Bird Bytes: The strain of October innings

2014-01-07T06:00:00Z 2014-01-07T16:09:10Z Bird Bytes: The strain of October inningsBernie Miklasz bjmiklasz@post-dispatch.com stltoday.com

Over the past two seasons the Cardinals have thrown more innings than any pitching staff in the majors. That's what happens when your team makes consecutive extended postseason runs.

Including the postseasons, the Cardinals played 354 games in 2012 and 2013, an average of 177 per season. Their 30 postseason games over the past two years is six more than any American League team, and 14 more than any National League team.

That's a lot of extra work for the pitching staff, a small price to pay for success.

Over the weekend, I read a story in the Boston Herald that included comments from former MLB starter Orel Hershiser, who made 18 career postseason starts for the Dodgers and Indians.

Hershiser suggested that some Red Sox pitchers may feel the year-after effects of working so many innings while pushing the team through the postseason and past St. Louis and to the World Series championship.

“The effort level, the intensity, the taxing nature of every (postseason) pitch, it’s completely different,” Hershiser told the Herald. “Do you always feel it? I’m not sure, because you’re so amped up that the adrenaline is covering it up. When you find out is later the next day, the next week, even the next year.”

Hershiser's insights made me think about the Cardinals' situation.

Did another heavy postseason load leave their pitchers vulnerable going forward?

There are no absolutes here but for the most part the arms should be in good shape. And if there are issues, the Cardinals' rich depth provides flexibility and insurance.

The Cards have eight starters — at least— for five slots in the MLB rotation: Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn, Jaime Garcia, Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller, Carlos Martinez and Tyler Lyons.

If the Cardinals are smart about this — and theres's no reason to think they won't be — they'll have the luxury of closely monitoring innings and giving pitchers brief breaks to limit innings.

That essentially was the plan with rookie Wacha in 2013 and the strategy worked beautifully. Wacha was skipped over for some starts at Class AAA Memphis, kept his innings down, and had plenty of gas to power one of the most impressive postseason pitching performances in franchise history.

This is why I have no problem with GM John Mozeliak's obvious desire to hoard pitching. You just never know when you're going to need arms to come to the rescue.

Because of injuries to Jake Westbrook and Garcia, the Cardinals had to tap into their reserves in '13. They did so without hesitation, getting starts from 10 pitchers, including five rookies.

You want depth? This is depth: Wainwright, Lynn and Miller combined for 98 regular-season starts, but the other 64 starts were divvied up among seven other pitchers.

Even with all of the commotion, the Cardinals' rotation finished second in the majors in standard ERA (3.42) and fielding independent ERA (3.38) and ranked 13th in the bigs with 88 quality starts.

And the rotation depth made it possible for the staff to turn in a strong closing run. With the NL Central on the line, the Cardinals pulled away from the Pirates and Reds by going 17-5 in the final 22 games.

Over that stretch the starters went 13-3 with a 1.97 ERA. The rotation followed with a respectable 3.42 ERA in 17 postseason starts — that despite one of the NL's top rookie staters, Miller, seated in the bullpen. (As we wrote at the time, the team was concerned over Miller's season workload and resulting strain on his young arm.)

There aren't many teams that can afford to rest multiple starters or lose multiple starters to injury, plug in some replacements, and keep going without suffering a dramatic falloff.

In some cases, the so-called replacement is superior to the injured or weary pitcher. I think we'd all agree that ultimately, Wacha was an upgrade over Westbrook.

Now, back to that two-year workload ...

There are a couple of notable situations going forward. Let's take a look at all of the starters:

Wainwright: Including the postseason Wainwright has made 74 starts and pitched 490.1 innings over the past two seasons — second in the majors to Detroit's Justin Verlander. Wainwright is a horse, and the weight of all of those innings don't seem to be a problem for him. Wainwright did have a bumpy late-August and early September, but that was directly attributable to a delivery flaw that left him tipping his curveball to hitters. After correcting the tell, Wainwright went 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA in his final five regular-season starts, and pitched to a 2.57 ERA in five postseason starts. Still, there has to be at least some curiosity over what impact, if any, the jumbo two-year IP total will have on Wainwright in 2014.

