When Jim Tracy was the manager of the Dodgers (2001-2006), I had respect for him. Sure, he had his faults, but he always played the best players on the team at their positions. He started Dave Roberts over an aging Marquis Grissom; he gave a lot of time to Adrian Beltre; he plugged in Alex Cora and Cesar Izturis in the middle even though they were well below-average offensively (it turns out it was a great decision because of both players’ defense; Cora and Izturis both had three-year positive UZR/150s in their time as Dodgers).
Yes. Some complained about his over-use of match-ups and other things, but those were minor. Overall, he was a very good manager except for one big thing.
Tracy abused starting pitchers. Kind of a lot.
In 2002, Odalis Perez had a magnificent season: 222 innings pitched, 76 runs allowed (74 ER and a 3.00 ERA, in case you’re wondering), 155 Ks to 38 BBs and a 3.45 xFIP. He had a 4.08 K/BB ratio and a 1.54 BB/9 ratio. All in all, it was a tremendous year.
But it was also 100 innings more than he had pitched the previous year.
Understand that I’m not in favor of throwing any pitcher to the wolves. But when you have a young, talented pitcher with great years ahead of him, you have to make sure he’s going to be great later on down the road. One brilliant year is not better than ten years of dominance.
His 2002 season was slightly flukish thanks to a low BABIP, but he was never able to be better than average again. He pitched 3,000 pitches that year. The following years, this is how he did:
2003: 185 IP / 3.35 xFIP / 3.07 K/BB / ~2800 pitches
2004: 196 IP / 3.76 xFIP / 2.91 K/BB / ~2800 pitches
2005: 108 IP / 3.93 xFIP / 2.64 K/BB / ~1600 pitches
2006: 126 IP / 4.29 xFIP / 2.61 K/BB / ~2100 pitches
2007: 137 IP / 5.20 xFIP / 1.28 K/BB / ~2300 pitches
2008: 158 IP / 4.30 xFIP / 2.16 K/BB / ~2700 pitches
You can see from his pitch type, too, that he averaged a heater in the 90s and lost a mile per hour the next year and almost year after that until he retired at the age of 31.
Odalis wasn’t the only example of Tracy’s labor abuse, either. Kevin Brown, in 2003, pitched 3,200 pitches after pitching a little more than 1,000 the year before and retired in 2005 after two more lackluster years. In 2006, Tracy’s first year as manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, he made young gun Zach Duke throw 214 innings after 84 in the majors (and 100 in the minors) the year prior. There were a few times when Tracy was responsible with a pitcher, but more often than not, he didn’t seem to show the care that he should have.
But that’s behind Tracy. Now we’re in 2010. Tracy is the manager of the Colorado Rockies. And the Rockies have a young ace named Ubaldo Jimenez.
I’ve had a crush on Ubaldo for a while, since I first interviewed him in 2006. He’s a sweet man, gargantuanly tall, with an incredible fastball and some very, very good secondary stuff. I really wish he was signed as a Dodger.
In 2009, he jumped from 3,350 pitches in 34 starts (99 pitches per game) to 3,570 pitches in 33 starts (108). A pretty big jump, but within reasonable limits.
So far in 2010, Ubaldo Jimenez has thrown 456 pitches in four starts. That’s an average of 115.5 pitches per game.
This is something to worry about. Let’s say Tracy keeps up this pace, puts the Uballer on the mound for 115 pitches per appearance. No pitcher has thrown that many pitches per game started since pitch counts were first recorded in 2002. Livan Hernandez was the closest at 114.5 (he broke the 4,000 pitch barrier) in 2005, his age 30 season. Likewise, Randy Johnson hit 114 per game in his age 38 season.
Hernandez was never the same and Randy barely topped 100 innings the next year.
Last year, Ubaldo averaged 108 pitches per game. Other players that pitched more than 108 pitches per game and then never returned to that year’s level of production/spent the next years in the hospital: Mark Prior, Jason Schmidt, Woody Williams, Bronson Arroyo, Russ Ortiz. Joel Piniero and Javier Vazquez also broke the 108 plane. Though they both had fantastic 2009 seasons, they both accomplished the 108 marks in 2003. That’s five years of their careers down the drain.
The jury is still out on Justin Verlander, Carlos Zambrano and Tim Lincecum, though I guess things are looking good for Verlander and Lincecum.
If you want to point to something that’s encouraging, well, the pitchers who seem to have the best rate of recovery on that list have tremendous fastballs: Randy Johnson, Justin Verlander, Tim Lincecum. Though Verlander and Tiny Tim have only recently accomplished the feats, they’ve also been very good in their time. Ubaldo has the fastest fastball in the majors.
A couple of nights ago, Ubaldo pitched a heck of a game through seven innings and had reached about 110 or so pitches. And then he was brought back in. There’s no sense to be made of a decision like that. The Rockies have a good shot at the division this year, but their target years are probably 2011 to 2015. The Giants probably won’t contend until they get some hitting, the Dodgers’ farm system is depleted and their on-field talent is worse–and will be worse–than the Rockies’ for the foreseeable future, the D-backs have some talent, but not enough and the Pads are out at least until 2013. Why are you bending Ubaldo to see if he can break? Yes, you want those innings. If you can get 250 innings of 3.00 xFIP, you’d want that more than 200 innings of 3.00 xFIP and 50 innings of 5.00 xFIP. But at what point does that cost too much?
I hope Ubaldo’s career isn’t at risk here.
[Edit] — Fangraphs only had pitch counts going back to 2002, I figured that was when pitch counts first became a sortable stat. Turns out B-R has pitch counts going back to 2000. And, funnily enough, Livan Hernandez and Randy Johnson still top the list, although in different years. Here’s the correct top of the list for most pitches per apperance:
Randy Johnson, 2001: 116.7
Livan Hernandez, 2000: 116.0
Randy Johnson, 2000: 114.9
So correction: Ubaldo would be third-highest of all-time.