Charlie Manuel Unnecessarily Taxing His Pitchers’ Arms
The Phillies played their 40th game of the season last night against the St. Louis Cardinals. Cliff Lee threw 122 pitches, marking the 11th time a Phillies starter has thrown 110 or more pitches in a game thus far in 2011. For those of you keeping score, that’s 27.5 percent. Only the Houston Astros have been more taxing of their starters’ arms. The average Major League team has six 110+ pitch performances on record; the Phillies are at nearly twice that total.
|Roy Halladay||2011-04-24||PHI||SDP||W 3-1||GS-9 ,W||8.2||5||1||1||1||14||0||130||83||.852|
|Cole Hamels||2011-04-22||PHI||SDP||W 2-0||GS-8 ,W||8.0||4||0||0||3||8||0||126||79||1.245|
|Roy Halladay||2011-04-13||PHI||WSN||W 3-2||CG 9 ,W||9.0||6||2||2||2||9||0||123||74||1.553|
|Roy Halladay||2011-05-15||PHI||ATL||L 2-3||CG 8 ,L||8.0||8||3||3||2||7||1||119||59||1.339|
|Cliff Lee||2011-05-06||PHI||ATL||L 0-5||GS-7 ,L||7.0||9||3||3||1||16||0||117||62||.724|
|Roy Halladay||2011-05-10||PHI||FLA||L 1-2||CG 8 ,L||8.0||5||2||1||2||9||0||115||73||1.225|
|Cliff Lee||2011-05-01||PHI||NYM||L 1-2||GS-7||7.0||8||1||1||2||5||0||113||60||1.203|
|Roy Halladay||2011-04-07||PHI||NYM||W 11-0||GS-7 ,W||7.0||6||0||0||1||7||0||113||71||1.016|
|Cliff Lee||2011-05-16||PHI||STL||L 1-3||GS-7 ,L||6.1||6||3||3||6||4||0||112||53||1.416|
|Roy Halladay||2011-04-19||PHI||MIL||L 0-9||GS-7 ,L||6.2||10||6||6||2||3||1||112||31||.790|
|Cliff Lee||2011-04-02||PHI||HOU||W 9-4||GS-7 ,W||7.0||4||3||3||0||11||1||111||68||.710|
|Roy Halladay||2011-05-05||PHI||WSN||W 7-3||GS-7 ,W||7.0||6||2||2||0||10||0||110||67||.757|
The pitch count debate is anything but finished. Current information is limited in scope and conclusions are very hazy. Some pitchers, like Roy Halladay, seem to be well-conditioned to throw as many pitches as necessary while others are gasping for air before they ever reach 100. And, of course, the 100-pitch marker is itself arbitrary. Why 100? Why not 103 or 98 or 112? You get the point.
Still, I think we can all agree that each pitch is riskier than its precedent. By exactly how much is anyone’s guess, but it is non-zero. If a manager has the opportunity to allow his starter to throw fewer pitches, he should take it, generally speaking.
That was very clear yesterday when Lee was having a lot of trouble locating his pitches, setting a career-high with six walks in six and one-third innings. Lee, of course, is known for his pinpoint control, leading the Majors in strikeout-to-walk ratio last year at 10.3, and led the Majors for this season, going into last night’s game at 9.1.
Lee needed 25 pitches to escape the first inning, and was at 86 pitches through four innings, at which point he had allowed five of his six walks. He should not have taken the mound for the fifth inning. Baseball purists and macho men reading this should experience heightened blood pressure after reading that sentence. Taking out your $100 million starter after 86 pitches and four innings?!
Yes. Eliminate risk. As it turns out, Lee had fairly easy fifth and sixth innings, allowing him to pitch into the seventh, but situations like that are why you have arms in the bullpen capable of pitching multiple innings. It is exactly the reason why the Phillies still carry Kyle Kendrick on the roster. If you are not comfortable using your relievers in that situation, then when are you comfortable using them? Why are they taking up a roster spot, instead of a more useful bench player?
One need only go to this page and search for “(P)” to get an idea of the risk involved. Is getting an extra two or three innings out of Lee, rather than the rarely-used bullpen, worth risking losing him to injury? Even if the risk of injury is one percent rather than, say, 40 percent, the answer is still a resounding “no”.
In the fifth inning until he was pulled in the seventh inning, Lee faced sub-1.00 leverage index situations with seven of ten batters, and of course the other three situations were his own doing — a result of his lack of stuff. Going into the seventh, the Phillies were facing four-to-one odds to win the game. Manuel either has a remarkable lack of confidence in his bullpen or was not cognizant of how much he was asking from his starting pitcher.
The average leverage index, for the games in which Phillies starters accrued 110 or more pitches, was 1.04. As the FanGraphs Saber Library explains, an average LI is 1.00, so it isn’t as if these starters are in super-important situations. And, lest we forget, it is May — we are just now arriving at the one-quarter mark.
Even when we look at the peak leverage index, the decision-making isn’t justified. The average max-LI for the 11 110-plus-pitch games is 3.07, with a max of 7.13 in Halladay’s start against the Washington Nationals on April 13. The rest fell under 4.00, with four registering under 2.00. The two most egregious over-uses both involved Halladay: on April 7 against the Mets, when Halladay pitched seven innings as the Phillies won 11-0; and April 19 against the Milwaukee Brewers, when Halladay went six and two-thirds innings as the Phillies lost 9-0.
If the starters being overworked were Joe Blanton and Roy Oswalt, to whom Phillies owe nothing in the long term, that would be somewhat justifiable. But the Phillies owe Halladay as much as $60 million from 2012-14, and Lee as much as $124 million from 2012-16. Winning regular season games in May is nice, but protecting long-term investments is more important.
Going into last night’s game, the Phillies led the league in average innings pitched per start by starting pitchers at 6.5 (roughly six and two-thirds innings). As a result, the Phillies had also called upon the bullpen the least, at 100 and one-third innings, beating the Los Angeles Dodgers by about eight innings.
We expected this situation to occur, given the hype around the starting rotation going into the season. When you have four legitimate aces, the bullpen will end up used less and less. There is, however, the smart way to ration innings and there is the dumb way. Thus far, I’m not so sure Manuel’s use of his starting rotation falls under the former category. Oswalt has his own health problems (recently, his back), while Halladay and Lee have not had the cleanest bills of health over their respective careers — both heading into their mid-30’s as well.
There’s a reason why you keep your Porsche(s!) in the garage and your Toyota parked on the street. One represents an investment; the other, convenience. You use the Porsche only on special occasions, not for everyday driving. Manuel should use his rotation and bullpen accordingly.