Wacha: Combining his work at Memphis, St. Louis and the MLB postseason, he ended up pitching 180.1 innings. And at the risk of understatement, his postseason challenges were filled with pressure. We're talking about maximum-intensity pitching, the type that can drain any pitcher. (Ask Chris Carpenter about that.) The overall total of 180.1 IP was slightly more than the Cardinals had Wacha plotted for, and I think we'll see them be careful with him in 2014. Wacha is the prime candidate for the occasional skipped turn/breather in '14.

Lynn: Including the postseason, he pitched 406 innings over the past two years. That isn't a huge number. But for whatever reason — related to workload or not — Lynn did experience second-half blues for two consecutive seasons. I wonder if the Cardinals figure there's a reason to adjust and give Lynn a spot rest from time to time.

Garcia: because of shoulder difficulties that led to surgery, he's pitched only 179 innings over the past two years. Obviously, the innings count isn't a factor. And by all indications, he's healthy and good to go.

Miller: With Memphis included, Shelby has thrown 328 innings over the past two seasons. Nothing alarming there. However, there was a noticeable decline in Miller's stuff later in the summer '13 swelter. After averaging just under 10 strikeouts per nine innings in his first 21 starts, Miller's K rate fell to 6.4 strikeouts per nine innings in his final 10 starts. And his walk rate jumped from 2.6 per nine innings over the first 21 starts to 4 over his last 10. Miller finished with 173.1 innings. Internally the team believes Miller's stamina will increase in 2013, now that he's been through a full major-league cycle and has a better understanding of training, preparation and even the relatively simple matter of staying properly hydrated. Does this mean that the Cardinals will turn Miller loose and let him rack up Wainwright innings? Of course not. Needless to say, they'll be keeping an eye on Miller.

Kelly: Including his minor-league innings early in 2012, Kelly has pitched 332.2 innings over the past two seasons. There doesn't seem to be any basis for concern. If Kelly's stuff seemed more hittable late in the season, and into the playoffs, it was more of a matter of the peripherals catching up to him. Kelly's relatively low strikeout and swing-miss rates made him vulnerable, and these things tend to even out over a long season. The luck factor can turn on even the best of pitchers. 

Martinez: Only 109 combined minor-league, major-league and postseason innings in 2013. And only 104.1 minor-league innings in 2012. His live-wire arm was fresh enough to pitch Winter League ball this offseason.

Lyons: Including his time with the Cardinals, Lyons has averaged 153 innings over the past two seasons. He had 53 big-league innings in 2013. All good.

Of course, there's more to this than starting pitching.

You can't overlook the bullpen.

The extra innings can have a negative influence, especially for young pitchers used in many high-leverage situations: Example: I don't think there's any question that rookie lefty Kevin Siegrist flattened out some late in the season. Including the postseason, Siegrist struck out only three batters in nine innings over his final 14 appearances.

I'll be interested in seeing how Trevor Rosenthal holds up in his full-time closer role in 2014. He's a strong and powerful pitching machine, but Rosenthal was pushed hard in 2013. Including the postseason his 84 appearances were tied for second-most among MLB relievers. His innings pitched (87) ranked fifth. And only two relievers threw more pitches than Rosenthal, who doesn't exactly hold back. Not when he's firing rounds of 98 mph fastballs. 

But even if the Cardinals take a somewhat cautious approach with several pitchers, they have sufficient depth to cover their brief, scheduled shutdowns and more serious shortages. That's what good scouting, drafting, development and planning does for you. 

Thanks for reading …

— Bernie

Watch "Breakfast with Bernie," each weekday, sponsored by Papa John's, where you get 50 percent off regular price menu items the day after a Blues victory in which they score 3 goals. Use promo code "BLUES3" at checkout. 10% of purchase price benefits Siteman Cancer Center.

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Bernie Miklasz

You've read Bernie Miklasz in the Post-Dispatch since 1989. Now check out a new video "Breakfast with Bernie" every weekday morning. You'll also see more "Bernie Bytes" around the clock as he posts quick-hit commentaries on a variety of topics.

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