Lincoln Mitchell

Political Development, Strategic Communication and Research

Lincoln Mitchell is a political development and strategic communications consultant as well as an accomplished scholar and writer. Mitchell has worked on political development in dozens of countries as well as on numerous domestic political campaigns. He has also published books, articles, opinion pieces and blogs on international relations, the former Soviet Union, democracy, US politics and baseball. 

The Risk and Rewards of Overworking Pitchers

Amidst the normal spring training stories of position battles, veterans coming to camp in the best shape of their careers, players making their first appearances with new teams, and young prospects making good impressions on coaches and journalists this spring was the ongoing saga of the New York Yankees starting rotation. The Yankees lost one of their most dependable pitchers, Andy Pettitte, to retirement, failed to sign free agent ace Cliff Lee and did not trade for any big league starting pitchers. Thus, going into spring training a collection of young semi-prospects, like Ivan Nova and castoffs like Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon were competing for the remaining two spots in the rotation after CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes and the erratic AJ Burnett.

These uninspiring pitchers battled for the two rotation spots against a backdrop of a crop of Yankee prospects who have shown potential, but are not yet ready to play on the big league team. Of these, the most intriguing during spring training was 20 year old lefty Manuel Banuelos. Banuelos pitched very well during spring training leading many to suggest that perhaps he should be given one of the remaining places in the Yankee rotation. The Yankees, being a conservative organization, quickly made it clear that this was not in their plans. The consensus among most of the baseball world was that this was a wise decision.

The question of whether or not Banuelos should be in the Yankee rotation has two components. First, is the issue of whether or not he is good enough to contribute at the Major League level. Second, is the question of whether pitching too many innings at the Major League level would cause damage to his arm and therefore hinder his development and career.

Regarding the first question, it should be noted that the highest level at which Banuelos has pitched thus far is AA where he threw 15.1 innings last year posting a 3.52 ERA with 17 walks and eight strikeouts. These are decent numbers, but hardly dominant enough to suggest that a 20 year old would thrive in a Major League rotation. His 9.2 innings of spring training work have been very strong, but 9.2 innings is also far too small of a sample size from which to project anything. The evidence here suggests that the Yankees’ conservative approach is wise in this case as Banuelos may simply not ready to pitch in the Major Leagues quite yet.

If, however, Banuelos were to get off to a hot start in the minors while the fourth and fifth starters in the Yankee rotation were to falter, the Yankees would be faced with a tougher choice. If that were to happen, the second question, about whether the workload would damage Banuelos’ overall development, would become more important. Kevin Goldstein, who writing and podcasting on prospects and player development is among the best around, has argued that bringing Banuelos along too quickly could likely damage his development. Goldstein, through looking at comparable pitchers at a comparable age who were put in big league rotations, convincingly argues that pitching too many innings at the Major League level would create too much of a strain for Banuelos increasing the likelihood for arm injury or otherwise unfulfilled potential.

Amidst the normal spring training stories of position battles, veterans coming to camp in the best shape of their careers, players making their first appearances with new teams, and young prospects making good impressions on coaches and journalists this spring was the ongoing saga of the New York Yankees starting rotation. The Yankees lost one of their most dependable pitchers, Andy Pettitte, to retirement, failed to sign free agent ace Cliff Lee and did not trade for any big league starting pitchers. Thus, going into spring training a collection of young semi-prospects, like Ivan Nova and castoffs like Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon were competing for the remaining two spots in the rotation after CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes and the erratic AJ Burnett.

These uninspiring pitchers battled for the two rotation spots against a backdrop of a crop of Yankee prospects who have shown potential, but are not yet ready to play on the big league team. Of these, the most intriguing during spring training was 20 year old lefty Manuel Banuelos. Banuelos pitched very well during spring training leading many to suggest that perhaps he should be given one of the remaining places in the Yankee rotation. The Yankees, being a conservative organization, quickly made it clear that this was not in their plans. The consensus among most of the baseball world was that this was a wise decision.

The question of whether or not Banuelos should be in the Yankee rotation has two components. First, is the issue of whether or not he is good enough to contribute at the Major League level. Second, is the question of whether pitching too many innings at the Major League level would cause damage to his arm and therefore hinder his development and career.

Regarding the first question, it should be noted that the highest level at which Banuelos has pitched thus far is AA where he threw 15.1 innings last year posting a 3.52 ERA with 17 walks and eight strikeouts. These are decent numbers, but hardly dominant enough to suggest that a 20 year old would thrive in a Major League rotation. His 9.2 innings of spring training work have been very strong, but 9.2 innings is also far too small of a sample size from which to project anything. The evidence here suggests that the Yankees’ conservative approach is wise in this case as Banuelos may simply not ready to pitch in the Major Leagues quite yet.

If, however, Banuelos were to get off to a hot start in the minors while the fourth and fifth starters in the Yankee rotation were to falter, the Yankees would be faced with a tougher choice. If that were to happen, the second question, about whether the workload would damage Banuelos’ overall development, would become more important. Kevin Goldstein, who writing and podcasting on prospects and player development is among the best around, has argued that bringing Banuelos along too quickly could likely damage his development. Goldstein, through looking at comparable pitchers at a comparable age who were put in big league rotations, convincingly argues that pitching too many innings at the Major League level would create too much of a strain for Banuelos increasing the likelihood for arm injury or otherwise unfulfilled potential.

Goldstein’s analysis is probably right, but it is not entirely clear why the Yankees, or any other franchise should be concerned about these risks. Teams are not in the business of developing players; they are in the business of trying to win championships. For the Yankees, as the team and the media constantly remind us, this is the goal every year, but for other teams, these opportunities are less frequent.

