (five of nine when you include Shields and Torres) and four have WHIPs of 1.50 or higher. We'll watch these pitchers as the season progresses.
That collective groan you just heard from north of the border comes from the Blue Jays shifting B.J. Ryan from the 15-day DL to the 60-day list. Things are not looking good for the ninth inning for Toronto. Right now, the closer is Jason Frasor, but realistically, it's going to be whoever proves he can get the job done. That means Shaun Marcum and Casey Janssen can't be ignored. But as I said last time, I wouldn't pick either up. The thinking man's candidate is Jeremy Accardo.
Henry Owens blew the audition Monday night, and Renyel Pinto got the save by recording a single out. Do you believe Pinto is already gone in two of my leagues? Look, we're all trying to get the saves, but Owens is still the guy. If Owens blows a couple more (hmm, the guy named Pinto seems as though he should be more prone to blowups), then we'll talk.
David Young is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com and TalentedMrRoto.com. E-mail him at MrSnappy@TalentedMrRoto.com .