There has been a lot of discussion on the site recently about all of the pitching injuries the Blue Jays have sustained recently, so I thought it might be interesting to take a look at what could be causing them. In one of the comments to a recent fanpost, it was suggested that the Jays should start implementing "The Joba Rules" for some of the young arms, in order to keep their innings and pitch counts down. Will Carroll thinks that it may be J.P. Ricciardi's fault, not based on pitch counts or too many innings, but on some sort of "organizational philosophy," which I guess means that he doesn't automatically discount pitchers who have a non-zero probability of being hit by line drives or sneezing. Many folks have suggested that Brad Arnsberg or Cito Gaston are to blame as well.
In addition to nagging injuries, like Ricky Romero's strained oblique and Scott Richmond's shoulder tendinits, the Jays have seen several pitchers go down with long-term injuries in the last year or so. The serious injuries that Jays arms have sustained include both ligament-replacement or Tommy John surgery (Jesse Litsch, Shaun Marcum) and labrum fraying and tearing (Dustin McGowan and Casey Janssen). Looking farther back, even Roy Halladay has lost his share of playing time to injury, having suffered from numerous ailments ranging from a "tired throwing arm" in 2004 to a broken leg to appendicitis and finally a pulled groin this season. In part one of this two-part series, we will look at Dustin McGowan and Casey Janssen, who are recovering from shoulder injuries.
Well, each pitcher should really be evaluated separately on a case-by-case basis, so let's look at them individually. Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated is of the opinion that an increase in workload of 30 innings is generally an acceptable amount amongst young starting pitchers, but an increase of more than 30 innings from one year to the next could spell serious trouble. Verducci's success-rate of pitchers that he projects as injury risks (under 25 years old and an increase in workload of 30+ innings) is quite good, but only if you do not limit his injury projection to a pitcher's arm and shoulder. Personally, I don't put much stock in an increase in workload causing an hip injury or slipping on ice, but that's just me.
Since Verducci had projected Dustin McGowan as a potential injury concern, let's start with him:
McGowan's innings pitched jumped signifcantly from 2006 to 2007, increasing from a total of 111 1/3 IP to 181 2/3 IP. This is, of course, a drastic increase and should raise eyebrows, particularly for a pitcher who has had Tommy John surgery before. McGowan did, however, finish the season quite strongly in '07. In August, McGowan struck out 30 and walked 9 over 32 1/3 innings. He didn't show any signs of trouble in September, either, striking out 41 and walking 13 over 40 1/3 innings. I'm sure I'm not the only one who remembers the gem he pitched against the Red Sox, when he struck out nine and didn't walk any, a game in which he threw a then-career-high 122 pitches. He was pretty ineffective afterwards in his last two times out, including in his next start when he threw 112 pitches over just 4 1/3 innings.
A prevailing theory on pitcher abuse relates to the number of pitches thrown over three starts (the idea being that a pitcher is not fully recovered each time out) and McGowan threw 333, 326 and 311 pitches over different two-week spans in 2007. He laboured a bit less in 2008, though he did throw 125 pitches in one game and 323 pitches over a span of three starts. A lot of people criticized John Gibbons for leaving his starters in too long (except Ted Lillly) and I'd say that McGowan's injury probably has something to do with a mishandling on the current Kansas City Royals' bench coach's part. While McGowan seemed strong late in 2007, he has not exactly been a picture (or pitcher, if you will) of perfect health throughout his career and it would have been wiser to treat him with kid-gloves, particularly as his potentially excellent career seemed like it was just taking off. Even if the increase in workload did not cause the labrum injury, it was excessively risky.
Casey Janssen, who begins his rehab tonight, split time as a starter between the minors (very effective) and majors (somewhat effective) in 2006, pitching a total of 136 2/3 innings. In 2007, he was moved to the bullpen, where he pitched quite effectively (3.89 FIP), though he was probably helped by an unsustainable 5.3% HR/Flyball rate. In 2007, Janssen pitched 72 2/3 innings, a pretty significant reduction from his total in 2006, but he did make 70 appearances, 11th most in the American League. Janssen had an excellent spring training in 2008 and was all set to re-enter the starting rotation when it was announced that he had torn his labrum shortly before the season began.
As far as misuse goes, there are two main possible reasons for Janssen's injury -- he was either overworked in his 70 appearances in 2007 (unlikely in my opinion, as starting is more stressful) or he had trouble readjusting to a starting role after a season in the bullpen (more likely in my opinion). Now, even if the second case is true, I am not of the opinion that it should be blamed on Jays management -- there are precedents for career-starters spending some time in the bullpen and then being moved back into the rotation and I don't think the Jays treated this situation any differently than I would have. Pitchers get injured sometimes -- that's just part of being a pitcher, the human shoulder is not made to throw a baseball -- some things are unavoidable.
So keep an eye out for Part 2, in which we'll look at Shaun Marcum and Jesse Litsch, our pitchers recovering from Tommy John surgery.