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A Colbert Report: is Hamels Working Too Hard?

In Wednesday night's 6-2 win over Milwaukee, which brought the Phils back to .500 for the first time since the season began, Cole Hamels threw six perfect innings, struck out 11 in all, and ran his record to 6-1 while lowering his ERA to 3.30. If there was any cause to temper the celebration, though, it was King Cole's fairly high pitch count: 114, Hamels' third straight outing of 110 or more pitches and seventh in nine starts this season.

It's not hard to understand why manager Charlie Manuel is working Hamels hard: the 23 year-old lefty has been superb, and Manuel's non-Brett Myers bullpen options have been mostly putrid. But given both Cole's injury history and the disturbingly high incidence of young pitchers who sooner or later find themselves on the operating table, any number above 110 is going to raise eyebrows.

But do we have real cause for concern, or is this simply more Philanoia? In hopes of putting Hamels and his pitch count in context, I took a look at how hard 15 of his counterparts have worked through the first quarter or so of the 2007 season.

No comparison is perfect, but this bunch represents a pretty good peer group. All are in their 20s, all are either off to great starts in '07 or have shown the talent to dominate as Hamels has. The first ten are left-handers, and include perhaps the very best comps: Marlins lefty Scott Olsen doesn't have Cole's raw stuff, but he's the same age, has the same build and offers a similar repertoire. Similarly, Tampa ace Scott Kazmir--taken just ahead of Hamels in 2002 draft, and hyped even more heavily through a short but dominant minor-league career--is a month younger than Hamels, weighs about the same, and throws a similar assortment of pitches. Interestingly, Kazmir has an even higher pitches-per-start average than Hamels.

The second five are right-handers, and include some of the workhorses of the early going this season: Boston import Daisuke Matsuzaka, known for his complete-game prowess in Japan, and Reds behemoth Aaron Harang, who's thrown two 120-pitch games already.

"Rep" is repertoire--what each pitcher throws, with "F"=Fastball, "Ch"=Changeup, "Cu"=Curveball, "Sl"=Slider, and "O"=Other. (Yes, that's Matsuzaka only.)  "Pctg" is the how often he throws each--for example, "F/Sl/Ch" followed by "65/25/10" means the pitcher throws 65 percent fastballs, 25 percent sliders, and 10 percent changeups. "STRESS" is the Baseball Prospectus metric for pitcher abuse. I won't claim to understand exactly what it means, but higher is worse.

Special thanks to TGP poster FTN414 for conceptual and research help with this.

Name Ht/Wt Age Rep Pctg Avg PC/G Max Stress
Cole Hamels 6'4/175 23 F/Ch/Cu 60/29/11 107.4 118 15
Scott Kazmir 6'1/170 23 F/Sl/Ch 64/22/14 108.4 117 11
C.C. Sabathia 6'7/250 26 F/Sl/Ch/Cu 66/15/14/5 103.9 113 7
Erik Bedard 6'1/180 28 F/Cu/Ch/Sl 68/15/10/7 100.4 110 2
Johan Santana 6'0/175 28 F/Ch/Sl 59/25/16 99.2 114 4
Scott Olsen 6'4/170 23 F/Ch/Sl 64/20/16 93.4 117 7
Oliver Perez 6'3/160 25 F/Sl/Cu/Ch 69/19/7/5 94.2 120 13
Tom Gorzelanny 6'3/215 24 F/Ch/Sl/Cu 64/15/12/9 97.4 109 1
Dontrelle Willis 6'4/240 25 F/Sl/Ch 74/14/11 102.3 111 3
Francisco Liriano 6'2/185 22 F/Sl/Ch 49/34/17 89.4 111 1
Jeff Francis 6'5/200 26 F/Cu/Ch/Sl 65/17/14/3 104.1 118 9
Josh Beckett 6'5/220 27 F/Cu/Ch 71/18/10 102.3 106 0
Daisuke Matsuzaka 6'0/185 26 F/Sl/Cu/Ch/O 55/21/13/6/6 108.6 124 24
Jake Peavy 6'1/180 25 F/Sl/Ch/Cu 62/24/13/2 106.5 117 10
Daniel Cabrera 6'7/260 25 F/Sl/Cu/Ch 71/20/8/1 109.1 122 21
Aaron Harang 6'7/275 29 F/Sl/Cu/Ch 67/20/8/5 108.6 120 30

While this analysis hopefully is helpful, it certainly has limitations as far as giving us insight into how big a risk the Phils are running with Hamels' workload. Here are four of them:

  • Every pitcher is different, and freaks are real. It should be impossible for Billy Wagner to throw 100 miles per hour, but he does it. Livan Hernandez bore up under workloads that put all these guys to shame: in 1998, at age 23, he averaged 119 pitches per game for the 54-108 Marlins, and in five other seasons he's averaged over 112 pitches per start. He's still piling up innings as he advances into his mid-30s. Perhaps his large frame, with dimensions similar to Sabathia and Harang (as well as Cubs righty Carlos Zambrano, who evidently has survived Dusty Baker's depradations where teammates Mark Prior and Kerry Wood succumbed) explains the ability to bear the burden of many 120-plus pitch outings.
  • Sometimes caution doesn't save you. It's nearly impossible to criticize the Twins for their handling of Francisco Liriano last season. The phenom started the year in the Minnesota bullpen; in 16 starts, he cracked the 100-pitch mark just five times, and only one of those was more than 105. But he's out for the whole year. Somewhat along the same lines, Scott Mathieson at the big league level in 2006 rarely hung around long enough to rack up big pitch counts; he's on the shelf nonetheless.
  • Mileage unknown. Most of these guys, having come up as top pitchers, presumably weren't burned out in the minors or (a much higher risk) college or earlier. But that doesn't mean they were treated gently. The wear and tear accumulates: Dontrelle Willis hasn't been worked particularly hard through the first quarter of 2007, but last season he had the fifth highest STRESS score of any pitcher in the big leagues.
  • High effort versus low effort. All 110-pitch efforts are not equal. A guy who totals that number throwing eight innings of two-hit shutout ball against the Nationals with a big lead is apt to work less hard than someone else who struggles through five and a third innings against the Red Sox and is smacked around for eight hits, four walks and six runs. There's no way to get at just how hard the guy worked solely from numbers in a table.

Conclusion: Hamels has been put through his paces. He's not way out beyond the rest of this crew, but his relatively high STRESS level (he's t-10th in MLB in that category) and pitches per game are causes for concern. Of course, pitchers have endured heavier workloads than him and lived to tell about it. And on the high-effort scale, Hamels probably gains by virtue of not having been in trouble too many innings this season: his WHIP of 1.2 attests to a lot of three up, three down. By contrast, Bedard has allowed 1.31 runners per inning to reach, Kazmir is at 1.44, and Olsen is way up at 1.64. Only the Great Santana and Oliver Perez, both at 1.12, and Tom Gorzelanny, at 1.09, have lower WHIPs among the lefty starters. (Josh Beckett, Jake Peavy and, by a tiny fraction, Dice-K have allowed fewer runners per inning as well.)

With luck, Charlie Manuel's fear of his own bullpen will soon ease: were there another reliable setup arm or two, it's doubtful Hamels would have pitched the eighth inning against Milwaukee on Wednesday--meaning he would have departed after 7 having thrown about 102 pitches rather than 114. Such seemingly small differences define the territory between ease and worry.

In the end, we have to take it on faith that the Phillies know what they've got here and won't unduly put it at risk. It should be some consolation that the next arm Manuel slags will be his first: compared to predecessors Terry Francona and Larry Bowa, much less legendary shredders like Dusty Baker, he's been a model of restraint.