Overuse of college pitchers a concern
Workloads often increase for arms during NCAA postseason
North Carolina right-hander Alex White, Arizona State ace Mike Leake and Florida closer Billy Bullock are all on the precipice of having their lives change dramatically by becoming early picks in Tuesday's First-Year Player Draft.
But first they'll be relied on heavily to help their teams advance from this weekend's Super Regionals to the College World Series.
For the baseball fan, it can be a lot of fun to watch college baseball this time of year, with excitement and drama filling regional play across the country. And for the scout preparing for the Draft, the college posteason can be a great last look at potential draftees. But it can also be a time to reach for the extra-strength Tums, especially when it comes to pitching.
Every year it seems there are examples of pitchers who are overused in attempts to advance in the NCAA postseason. Sometimes it works, sometimes it backfires. Often, many in Major League Baseball would claim, it leads to future injury. This year, there were some particularly egregious examples that undoubtedly made Draft decision-makers cringe:
The 25-inning game between Texas and Boston College was epic, to be sure, but watching Texas senior closer Austin Wood throw 169 pitches was painful. BC's closer Mike Belfiorie, however, is part of the Class of 2009, a lefty reliever who could go as high as the second round. He threw 9 2/3 innings of shutout ball, throwing 129 pitches. Prior to the outing, he'd appeared in 24 games and thrown a total of 38 2/3 innings.
Last Friday, Mike Minor threw 134 pitches in a 5-4 loss against Middle Tennessee. Then he came back and started on Monday against Louisville.
Kansas State's A.J. Morris threw 141 pitches in a complete-game win over Rice on Saturday, albeit on a little extra rest.
Mizzou's Kyle Gibson only threw 102 pitches over eight innings in a win over Monmouth on Saturday, but he's been pitching with what he's described as "forearm tightness" for the past few weeks.
Oklahoma State's Tyler Lyons threw 107 pitches over 5 2/3 innings in a win agianst Alabama on Friday, then threw 113 more on Monday in a loss to Clemson.
Even high schoolers got into the act, with a pair of pitchers both throwing more than 200 pitches each in a recent playoff game.
When the college playoffs meet the Draft season, it can be seen as two worlds colliding and pitching usage often serves as the catalyst for such a collision. When painting with a broad stroke, one side has a "win at all costs right now" philosophy while the other will cry "abuse" at the very sign of inflated pitch counts or throwing on short rest.
"Yeah, we have concerns," Twins vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff said. "There are examples in history that those types of events have caused harm to the eventual potential career of a player. It's pitching, guys who have thrown way past normal workload. There's a lot of science involved now. I don't think there's any possible way anyone can believe that's good for an arm. That falls under abuse."
Don't take Radcliff for an extremist on this issue, because he's not. He's fair and measured and sees both sides of it, even if he's always worried about overuse this time of year.
"Some of my colleagues would throw these guys under the bus, saying, 'They killed the kid for their own personal benefit.'" Radcliff said. "I don't see it that way. I don't think they're doing it for those reasons.
"It's two-sided. We have our interest, college coaches have their interest. I don't believe they maliciously pitch or throw guys."
There are those who would disagree with Radcliff's assessment, who feel that college coaches, particularly those in bigger programs, don't make decisions with the player's future interests at heart, that the only thing that matters is winning at any cost.
There are undoubtedly coaches who don't care what Major League teams and scouts think, who, without casting judgment one way or the other, feel that the only thing to worry about is winning in the here and now. That broad stroke of generalization gets in the way again, with some high-powered coaches understanding fully what's at stake.
"I do understand their logic," Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. "If I'm spending a lot of money, I'd want to know I'm getting a fresh guy. I don't want a guy who's going to break down."
In his seven years at the helm of Vandy's baseball program, Corbin has not developed a reputation as a guy who's been overly harsh with his arms from year to year. He takes pride in the fact that his pitchers haven't had arm trouble while at the Tennessee school all while producing a trio of left-handed first-rounders: Jeremy Sowers (No. 6 overall, 2004), David Price (No. 1 overall, 2007) and now Minor, who is looking like a top 10 pick this year.
