August 23, 2010

Kevin Slowey’s injury opens rotation spot for Nick Blackburn’s return

There was no shortage of at-the-ballpark booing and talk radio-inspired emoting, but I didn't hear many coherent, logical arguments against the Twins pulling Kevin Slowey despite seven no-hit innings last week. And whatever cases that were made have probably gone silent now that Slowey has been placed on the disabled list with further arm problems following his poor follow-up outing Saturday.

It wasn't so much that the Twins wouldn't let him go from the 106 pitches he'd thrown through seven no-hit innings to the 130 or so pitches it likely would've taken to complete the no-hitter, it was that because Slowey had missed his previous start with elbow pain they never really wanted him throwing even 106 pitches in the first place. And now it looks like they were right. Or maybe Slowey would have aggravated the injury throwing 75 pitches anyway. Who knows.

Whatever the case, he's on the DL with an arm injury for the third time in three years and Nick Blackburn is back in the rotation following a month-long demotion to Triple-A. Blackburn fared well in four starts at Rochester, posting a 2.49 ERA and .229 opponents' batting average in 22 innings while inducing 65 percent ground balls, but his 13-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 4.12 FIP were significantly less confidence-inspiring.

Blackburn also rejoins the rotation with a very difficult matchup against the first-place Rangers and their top-five offense in hitter-friendly Texas. In terms of offense at home, the Yankees are the only team in the league with a higher OPS or more runs than the Rangers, so it's hardly an ideal way to ease someone back into the rotation. In addition to Blackburn's return the Twins recalled Anthony Slama, who's needed after Ron Mahay hurt his shoulder on a fielding play.

Dating back to last season Mahay has quietly done some nice work for the Twins with a 3.14 ERA, .244 opponents' batting average, and 33-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 43 innings, and while losing a situational left-hander certainly isn't going to wreck the bullpen it does hurt a bit more with fellow lefty Jose Mijares already out for a month after knee surgery. Glen Perkins is now the bullpen's sole southpaw and he's actually worse against left-handed hitters.

Obviously the circumstances are unfortunate, but I'm happy to see Slama getting another shot so quickly. He was anything but impressive in his first taste of the majors, but struggling in five innings to begin a career means almost nothing and his track record in the minors is certainly dominant enough to warrant an extended opportunity. He doesn't address the lack of lefties, but Ron Gardenhire did some of his best bullpen managing when not focused on handedness.

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Here are the starting pitching matchups for the four-game series in Texas that begins tonight:

Monday: Blackburn (104 IP, 5.09 xFIP) vs. Rich Harden (74 IP, 5.83 xFIP)

Tuesday: Carl Pavano (174 IP, 3.91 xFIP) vs. Colby Lewis (155 IP, 3.86 xFIP)

Wednesday: Brian Duensing (84 IP, 3.99 xFIP) vs. C.J. Wilson (158 IP, 4.29 xFIP)

Thursday: Francisco Liriano (151 IP, 3.00 xFIP) vs. Cliff Lee (175 IP, 3.27 xFIP)

Remarkably similar matchups in terms of the pitchers' effectiveness and handedness. Righties versus righties, lefties versus lefties. Aces against aces, No. 2 starters against No. 2 starters, guys just back from Triple-A against guys just back from Triple-A. And the Thursday night bout is a doozy, with (according to xFIP, at least) the two best starters in the league facing off. And hopefully Liriano is over the "tired arm" period that got him pushed back to Thursday.

  • Kurt E.

    It is absolutely ridiculous that Slowey has all these arm problems. We’re talking about a guy that has great mechanics and throws no harder then 92. There is no reason that he should be injured and it is very annoying! The end.

  • UGH

    Aaron – you are using this Slowey getting hurt his next outing to prove your point, when actually the total opposite is true.

    For someone who is so obsessed with data and numbers, you have grabbed onto this pitch count is gospel thing whole-heartedly without any hard evidence that it means anything.

    You try to link Slowey’s 106 pitches to him getting injured, like this proves Gardy made the right call. The opposite is true. Why aren’t people raving at Gardy for being so irresponsible in letting Slowey pitch 106 pitches and then he gets hurt his next start. Gardy clearly got caught up in the no-hitter moment and let his starter pitch too long last week.

    I absolutely HATE this pitch count bs that everyone currently treats as gospel.

    It will help to shut up people like me forever if you (or anyone else) simply posts some data that shows both long-term and short-term consequences of letting a pitcher pitch too many pitches in games.

    Otherwise it just seems like people reinforcing one another around an arbitrary pitch number. WHY is pitching over 106 pitches bad for Slowey (or anyone else)?? And if pitching 106 pitches is bad, then why isn’t throwing 86 or 66 pitches bad? Why didn’t Gardy pull him after 50 pitches if he was so concerned with his elbow?

    And you even seem to get this by saying he might have been hurt throwing 75 pitches anyway. THAT is the point – nobody knows. So why grab an arbitrary number and treat it like some scientifically proven fact if this is all just guesswork anyways.

