Control, Controllers And Controlees

Posted on August 08, 2011


By Jim Henneman

Not that I'm one of those conspiracy theorists understand, but you can count me among those a little suspicious about that "shoulder strain" that landed Orioles lefthander Zach Britton on the disabled list -- after he had made a trip to the minors that had a whole lot more to do with baseball business than it did performance.

Manager Buck Showalter let it be known early on that the chances of Britton pitching much in September were close to nil -- that he would most like be shut down by then. That would be in keeping with the baseball trend of not allowing pitchers to reach the dreaded "plus 50" mark, throwing 50 more innings than the year before.

There's only one big problem when it comes to Britton and this tactic. At the rate he's being allowed to go, he'll be eligible for arbitration before he pitches 175 innings in a season. Here's his track record for the last three years: 2008 at Delmarva, 147 innings; 2009 at Frederick, 140 innings; 2010, Bowie and Norfolk combined, 153 innings; 2011, Baltimore and Bowie combined, 121 innings.

Last week Britton threw 87 pitches and gave up 12 hits in less than six innings, and it was encouraging that Showalter elected to "stretch him out" -- or so it seemed. The next day, in a move that had more to do with roster space and inning control than anything, Britton landed on the DL because of "shoulder strain."

You can now mark your calendar: He will be out 15 days, come back and make perhaps as many as three or four starts, work another 30 innings or so and his season will be over after about 150 innings. That would constitute just about his average for the previous three seasons.

Next -- and etch this in stone -- we'll be sitting here talking about not letting Britton exceed 175 innings, which of course would mean shutting him down in September.

Again.

There is a novel solution to this problem, which is universal throughout baseball: Don't bring a starting pitcher to the big leagues until he has thrown at least 175 innings during one minor league season. The place to shut down pitchers in September is the minor leagues, which shut down completely on Labor Day weekend.

The Orioles bought their extra year of Britton control (which they would have done at the beginning of the season had it not been for the injury to Brian Matusz) when they sent him to the minor leagues last month. Now he's under "innings control." And we haven't even gotten around to the equally dreaded "pitch control."

With all this so-called "control," you would think the disabled lists would be barren. Think again. Baseball has "progressed" from four- to five-man rotations, from 40 starts to 32, and 300 innings to 200 (for those considered "workhorses"), all for the sake of protecting the game's high-stakes investments. It hasn't worked -- unless you buy into the theory that a potential 12-game winner on the back end of your rotation is worth $10-12 million per year.

I'm also inclined to put Jake Arrieta's injury into the same category as Britton's. It's not something that was unknown -- and it's not as if his last performance was all that bad. Except for some control issues (which can be explained when you're facing the Yankees), it was a solid effort. But, again, it's getting to the point in the season when teams start looking for reasons to shut pitchers down, rather than stretch them out.

The idea that Arrieta's discomfort may have led to his control difficulties might fly, if it weren't for the fact that he was consistently ahead of hitters, including most of those who drew walks, all night.

I'm not sure what happened to Chris Tillman, but it will be interesting to watch him the rest of the season. It's almost as if he's now beyond the "let's learn how to pitch" phase and just trusting his ability. Two starts don't equate to a turnaround (he was also reasonably effective against the Yankees), but there's no comparison to the pitcher we saw in spring training or earlier in the season.

Somebody else has to explain what happened to Matusz, and some are already wondering what there was that had to be changed with a guy who won seven of his last eight decisions a year ago. The word now is he wasn't properly prepared coming into spring training, but there was no suggestion of that when he was named the team's No. 2 starter before going on the D.L. just before the season started.

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com

Posted Aug. 8, 2011

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