Dick Bosman Talks Strasburg Innings Limit and More
As the roving minor league pitching instructor for the Tampa Bay Rays, former Senators pitcher Dick Bosman has helped groom some of the best pitching talent in the majors. I asked Dick to comment on the Washington Nationals handling of Stephen Strasburg this season on our podcast show Friday night. The response was one of the most well-informed sources of enlightenment on the issue I have heard or seen.
Dick was probably the best arm the expansion Washington Senators ever sent out to the mound. He was the team ace from 1969 when he won the American League ERA title with a 2.15 mark. He was still the best arm Washington had when the team fled to Texas.
Since the end of his career, Dick has been a pitching coach for the Baltimore Orioles, the Chicago White Sox, the Texas Rangers and he has presided over a Tampa Bay Rays minor league development program that has produced Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson, James Shields and other prominent American League starting pitchers.
I asked Dick specifically about the philosophy of the Rays in bringing along young pitchers like Jeremy Hellickson, David Price and Matt Moore, considered to be among the best pitching talent in the American League. Price is the oldest of the three at 26 years of age, 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.
Dick 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 “thirty per cent” to their prior year totals. A pitcher like Matt Moore, who was drafted out of high school for example slowly progressed from his first full year at age 20 when he threw 122 innings to the majors at age 23 when he threw 177 innings.
You can see this progression of innings in the totals below for Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore and David Price in the table below.
|19||Rookie Appalachian League||77.2|
|20||Low_a Sally League||111.1|
|21||High A and AA||152|
|22||AA Montgomery and AAA Durham||114|
|24||American League Tampa Bay||189|
|25||American League Tampa Bay||177|
|20||Low-A Sally League||123|
|21||High -A Florida State League||144.2|
|22||AA Montgomery and AAA Durham||164|
|23||American League Tampa Bay||177.1|
|22||Minors and Majors||123|
|23||American League Tampa Bay||128.1|
|24||American League Tampa Bay||208.2|
|25||American League Tampa Bay||224.1|
|26||American Leauge Tampa Bay||211|
In each instance Tampa has worked the pitchers slowly up to a major league pitching load of 200 innings. Only David Price achieved that level by age 24. Stephen 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–thirty percent–would have been to approximately 160 innings.
So regardless the concerns about a surgically repaired elbow tendon, 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 innings. The Rays violated this maxim with David Price who jumped from 128 innings at age 23 to over 200 innings at age 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 ten starts of his had pretty mixed results,” said Dick. “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 forever.”
While this is the key point in the interview, 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 AAA 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,” said Bosman. ” 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 Dick whether these practices were wide spread in the business or restricted to small-market teams like Tampa Bay that have to guard their investment in high profile players like David Price. He agreed that they were. He opined that pitching is a scarce commodity regardless what team you are, small market team or not. Dick 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 fifteen percent change-ups at the lower levels,” Dick offered. “We like to keep them at about 70 percent fastballs.”
Having a breaking ball is paramount, Dick stated, when considering whether a pitcher is going to start or relieve, whether he is going to make the big leagues or remain a minor league pitcher all his career. Whether it is a slider–Bosman’s bread and butter pitch during his own career–a cutter or some other kind of breaking ball, they will start throwing more of them as they get farther along in their minor league development. But limiting the number of those pitches that place greater stress on the young pitcher’s elbow and shoulder is part of the program most teams are following currently.
We discussed Strasburg in that light as well. I asked Dick 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? asked Dick. “Look, we have learned a thing or two about how to rehab guys from Tommy John surgery…Dr. 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 Dick is that Stephen 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 break down 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 and enjoy some insights from someone who truly knows pitching from front to back.
Photo courtesy the Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, New York
Listen to this interview of Dick Bosman on the recent “Outta the Parkway” podcast.