The Yankees pulled off a trade that according to many put them back on top of the AL East. While the Rays and Red Sox might protest that early assumption — beware dream teams — bringing in a good young player with several years of control in a pitching-thin market has to be considered a big win for the Yankees. Much as the Reds did in acquiring Mat Latos, the Yankees used a blocked player of questionable defensive ability to get that rare resource: young power pitching.
But for the Yankees as much as any team, there’s a big downside. Pineda is young, below the “injury nexus”. The injury nexus is a line in the sand for pitcher health. Research put together by Nate Silver and myself in 2003 showed that pitchers that went over 190 innings while under the age of 24 simply didn’t hold together in the long term. There’s a theory around biomechanical circles that in general, arms simply don’t mature until that age, though there’s nothing in the way of medical evidence to go along with that. In fact, medical theories go against that, showing physiological changes in teenage pitchers that seem to adjust to the task of pitching.
Worse, Pineda is headed to the Yankees, a team that simply has a poor record of getting young pitchers into their rotation and keeping them healthy. Along with Ivan Nova (24 last season), the 23-year-old Pineda is fighting history and probability as much as he will be the hitters of the AL East. How bad is it? The research, put together for me by Dan Wade, is damning. Under the reign of Joe Girardi, the Yankees have brought five pitchers under the age of 25 up to the majors, getting them nine or more starts. Of those, only two are healthy - and really, it’s too early to know the longer term consequences of last season’s workload on Nova. Joba Chamberlain is coming back from Tommy John surgery while Phil Hughes has had an up-and-down Yankee career, in large part due to injuries. The one healthy player? Ian Kennedy, who was traded to the Diamondbacks and can hardly be called a “Yankee pitcher”.
If we expand the view a bit on Girardi, looking back to his short tenure with the Marlins, things look even worse. There were another five qualifying pitchers brought up to the Marlins while Girardi was there and all five suffered some pitching injury afterwards. Josh Johnson is coming back from elbow and shoulder surgeries. Scott Olson and Ricky Nolasco have had varying degrees of success mixed with injuries. Anibal Sanchez has been effective on the few occasions he’s been healthy (and to be fair, was injured before, during, and after Girardi’s tenure.) Perhaps the only pitcher to come away without a new scar was Dontrelle Willis. It would be a bit of a stretch to blame his decline on Girardi given his previous success and workload, but it’s hardly a positive either.
Girardi’s track record with young pitchers isn’t ideal, but he’s got a pitching coach to handle those sorts of things, right? The Yankees brought in Larry Rothschild two seasons ago but it wasn’t for his track record with young pitchers. Rothschild’s previous job was as pitching coach for the Chicago Cubs under Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella. Do I need to do more than say “Mark Prior” to paint this picture for you? The list speaks for itself: Prior, Carlos Zambrano, Sean Marshall, Sergio Mitre, Kerry Wood, Carlos Marmol, Angel Guzman, Sean Gallagher, Juan Mateo, and Jerome Williams. Again, if we remove Kerry Wood from the list, we’re left with only two pitchers of nine that stayed healthy after being used young under Rothschild.
This isn’t to place any blame on Girardi or Rothschild in particular. This exercise could be performed on virtually any team, manager and pitching coach, though there is one counter-example. There’s one team that’s kept its pitchers largely healthy and productive, avoiding most major injuries despite bringing young pitchers up in succession. That would be the Yankees’ divisional rival, the Tampa Bay Rays. Under Joe Maddon, the Rays have brought up a series of pitchers including David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, James Shields, and Matt Garza through the injury nexus without significant injuries. They’re not perfect — hi, Scott Kazmir — but they’re close, even in the face of pitchers that they brought in with significant injury histories, like Jeff Niemann.
If the Yankees want this deal to work, maybe they need to make a couple more deals. I wonder what the Rays might take for Ron Porterfield or just invest in a biomechanical program the way that the Red Sox have. It’s clear that the Yankees will need to do more than just put Michael Pineda in pinstripes if they want different results.