  • David

    1) I’m just curious, because I didn’t pay as much attention to these sorts of things in the past, but when did Gardy manage his bullpen without too much focus on handedness? I’m assuming that was back around 2002 – 2006 when we had the best bullpen in the universe. Of course, our personnel was better then that it has been . . .

    2) Didn’t realize Duensing had a sub-4 xFIP. Wow.

  • David

    For someone who is so obsessed with data and numbers, you have grabbed onto this pitch count is gospel thing whole-heartedly without any hard evidence that it means anything.

    I can’t speak for AG, but my own response to this is that I don’t believe in the “absoluteness” of the 100 pitch count (i.e. all pitchers max out at 100 pitches, all the time), but I do believe the the relative truth of the 100 pitch count. That is to say, because pitchers are conditioned from class A on to pitch only 100 innings, pushing them beyond that can have negative results because they aren’t trained to throw more. Sure, the organization should maybe ditch the 100 pitch count philosophy, or just adhere to it less strictly, but given that they do abide by it, the big league arms simply are used to that ceiling.

    It will help to shut up people like me forever if you (or anyone else) simply posts some data that shows both long-term and short-term consequences of letting a pitcher pitch too many pitches in games.

    Twins Geek actually did a three-part series on pitch counts a while back, and it was very informative. He discussed it recently at http://www.twinsgeek.blogspot.com

  • UGH

    David – thank you for the link! I missed that three-part series and will definitely check it out.

    I do agree with your conditioning point. Because they are told that 100 pitches is all that should be expected and because they are conditioned as such, then an increase on a % basis will decrease their effectiveness. That makes sense.

    But in the Slowey case, this does not apply. If we are talking effectiveness and he’s thrown 7 no-hit innings (or with Baker and Duensing where they had thrown 7 or 8 shout out innings and still get pulled), he’s still effective – no way around that. So the conditioning point, on that particular day, I don’t think applies.

    If we are talking injury, then I stick to my original point that 106 is still arbitrary, and AG seems to agree in a round-about way.

  • brownie

    Where’s Neshek?

  • http://www.jmichaelward.com Jeremy

    My reaction to Slowey’s injury was the opposite as well, although only given the benefit of hindsight. He got hurt in his next start, so we might as well have let him go for the no-hitter…

  • http://www.jmichaelward.com Jeremy

    Ugh, “we”. My apologies. Gardenhire should have…

  • Trevor

    UGH Your way off base.

    There isnt a magical number to when a player gets hurt pitch wise. If a pitcher is used pitching 100 pitches or less his arm will tire at that point. It’s like being used to running 5 miles every week and pushing it to 8 once. Yes you can run 8 miles but those last 3 you will be more tired than normal.

    When pitchers tire they fall off their mechanics and throw more with the arm and use less of the body as well as lose velocity. They see that MPH dropping on the radar gun and throw harder to compensate and put more strain on the arm and are in a situation where they are much more likely to tweak or injure something at the tired point.

    100 pitches isnt the magic number, its the most common number because most pitchers are not good enough to get through the lineup on the 3rd to 4th times through. As the hitters see then they see the pitches better as well as pitches tending to not have as much movement latter in the game. It takes the average pitcher 3 times through the lineup to get to 100 pitches. At which point it’s much better to bring in a new look & fresh arm.

    Is that really that difficult to understand?

  • brian

    Wow. Still beating the Slowey horse? Eesh. Who cares?

    If we want to talk about pitch counts, look at two at-bats in Sunday’s game. Cuddyer’s was near heroic in the fifth inning, as Weaver’s pitch count was climbing for the game, and for the inning. At pitch number 9, Cuddyer wins the battle and seals the game.

    Crain, with a lot left in the tank, was able to get Matsui in pitch number 25 in the 8th before he Cuddyered us.

    Fatigue has nothing to do with inaccuracy/effectiveness? Yawn.

  • Mark

    “THAT is the point – nobody knows. ”

    UGH – You’re right, nobody knows. So why not at least attempt to find a solution that would error on the conservative side? It seems that your choice would be to allow these guys to pitch every game until they hit a wall with no regard to workload. There is just too much money invested in these guys over too many years to not be very consevative with how they are handled. If teams can get 7 innings and/or 106 effective pitches out of their starters they should take it. Maybe Kevin Slowey is the type of guy who can handle 130 pitches a game but is finding out really worth the downside if he’s not?

    I’ve read Aaron for almost 8 years now and I never remember him advocating for any sort of absolute # of pithes for anyone. Nor have I heard anyone in favor of pitch counts touting any one number as gospel truth. It makes perfect sense to me that teams should pay attention to pitch counts though. Just because they can’t be exact doesn’t mean they should be ignored.

  • http://kkvb.blogspot.com Karl

    ***Non Slowey or Pitch Count Item***

    Did you see the bat speed Valencia showed on that upper deck shot last night?

