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Tampa Bay Rays keep a tight rein on their starting pitchers

Rays starters Scott Kazmir, front, and James Shields watch Sunday’s game from the dugout — 
as they will throughout spring training. The team’s philosophy: bring the starters along slowly.

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

Rays starters Scott Kazmir, front, and James Shields watch Sunday’s game from the dugout — as they will throughout spring training. The team’s philosophy: bring the starters along slowly.

PORT CHARLOTTE — In case you're keeping track, the pitch count for James Shields this spring is zero. Which puts him on the same pace as Scott Kazmir. Ditto for Matt Garza and Andy Sonnanstine.

They haven't thrown a competitive pitch in the first five days of spring training, and they won't throw one in the next five, either. Coddle is a word you might have heard a year ago. Pamper and baby are a couple of others.

These days, you might want to call it prudent. Or maybe an investment.

Collectively, the starting rotation is the most important group on the roster, and that's exactly how the Rays have always treated their starters. They have shut them down at the end of seasons. They have meticulously controlled their pitch counts. They have kept Kazmir out of the World Baseball Classic and will probably keep David Price in Triple A to begin the season.

Pitching is too expensive and too fragile for a low-revenue team to consider taking the chance of blowing out shoulders or elbows. That made sense when the Rays were in last place, and it should not change now that they're contenders.

"We're not just going to blow up our whole philosophy because we won last year. Part of the reason we won last year is because we had that philosophy," manager Joe Maddon said. "I want these guys to be our guys for a long period of time. I know sometimes it runs counter to the conventional wisdom of the last 50 years or so … but that does not bother me."

Maddon has heard it before. From the bleachers when he takes Kazmir out before the end of the fifth inning and from reporters when an early hook turns out poorly. Nothing wrong with that. A certain generation of fans might recall Catfish Hunter throwing 30 complete games in 1975 or Robin Roberts pitching 346 innings in 1953. To them, a manager who counts pitches is overprotective and a starter who doesn't reach the ninth inning is soft.

But they forget how Kerry Wood's elbow ligament ripped apart. They forget how, after Billy Martin overused Rick Langford, Mike Norris, Matt Keough, Steve McCatty and Brian Kingman in the early 1980s, their careers were essentially ruined. They forget Mark Fidrych, Gary Nolan, Steve Busby, Dave Boswell and countless others whose arms fell apart at young ages.

And they might forget that Tampa Bay had one of the most durable pitching rotations of 2008. For all the talk of how they were conservative with their young pitchers, the Rays got more innings out of their top five starters (926.6) than every team in the majors except the White Sox (949.3) and the Angels (953.6).

Maybe this was simply because the Rays have young pitchers without a lot of wear and tear on their arms. Maybe it has something to do with the trainers and the strength and conditioning staff, as pitching coach Jim Hickey suggests. Maybe it has to do with Hickey's throwing program, considering his pitchers in Houston were more durable than most.

Or maybe the way Tampa Bay has studied the relationship between arm injuries and overuse has been a factor.

The Rays have been careful building up the arm strength of their young pitchers, trying to limit them to no more than a 20 percent increase in innings from one season to the next. (That means you can expect Price to throw from 150 to 160 innings between Durham and Tampa Bay this season.)

They have been careful not to let pitch counts get too much above 110 per outing. Every team monitors pitch counts, but few are as careful as the Rays.

For instance, do you know how many times a major-league starter has thrown at least 120 pitches in a game during the past two seasons? If you guessed 150, you would be correct. Do you know how many times a Rays pitcher has reached 120 pitches? If you said zero, you would be correct again.

"Pitchers get hurt, or are much more vulnerable to be hurt, when they're fatigued," Hickey said. "Obviously you're going to be more fatigued at 110 or 118 or 122 than you are at 79 pitches. So you certainly watch that.

"The pitchers, when they're out there, they always like to go one inning more. But it's much better to get them out an inning too soon than an inning too late."

Because their starters threw deep into October last season, and because spring training is longer than normal this year, the Rays wanted to bring Shields, Kazmir, Garza and Sonnanstine along slowly this month. By April, their arms should be stretched out to the normal level, but that doesn't mean you'll see an increase in complete games at Tropicana Field in 2009.

"Of course I want to win all the time. We all do. But I'm always keeping an eye out. These are some really young fellows that can be very significant for many years to come," Maddon said. "Should I sacrifice a guy's future, and ours, based on one game, one inning or two innings?

"I think you can keep your eye on both things and get the job done. I don't see myself changing the philosophy regarding the handling of the starting staff. They're way too young to just cut them free yet."

Tampa Bay Rays keep a tight rein on their starting pitchers 03/01/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 9, 2009 2:43pm]

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