Corbin, according to his recollection, has only brought back his ace on short rest twice. Once was with Price in 2007, when he was brought in to close a game a few days after starting. The second was this past weekend with Minor. It's not something, he says, he does cavalierly or without plenty of thought.
"You have to look in the mirror and ask, are you doing right by him, by the program, by us, because you know you will answer questions about it," Corbin said. "I can look at myself in the mirror and know I can take the heat for a one-time deal. I think scouts in our area, they know where we come from."
Corbin claims he wouldn't do it with just anyone. Only a pitcher with the right body type to handle a one-time thing like that would be considered. That's why Minor and Price did it once, but Sowers never did. He wouldn't consider bringing a maximum effort or a fastball-curveball type of pitcher back, either. Even with Minor, who has fluid mechanics and an easy delivery, it wasn't a decision he arrived at easily. It was Minor himself who really set things in motion.
"It wasn't even thinking of starting him," Corbin said. "He came up to us at breakfast [on Monday] and said he wanted to do it. I could've said no. But you're also a coach, this is your best guy. I was a little apprehensive at first. It was a situation when it's win or go home. You like the confidence factor when your No. 1 guy says he wants to go.
"I made the decision that if he wanted the ball, I would do it, but I'd keep it within a 40-50 pitch parameter. He threw 68 pitches. It was good enough for me, Mike and the program, but maybe not for those outside looking in who think it's a win-at-all-costs mentality. I can't keep them from thinking that."
And that's exactly what some people do think on the MLB side of things, that the short-term goals of a college coach and program completely cloud the decision-making process. A kid's future career isn't considered, the most cynical say, with only winning and job security entering into the equation.
"I don't believe that goes into the thinking of an Augie Garrido (Texas's coach), or any coach that's been at a regional or College World Series. I don't think that ever enters into a guy's thinking," Radcliff said about the job security line of thinking. "I just don't think they factor in the reality of today's knowledge that you can't do that to an arm. It doesn't hold up.
"You can't talk about it without throwing someone uder the bus. You're immediately indicting somebody here, I don't mean to do that, but absolutely we have concerns."
Corbin, for one, is quick to say that his player's future is a big determing factor when making a decision like this. Had Vanderbilt won that Monday contest, he would have given Minor an extra day rest before having him start in Super Regional play.
"Absolutely, it enters your thinking quite a bit," he said. "If you do something like htat, you have to be very conservative on when they throw again. I was very mindful of that. As a coach, I pick my spots. I wouldn't do that on a consistent basis, nor would I ever do it."
This give-and-take isn't likely to ever change. Corbin and his coaching colleagues do have a job to do, trying to get to Omaha and the College World Series. Major League scouts, obviously, want to see their future investments protected. While that will always be at odds, it's important that in the case of Radcliff and Corbin, at least, there is some understanding of the opposing side in the debate.
That doesn't mean much can be done about it. While Radcliff wouldn't mind seeing some kind of usage limits, such as what is imposed in high-profile international events, it's not something he sees happening soon. So he and scouts around baseball will continue to mentally prepare for this time of year, knowing there will be some cringe-inducing pitching performances, and being ready to scout those players accordingly.
"If Minor were playing this week, we'd have a scout or two there to see how he reacted," Radcliff said. "We'd have to see what the impact was on his next outing. It's a severe concern. There are too many instances where these one-time events have impacted the career of a player."
MLB.com will offer live coverage and analysis of the entire First-Year Player Draft on June 9-11 at 6 p.m. ET. The MLB Network will broadcast the first round on the evening of June 9 from its Studio 42 in Secaucus, N.J., and those 32 selections also will be simulcast live on MLB.com.
Beginning with the 33rd pick, up-to-the-minute on-air coverage from the remaining rounds will shift exclusively to MLB.com/Live, where host Vinny Micucci will be joined by MLB.com Draft expert Jonathan Mayo and Major League Scouting Bureau director Frank Marcos.
Once the first night is done, the Draft will continue with rounds 4-30, via conference call from MLB Headquarters in New York, at noon ET on Wednesday, June 10. Rounds 31-50 will be on Thursday, June 11, starting at 11:30 a.m.
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.