Padres closely monitor pitchers' workload

The Padres have a terrific group of young pitching prospects. Rob looks at the system the team has in place to prepare them for the major leagues.

Originally Published: July 17, 2002
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

Tuesday night, I saw Jake Peavy pitch on TV, and last Sunday afternoon I saw Dennis Tankersley pitch at Portland's PGE Park. Peavy and Tankersley both rank among the San Diego Padres' most valuable properties.

It's become an article of faith -- and for good reason -- that unless you're the Yankees or the Red Sox or the Mets or the Dodgers, you're not going to win unless you develop your own starting pitchers.

The Padres aren't the Yankees or any of those other teams, which means they've got to develop their own starting pitchers if they're going to win.

Easier said than done. Nearly every franchise can boast at least three or four pitchers with major-league arms, but turning those major-league arms into successful major-league pitchers ... well, that's tough. Quick, try to name a franchise that's developed even two effective major-league starters in the last two seasons.

Right. Depends on how you define "effective." But you get the point.

I believe that baseball's biggest "problem" is something that nobody ever talks about. I believe baseball's biggest problem is that a huge percentage of young pitchers with major-league arms never establish themselves as major-league pitchers because they suffer arm injuries that prevent them from reaching their potential.

Which brings us back to Jake Peavy and Dennis Tankersley. In addition to those two, the Padres also have Ben Howard and Oliver Perez, giving them one of the best quartets of pitching prospects in the game. They're young, though. Peavy just turned 21, and Perez is still a month shy of 21. Tankersley and Howard are both 23.

Oddly enough, it's Peavy and Perez, the youngsters, who have done better in the major leagues. In Peavy's four starts -- including seven fine innings on Tuesday -- he's posted a 2.86 ERA. In Perez's six starts, he's posted a 3.35 ERA. Those two, in fact, have better ERAs than anybody else who's started a game for San Diego this season.

Tankersley (1-2, 7.75 in seven starts) and Howard (0-1, 9.28 in 11 innings) have struggled, though. Tankersley is now pitching for Triple-A Portland, Howard with Double-A Mobile.

Granted, it's still very early. But two out of four is a fine success rate with young pitchers, and the Padres should be thrilled that both Peavy and Perez have pitched as well as they have.

All of the Padres aren't thrilled, though. At least two Padres -- Phil Nevin and Ryan Klesko -- think the organization is going about developing pitchers all wrong. A couple of weeks ago, Phil Nevin said of young starters, "They're not prepared to pitch up here. That's been very evident. And it's not their fault. We've got some great arms coming up that don't know how to work out of trouble because they don't have to in the minor leagues. It has been discussed here."

Last week I talked to Bill Bryk, the Padres' minor-league field coordinator, and he outlined the organization's program for young pitchers. From what I understand, the program -- developed by Ted Simmons (currently San Diego's vice president of scouting and player development) when he worked for the Pirates -- boils down to the following:

  • Pitch Limits: According to Bryk, there's a sliding scale on pitch limits, based on the level -- short-season Class A, full-season Class A, Double- and Triple-A -- and the point of the season. These limits are not particularly restrictive; the Padres' Triple-A starters are, at this late date in the season, allowed to throw between 115 and 125 pitches, which is anything but radical.

  • Dry Hump Rule: Hey, I didn't name it; I'm just writing about it. The Dry Hump Rule is designed to prevent relievers from getting tired out while warming up in the bullpen. If a pitcher warms up three times in one game, he has to pitch in that game or rest for the next two games.

  • Relief Roles: There are generally only six pitchers in the bullpen, each reliever has a specified role, and relievers are not often removed simply in order to get a righty-righty or lefty-lefty matchup. These are all in place to ensure that pitchers don't get over- or under-worked, and also that pitchers learn to retire all sorts of hitters. And the specified roles can, of course, change during the season.

  • Three-Run Trap: This one really got Klesko's and Nevin's blood boiling. As Tom Krasovic wrote in the San Diego Union-Tribune, "Nevin termed some of the policies ridiculous, specifically a 'three-run trap' guideline that often requires a starting pitcher to be lifted after the fifth inning if his team is ahead by three runs and the tying run comes to the plate."

    There's a big problem here, of course: a "guideline" cannot, by definition, "require" anything (and indeed, the word "often" makes this pretty clear). In fact, according to Byrk, it's just that: a guideline. And I certainly don't see anything wrong with a guideline that 1) limits the number of innings a pitcher throws, and 2) provides a pitcher with some positive reinforcement, in the form of a W.

    Again, though, it's only a guideline. As Byrk told me, "You don't have to take the pitcher out; that's the manager's option."

    What does all this mean? It means that the San Diego Padres are one of the few teams at least making an effort to try something different, to rebel against the notion that "pitchers just get hurt and there's nothing we can do about it." It may be just a first step, or perhaps a second step, but at least it's a step. And Klesko and Nevin would be a lot better off if they focused on hitting, because it's unlikely that they know a damn thing about pitching.

    Now, about Dennis Tankersley ... like most young pitchers not named Mark Prior, he still has some things to learn.

    Padres assistant general manager Fred Uhlman Jr. says, "Tank has to work on throwing more strikes; he was being a little too fine. He needs to use his offspeed pitches, and he needs to refine his mechanics."

    Byrk says, "Tank's a fierce competitor. But his biggest problem is that, like most young kids, when he gets in trouble he wants to throw harder. He doesn't use his changeup enough, and I also talked to him about tightening his slider a bit. Throwing a shorter, tighter slider -- he has one; he showed me he could do it in the bullpen. When he gets in trouble, throttle down a little more, throw two-seam fastballs and changeups."

    When I saw Tankersley pitch on Sunday afternoon, he looked like he's been taking his lessons to heart. I didn't see many changeups, but Tankersley was not trying to overpower the Tacoma hitters. Instead, he was changing speeds like an old pro. He finished with nine strikeouts in six and one-third innings. Four of the strikeouts came on curveballs (or what looked like curveballs from my vantage point; they might have been changeups), two came on two-seam (sinking) fastballs, two came on four-seam (high) fastballs, and one came on a slider.

    Tankersley supposedly throws his four-seam fastball into the mid-90s, but according to the PGE Park radar gun, he rarely even approached that velocity. Three of his pitches registered at 93 mph, but most of his four-seamers were at 90 or 91, and he threw more two-seamers than four-seamers.

    He struck out eight Rainiers in the first four innings, but was a little shaky in the fifth and sixth, and got pulled in the seventh after a walk and a strikeout. He'd thrown 89 pitches but allowed just two hits and three walks. Tankersley didn't get a victory -- his bullpen blew the lead -- but he did lower his ERA with Portland to 2.65 (in three starts). And I doubt if he'll be in Portland much longer.

    Bill Bryk says, "We're proud of the kids. It's disappointing when they fail, but they've got the stuff, now they've just got to develop the pitchability you need in the major leagues."

    And they've got to stay healthy. Some of them won't, but at least the Padres are trying something different.

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