In many ways the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates can be compared to the 2012 Washington Nationals. They both enjoyed breakout seasons and a long awaited post season berth after years of heavy investment in player development that finally paid dividends. Their seasons also both ultimately died at the hands of St. Louis Cardinals after taking the Redbirds to 5 games in the NLDS. There was one stark difference between these two teams though. The 2012 Nationals chose to manage the workload of their young ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg by shutting him down before the playoffs had even begun. On the other hand the 2013 Pirates rode Gerrit Cole all the way to game 5 of the NLDS .
Talented young pitchers are an asset that teams go to great lengths to protect from injury. Managing the workload early in their careers is now the standard. Every team has their guidelines for managing workload. These guidelines are generally concerned with limiting the increase in innings from the previous year. In some cases like Strasburg, recovering from injury is also a factor in setting an innings limit. These guidelines lead to a hard limit on innings. Once the pitcher reaches those innings he gets shut down for the remainder of the season. That isn’t a problem for a last place club like the Miami Marlins. The Marlins set a firm 170 innings limit for their young phenom Jose Fernandez. Fernandez reached that limit on September 11th. He spent the last 3 weeks of the season as a dugout spectator of the worst team in the National League. But for a team in a playoff race a hard innings limit can be major problem. The 2012 Nationals set a hard limit of 160 innings for Stephen Strasburg. Despite being the ace of their staff and a near lock to qualify for the post season the Nationals shutdown their star pitcher in early September. They effectively made their star pitcher a non-factor for the games that mattered most.
Now contrast that to how the Pittsburgh Pirates managed the workload of Gerrit Cole this season. The Pirates never officially stated what the innings limit for Gerrit Cole was. They never even acknowledged that a hard innings limit for Cole existed. The media speculated on what the limit for Gerrit Cole was, but the Pirates would only acknowledge that they had a plan to manage his innings. Whether or not a hard limit for Cole existed is not known. What we do know is the Pirates emphasize limiting high stress innings. The Pirates impose a cap of 30 pitches in an inning in their minor league system. If a pitcher throws 30 pitches in an inning he gets sent to the showers regardless of what inning it is. Twice in April while pitching for AAA Indianapolis Cole was lifted early due to the 30 pitch rule. The Pirates also managed high stress innings on Cole by keeping his pitch counts down. Only twice in his 17 starts after being called up to Pittsburgh did Cole throw more than 100 pitches in a start. Strasburg threw more than 100 pitches in 10 of his 28 starts in 2012. One final control the Pirates used to manage Cole’s innings was the creative use of off days to build additional days of rest between his starts. Twice in August the Bucs reshuffled the rotation after an off day to give Cole 7 days of rest between starts. They effectively shaved 1 turn in the rotation for Cole during August by doing so. Was conserving innings in August what led to Cole’s domination in September? Who knows, but it sure didn’t hurt. And if the Pirates did have some innings limit in mind for their young ace in training wouldn’t it make sense to conserve those innings for September? In 2012 the only time Strasburg had more than 6 days rest was over the all-star break. The Nats made no real effort to conserve Strasburg’s innings and because of that he wasn’t available at the end.
The Pirates showed much foresight to keep Cole available until the bitter end. They also refused to be bound to some arbitrarily set innings limit. The Pirates saw a pitcher that was looking stronger down the stretch. They saw a pitcher with no warning signs that indicated he should be shutdown. So they allowed their young ace to take the ball in the biggest games that their franchise has played in more that 20 years. The reason they could do so wasn’t because they pushed him. It wasn’t because they were negligent. It was because they followed a refreshingly different plan of managing a young pitcher’s workload. Here’s hoping the Gerrit Cole Model becomes the new standard.