Workhorse hurlers a rare breed indeed
To reach the pinnacle of baseball, a pitcher must concentrate on the smallest, simplest things. Control what he can control -- this pitch, this at-bat, this inning.
That's why if you ask a starting pitcher about his goals for the upcoming season, if he mentions any specific statistic, it probably won't be wins or strikeouts or ERA. He'll most likely talk about taking the ball every five days, and about racking up innings.
Many pitchers value wins, and strikeouts are fun (if fascist, in the immortal words of Crash Davis). But everything starts with going deep into games. The late Darryl Kile's greatest source of professional pride had nothing to do with his three All-Star appearances, his 20-win season or his top-5 Cy Young finishes. It was that he never missed a start due to injury in his 12-year career.
It's a bit of common sense, really. The more innings that a good pitcher pitches, the more good things can happen. For Giants ace Matt Cain, reliability has become a calling card.
"Every season, one of my goals is to go out there and throw more innings than I did the year before or at least get 200 innings," said Cain, who has reached that mark in six straight seasons. "I feel like if you do that, you've done a lot of things right. You've stayed healthy and you've given your team a good chance to win, usually."
In the modern game, 200 innings is the benchmark for a durable starter. Most teams have a single 200-inning man, some have two, and very few have more than that. Then there are the real workhorses, the guys teams covet and other starters admire. They make it past that number, racking up innings and quality starts and taking strain off their fellow starters as well as relievers.
Part of that is obvious. If the starter goes seven innings, that should leave only six outs for the relievers to get. But there's more to it. A starter who takes a load off the bullpen allows his manager to have a quicker hook with the next day's starter. Sometimes a team can even dip into its bullpen more aggressively a day before that big horse takes the mound.
"When [Clayton Kershaw] pitches, we kind of count on him going seven," said Dodgers manager Don Mattingly. "It's just that he's consistently getting there. So you're kind of going, 'OK, we have Kersh tomorrow, we can maybe kind of use an extra guy here tonight because we know he'll save our middle guys. He's probably not going to be out of the game in four.'"
Eleven pitchers have reached 200 innings in each of the past three seasons. In addition to the obvious candidates (Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia, Felix Hernandez), it's a group that also includes names like C.J. Wilson and Mark Buehrle. Tighten the requirements a little bit, and the group thins quickly. Four pitchers have reached 210 innings for three years running: Verlander, Hernandez, Cliff Lee, and Cain. Only Verlander and Hernandez made it to 220 in each of those seasons.
Every one of those pitchers matches quality with quantity. There's a difference between being a "LAIM" (league-average innings-muncher, in fantasy baseball parlance) and being a front-of-the-rotation workhorse. Six of the 11 200-inning repeaters also posted an ERA+ (ERA adjusted for ballpark and league context, measured on a scale where 100 is average) of 120 or better in each of those three seasons.
The names are a who's-who of pitching: Verlander, Sabathia, Lee, Kershaw, Cole Hamels and Cain. Rack up the innings. Rack up the zeros. Lather, rinse, repeat. Even the great Hernandez fell just short, with a 109 ERA+ in 2011. Cain has less hardware than the others, in part because he has mustered low win totals despite pitching superbly for years.
"He sets the bar," said Giants general manager Brian Sabean. "I think if you asked all our starters, they really appreciate how much he competes and how he's so consistent from start to start, and that's whether he's got shutout stuff or he's got to work his way through innings. Every time he goes out, he gives you a chance to win. More so, the innings go along with that, and that's one of the things we've really been proud of the last few years, the amount of innings he has averaged."
There's another way to be reliable and durable. It's not just a matter of season over season, but start over start. Quality starts are one measure, but as offense has come down, they're not that rare. Instead, a look at a tougher line to attain is more revealing. Over the past three seasons, 11 pitchers have racked up at least 40 games of seven or more innings and two or fewer earned runs.
Unsurprisingly, it's a familiar list. Hernandez leads everyone by a long way with 58, nine more than anyone else. Following him are Jered Weaver, Verlander, Kershaw, Lee, Hamels, Roy Halladay, David Price, Sabathia and Cain. This group is a little less rigid, allowing room for pitchers who have been excellent and mostly durable but also missed some time due to injury, like Weaver and Halladay.
Still, there's almost nothing a general manager, manager or pitching coach loves more than a pitcher he can pencil in for 200 or more quality innings. It's part of why James Shields held so much appeal to the Royals despite up-and-down results. He's topped 200 innings in six straight seasons, and been at 215 or more in five of those. They're even hoping it can rub off.
"It's extremely important," said Royals manager Ned Yost, "and he's already beaten the drum to our staff, saying, 'Yeah, I'm a 200-inning guy -- but so are you, and so are you, and so are you, and so are you.'"
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.