While some big league teams are busy monitoring their playoff odds and others are sifting through the wreckage of Biogenesis, a select few clubs are engaged in a more laborious, mundane pursuit: They're counting pitches and innings and trying to balance short-term performance and long-term consequences.
The topic became a national baseball obsession last year with the advent of Operation Shutdown. After months of speculation, the Washington Nationals pulled the plug on Stephen Strasburg in early August after he had logged 159 1/3 innings. Strasburg quietly chafed over the decision, and it became fodder for rampant second-guessing when the Nationals lost to St. Louis in the National League Division Series.
Even for pitchers who haven't been picked No. 1 overall in the draft, rehabbed from Tommy John surgery or had an eight-pound hamburger named after them, teams are constantly straddling the line between excessive coddling and protecting their long-term assets. When clubs try to combine new-age data with old-school sensibilities, something is bound to give regardless of how much stock management places in the Verducci effect.
Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez is a firm believer that whatever happens is going to happen, and teams can do only so much to safeguard the health of young pitchers short of encasing them in bubble wrap.
"I thought the Washington Nationals did a hell of a job the first time with Strasburg, trying to monitor his innings," Gonzalez said. "You couldn't do it any more perfect than that, and he still blew out.
"I read an article a couple of years ago by one of the [Society for American Baseball Research] people, and his point was, 'If you think you have a young pitcher who can get hitters out in the major leagues, bring him up.' I believe that. There are a certain amount of pitches you have in your arm. Why waste a year and a half babying them in the minors?"
The process is more complex than simply tabulating innings. Stressful innings out of the stretch are more taxing than 1-2-3 innings out of the windup. And major league innings and minor league innings aren't close to the same.
"Guys like Julio Teheran or Mike Minor or Matt Harvey are going to eliminate six or seven hitters in a Triple-A lineup on pure stuff alone," Gonzalez said. "In the majors, you may only eliminate two hitters. If you make a mistake with the rest of the guys, they're going to punish you. We see young kids who can't get out of the fourth inning with 100 pitches."
Teams keep a regular vigil for tell-tale signs. When St. Louis manager Mike Matheny and pitching coach Derek Lilliquist watch Shelby Miller, they'll keep tabs on his velocity and the crispness of his breaking stuff. If Miller's command suddenly wavers or his mechanics look slightly off-kilter, the Cardinals will try to figure out creative ways to give him a blow.
At this stage of the season, lots of contending teams are dealing with the issue of rotational fatigue with veterans and kids alike. Cincinnati's Tony Cingrani and Tampa Bay's Chris Archer are more than 30 innings short of their totals for the 2012 season, but still have to be monitored down the stretch. The same goes for Patrick Corbin, Chris Tillman, Matt Moore, Jarrod Parker, Dan Straily, Minor and Jeff Locke, even though they all amassed 170 or more innings last season and should have something left in the tank in September.
Three other young starters with contending clubs might require a bit more care and feeding between now and the playoffs. Here's where they stand at the moment:
Gerrit Cole, Pirates (5-5, 3.69 ERA)
2012 workload: 132 innings in the minors, followed by 20 innings in the instructional league
2013 workload: 129 innings total (68 with Triple-A Indianapolis, and 61 for the Pirates)
Highest pitch count in a start: 102 pitches vs. Colorado on Aug. 2
Some scouts take a look at Cole's 6-foot-4, 240-pound frame, dominant fastball and plus changeup and see a budding ace in the Justin Verlander mold. Other talent evaluators wonder why Cole doesn't miss more bats and project him as a 200-inning workhorse who's more a trusty sidekick and No. 2 starter than a true No. 1.
Regardless of where Cole slots in the long term, he's been a godsend since beating the Giants in his big league debut in June. If Wandy Rodriguez is unable to come back from a forearm injury, the Pirates will have to decide which starter slots in behind Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett in the postseason rotation. Do they go with Locke, the resourceful young lefty who walks a tightrope at times, or Cole, the power righty whose upper-90s fastball might play well in October when bats are dragging and hitters are challenged to catch up to the heat?
In the interim, the Pirates are diligently monitoring Cole's transition to the big leagues a mere 26 months after he threw his final pitch at UCLA. Cole has averaged 89 pitches per start in his first 10 outings in Pittsburgh, and he's crossed the 100-pitch threshold only once.
Upon Cole's arrival from Indianapolis, the Pittsburgh brain trust conferred with statistical analysts Dan Fox and Mike Fitzgerald to determine a suitable workload for him. Manager Clint Hurdle, pitching coach Ray Searage and general manager Neal Huntington confer frequently and are always willing to make tweaks and modifications to the program.
"There's nothing that's going to come across the desk of the group that hasn't been weighed in or thought about," Hurdle said. "We've told him to go pitch and we'll help him figure some things out along the way. We're in a very comfortable place with all of it."
Cole's extra 20 innings in the instructional league last fall ensure that he won't be making too dramatic a leap this season. He has a chance to make 10 more regular-season starts and throw an additional 55-60 innings. But Huntington told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the team might back off and skip Cole a start or find other creative ways to shave innings here and there.
