As the roving minor league pitching instructor for the Rays, former Senators pitcher Dick Bosman has helped groom some of the best pitching talent in the majors. I asked Bosman, a recent guest on the “Outta the Parkway” podcast show, to comment on the Nationals’ handling of Stephen Strasburg this season on our podcast show Friday night. His response provided one of the most well-informed perspectives on the issue I have heard or seen.
Bosman was probably the best arm the expansion Washington Senators ever sent to the mound. He was the team ace from 1969, when he won the American League ERA title with a 2.15 mark, until the team left for Texas in 1971.
Since the end of his career, Bosman has been a pitching coach for the Orioles, White Sox and Rangers. Most recently, he has presided over a Rays minor league development program that has produced Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson, James Shields and other prominent American League starting pitchers.
I asked Bosman specifically about the philosophy of the Rays in bringing along young pitchers like Hellickson, David Price and Moore, considered to be among the best pitching talent in the American League. Price is the oldest of the three at 26, but all three have arrived in the majors in much the same manner, gradually building their pitch counts, their innings totals and the number of breaking pitches they are allowed to throw as they move toward maturity.
Bosman stated that pitchers in high school or college are unlikely to have pitched any more than 100 innings before being drafted as a pro and that in their first year in professional baseball, at whatever level, they are unlikely to pitch much more than that. Then each year the organization will try to add no more than about “30 percent” to their prior year’s totals. for example, a pitcher like Moore, who was drafted out of high school, slowly progressed from his first full year at 20, when he threw 122 innings, to the majors at 23, when he threw 177 innings.
If you examine the innings totals for Hellickson, Moore and Price, you will see the evidence of exactly the kind of slow progression to which the Rays adhere, according to Bosman.
In every instance, Tampa Bay has worked the pitchers slowly up to a major league pitching load of 200 innings. Only Price achieved that level by 24. Strasburg turned 24 in July of this season. The maximum load that Strasburg had ever carried in his professional career was 123 innings in the year prior to his surgery. So according to Bosman, the most that Tampa might have increased Strasburg’s workload - keeping in mind the 30 percent limit - would have been to approximately 160 innings.
So regardless the concerns about a surgically repaired elbow, Strasburg’s normal progression would optimally have not been much more than what he pitched this season when he was shut down in early September having only logged 159 1/3 innings. The Rays violated this maxim with Price, who jumped from 128 innings at 23 to more than 200 innings at 24. Price has weathered the increase without any ill effects, but the Rays have been more careful with almost everyone else.
The other key assertion by Bosman is that, based on what he saw and heard about Strasburg before the shutdown, Strasburg was showing definite signs of fatigue.
“My sources, and some of those guys are pretty close to the action, say that those last 10 starts of his had pretty mixed results,” said Bosman. “Which tells me that there is some fatigue starting to creep in there and suddenly you have yourself a risk-reward situation on your hands where pitching this guy - yeah, we might get to the promised land, but we may lose a franchise pitcher along the way for years to come, or maybe forever.”
Bosman also raised other key insights into pitcher development. He asserted that the maximum pitch count for a developing pitcher would be 110 to 115 pitches in a ballgame - “every once in a while probably at the Triple-A level” - so that they are ready to pitch at the major league level if called upon by the parent organization.
Speaking about pitch counts and the number of innings, Bosman said, “We’re pretty strict about that and we’ve shut guys down toward the end of the year. We’ve done that with guys like Shields, Matt Moore and various other guys when the inning totals get a little high. Sometimes you come under a little scrutiny when you do that.”
I asked Bosman whether these practices were widespread in the business or restricted to small-market teams like Tampa Bay that have to guard their investment in high-profile players like Price. He agreed that they were pretty much industry-wide, regardless the situation. He opined that pitching is a scarce commodity regardless what team you are, small market team or not. Bosman said that there is even more stress being put on the kinds of pitches a prospect can throw at various levels of their progression.
“We start guys at 15 percent change-ups at the lower levels,” he offered. “We like to keep them at about 70 percent fastballs.”
We discussed Strasburg in that light, as well. I asked Bosman whether he had heard the criticism of the Nationals from within the industry for shutting their ace down in the heat of the pennant race and whether he agreed with it. He said he had certainly heard the criticism, but did not agree with it.
“Did it make sense to me that others would criticize them? Bosman said. “Look, we have learned a thing or two about how to rehab guys from Tommy John surgery. ... Dr. (James) Andrews is a friend of mine. He worked on this body, too, when my shoulder finally blew out. But he says all the time that how the guys rehab when they are coming back separates the ones who are really successful coming back from the ones who are not.”
So the bottom line for Bosman is that Strasburg is more likely to have a longer and more successful career for having had the Nationals take a careful, patient approach to his rehab.
We talked about relief pitching, about what he saw from the Nationals pitching staff in the final weeks of the season and what the effects of that breakdown will have on the young pitchers going forward. I asked him how well Nationals pitchers like Gio Gonzalez and Drew Storen will rebound for next season. Listen to the podcast here and enjoy some insights from someone who truly knows pitching from front to back.
Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released last June. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.