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Roy Halladay pitched excellently against the San Diego Padres on Sunday afternoon, striking out 14 hitters in eight and two-thirds innings. The ninth inning had a similar feel to the ninth in his start on April 13 against the Washington Nationals. In both games, Halladay was working on a shut-out, but had a high pitch count going into the final inning. Both times, Charlie Manuel opted to let his star pitcher attempt to finish the game, and in neither case did he accomplish that goal.
Halladay led the league in complete games in each of the past four years, and in complete game shut-outs in each of the past three years. If there is one pitcher in baseball conditioned to such a heavy workload, it’s Halladay. He has thrown 110 or more pitches in each of his previous four starts, and did so in 17 of his 33 starts last year.
Those who think Halladay should be out there in the ninth inning with a high pitch count in a close game usually lament the current era of baseball for “pampering” pitchers. However, it’s less about pampering and more about risk-aversion and protecting assets. Managers and pitching coaches who hold their pitchers to pitch counts are being cautious, and the Phillies should be just as cautious. After all, they have Halladay signed through 2014 potentially, as well as Cliff Lee through 2016 (potentially), and both Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt through 2012 (potentially). Assuming all options are exercised, the Phillies have $263 million committed to their four best starters, and that’s without accounting for Hamels’ final year of arbitration.
If the Phillies had no solid options behind Halladay, and if the game was close, I could understand sending Halladay back to the mound with 113 pitches. According to FanGraphs, though, the Phillies had a 97 percent chance to win when the top of the ninth inning ended. Furthermore, despite that Jose Contreras went on the 15-day disabled list, the Phillies had two reliable arms that could have gotten three outs in Ryan Madson and Antonio Bastardo. The Phillies get nothing extra from letting Halladay finish the game. Halladay gets the extra notch in the “CG” and “SHO” columns on Baseball Reference, but the Phillies risk a lot (fatigue, injury) for nothing in the regular season in April.
Entering yesterday afternoon’s game, the Phillies had the third-highest total innings pitched by starters, behind the Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves (both had two extra games in hand). The Phillies had the lowest total innings pitched by relievers.
It’s not just Halladay that is getting overworked early by Manuel. Hamels threw 126 pitches through eight shut-out innings against the Padres on Friday, a game the Phillies won 2-0. He entered the eighth with 109 pitches. There is just no reason to have him out there, and Hamels did appear fatigued. His fastball usually sits around 91 MPH, but averaged just 89.5 MPH in the eighth inning.
Jose Contreras, recently placed on the disabled list, needed 20 or more pitches to get through four of his eight one-inning appearances. He had pitched in five of the Phillies’ seven games from April 15-21, throwing a total of 81 pitches.
I know I’ve been very critical of Manuel over the years. The Phillies have been very successful under his leadership. Every player that has passed through Philadelphia since 2005 has sworn by him. There’s something to be said for the way he deals with his players, and maybe that’s enough to outweigh his strategical miscues. While failure to abuse a platoon match-up will only lead to one loss maximum, overworking starters can lead to multiple losses and even to injuries — effects that can be felt years down the road. Being mindful of pitch counts isn’t “pampering” pitchers; it’s being smart and putting your team in the best position to win as many games over the long haul as possible.