October workload can take a toll on arms

Originally Published: June 28, 2007
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Unless you were paying close attention, you probably missed that parade in Detroit this month.

BALTIMORE CHOP

Baltimore Orioles The Orioles' original 1-2 plan last week was to hire Joe Girardi as manager, then get to work on trading away Miguel Tejada before the trading deadline.

Oops. So what's Plan B?

Well, with Girardi out of the picture, the Orioles' managerial search is suddenly in slow motion -- and may not even resume until more options abound in the offseason. And with Tejada out until August, he won't be the centerpiece to any pre-deadline deals, either. But that doesn't necessarily mean he won't be back in Rumor Central until December. Tejada would have $30 million left on his contract (through 2009) as of Aug. 1. So he's the kind of player who would figure to make it through waivers. Meaning you can merely put your rumor engines in idle until then.

Then again, who knows what kind of trade value Tejada has anymore.

"I saw him play a few weeks ago," said one AL executive. "And I was so disappointed with his effort, I absolutely think he'd get through waivers. But you'd have to look at him as a third baseman because he's not a shortstop anymore. He carries a lot of coin with him. And now he's got this injury. So I don't know. I loved him once. But he's not that guy anymore."

One reason the Orioles haven't relaunched their managerial hunt is that it's clear now that Girardi wasn't just their first choice. He was their only choice. But the other reason is that interim manager Dave Trembley was able to right their ship almost immediately.

Scouts who followed the Orioles last week were stunned by (A) how much harder they seemed to play, (B) the sight of them actually taking infield before games, (C) their much more aggressive emphasis on running the bases and putting runners in motion and (D) the focused effort to actually get relievers into a game if they warmed up. One of deposed manager Sam Perlozzo's biggest issues with his bullpen was all the wasted warm-ups, heaped on top of all the appearances his relievers were piling up.

With Tejada down, which Oriole is most likely to get traded? We'd bet on Steve Trachsel, who actually has as many quality starts (seven) as Daniel Cabrera and Scott Kazmir, and has held opposing hitters to a lower slugging percentage (.407) than Mark Buehrle or Gil Meche.

That parade of pitchers coming off the disabled list, that is.

Off that DL came Kenny Rogers. And Nate Robertson. And Fernando Rodney. With Zach Miner to follow any day now.

We should mention, though, that Rodney has now paraded right back onto that disabled list, where he can hang out with Joel Zumaya. And Roman Colon. And (for the time being anyway) Miner.

So in other words, it's been a little overcrowded in the Tigers' DL club room this year. Since March 29, they've had to place players on the disabled list 12 times. Ten of those 12 moves have involved pitchers.

Here's our question: Is that a coincidence? Or is it another dreaded case of pitchers suffering a year-after attack of World Series burnout?

We'll answer that question shortly. But let's just say we're convinced that World Series burnout is a real phenomenon. It doesn't hit every pitcher. It doesn't attack every team. But it happens.

We live now in an age of three-tiered postseasons that drag on for a month. And it's a month when teams lean on their best pitchers to carry a load fit for an 18-wheeler.

In 2001, for instance, Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson came within an out of combining to throw 90 (yep, 90) innings in the postseason alone. They both survived it. But not everyone does. Take an even better example -- the 2005 White Sox.

Their four starters -- Jose Contreras, Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland and Freddy Garcia -- threw an extra 1,227 pitches that October, pitched four complete games in a row at one point and averaged 7 2/3 innings a start.

All four were coming off seasons in which they worked more than 200 innings. And they didn't just pay a price for it. They paid retail.

Every one of them saw his ERA the next season rise by anywhere from more than half a run (Garcia and Contreras) to a run and a half (Buehrle). And that's exactly what White Sox GM Kenny Williams was worried about from the moment the World Series ticker tape settled to earth.

"In my post-Series research, I found a lot of burnout samples from each World Series participant -- win or lose," Williams told Rumblings. "That's why I went after [Javier] Vazquez after '05, in anticipation of someone going down or just being ineffective."

As it turned out, the only starter who had to visit the disabled list last year was Contreras -- and that was for sciatica, not an arm issue. But the decline of that rotation was the single biggest reason the White Sox careened out of the race.

