Commentary

Innings in October can often be an issue

In past 10 years, most teams that advanced to Series had ERA increase the next season

Originally Published: February 2, 2011
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

With spring training less than two weeks away, there is every reason to believe that the Texas Rangers will win their division again, and the San Francisco Giants will have tremendous pitching again, perhaps even better than last season. Yet 2011 comes with a warning for 2010 playoff teams, specifically the pennant winners: Playing crucial games into November can lead to pitching issues the following season, especially early in the year.

[+] EnlargeTim Lincecum
AP Photo/Matt SlocumTim Lincecum pitched a career high 249 1/3 innings (including the postseason) last year.

We looked at the World Series participants in the past 10 years, and the effect on the pitching staffs the following seasons to those 20 teams. Fourteen of the 20 -- 70 percent -- had an ERA increase the next season. Eight of the 20 -- 40 percent -- had an increase of least a half run, which is substantial. The 10 teams that won the World Series averaged an increase in ERA of .281. The 10 losing teams averaged an increase of .213. The Detroit Tigers went to the World Series in 2006 and compiled a 3.84 ERA, but had a 4.57 ERA the next year, a .73 increase. The St. Louis Cardinals won the 2006 World Series and had a 3.57 ERA, but it increased by 1.08 to 4.65 in 2007. The Chicago White Sox won the World Series in 2005; their team ERA the next year went from 3.61 to 4.61.

"We've talked to other teams that have been through it,'' Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "Our sense is that you have to monitor certain guys, not the whole staff. We have a couple of starters and a couple of relievers that went wire-to-wire without a break last year. Wash [Texas manager Ron Washington] and Mike [pitching coach Mike Maddux] will monitor them a little closer.''

There could be a number of reasons for an ERA increase the year after making it to the World Series. A bigger workload would represent only one of them. Some staffs are damaged by a loss in free agency (Cliff Lee?), or a trade. The ERA for the 2007 Cardinals increased dramatically in part because ace Chris Carpenter missed the season due to an arm injury.

"I believe our ERA went up in 2009 [by .53] because of an ineffective bullpen,'' Tampa Bay Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "When the phone rang down there that year, no one knew who it was for. [Workload] is an issue, but I'd be interested to see about the teams that have been there [the World Series] over and over again, what that does to the ERA the next year. When we made it in 2008, it was the first time for most guys. If the Rays had made it in 2010, we would have been better off because we had been through it once.''

Hickey's instincts were right. The Yankees went to the World Series four times in the past 10 years. In three of those seasons, their ERA went down the following season after going to the World Series.

"They had veteran staffs, they knew how to handle it,'' Hickey said of the Yankees. "The year after we went, it was a World Baseball Classic year so we began spring training earlier than usual. We started playing games like Feb. 25. Some of the guys that had pitched the entire 2008 season -- James Shields, Matt Garza -- we didn't get them into a game until about March 10 by design. That spring, I didn't notice that they came to camp behind, or their velocity was down. But that spring, we had two sets of pitchers. One set was on the mound six, seven or 10 days in, and another set was not on a mound for another two weeks after that.''

Jon Daniels With the conditioning programs we have, we think [our pitchers] can handle the workload. But the bottom line is, it's an unknown. We won't know how we'll do until we go through it.

-- Rangers general manager Jon Daniels

Tom House is a former major league pitcher and pitching coach. He has done extensive work for 30 years on the mechanics of throwing a baseball, and its effect on the body and arm.

"The workload is an issue, but how you handle that workload is the most important thing,'' House said. "Most teams will have a pitcher not pick up a baseball for two months after a season with an unusually large workload. But nothing is bad. It must be what we call 'active rest.' Teams that have year-round throwing programs and year-round conditioning programs are in the best position to handle the recovery of an arm. If you don't throw for two months, the body goes back to accommodating no activity. If you have year-round conditioning and throwing, your body never stops adjusting to throwing. The body adjusts to what it is asked to do.

"If you take two months off, all the cells go on vacation to Mazatlan, and that's how adhesions are formed. Then, spring training comes, everything is asked to wake up, and rebuild a foundation. Have you ever wondered why Dominican pitchers last forever? They are throwing -- not pitching -- year round. It's like being a marathoner. You ran the best marathon of your life, then you take two months off, don't run at all, go to spring training, and you have to run another marathon in six weeks.''

House has worked with hundreds of major league pitchers over the years, most notably Randy Johnson and Nolan Ryan.

"We prepare, compete, then repair,'' House said. "With Nolan, we paid more attention to recovery than we did to preparation and competition. What you do to recover makes the difference. But doing nothing is no good.''

The Giants and Rangers will need to recover. The Giants played 15 postseason games, a total of 135 innings. Ace Tim Lincecum threw 37 innings in the postseason, raising his season total to 249 1/3, a career high and 22 1/3 more innings than he had ever thrown in a season. Matt Cain pitched 21 1/3 innings in the playoffs, raising his total to 244 2/3, 27 more than he had ever thrown. Jonathan Sanchez threw 20 innings in the postseason, raising his total for the season to 213 1/3, 50 more than he had ever thrown. Madison Bumgarner pitched 20 2/3 innings in the playoffs, raising his total (major and minor leagues) to 214 1/3, 72 more than he had ever thrown in a season. And closer Brian Wilson appeared in 10 games in the postseason, totaling 80 for the season, 12 more than his career high.

The Rangers played 16 postseason games, totaling 141 innings. Colby Lewis pitched 26 1/3 innings in the playoffs, raising his season total to 227 1/3, 49 more than he had thrown in a season. C.J. Wilson threw 24 1/3 innings in the postseason, raising his total for the season to 228 1/3, 154 2/3 more than he had ever thrown. Neftali Feliz appeared in seven games in the playoffs, raising his season total to 77, a heavy workload for a 22-year-old closing for the first time in his big league career. Set-up man Darren O'Day appeared in 11 games in the postseason, raising his season total to 83 games, or 15 more than his career high.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Wilson
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesC.J. Wilson pitched 228 1/3 innings in 2010, 154 2/3 more than he had ever thrown in a single season.

"Houston went to the World Series in 2005, and [then ace] Roy Oswalt had been used to throwing 200, 215, 220 innings,'' said Hickey, who was the Houston Astros' pitching coach then. "So what he was coming back from the following spring [2006] was nothing like the dramatic increase of C.J. Wilson. That sends up a red flag. All you can really do with most pitchers is to lighten the workload in spring training, then lighten the load during the season.''

Said Daniels: "Wilson is one of the guys we'll keep a closer eye on. But he is one of the best conditioned players on our team. He doesn't drink. He takes great care of himself on his own, not to mention what he gets from the club. Plus, he's 30 years old. He's not 22. And he pitched really well the second half of the year. But we will monitor him closer.''

Maybe Wilson will be terrific, even better than last year. Maybe Lewis is just finding his stride, and will be a 200-inning pitcher for the next five years. Maybe Lincecum is indeed a freak, and can pitch through anything. Cain and Sanchez are young and strong, and might get stronger. Bumgarner is not your average 21-year-old, not with that stuff and poise.

"With the conditioning programs we have, we think they can handle the workload,'' Daniels said. "But the bottom line is, it's an unknown. We won't know how we'll do until we go through it.''

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.