Cole Hamels and the Verducci Effect

The big news out of Philadelphia is that Cole Hamels is going to step up and pitch out of order on Sunday night to face the Mets.  The Phillies are going to skip the struggling Kyle Kendrick so that Hamels can face Johan Santana in a matchup of aces.  With the Phillies trailing the Mets by 3 games, this game could be huge.  Much of the Philadelphia fanbase considered this an easy decision -- obviously Hamels has to pitch Sunday night.

But, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that, yes, this is an easy decision, but that the decision should be not to pitch him on Sunday night.  In fact, the Phillies should seriously consider giving him a bit more rest in September.  Why?  It's easy: the Verducci effect.

Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus has given this name to a phenomenon first written about by Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci.  Earlier this year, Verducci wrote:  "The unofficial industry standard is that no young pitcher should throw more than 30 more innings than he did the previous season. It's a general rule of thumb, and one I've been tracking for about a decade. When teams violate the incremental safeguard, it's amazing how often they pay for it."  The teams don't pay for it that year; rather, they pay for it the next year when the pitcher is injured or seriously underperforming.

The problem for the Phillies is this:  Cole Hamels, arguably the organization's most prized asset as an ace 24-year-old left-hander still in his pre-free agent years, is very close to reaching that magical 30 inning increase.  And it's only September 4.

Here's how it breaks down.  In 2006, in the minors and majors, Hamels pitched just over 180 innings of professional baseball.  Last year, with the All-Star game and the post-season, Hamels pitched just over 190 innings.  So far, so good.

But this year, Hamels is already at 203 innings, and we have 22 games to go.  Provided a normal workload, Hamels will have another 4 or 5 starts, putting him into the 230 to 240 inning range.  That would be an increase of 40 or 50 innings over last year.  And that's dangerous.

The Phillies are obviously in a bind.  In professional sports, if you're in contention, it's much easier to shoot for winning this year than to focus on future years.  But, in baseball, a young ace is rare to come by.  A lefty one even rarer.  If the Phillies flush Hamels' future down the drain this September, the franchise will suffer, let alone Cole Hamels' individual future.

Unfortunately, there's little chance the team goes back on its decision now, so maybe all I can offer is a word of caution.  If the team is 5 games back going into Sunday night's game, then maybe it would be wise to give Hamels a day or two off.  If the team is 1 game back, then maybe it would be good to pitch him, but have him on a short leash, especially if the team takes a lead.  I realize that's unlikely going against Santana, but protecting Hamels' arm should be a priority.  For the Phillies and for Cole Hamels.

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