Jordan Wicks – Picture by Todd Johnson
Today marks the end of the first half of the minor league season for South Bend and Myrtle Beach. Tennessee will wrap up their first half this Sunday. With that in mind, I looked up some statistics to see where some pictures are at her. I looked at ERA, strikeouts, walk rates, and a whole bunch of other indicators including innings pitched. Much to my surprise, with 66 games to go, there are very few pitchers in the Cubs system who are on pace to throw 100 innings. The Cubs had just ten arms who had 50 innings as of Wednesday morning. Javier Assad and Richard Gallardo lead the system with a little over 60. Chris Clarke was third with 57 and Luis Devers was fourth with 55.1. Rounding out the top five was none other than Cam Sanders.
Pre-pandemic season norms for pitchers were 100 innings at Low-A, 120 innings for High-A, and somewhere between 120 and 140 above for Tennessee and Iowa. The lower levels totals were a bit different as they used to be on six-man rotations. In 2021, they went to five-man rotations which means we could see a few young arms break 100 innings. We might even see several shut down for a start or two in the second half to keep them from getting too many innings. All of Myrtle Beach’s starting rotation save Luke Little could be in that boat.
The norm is that a pitcher’s innings should not increase more than 20% a year as they go through their development.
Let’s look at this in a different light.
For Major League pitchers, the norm now is that they throw between 160 and 200 innings a year. Very few pitchers will get to close 200 innings while several will be below 160, depending on injuries performance. The goal in developing pitchers at the minor league level to get them as close as you can to 140 innings a year by the time they reach the majors. That is always easier said than done.
But this year, the Cubs are still being extra cautious in terms of their arms.
My hope is that in the second half, we will see pitchers being given the green light to throw more than 75 pitches a game at both levels of class A and more than 90 pitches at Double-A and Triple-A.
What we’ve seen in the first half is an abundance of caution. That caution has changed how pitching really works in the minors. We’ve seen an outbreak of piggyback relievers who throw two or three innings twice a week. The regular starters are coming out after throwing 60 to 70 pitches in Myrtle Beach and South Bend.
Is it now time to begin bumping those numbers up?
There is some sense of urgency to increasing their workload. This season is halfway over. If the goal is to get starting pitchers arms up to 80 to 100 innings or 120 to 140 innings, then it’s time to increase their workload. To quote Montgomery Burns, it’s time to “Release the Hounds!”
Again, easier said than done.
The question of the day is asking if workloads are increased, are those extra pitches going to be effective pitches?
One thing we don’t want to see is an arm throwing 80 pitches just to throw 80 pitches. You want them all to be productive and advancing their development. I would rather have 70 effective pitches than see an additional 10 where there’s two or three runs scored. That doesn’t help anybody. Still, I’d like to see DJ Herz throw 80-85 pitches and get into the sixth inning on a regular basis. The same for Jordan Wicks. I’d like to see Tyler Schlaffer and Porter Hodge get to 75-80 pitches in the second half to get deep into games while still being effective.
Every minor league affiliate is tracking data throughout the game. They can see when velocity goes down, they can see where the spin rate declines, and that is a normal occurrence. A pitcher can still be effective if they’re hitting their spots and getting good movement. It’s when those things stop being effective that the pitcher should come out.
Then again, the way baseball is choreographed today, even in the minors, none of these thoughts may matter.
There is nothing wrong with what they’ve done this spring and early summer. The change to throwing more innings should come next year. I am sure the Cubs are just being cautious this spring/summer in trying to build those arms back up after missing 2020. It’s almost as if this is a two-year process. Next year, most pitchers should be back at those 80 to 140 inning markers, if not some this year. I think those days are coming sooner than later.
We may start to see certain players get more latitude than others in the second half, depending on their performance. The older pitchers, who are more physically settled may get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to increasing workloads.
Next spring in 2023, however, the Cubs should definitely release the hounds. It will be time.