Those White Sox were about as powerful an argument for the existence of World Series burnout as we've found. But we went further. We studied this phenomenon ourselves, with the help of the ever-inquisitive folks from Baseball Prospectus. Here's what we discovered:

    • From 1996 to 2005, there were 47 different times when a pitcher threw at least 200 regular-season innings, then pitched in all three rounds of the postseason because his team reached the World Series. The ERA of those pitchers jumped an average of 41 points the next season. And the innings pitched by those pitchers dropped from an average of 221 to 198.

    • Of those 47 instances, more than 40 percent (19 of 47) saw the pitcher's ERA inflate by half a run or more the next season. And 21 percent (10 of 47) saw the pitcher's ERA rise by at least a run.

    • Just eight times out of the 47, on the other hand, were pitchers able to lower their ERAs by half a run or more. And the pitchers for all of those eight occasions -- Greg Maddux ( twice), Andy Pettitte (twice), Tom Glavine (2000), Roger Clemens (2004), Livan Hernandez (2003) and Matt Morris (2005) -- were pitchers who had been through October before.

Baseball Prospectus' Bill Burke, meanwhile, studied all World Series staffs from 1996 through last year's Tigers and Cardinals. Then he charted what happened to every pitcher the next year, even if that pitcher changed teams. He found those pitchers got worse in every major rate category the following year. Take a look. (Each category is "per 9 innings pitched.")

World Series staffs: 1996-2006
  RUNS ER HITS BB SO HR
WS season 4.3 3.94 8.7 3.10 6.9 0.95
Next season 4.5 4.19 9.0 3.11 6.8 1.01

Now granted, those aren't huge drops. And we are talking about comparing seasons where, in general, everything goes right with seasons where life returns to "normal." So maybe this is just a predictable drop-off in many respects.

But when you look at last year's White Sox, when you look at what happened to Chris Carpenter in St. Louis this year, when you look at a Tigers team that went from having the most unhittable bullpen in the American League (.242 opponent average) to the third-most hittable (.275), how can anyone say World Series burnout is a myth?

"Oh, I think it can happen," said Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski. "No question about it. But I don't think it has happened to this team. … And I'm not convinced it has to happen."

Dombrowski ticked through the Tigers' major pitching injuries, one by one: Rogers (blood clot) -- "just a freak injury" … Bonderman (blister) -- "freaky" … Zumaya (ruptured tendon in finger) -- "nothing to do with increased workload, just another freak injury" … Rodney (shoulder tendinitis) -- "simple biceps tendinitis, could have happened with anybody."

But then there's Robertson ("tired arm"). Both Dombrowski and Robertson suspect he might be your classic Series burnout victim.

He's a guy who was proud of the fact that "I'd never missed a start, in six years." His innings inflated from 196 2/3 in both 2004 and 2005 to 224 1/3 last year, counting the postseason. And he admits he compounded that wear and tear by accelerating his offseason throwing program, even though his offseason was a month shorter than usual.

"I got too concerned about falling behind," Robertson said. "I gave myself the month off that I would normally take. But then I didn't push everything else back. I started throwing when I normally do [without the same gradual buildup time]. I got afraid of going into camp not prepared."

Justin Verlander, on the other hand, took the opposite approach. He knew he was a month behind on his offseason program. He just decided he needed the rest more than he needed the January throwing routine. Then he prayed all spring that he'd be ready by opening day.

"I know some people think, 'Yeah, I pitched through October, but I've still got to get started [throwing] at the same time,'" Verlander said. "I just told myself, 'You're going to be able to catch up.' And eventually, I did. I had a horrible spring. But I knew I had a bunch of starts this spring. It just turned out I needed every one of them."

Kenny Williams jokes now that he was sure World Series burnout existed "until I saw Verlander's no-hitter." But he has also surveyed enough October warriors -- Dave Stewart, Jack Morris, John Smoltz, Todd Stottlemyre -- to believe their stories that every inning in October actually "felt like two."

TRIVIALITY

Only one pitcher in baseball is working on a streak of three straight 200-inning seasons with a sub-3.00 ERA in all three. Can you name him? (Answer later.)

So to all those people who think the first round of the postseason should go to best-of-seven and the World Series should go to best-of-nine, Williams says: "They're ignoring what is obvious to me."

