The Houston Astros are on the verge of doing something no National League team has done in almost 25 years. They promoted 19-year old Jordan Lyles to Round Rock, where he sits a step away from the big leagues. No teenage pitcher has debuted in the National League since Doc Gooden did it in 1984. While GM Ed Wade didn't rule out the possibility of Lyles making the majors this season, he didn't exactly endorse it:
"There's always a chance," Wade said. "In a perfect world, we don't have any more need for starting pitching at the big league level. I'd just like to see him go out every fifth day whether it's here or AAA or the big leagues, and just take the same approach."
I'm fine with Lyles being promoted a level. There may be a slight difference in competition levels that may lead to more stress in his starts going from the Texas League to the Pacific Coast League, but the difference is probably negligible and manageable by the coaching staff.
My biggest concern is with his innings. Round Rock's season ends just about the same time that Corpus Christi's does, so Lyles will not play more games because of this move. If the Astros call him up after he makes four starts with the Express, those innings become more important.
See, Lyles is 17 innings away from matching his 2009 total. He figures to get about 25-30 more innings before the end to the minor league season. Add another 25 innings on top of that if he makes the majors and you're talking at least a 40 inning jump over last season. For a young arm who's at an increased risk for injury.
There's a fairly robust amount of research that's been done on the issue in the past. Things like Pitcher Abuse Points (PAP), the Verducci Effect and other methods have been invented for studying how and why young pitchers get injured. Most people now believe that prevention goes beyond inning totals and pitch counts. You have to know how many high-stress pitches a guy is throwing.
Being a geeky baseball fan, this is exactly the kind of thing that I worried about constantly. Was that start high stress? What's happening to his arm? Should we be worried by those pitch counts? What is the capitol of Assyria?
Or something like that. I worried about this right up until I read this entry from 'Cats Corner, a MLBlog written by two staffers from the Astros short-season affiliate in the New York-Penn League, the Tri-City ValleyCats. One of the authors talked about a very advanced system for charting pitch counts and identifying these high-stress pitches. It looks for velocity drop during an inning, looks at pitch count jumps and many other tell-tale signs of fatigue. In short, it's exactly the kind of information we'd ask for if we could evaluate a pitcher's risk factors.
And the Astros were already doing it.
One of the things we forget sometimes is there are very smart people running baseball front offices. Guys like Ed Wade, Bobby Heck and Ricky Bennett are much smarter than me, which is why they're making bank and I'm writing on the internet. I fall into the trap sometimes of thinking I know just as much as they do, or that I could do their jobs as well. Every fan does the same thing. But, things like this really bring home the fact that there's a ton about the game we don't know. There are tons of things they do that we can't know. Things like this system for tracking pitcher fatigue.
That's why I'm not worried about Lyles. Yes, he's young and yes, the Astros should be cautious. I think the are watching closely. Just because they haven't told the media about the "Jordan Rules" or set some arbitrary innings limits doesn't mean they don't know what they're doing.