The Astros’ bold idea to save their pitchers

Houston Astros' Mark Appel throws in the first inning of a spring exhibition baseball game against Rojos del Aguila de Veracruz. (Bob Levey/AP)
April 21, 2014, 5:32 PM

Big-league elbows continue to be shredded at a distressing pace in this spring of attrition, with Ivan Nova poised to join the alarmingly long list of hurlers to already undergo ligament-replacement surgery in 2014. The New York Yankees right-hander was due to have further exams on his partially torn ulnar collateral ligament before opting to become the 15th pitcher to have the operation thus far, and the rapid succession of injuries has theories on root causes flying all over the place.

A new culprit du jour gaining steam is overwork during the crucial physical development period in high school. While there’s surely some merit to that, the reality is there’s no single, catch-all transgression that if corrected would end the scourge of arm injuries that only seems to worsen each season.

If only fixing the problem was so simple.

That’s why amid this frantic search for answers, the way the Houston Astros are handling their minor-league pitching is certainly worth watching. While a handful of clubs, the Toronto Blue Jays included, employ a piggyback system for young prospects at the lower levels of their organization, the Astros are for the second straight season using tandem starters – eight pitchers working in pairs in a four-game rotation – at each of their farm teams.

They are believed to be the first team to ever use such an approach at double-A and triple-A, a break from convention fitting for a franchise that under general manager Jeff Luhnow has made straying from industry norms a part of its DNA. A tweak this year is that their pitchers will get a five or six day break worked into various points of their season, the first possibly a month or so in.

At this point a big-league application of the tandem system – similar but different than the four-man rotation the Colorado Rockies employed for part of the 2012 season – isn’t imminent for the big-league Astros. Yet given the rash of devastating pitching injuries this year, teams may eventually be forced to find creative ways to divide the roughly 1,450 innings they must throw each regular season.

“It’s primarily a developmental tool but I wouldn’t rule out somebody, even us, considering it someday,” Luhnow says in a recent interview. “The way Bo Porter has managed our staff, essentially we had two of the spots in our rotation (Jared Cosart and Lucas Harrell) as tandems, we always had a backup starter (Jerome Williams and Brad Peacock) to back up the first guy.

“Would that ever be formalized to the point where we would announce it’s a tandem? I don’t know. Colorado tried something different. Even though this industry does tend to stick to its traditions, just look at how many teams are shifting in the infield these days. Somebody starts it, they have some success, and ultimately other teams are forced to copy or they fall behind.”

The Astros have since adjusted their rotation by designating Harrell for assignment while giving Peacock a start, but the more pitchers they move up the chain in the tandem system, the more realistic chances of success with it at the big-league level become.

Still, right now that’s not the end for Luhnow, who is building a stable of well-regarded prospects in one of baseball’s most promising systems.

A part of his thinking is that the eight-man tandems give his player-development staff an opportunity to evaluate more pitchers in a starter’s role. But in limiting the workload to five innings or 75 pitches for the front-end starter and four innings for the back-end hurler (the pitchers alternate roles), there is also a protective element.

“Especially early in the year,” says Luhnow. “Both our double-A and triple-A teams, they will at some point this season switch back to a traditional five or six man rotation but early in the year, it prevents managers from having their pitchers go 100, 110, 120 pitches. I believe that with the rash of injuries we’re seeing this year early in the season, being overly cautious early in the year is probably a benefit to the organization.

“All of our starters so far, knock on wood, have been healthy, last year they were healthy and so I do think that’s a benefit.”

Luhnow, after conducting research on the approach employed by the Reds and Yankees, first implemented the tandem system in the lower levels of the St. Louis Cardinals system when he was the club’s farm director. That experience sold him on it.

Other teams have since mimicked the piggyback system. The Blue Jays, for instance, have used it in grooming several of their top pitching prospects, including Aaron Sanchez and the traded Noah Syndergaard and Justin Nicolino, as a way to gradually build up their pitching capacity. At single-A Lansing this season, promising youngsters Chase DeJong and Adonis Cardona plus Jairo Labourt and Alberto Tirado are paired together.

The Blue Jays also tend to follow a conservative plan that maxes out yearly inning increases for young pitchers at roughly 25 percent more than the previous season. The Astros differ on that front.

“For me there’s no fixed rule on percentage increase one year over the next because we don’t really know how much these guys throw,” says Luhnow. “All of their up-and-downs, all of their bullpens, all of their pre-game work, all of their sides, their off-season work, no one keeps track of that accurately. Just to count the number of in-game innings is not really a good determination of how much wear and tear their arm got the year before.

“Secondly, small changes in how they feel are more important than an aggregate number of innings the year before. If a guy has no health issues, is feeling great, his velocity is good, he’s effective, he’s getting everything done, there’s no reason why you can’t stretch it beyond the traditional guidelines.”

Beyond the potential benefits in health and evaluation, the Astros also see the tandem system as a motivator for their pitchers to become smarter on the mound.

“If the guy that starts can’t get the win until he gets through the fifth inning, and he’s got a pitch limit on getting through the fifth inning, he’s no longer thinking, ‘I’m going to strike this guy out using seven pitches,’” explains Luhnow. “He’s thinking, ‘I’m going to get this guy to ground out using one pitch so I don’t use up my pitches so I can get to that fifth inning and get that W.’ We have seen pitchers becoming more efficient in reaction to the fact they have these limitations.”

Later in the season, the Astros free the reins on pitchers that have earned the extra work, allowing those capable of delivering seven or eight strong the opportunity to do just that.

The reality, however, is that few pitchers can do that on a consistent basis at the big-league level, and as the attrition rate on big-league arms sends chills through front offices around the game, broader rethinks on how innings get divided are bound to take place.

It’s not like the current methods of guarding against arm injuries are proving to be particularly effective. Perhaps it’s time for some newer ideas to take their place.

SCOUTING MORGAN: Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos took in the Canadian junior national team’s 9-5 loss to the Detroit Tigers’ rookie league team last week, focusing in on Gareth Morgan.

The Toronto-born slugger is eligible for the June draft and his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame and raw power has led to talk of him being selected in the early rounds of the draft. Typically, general managers will only watch players in person if they’re being considered as a relatively high pick.

The junior national team finished its spring tour of big-league rookie teams 0-7. The squad reconvenes on May 21 for its annual Dominican Republic tour and will play a series against the under-18 team in Cuba in July ahead of the world junior qualification tournament in Lagos de Moreno, Mexico September 5-14. The next IBAF under-18
World Cup is set for Koshein, Japan in September 2015.

STEPPING UP: Teammates Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy are among the 14 big-league pitchers to already have Tommy John surgery this year and their injuries were expected to crush the Atlanta Braves rotation.

Instead the late spring additions of Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang, after he was cut by the Cleveland Indians, have more than helped cover the gap so far.

Santana is 2-0 with a 0.86 ERA in three starts with a WHIP of 0.81 over 21 innings, while Harang is 3-1 with a 0.70 ERA in four starts with 0.82 WHIP in 25.2 innings. Harang threw seven no-hit innings against the New York Mets on Friday before he was pulled at 121 pitches. He had walked six.

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