If someone can figure out how to predict both if a pitcher will break down and when it will happen if it does, they will become very rich. We’re not there yet, but sometimes you can see warning signs. For example, prior to the 2016 season, I was pretty concerned with Edinson Volquez following him throwing a career high in innings (by a lot) and throwing some very stressful innings in the postseason. Sure enough, he had a pretty horrible 2016 season and is now recovering from Tommy John surgery. That’s not to say that I should become very rich, though I wouldn’t mind, but rather that some indicators are more telling than others.
Truly, there are many ways to examine a pitcher’s workload and look for warning signs. Innings pitched is just one of them. This doesn’t mean that I’m worried this pitcher or that pitcher will get hurt solely because of innings pitched. There are plenty of other factors. But taking a look at the chart below showing all the pitchers currently on the 40-man roster with their percent change of innings from 2016 to 2017 along with their change from 2015 to 2017 is at the very least interesting and may even be telling.
|Pitcher||2015 IP||2016 IP||2017 IP||2017 vs. 2016||2017 vs. 2015|
So if you’re looking for red flags, there are a couple. Alexander’s usage in 2017 was significantly higher than in 2016. A lot of that was from him learning to deal with his diabetes in 2016, but even so, he had a pretty heavy workload comparatively and got in to a bunch more games than he has in the past few seasons. Andres Machado made a huge leap, and I imagine he’ll be monitored pretty closely, but if he’s used on the big league roster, it’ll likely be as a reliever. And finally, you see that name at the bottom? That Zimmer fella? Yeah, he’s an injury risk too, but let’s be real. It’s not the innings.
If we’re looking for a silver lining in the Royals 2017 season, it’s that all the injuries helped to keep some innings down to avoid a big jump that might lead to issues in 2018. That’s ignoring the idea that injuries can often beget other injuries, but this is a silver lining we’re talking about here, so we can live in a world of rainbows and puppies. Moral victories and such. Guys like Duffy, Herrera, Kennedy and Soria all are relatively rested, innings-wise, heading into the 2018 season.
If there are concerns on the staff, I’d say they belong to Alexander, who I mentioned before along with Junis and Hammel.
I’ll start with Junis.
As a prospect, he’s expected to see increases from year to year, and did jump from both his 2015 total and his 2016 total during 2017. The only reason I’m even slightly concerned about it is that he’s had a similar jump before and then took a step back the following season. He went from 136 innings in 2014 to the 159.2 noted above in 2015 and then went backwards to 149. After an increase of 20 innings this past season, the Royals are hoping that he will make another leap rather than falling back. I imagine they’ll be pretty focused on keeping his workload manageable, but I would think they are looking/hoping for about 180-185 innings from him. That means if he makes 30 starts, he can average six innings and be just fine. He throws an awful lot of sliders, which may or may not be a warning sign, but he’s just someone to keep an eye on in 2018, considering how important he likely will be to the team and how important he might be beyond 2018 as well.
Hammel’s issue for me is more about the total workload than anything. While he did set a career high in innings pitched this past season, it was pretty much in line with most of his other seasons. The issue is that he always seems to fade as seasons go on. He threw more pitches in 2017 than he has in any season in his career, and a lot of them seemed to be high stress with all the runners on base from all the hits he allowed. Many of the underlying stats show that Hammel wasn’t all that different a pitcher than he’d been in previous seasons, but the high ERA was problematic. For a guy who doesn’t seem to get better with use, the last few seasons don’t make my terribly optimistic about him in 2018. The good news is that with just one year remaining on his deal, I don’t foresee the Royals letting him be much worse for too long. They’ve stuck with guys for far too long before, but I’m optimistic they wouldn’t here.
As I said before, innings increases don’t always portend trouble or even injury, but sometimes they do. It’s never a bad thing to be on the lookout for potential warning signs for trouble, and I found it interesting that only seven of the 17 pitchers on the 40-man roster before the additions of Eric Stout and Tim Hill had an increase from 2016 to 2017 and only a few of them were more than a slight change. Does that mean the Royals will be healthier in 2018? Not necessarily. But it sure would be nice if it did.