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Pitchers, Injuries and Overuse

   by Al McMordie - 06/26/2007

When wagering on baseball, pay extra attention to pitchers who are coming off injury stints and ones off starts where they threw a lot of pitches. A few weeks ago Curt Schilling pitched a complete game at Oakland, one where he lost a no-hit bid with two outs in the ninth. He wanted it, of course, and really put forth the extra effort in the eighth and ninth to try to get the no-no.

That’s a lot to ask of a 40-year old pitcher, even one with his credentials. Schilling was then bombed his next two starts, despite being a favorite of -140 and -275! He then went on the 15-day DL after taking an MRI. No damage was found, but it’s reasonable to assume that turning it up a notch while going nine innings had something to do with it. It was Schilling’s first complete game in three years.

A pitcher being overused, throwing a lot of pitches, or taking it up a notch like Schilling did is important for sports bettors to pay close attention to, especially with older pitchers. Guys like Schilling, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux and Roger Clemens are all in their 40s and are essentially 6 or 7 inning hurlers, throwing usually 90-105 pitches. Anything altering that routine can tax the 40-year old arm and have consequences the next start.

Another factor that is similar is when pitchers come off the DL or make their first start in a while. Pitchers are creatures of habit and throwing every 5 days is important for many reasons. Arm strength needs to be built up to maintain velocity and throwing regularly to real hitters is essential because of control. Finding the corners of the strike zone is not easy. It takes regular practice and a disruption to the routine can be detrimental. Even too much rest can be bad as it can disrupt a pitcher’s control.

We see this often with pitchers coming off arm trouble, such as with the Marlins and Josh Johnson. Johnson was an ace last season, a young guy with dominating stuff. Johnson was 12-7 with a 3.10 ERA in his 2006 rookie season. However, he had shoulder trouble in spring training and has been rehabbing since. He recently made his first two starts of the season and has gotten pounded. Since returning from an elbow injury, Johnson’s ERA is 14.85, and he has surrendered 15 runs, 11 earned, in 6 2/3 innings.

For the second consecutive start since coming off the disabled list, Johnson was battered. The Twins tagged him for eight hits and seven runs in three innings. “The slider wasn't very good,'' said Johnson, who gave up nine hits and four earned runs in 3 2/3 innings in his season debut against the White Sox. “It was inconsistency -- that's pretty much what it comes down to. It's still early for me, but I still have to go out there and get outs.''

Even a guy like Roger Clemens hasn’t pitched well. He didn’t have arm trouble, but spent weeks trying to get ready to pitch and joined the Yankees in midseason. He has not been sharp, which is not surprising for a guy soon to be 45, and has an ERA of 4.86. The strikeouts have been there, but not the velocity: 19 hits allowed in 17 innings, 9 runs. More important for bettors to understand, Clemens is 0-2 his last two starts despite being a favorite of -180 and -185.

But it can even happen to young pitchers. Angels righty Jered Weaver was a dominating pitcher last season, winning his first nine decisions as a rookie and finished 11-2 with a 2.56 ERA in 19 starts. He didn’t make his first start this season until April 17. He came off the disabled list after recovering from biceps tendinitis in his throwing arm. He did not pitch for the Angels all spring. So what happened in his first two starts of 2007? Losses of 4-1 and 9-5, allowing 11 runs in 7 innings.

Weaver threw 70 pitches in 1 2/3 innings and retired only five of the 14 batters he faced in his second start after coming off the disabled list. The right-hander was charged with seven runs -- five earned -- and seven hits. He said after that loss, "Everything feels good. I don't blame anything on what happened because of anything physical. I just couldn't get any of my off-speed pitches over for strikes, and it showed. You're not going to have a very good night when you don't have your secondary stuff working for you."
See? Throwing to major league hitters takes more than rest and arm strength. It takes timing, locating your pitches, finding a groove. Even the mental aspect comes into play, trying to figure out what the batter thinks is coming, and then trying to trick him. There is a lot to the art of pitching. Being sharp, healthy and on a regular routine is usually needed for a pitcher to be at their best. And those that aren’t can be overvalued by oddsmakers. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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