Worn Down by a Heavy Workload
Innings Pitched, Stress of Pennant Race Often Will Carry Over to Following Year
When the Chicago White Sox stormed their way to the World Series title in 2005, they did it, as most champions do, largely on the backs of their starting pitchers. Four hurlers — Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland, Freddy Garcia and Jose Contreras — combined to throw nearly 1,000 innings between Opening Day and the clinching game of the World Series, career highs for all four, and the pitchers were as effective as they were durable.
The following year, however, was a different story. Though all four remained mostly healthy, their combined ERAs rose by more than a run — from 3.45 in 2005 (regular season and postseason combined) to 4.58 in 2006, and the White Sox finished in third place.
The phenomenon was neither new, nor wholly unexpected. Teams whose workhorse starting pitchers carry them deep into October typically see them regress the following year. In fact, of the 30 pitchers who threw 240 or more innings in a season between 2001 and ’05, the vast majority (21 pitchers, or 70 percent) saw their ERAs rise the following season — and 11 of them experienced a jump of at least one full run. Still others experienced arm injuries the year after their highworkload season.
“I think you could argue,” White Sox assistant general manager Rick Hahn said in an e-mail, “that the year-after regression is the price a club pays for making it to the World Series. [But] should a team willingly pay that price? I think the answer is yes.”
White Sox General Manager Kenny Williams said the team anticipated the drop-off in 2006, and traded for veteran pitcher Javier Vazquez as a hedge — but it wasn’t enough.
“We think our planning in ’06 was on the mark,” Williams said in an email, “but the stressful innings of 2005 ultimately took their toll.”
The regression trend is generally harsher toward those pitchers who go deep into the postseason. In other words, 250 innings for a pitcher whose season ends in September may not be the same as the 250 innings thrown by a pitcher whose team goes well into October. “We are talking about innings pitched at the highest level of intensity under the pressure of the stretch run and the postseason,” Hahn said. “I also think the fact their offseason is one month shorter impacts a pitcher’s ability to maintain their performance level the year following a championship run.”
The team the White Sox beat in the 2005 World Series, the Houston Astros, experienced a similar decline in 2006. In winning the 2005 NL pennant, Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens combined to throw 744 innings, with a combined ERA of 2.59. But in 2006, their combined ERA was 3.32 — most of it due to Pettitte’s steep rise — and the Astros also missed the playoffs.
“The approach we took with some of our pitchers after our World Series appearance was to advise them to start their preseason workout and preparation a bit later than usual, and we purposely backed off the innings they threw early in spring training,” Astros General Manager Tim Purpura said.
So who should be worried this year? Well, in St. Louis, home of the defending World Series champion Cardinals, the situation is beyond worry — their ace, Chris Carpenter, already is on the disabled list with an elbow injury. Carpenter, in fact, posted “workhorse” seasons in both 2005 (2622⁄ combined in-
3 nings) and 2006 (254 innings).
Also keep an eye on Jeremy Bonderman, who led the AL champion Detroit Tigers staff with 2341⁄
3 combined innings — or 451⁄ more
3 than he had thrown in any previous season. So far, he seems fine, posting a 3.18 ERA (nearly a run and a half below his career norm) through his first five starts of 2007.
But the season is long, and who knows what trouble lurks out there over the next five or six months?