By Matt Spiegel-
(CBS) In one of the developing, most interesting stories of the 2012 local baseball season, people are picking their sides.
When it comes to Chris Sale’s usage, there are The Protectors and The Abusers.
He’s a healthy, dominant 23-year-old starting pitcher, a key cog in a surprisingly viable playoff contender. How should, and how will, the White Sox balance the immediate need to get the most out of him with ensuring a long vibrant career?
So often, a great young arm like this becomes what scouts call a “firework.” He arrives suddenly; sparkling and awesome. He burns bright for a short time and then fizzles away. We’ve certainly seen our fair share in this town; one of them just retired to much fanfare. Had Kerry Wood fulfilled a larger portion of what his baseball destiny seemed to be after his debut season, then Dusty Baker wouldn’t be derided as the managerial ruination of pitchers that he is.
So everyone is understandably wary of Sale going the Wood path. Or the Mark Prior path. Or the Stephen Strasburg path (though he’s back, better than ever a year later). Or the Edinson Volquez path (Dusty, we’re looking in your direction, again).
You can glance around the league right now and wonder if Tim Lincecum is a “firework.“ His velocity is down across the board. In 2008-2011, Lincecum averaged 107.5 pitches per start, second in MLB only to Justin Verlander.
So, The Protectors are out in full force. I understand the thought process. I get that way about a guy like Strasburg coming off surgery, or about a guy like Jake Peavy in his first flash of sustained health since joining the catastrophe of the year club. But when it comes to a healthy 23-year-old, what’s the right plan?
The Abusers say that if you’re healthy, you go out and you pitch. Old schoolers like Hawk Harrelson say it, as he did to Hit and Run on Sunday. Nolan Ryan and the Texas Rangers famously now say it, and all of baseball is watching their results. Ryan and his staff stress conditioning, and refuse to be overly cautious.
In general, the trend of pitch count protection may be shifting. Two of the best pitching prospects in the minors are Arizona’s Trevor Bauer and the Orioles’ Dylan Bundy, both of whom were raised on intensive throwing regimen designed to let them throw even more. The idea is simply that; throw to train, and you’ll be trained to throw. Pitch counts are looked at as unfortunate, necessary evils that sprouted to compensate for the lack of throwing as young arms matured.
What if Sale’s arm is just like the #1 “comp” always made for him? Randy Johnson was able to repeat his very similar mechanics every time out, and his arm stayed healthy. He was on the disabled list 10 times in his long career, but it was always due to his back and knees. Four knee operations and three back surgeries is how his body rebelled, demanding care.
Johnson’s success though, has one big early career trend to note. He did not throw more than 200 innings in a season for the first time until he was 25. It’s considered a magic age, when the arm is finally fully developed, and perhaps beyond abuse. See SI’s Tom Verducci’s “The Year After” effect.
By the way, you know who else did not throw more than 200 innings in a season until he was 25? Chief Abuser Nolan Ryan.
So, where are the White Sox in this Sale divide? Are they an Abuser or a Protector? Robin Ventura told us last week that they’ve “talked about” limitations on his season, but have not done so with him directly. Ventura wants Sale to “own his starts,” and not look over his shoulder wondering if he’ll be allowed to work as deep into a game as he thinks he could.
Here’s what I know. If you as an organization do indeed have some arbitrary number of pitches or innings in mind as a cap for Chris Sale’s season, you probably don’t do what the Sox did on Saturday.
He’d thrown 94 pitches through a dominant seven innings. The Sox had a 6-0 lead. And here comes Sale for the eighth. Is that a time to save some bullets in the gun? You bet; I’d have Protected him.
I’m often a militant centrist when it comes to baseball issues like this, as nothing in this game is truly black and white. Exceptions are the rule. But with Sale, call me a Protector. I’d not have let him pitch that eighth inning on Saturday. Now, that doesn’t mean I’d straight up shut him down in August when he hits some number written on a wall in Kenny Williams’ office, but it does mean I save an inning here or there when I can, and maybe skip a start every once in a while. If Sale had come up with some forward thinking akin to what Bauer and Bundy had done, I’d shift more the other way.
Sometimes a fireworks show can last a lot longer than you expect. Why not help make that happen?
Listen to Matt Spiegel on 670 The Score weekdays from 9am–1pm CT on The McNeil & Spiegel Show and Sundays from 9am–Noon CT on Hit And Run.