    Working on the assumption that he is less a power hitter than Kubel or Thome, who both hit a ball a ton last night and got a 390 foot flyout and a double to show for it – wouldn’t it be nice if in addition to above average major league defense, arm strength and contact hitting – that Valencia might someday develop 15-18 hr/year power?

    That would be like Evan Longoria territory.

  • UGH

    Trevor – I more or less agree with you. You should have read my second comment.

    And it’s “you’re”. Is that really that difficult to understand?

  • UGH

    brian – there are a number of things about your post that make no sense.

    1. If you don’t care about Slowey and pitch counts, why are you reading the comments for a post where the first two paragraphs are about Slowey and pitch counts. And then why would you respond to comments on that blog post.

    2. Are you trying to say Cuddy got a double because Weaver was fatigued? Then why did the Twins go 1-2-3 against him the next inning? And Cuddy doubled on Weaver’s 96th pitch. Is 96 too many now? What are you talking about?

    3. Crain is a reliever and has nothing to do with Slowey or Weaver.

  • UGH

    Mark – I pretty much agree with this, but you’re not answering the question about why 100 pitches was chosen as the cut-off.

    1. If I’m right and nobody knows, then how do you define what is falling on the “conservative” side? Like Aaron, you are proving my exact point. Slowey got hurt right away, but did so after throwing around the amount of pitches it is currently acceptable for a pitcher to throw in his previous start.

    But because Slowey was kept around the magical number of pitches that is acceptable, then nobody blames Gardy. Had he thrown 30 more pitches what would have happened? Had he thrown 30 less pitches what would have happened? Nobody knows. So why pick a number and make that ok?

    2. I agree that lots of money is invested so teams should be careful, but I have not seen anything that says that if you throw this or that amount of pitches it makes you much more or less likely to get hurt.

    3. Again, you say why not get 7 innings/106 pitches and call it a day. You still don’t answer the question: why 106 pitches? Why not 86 pitches and be happy? Why not take Slowey out in the 5th or 6th? Why push him through the 7th and 106 pitches? And if 106 is ok, then why not 136?

    Nobody has an answer they all just have come to a number somewhere in the middle. It’s illogical.

    4. Never said there was a specific number that is gospel. Said the general idea is gospel.

    I say let a guy pitch until either he says he is too tired or he starts getting hit. Neither happened with Slowey.

  • brian

    The thrust of AG’s first two paragraphs corraled the pitch count discussion, which is covered exhaustively in a previous post, and 80% of the rest of the post went on to discuss other new subjects. You know, language such as “Who knows. Whatever the case…” In the spirit of moving on, I was trying to change the subject to pitch count per at-bat. I guess the record won’t stop skipping for a while. Maybe people feel cheated. I don’t get it. Karl’s post about Valencia is nice.

  • UGH

    hahahahahahahahahaha.

    I love that I’m watching Ron Washington have to make this same call.

    So funny.

    How does Bert say pitch counts don’t matter in one sentence and then say he has to pull Harden so he’s ok in September in the next sentence?

    And then Dick says Gardy had to protect Slowey and so he made the right decision last week. Wait, didn’t Slowey get hurt the next time out? How the hell did he protect Slowey?

    I love it . . .

  • brian

    Harden pulled with a no hitter. The storm begins again.

  • brian

    I hope Texas gets a combined no-hitter so people can move on.

  • Son of Shane Mack

    I don’t really have a side in the Slowey-pitch count thing. However, if Slowey doesn’t have a no-hitter going, then he’s probably yanked around 70-80 pitches, given his recent arm history.

    Would this have prevented the injury? Did throwing 106 pitches on a day on which he was coming off a missed started due to arm issues cause this injury? If he had only thrown 50 pitches that day, could he have continued injury-free? Would this have simply postponed the injury – which was inevitable at this point? Maybe none of this made any difference at all.

    Honestly, there’s no way for us to know the answer to any of these question. They’re good questions, but sadly, there are few concrete answers.

  • Mark

    “3. Again, you say why not get 7 innings/106 pitches and call it a day. You still don’t answer the question: why 106 pitches? Why not 86 pitches and be happy? Why not take Slowey out in the 5th or 6th? Why push him through the 7th and 106 pitches? And if 106 is ok, then why not 136?”

    Because Slowy is a starter and has been trained to throw about 100 pitches. Again, pitch counts are not exact so 100ish pitches is somewhat arbitrary. Obviously, the difference between 86 and 106 pitches is a 1-2 more innings per game strain on your bullpen so any number selected needs to account for both the starter’s well being and how that will dictate how many innings your relievers throw. It is a balacing act that baseball is in the early stages of.

    “I say let a guy pitch until either he says he is too tired or he starts getting hit. Neither happened with Slowey.”

    I don’t understand what there is to gain by letting pitchers throw until they run out of gas. A pitcher will say he is too tired long after he actually is. That almost certainly would result in a breakdown of their mechanics which is one of the biggest factors in injuries. Setting a bar that you can be reasonably sure they can reach at full speed is a far better option, IMO.