Ron Gardenhire's Usage Tendencies: AKA, How to Ruin Relievers Careers 101, and why Joe Nathan's injury happened in the first place.
Since taking over the helm of the big league club in 2002, Ron Gardenhire has received tremendous praise for his teams play. He is someone held in high esteem throughout the game of baseball. Gardy has also generally had some of the strongest bullpens in baseball. Rarely was this more true than in the early years when the bullpen featured Eddie Guardado as it's closer with Juan Rincon, JC Romero, LaTroy Hawkins, and Johan Santana as reliable setup men.
As the years wore on the names changed - Johan moved to the rotation where he became the best starting pitcher in baseball for a number of years, Hawkins signed with the Cubs, Romero was traded and Rincon fell apart - many speculate due to his steroid use, or lack-there-of. New names replaced the departed, Joe Nathan became the new closer, Pat Neshek, and Matt Guerrier emerged from obscurity, but the drum beat simply marched on. New names, largely the same results.
Something else has stayed the same as well however, and it's a tad more sinister. I'm referring to the aforementioned managers usage tendencies in regards to his setup men. While Gardenhire has generally steadfastly refused to use his closer in non-save situations (Nathan has appeared in 70 games just twice in his six years with the Twins), and was loath to use him for more than three outs - he has never minded abusing his setup men. It's a pattern that has borne itself out time and again.
While Twins fans have every right to believe that long-time setup man Juan Rincon's deep and drastic decline that began after his phenomenal 2004 campaign was due to his PED use, what if there was another, more likely explanation? Could it simply be that Rincon was ridden too hard? In 2004, Rincon appeared in 77 games, 2nd most in baseball. In 2005 and 2006 he pitched in 75 games each, placing 6th and 3rd overall respectively. Or put another way, he pitched in more games than any other pitcher in baseball during that time frame.
While Rincon's number's slid in 2005 and 2006, they fell of a cliff in 2007 and never came back. PED's are perhaps an easy excuse, one that makes the player the criminal, and gives fans who are disappointed in a players performance an easy target. But the more likely culprit in my mind, is the manager who insisted on running his best non-closing reliever onto the field nearly every other game. It should have surprised no one should Rincon have simply fallen apart from overuse had no PEDs ever been used.
That Rincon managed to escape without suffering a devastating injury should be considered impressive. Other Twins pitchers who have fallen into Gardy's usage crush have not proven so lucky.
We'll begin our retrospective with Jesse Crain. Crain, who many Twins fans love to hate now, was once one of the organizations most promising pitching prospects. He possessed a live arm and a very good curve ball/slider combination. After pitching in 22 games out of the bullpen for the Twins in 2004, and another 41 for the Red Wings, Gardy increased his workload to 75 games in 2005 - as a 23 year old. The 75 games that year would be good for 6th most in the league, and his 79.2 relief innings were more than anyone else in the Twins bullpen - even the significantly overworked Rincon logged only 77.0 innings.
One must wonder if it ever occurred to anyone within the organization to blow the whistle. That maybe, just maybe, taking a kid who had logged just 39.0 innings at AA in 2003, and then doubling his innings, while more than tripling this total outings, and shooting him to the Major Leagues in the process the very next year might be a concern. We'll never definitively know the answer to the question, but it deserves to be asked.
While Crain's total appearances would decline in 2006 to JUST 68, his overall workload of 76.2 innings remained almost the same. Then, after 18 games in 2007, Crain felt soreness in his shoulder. It turned out to be a torn rotator cuff AND labrum. For Crain to simply have a chance to return to baseball, he'd have to brave two of the three toughest rehabs a pitcher could undergo. And he'd have to do it all at once. Crain would make it back though and in 2008, just as the next overused Twins reliever was preparing to fall victim to Gardy's pattern of overuse.
When Jesse Crain finally, and probably fairly predictably succumbed to injury in 2007, and with Juan Rincon's production in free fall mode, the Twins found themselves in desperate need of someone who could be relied upon to setup Joe Nathan's single inning saves. Enter: Pat Neshek.
The day Pat Neshek arrived with his funky sidearm delivery in mid 2006 is the same day American League hitters learned that there was more than one way to skin their bats' cats. Gardenhire and the Twins faithful's prayers were answered. There has long been some weird belief within the Twins broadcasting crews that Pat Neshek struggled against left-handers - a belief probably first voiced by his manager in 2006. A belief based more on guesswork than fact. In truth, Pat Neshek dominated everyone he encountered with near equal aplomb, holding lefties to a .244 average with a 33% K rate in 2006, and only getting better from there.