Dombrowski said the Tigers were so aware of these potential dangers that they cut back on their pitchers' workloads last September, even though that might have cost them the division. They never pitched a starter on short rest. They monitored bullpen warm-ups and pitch counts carefully. They even ordered all their pitchers to avoid throwing until a month later than normal over the winter. And they've still had their troubles.

So is that just because the magic carpet ride had to end sometime? Or is Series burnout a factor? Baseball Prospectus injury guru Will Carroll told Rumblings he has no doubt that October workload can be an issue.

"I think that the biggest effects are from increased innings, a change in routine and the slow effects of fatigue," Carroll said. "We know that 30-plus-inning increases are harbingers of breakdown, and we know that pitchers are creatures of habit. So tacking on high-leverage innings at a point in the season where almost all pitchers are gassed is the worst possible thing."

Some pitchers have better mechanics than others. Some teams (think 1991-99 Braves) protect their arms better than others. But we think World Series burnout is an issue baseball needs to study before it tweaks its postseason any further.

And it's an issue the best teams in baseball had better study -- if they want those dreams of repeating to have any shot of coming true.

Buehrle

Buehrle

RUMBLINGS AND GRUMBLINGS
There sure were a lot of confused people all over baseball Wednesday when word spread that the White Sox had reversed course and were trying to sign Mark Buehrle. Right up until Tuesday afternoon, Kenny Williams was still in sell mode, asking for the kind of package we haven't seen in any deadline deal since Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano (2004). Or possibly even Carlos Guillen, Freddy Garcia and John Halama for Randy Johnson (1997).

"Judging by what he asked from us, he's been asking for every team's two best prospects -- or at least two out of their best three," an official of one interested club grumbled Wednesday. So if we use that logic, that means Williams asked the Mets for Mike Pelfrey and Carlos Gomez, asked the Braves for Jarrod Saltalamacchia and/or Yunel Escobar/Brent Lillibridge, asked the Cardinals for Colby Rasmus and Jaime Garcia, and asked the Red Sox for Clay Buchholz and Jacoby Ellsbury.

So over and over, we heard the same message: "He may get that kind of price from somebody. But it won't be from us."

So you should be wary of all reports that suggest none of the potential Buehrle deals broke down over the cost in players. Every team was balking. And another thing: Red Sox officials have told every club they've spoken to that they were never close to any deal for Buehrle and actually didn't do a whole lot more than inquire about what it would take.

One more complication the White Sox were running into was their lack of interest in granting teams a 72-hour window to get Buehrle signed. Some clubs (Boston and Seattle, for instance) didn't mind dealing for him as a rental. But the Cardinals, Mets and Braves head the list of teams that clearly would have wanted a window. One team said chairman Jerry Reinsdorf was adamant about not granting any negotiating time. But an official of another club says the White Sox would have had no choice but to relent.

"If it meant he was going to get the kind of player he was looking for, and the club getting him was going to have to give away that kind of prospect plus pay market dollars, they can say whatever they want. How could they not give the window?"

And consider the potential downside of trading for Buehrle and not signing him. "Don't get me wrong," said an official of one team in the Buehrle hunt. "He's a very attractive guy. But if you trade for him and can't sign him, you're talking about a three-month rental and you're looking at draft picks that might not be as good as they look. If you make the assumption he'd then go out and sign with the [sub-.500] Cardinals, you're not even going to get a first-round pick. You're getting a sandwich pick. So say you're getting the 38th pick and a second-rounder. I mean, how good are those picks?"

With or without Buehrle on the shelves, the White Sox clearance sale is still definitely in progress. But teams have been wary of Jermaine Dye's health and Tadahito Iguchi's lackadaisical play. And Jose Contreras and Javier Vazquez haven't been as enticing as the White Sox thought they'd be, either, given that they're signed through 2009 and 2010, respectively.

"I'd have a hard time hanging my hat on those guys," said an official of one team shopping for pitching. "I don't know what's happened to Javy Vazquez. He's just not the same pitcher we all loved a couple of years back. And I don't know a lot of people who are sold on Contreras' reliability, either."

