CHICAGO -- It’s an almost unheard of idea: Shutting down a reliever after he’s thrown too many pitches. It’s common practice for starters -- see Jeff Samardzija or Stephen Strasburg circa 2012. As for healthy relievers, no team would ever do it in a pennant race, but is it something to think about in September if a team has nothing to play for?
If it’s ever to be implemented then Chicago Cubs reliever James Russell might qualify. On Sunday he appeared in his 70th game of the season, becoming the fifth lefty Cub pitcher to record multiple 70-game seasons. Last year he appeared in 77 games.
“That’s what I get paid to do,” Russell said Monday morning. “It feels good to get noticed for doing my job to the best of my ability.”
Why is this important? There’s evidence that when a reliever reaches the 70-80 game plateau there can be negative effects. Former Cub Shawn Camp led the league with 80 last season, then was ineffective this year and eventually released with a 7.04 ERA.
By most accounts Russell has had a dip this year -- although one could argue it isn’t a major one. He’s already given up one more home run than all of last year but his batting average-against on balls in play is down. And while more inherited runners have scored this year, he’s inherited many more to get out and so his percentage is actually slightly down.
In any case, could another near 80-appearance year cause concern for 2014?
“It’s a little bit different this year than last year,” manager Dale Sveum explained. “Last year he started an inning, he finished an inning. The appearances (this year) are there, but the innings and the pitches aren’t there like last year. But yeah, you’re not going to abuse him the last month and pitch him in games you’re losing and stuff like that.”
It will help when the Cubs recall another lefty reliever -- Brooks Raley -- as soon as Tuesday, and Sveum isn’t wrong about the amount of pitches thrown. Last year Russell threw 15.3 per appearance, this season it’s 11.4. That can help over the course of 70-80 games. But does that override the evidence that 75-plus appearance seasons can lead to problems?
According to ESPN Stats and Information, 11 left-handed pitchers since 2000 appeared in 75-plus games in back-to-back seasons, like Russell could. Pedro Feliciano of the New York Mets led the league with 86, 88 and 92 from 2008-10. He pitched for the first time this month since the end of 2010 due to injuries.
History suggests back-to-back years of 75-plus appearances means a slowdown in year three. Only two relievers since 2000 -- including Feliciano -- made it to 75 in their third year. The average was 63. Another one (Scott Sauerbeck) missed a season and only two had ERAs below 3.00. Several others saw their earned run average sky-rocket. And those are just the lefties, it’s much worse for right-handers. To be accurate, there are cases of pitchers surviving that workload as well.
“I don’t think about it at all,” Russell said. “There are plenty of guys that have done it before. It’s why I bust my (butt) in the offseason and in spring training and after I throw in games. So I can keep doing it for 10-12 years.”
Sometimes it’s the games a reliever doesn’t pitch in that causes as much damage as anything. There’s many a story of managers getting relievers up in the bullpen only not to use them. By the end of the year those warmups add up -- not that Russell would admit such, but he says that’s not the case with Sveum.
“I’ll let them know if I’m banged up and I need a day,” he said. “The communication is really good. There aren’t many times I get up and don’t get in a game.”
Russell says he won’t change his offseason routine except for “maybe start playing catch later” and Sveum is aware of the workload in regards to the final month of the season.
“You get to the point where (he pitches) only when you’re winning ball games and limit the at-bats and pitches,” Sveum stated. “That’s for sure.”
As for shutting it down for the final month, Russell says that’s for starters not relievers.
“We’re stronger, meaner and they’re coddled all the time,” he joked. “And always get what they want. We don’t throw that many innings. It’s not as taxing in the bullpen and the workload is not as big as the starters.”