When Cole needs guidance, he seeks out Burnett or Liriano, veterans who've been around and know the little tricks that can help a pitcher stay fresh during the dog days. Their message to him: Just take things start-to-start, and let the men upstairs worry about the big picture.
"Shelby [Miller] and I are in pretty much the same position," Cole said. "For as long as we've been playing this game, we still haven't been playing it very long. There's a constant fight between the gas pedal and the brake pedal, and it's a learning process to try to put yourself in a good position on that fifth day."
Cole takes solace in the knowledge that an improved delivery should help prevent any undue stress on his right arm.
"The last time I heard I had bad mechanics was in high school," he said.
Shelby Miller, Cardinals (11-7, 2.89 ERA)
2011 workload: 139 2/3 minor league innings
2012 workload: 136 2/3 innings with Triple-A Memphis and 13 2/3 in St. Louis
2013 workload: 121 1/3 innings with the Cardinals
Highest pitch count in a start: 113 (three times)
Miller got off to a terrific start to seize the initiative in the NL Rookie of the Year race before Yasiel Puig, Jose Fernandez, Teheran and Hyun-Jin Ryu began making things interesting. After he hit a rough patch in late June, the Cardinals shut him down for 13 days around the All-Star break so he could exhale and figure out a few things.
Miller took advantage of three bullpen sessions to smooth out some mechanical glitches, and threw six shutout innings against the Phillies in his first appearance after the break. But he continues to run up big early pitch counts, and he hasn't lasted seven innings since a June 1 outing against San Francisco. He's averaging 17.0 pitches per inning, which makes him the sixth least efficient starter in the National League.
"I get carried away with using my fastball too much, and I get a lot of foul balls that run up my pitch count," Miller said. "That hurts you at the start of the game. Earlier in the year I was all about trying to get guys out and put zeroes on the board, and I didn't care if I went five or nine. Now I'm focusing more pitch-by-pitch. I need to try to get guys out as quick as possible so I can pitch deeper into games and not wear out the bullpen."
Miller has a consistent workout regimen in place to maintain his strength. The day after a start, he concentrates on lower-body work in the weight room. That's followed by a side session in the bullpen, a day of upper-body work and an off day before he takes the mound again.
Based on Miller's workload so far this season, the Cardinals expect him to come in somewhere around 175 innings. The only way the Cardinals push the envelope is with a deep run in October.
"He is strong and understands what he needs to do to prepare for each start," general manager John Mozeliak said in an email. "We're comfortable with ."
Right now Adam Wainwright is the clear No. 1 in St. Louis, and it could be a scramble to see who lays claim to the spots behind him in a postseason rotation. Lance Lynn and Miller are probably the front-runners, but things could easily change depending on how Jake Westbrook and Joe Kelly pitch over the next seven weeks.
Julio Teheran, Braves (9-5, 2.96 ERA)
2011 workload: 144 2/3 IP with Triple-A Gwinnett and 19 2/3 innings in Atlanta
2012 workload: 131 IP with Gwinnett and 6 1/3 IP in Atlanta, plus 30 innings in winter ball
2013 workload: 137 IP with Braves
Highest pitch count: 123 pitches against Minnesota on May 20
Teheran, 22, spent several weeks in the Dominican Republic playing winter ball in November and December. The Braves were concerned that he was becoming more of a thrower and less of a pitcher, and they sent him to the Dominican with a mandate to tidy up his delivery and concentrate on throwing on more of a downhill plane.
Since Teheran signed with Atlanta out of his native Colombia at age 17, he's been subject to the general organizational guidelines. The Braves like their young starters to log 120-130 innings in Class A ball, and increase that workload in increments of about 20 innings in both Double-A and Triple-A.
"It's not that scientific," said general manager Frank Wren. "We just have a lot of experience. One of many things the Braves have done very well for a long, long time is develop young pitchers. Historically, we want them to develop over the course of four or five years or whatever their path is to the big leagues. We don't have any hard and fast rules. We just try to use common sense."
Teheran has enough of a foundation in place to maintain his current workload in August and September. Even if Atlanta makes it to the World Series and Teheran winds up throwing 215-220 innings, the Braves don't think that's too far beyond his comfort zone.
The Braves need Teheran to pitch and pitch well if they're planning to make an extended run in October. Tim Hudson is out for the year with an ankle injury, Brandon Beachy is just returning from Tommy John surgery, Kris Medlen hasn't resembled the pitcher who wowed everyone after the All-Star break in 2012 and Paul Maholm is on the disabled list with a sprained left wrist and a 1.39 WHIP. Amid all that flux, Teheran and Minor have emerged as the anchors of the Atlanta rotation.
The Braves have five off days in the next month, so they can slip in some extra downtime for Teheran between starts if necessary. They also lead the Nationals by 14 1/2 games in the NL East and have a 99.9 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to coolstandings.com. If any team has the luxury of backing off its starters to make sure they enter the playoffs rested and ready to go, it's Atlanta. That's a nice cushion to have in the aftermath of Operation Shutdown.