Willis

Willis

RUMBLING ALONG
• Clubs that have asked the Marlins recently about Dontrelle Willis have been told the Fish will determine whether they're sellers in the next two or three weeks. Here's one scout's read on Willis' struggles: "He's always pitched across his body, but it looks like he's drifting way out away from the batter's box and almost toward the first-base line. And he can't get straightened out. A lot of his problems have just been command. He's throwing more pitches in five or six innings than he used to throw in those complete games."

• Teams that have talked to the Mets say they're not pursuing more offense unless they get word that Moises Alou's injury is more serious than they now believe.

• The Yankees continue to tell clubs not to bother asking for their four best young arms -- Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Ian Kennedy and Alan Horne.

• Scouts who have seen Reds phenom Homer Bailey since his call-up have been shocked by the lack of life on his fastball.

"I saw him in the Florida State League last year, and he was throwing 98 [mph]," said one scout. "Then I saw him in the big leagues this year, and he averaged 91-92. At 97-98, he can get by with not commanding his [off-speed] stuff. But at 91-92, when his other stuff isn't there, he's just an ordinary guy."

STILL MORE RUMBLINGS
• As the Giants spin in circles, they've put a very interesting name on the market -- Matt Morris. "He's pitched real well. He's got a lot of experience. He's a great guy. And he's a tremendous competitor," said an executive of one team. "I bet they get a lot of hits on him."

• An official of one AL team differed with our note last week quoting an NL executive as saying no team would ever trade for Barry Bonds. "I'd take him," the official said. "I bet, if you bring him into a good environment at this stage of his career, he'd be less apt to screw it up. And in our league, I think the guy could still be a difference maker. I'd take him as a DH, so you'd just have to get him healthy enough to bat four times a game."

Of course, Bonds won't be going anywhere until after No. 756, so it could be awhile before this becomes anything more than fodder for debate.

Bradley

Bradley

• Milton Bradley appears likely to get traded to the Rangers, Pirates or Padres -- three teams where (not coincidentally) there's someone in charge who knows him (Ron Washington in Texas, Jim Tracy in Pittsburgh, assistant GM Paul DePodesta in San Diego). It may seem strange for a noncontender to acquire a guy like Bradley. But the Rangers and Pirates essentially would be auditioning him for a potential return next year. And the A's are trying to place him with a team in a nonvolatile market where there's a clear opportunity for playing time.

• James Loney has been so spectacular since his latest call-up (.471 BA, .971 SLG), he has effectively ended the Dodgers' efforts to trade for a first baseman. In fact, now that Los Angeles has seven position players hitting over .300 since the firing of hitting coach Eddie Murray, clubs that have spoken with the Dodgers say they're not aggressively pursuing any kind of bat at the moment. They could still make a deal eventually for an impact third baseman, corner outfielder or starting pitcher.

• One club that is actively arm-shopping is Seattle. But the Mariners are telling clubs not to bother asking about center-field prospect Adam Jones -- not with Ichiro Suzuki's free agency looming.

Speaking of Seattle, Junior Griffey says his three days of standing ovations in Seattle last weekend rank "No. 1" on his list of favorite moments in his career. Griffey was so overwhelmed by that lovefest, he even said he'd like to retire as a Mariner. But that wasn't quite the same thing as saying he'd like to be traded to Seattle in the next 15 minutes.

"What did Emmitt Smith do?" Griffey asked. "How did he do it? How simple is that? I think everyone pretty much jumped to conclusions, but I think I explained it. Just like Emmitt Smith went back and retired as a Cowboy. Nothing more. Nothing less."

• We can't find any team that seriously believes the Cubs will deal Carlos Zambrano. "After all the money they spent last winter, how can the Cubs possibly be sellers?" wondered an official of one team that has its eye on Zambrano.

TRIVIALITY

Johan Santana. (Hey, you were expecting maybe Bruce Chen?)

• And in case you missed it, the Cubs decided to go ahead with Michael Barrett bobblehead day and Michael Barrett jersey day even though the man behind the bobblehead and the jersey is no longer one of their employees.

Except they suddenly started advertising that those weren't Michael Barrett bobbleheads. They were "Cubs bobbleheads." Nevertheless, any resemblance between that bobblehead and, say, Hector Villanueva would qualify as strictly hallucinatory.

HUMORIST OF THE WEEK
Finally, David Letterman reported that it was so hot in New York this week, "'The View' replaced Rosie with Ted Williams."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," has been published by Triumph Books and is now available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com