Are pitch counts and early shutdowns actually helping pitchers?

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The Nationals’ decision to shut down starter Stephen Strasburg after his September 7 start last year was controversial, starting a debate that wasn’t even close to settled as the 2013 regular season was under way. The Nationals won the NL East title last season and went into the NLDS against the Cardinals without Strasburg. The Nats were dispatched in five games, leading many to speculate that the organization was being too careful with their 23-year-old phenom, needlessly weakening the team in the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 1981.

This year, the Mets and Marlins took similar precautions with their young aces. The Mets vowed to shut down Matt Harvey early before he ended up suffering an injury, and Jose Fernandez recently made his final start of the year for the Marlins with a few weeks to spare.

As MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince points out, pitchers are still getting injured quite often despite these preventative measures. Castrovince spoke to a number of people about the issue of pitcher health, including Dr. Marcus Elliott, a physician who trained at Harvard. Elliott said, “I’m certain we’re going to look back on what we did here in 2012, 2013 and not too far into the future and think that it was really primitive.”

Elliott continued, saying, “There are reasons guys end up tearing their ulnar collateral ligament or end up with repetitive trauma to a rotator cuff. There are mechanical explanations for all these things. And we haven’t spent a whole lot of time trying to understand what those reasons are.”

Castrovince also highlighted Arizona State University associate head coach and recruiting coordinator Ken Knutson, citing Knutson’s rather impressive track record of producing pitchers who don’t get injured. According to Knutson, he hadn’t had a pitcher need Tommy John surgery since the beginning of the millennium, and only because the pitcher didn’t follow Knutson’s warmup program. Knutson described that program as a “dynamic body warmup”. “Movements and runs and agility things. We do a lot with body blades or shoulder tubes. We do some strength training with a two-pound medicine ball, then we go through some body movement and throwing heavy balls.”

The entire article is enlightening and worth a dedicated reading. Castrovince raises a very good point, which is that for all of the progress baseball has made over the years in terms of technology and analytics, injury prevention — specifically for pitchers — is an area that has really yet to be broached, let alone conquered.

Astros sweep as Twins lose 18th straight in playoffs

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
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MINNEAPOLIS — Shaken up by a scandal before the virus outbreak shrunk the season, the Houston Astros barely played well enough to reach the playoffs – with the rest of baseball actively rooting against them.

Well, they’re not ready to leave yet.

Carlos Correa hit a two-out, tiebreaking home run in the seventh inning for the Astros, who produced another stifling pitching performance and swept Minnesota over two games with a 3-1 victory Wednesday that sent the Twins to a record 18th straight postseason loss.

“I know a lot of people are mad. I know a lot of people don’t want to see us here,” Correa said. “But what are they going to say now?”

Nine months after Houston’s rules-breaking, sign-stealing system was revealed, the Astros advanced to the Division Series in Los Angeles. As the sixth seed, they’ll face the Oakland Athletics or Chicago White Sox in a best-of-five matchup starting Monday at Dodger Stadium.

“I don’t think they necessarily thought that they had anything to prove. They just had to play ball,” said manager Dusty Baker, who took his fifth different team to the playoffs and advanced for the first time in seven rounds since winning the 2003 NL Division Series with the Chicago Cubs.

The Twins are 0-18 in the playoffs since winning Game 1 of their Division Series at the New York Yankees on Oct. 5, 2004, a total of seven rounds lost. Since that date, the Astros are 43-35 in postseason play, winning 10 of 15 rounds with three trips to the World Series.

Kyle Tucker hit two RBI singles for the Astros and made a key throw from left field for the inning-ending out in the fifth.

Rookie Cristian Javier worked three hitless innings in relief for the victory in his postseason debut and Ryan Pressly pitched a perfect ninth against his former team, giving the Houston bullpen a total of 9 2/3 scoreless innings in this wild card series with three hits allowed.

“From the very beginning, we envisioned ourselves back in the playoffs and playing real well,” Tucker said. “So we never counted ourselves out at any point.”

Nobody on this Twins team has had a hand in more than six of the playoffs losses, but for the second straight year one of baseball’s most potent lineups limped through a brief postseason cameo. In a three-game division series sweep by the Yankees last year, the Twins totaled seven runs and 22 hits. Against the Astros, they mustered only two runs and seven hits.

“We put a lot of balls in play, it seemed like, but they were up in the air and, yeah, it seemed like we played into their trap,” said Max Kepler, one of four starters who went hitless in the series. “At the end of the day, we didn’t get the job done.”

Nelson Cruz gave the Twins an RBI double for a second straight game, this time in the fourth inning against starter Jose Urquidy. Luis Arraez aggressively tried to score from first base, but Correa took the throw from Tucker and fired home to beat Arraez to the plate to preserve the tie after third base coach Tony Diaz waved him in.

“I don’t know why he sent him,” Correa said.

Then in the seventh against losing pitcher Cody Stashak, Correa drove a 1-0 slider into the tarp-covered seats above right-center field for his 12th home run in 52 playoff games.

After winning 101, 103 and 107 games in the last three regular seasons, winning the 2017 World Series and losing the championship in seven games to the Washington Nationals last year, the Astros stumbled through the 2020 season at 29-31 under Baker and new general manager James Click with a slew of injuries after the COVID-19 pandemic cut the schedule to 60 games.

They had the third-worst road record in the major leagues, too, but none of that mattered this week against the third-seeded Twins, who were out of sorts in their two biggest games this year.

Jose Berrios was one of the few who were locked in with five strong innings to start, with just two hits allowed. His two walks were costly, though, issued right before Tucker’s single in the fourth.

“I don’t think anyone was ready to leave, to end this way,” Cruz said. “That’s life.”

KIRILLOFF FOR BUXTON

Already missing third baseman Josh Donaldson, the Twins held another one of their most valuable players out: center fielder Byron Buxton. Baldelli declined to confirm whether Buxton was experiencing a recurrence of concussion symptoms that kept him out of the last two regular season games. Buxton was picked off first base after pinch running for Cruz in the eighth.

Kepler moved to center, and Alex Kirilloff – the 2016 first-round draft pick – played right field to become the first Twins player in history to make his major league debut in a postseason game. Kirilloff singled in the fourth. With the bases loaded in the first, he flied out to end the inning.

FEELING BLUE

Both teams took issue with plate umpire Manny Gonzalez’s strike zone, with Astros slugger George Springer the first to visibly complain. After being called out on strikes in the fourth, Springer barked, “No way, man!” multiple times on his way back to the dugout.

Then in the sixth, the Twins lost left fielder Eddie Rosario to ejection after he argued a called strike two that would’ve given him a walk if it were called a ball. After swinging and missing at strike three, Rosario yelled again and was quickly tossed.

First base umpire Tim Timmons missed consecutive calls in the eighth inning on grounders by the Astros when he called the runners safe. Both were reversed to outs after replay review.

UP NEXT

The Astros, who have reached the AL Championship Series in each of the last three years, will play Monday against either the A’s or the White Sox. RHP Lance McCullers Jr. is the only member of their regular season rotation who did not pitch in Minnesota.

The Twins enter the offseason with 10 players set to become free agents, including the 40-year-old Cruz who led the team in home runs and batting average (among players with a qualifying amount of at-bats) for a second straight season. Their 2021 opener is scheduled for April 1 at Milwaukee.