If Banuelos could pitch 150 or more above average innings this year as the number four starter in the rotation, thus helping the Yankees to a playoff spot and conceivably contribute to another World Series win, would it really matter to the Yankees, or their fans, if he injured himself in mid-2012 and was never the same again. The Yankees would not be happy about this but it would be a tradeoff they would undoubtedly be comfortable making. After all, there are always more pitching prospects, and the Yankees have a more or less unlimited ability to spend money on free agent pitchers. They would obviously be happier of Banuelos did not place too much strain on his arm, but even in that case there are other things that could go wrong including other types of injuries, departure by free agency or just a failure to reach his potential.

Even if the Yankees handled Banuelos perfectly, the chances of him contributing to the Yankees for the next 10-15 years is sufficiently small that it might be worth trading for a better shot at a championship this year. Ironically, because of the Yankees deep pockets they can better afford to try to make Banuelos develop into a long term contributor despite these odds. They can always sign another pitcher mid-season if they need to and are better positioned to avoid losing Banuelos to free agency or being forced to trade him for budget reasons if he develops into a star.

Many other teams face more urgent decisions. If they have a chance to win a championship, they need to make the most of it because those opportunities are rare. Last year’s San Francisco Giants are a good example of this. The Giants relied heavily on extraordinary and young pitching to win the World Series in 2010. One of these pitchers, Madison Bumgarner, turned 21 in August of 2010, so was only a year or so older last year than Banuelos will be this year. Bumgarner was a little older and has a very different body type so the comparison is not perfect. Nonetheless as a 20-21 year old last year Bumgarner pitched 82.2 innings in AAA, 111 in the Major Leagues and an additional 20.2 in the post-season. Overall, Bumgarner was fantastic and played a key role in the Giants championship. He capped of his season by scattering three hits and two walks over eight innings in game four of the World Series.

Bumgarner’s workload in 2010 of 213.4 innings may have caused long term damage to his arm and may contribute to injury in the near future, but the Giants made the right decision by pushing him in 2010. Even if he never pitches another inning for the Giants, which is unlikely as he has shown no sign of injury yet, the Giants and their fans may dream about how good he might have been, but they will know that the trading Bumgarner’s future for one world championship was worth it.

While all pitching prospects, presumably, would like to develop into big league pitchers who can have long and productive careers, this is not the goal of the teams who control their future. Bringing pitchers along slowly and carefully is probably the best thing for pitchers, but it may not be the best way to win championships. Baseball history is full of pitchers who burned out early or injured their arm due to overuse at a young age, but for fans and management this is not a tragedy but simply part of the game. Teams should not be oblivious to the risks of overworking a young pitcher. These risks are quite real, but teams should also recognize that sometimes they need to take that risk.

If Banuelos could pitch 150 or more above average innings this year as the number four starter in the rotation, thus helping the Yankees to a playoff spot and conceivably contribute to another World Series win, would it really matter to the Yankees, or their fans, if he injured himself in mid-2012 and was never the same again. The Yankees would not be happy about this but it would be a tradeoff they would undoubtedly be comfortable making. After all, there are always more pitching prospects, and the Yankees have a more or less unlimited ability to spend money on free agent pitchers. They would obviously be happier of Banuelos did not place too much strain on his arm, but even in that case there are other things that could go wrong including other types of injuries, departure by free agency or just a failure to reach his potential.

Even if the Yankees handled Banuelos perfectly, the chances of him contributing to the Yankees for the next 10-15 years is sufficiently small that it might be worth trading for a better shot at a championship this year. Ironically, because of the Yankees deep pockets they can better afford to try to make Banuelos develop into a long term contributor despite these odds. They can always sign another pitcher mid-season if they need to and are better positioned to avoid losing Banuelos to free agency or being forced to trade him for budget reasons if he develops into a star.

Many other teams face more urgent decisions. If they have a chance to win a championship, they need to make the most of it because those opportunities are rare. Last year’s San Francisco Giants are a good example of this. The Giants relied heavily on extraordinary and young pitching to win the World Series in 2010. One of these pitchers, Madison Bumgarner, turned 21 in August of 2010, so was only a year or so older last year than Banuelos will be this year. Bumgarner was a little older and has a very different body type so the comparison is not perfect. Nonetheless as a 20-21 year old last year Bumgarner pitched 82.2 innings in AAA, 111 in the Major Leagues and an additional 20.2 in the post-season. Overall, Bumgarner was fantastic and played a key role in the Giants championship. He capped of his season by scattering three hits and two walks over eight innings in game four of the World Series.

Bumgarner’s workload in 2010 of 213.4 innings may have caused long term damage to his arm and may contribute to injury in the near future, but the Giants made the right decision by pushing him in 2010. Even if he never pitches another inning for the Giants, which is unlikely as he has shown no sign of injury yet, the Giants and their fans may dream about how good he might have been, but they will know that the trading Bumgarner’s future for one world championship was worth it.

While all pitching prospects, presumably, would like to develop into big league pitchers who can have long and productive careers, this is not the goal of the teams who control their future. Bringing pitchers along slowly and carefully is probably the best thing for pitchers, but it may not be the best way to win championships. Baseball history is full of pitchers who burned out early or injured their arm due to overuse at a young age, but for fans and management this is not a tragedy but simply part of the game. Teams should not be oblivious to the risks of overworking a young pitcher. These risks are quite real, but teams should also recognize that sometimes they need to take that risk.