While Neshek didn't make his first appearance of 2006 until the 84th game of that season - he had pitched in 33 games and 60.0 innings at AAA Rochester - he would go on to log 32 more appearances and 37 more innings. This bringing his season total to a shocking 65 games and 97 innings! While it wasn't quite the shock to the body that Crain received, it was still a significant increase from the 55 games and 82.1 innings he had logged in AA during the 2005 campaign.
From there Neshek would only see his appearance rates increase as Gardenhire fell in love with Neshek in a way I've never really seen. Things got so out of hand that Will Young, a retired Twins blogger who will be a definite first ballot Twins Blog Hall Of Famer (should such a thing ever exist) created one of the most aptly named devises ever and gave it directly to Gardy. While the recap from that link was somewhat tongue-in-cheek when it was written, in retrospect, it exists as a microchasm in cyberspace for all that is wrong with Gardenhire's bullpen philosophy. In 2007 Gardenhire would push the Neshek button 74 more times - that is, until he went down with 13 games remaining with what at the time was called a "dead arm." Had Neshek not gone down with the dead arm and instead continued to be used at the same rate he had been, he would've pitched in a mind-boggling 80-81 games.
Neshek had been pitching with this dead arm for his last 25 games or so, as he saw his production fall off the map. During the first 49 games of 2007, Neshek was his regular dominant self, posting a line of;
1.48ERA - .147BAA - 60K/16BB 48.2IP
Then came the final 25 games before being shut down;
6.23ERA - .278BAA (.868OPS!) - 14K/11BB - 21.2IP
It was like watching a train wreck in slow motion.
Neshek would come back in 2008, but it was evident that his arm had not recovered completely, and while he was effective enough, he would appear in just 15 games before suffering a torn ulnar collateral ligament that would force him to miss the remainder of the 2008 season, and the entirety of the 2009 season.
Again, one must wonder why this sort of usage was allowed to happen? Obviously others in baseball recognize the need to bring arms along slowly and not subject them to more than their ready for. And generally speaking you hear the same sort of level headed response from Ron Gardenhire. Except when it comes to his primary setup men. For those lucky few, the rules are apparently thrown out.
With Neshek sidelined for the duration of 2008 and 2009, Gardenhire needed yet another new arm to become the teams whipping boy every second day. The lucky contestant? Matt Guerrier. For the past two years, Guerrier had served primarily as the teams long-man, logging 43 and 39 appearances respectively for total of 71.2 and 69.2 innings. Averaging around 2 innings per start (very roughly).
When Crain went down in early 2007, that role changed somewhat. Guerrier continued to log more than three outs on average, but instead of going for 5-6 outs per outing, he started appearing for 3-4 outs. In 2007 Guerrier would pitch in 73 games (7th most in the AL), throwing 88 innings. From there, Guerrier's workload increased even more. When Neshek went down in 2008 with his own career threatening injury, Guerrier logged 76 appearances. That number increased in 2009 to 79 outings! Both his 2008 and 2009 numbers led the AL.
While Guerrier has been able to avoid the same injury fate of those who came before him, he has suffered with regressions. His 2008 second half in particular was abysmal. He suffered from second half regression (exhaustion?) again in 2009, though thankfully for the Twins, and probably Guerrier's career, Bill Smith brought in the cavalry when he traded for Jon Rauch.
For the firs four months of 2009, Guerrier averaged 13 outings per month - appearing in a mind boggling 52 of his teams 103 games: AKA OVER HALF! While Guerrier would continue to appear in nearly half the teams games even after Rauch was brought on board - it was for less time per outing. While he had averaged slightly more than an inning pear appearance before Rauch, he would average less than an inning per appearance afterward. Mercifully, 9 of his final 27 games were stints of less than three outs.
Should Guerrier prove to be human after all and suffer an injury this season - which should almost be expected at this point - it could prove to be the death knell for a bullpen already beleaguered by the loss of it's closer.
All of which of course brings us to the man everyone cares most about, Joe Nathan.
Joe Nathan, the man Gardenhire fights like mad to protect. The one who is seldom allowed to pitch for more than one inning at a time, or in non-save situations. Gardenhire insistence on NOT using Nathan in anything other than a three out save situation is a large reason for the other pitchers overuse. Every time Gardenhire insists on warming up his setup man de jour, he forces that pitcher to expend valuable effort, regardless of whether he comes in. Pitching a third of an inning in a firemans role to simply get a game to Nathan forces that pitcher hurry his warmup and come in perhaps colder than desired. This is something that was common place for the Rincon's, Romero's, Crain's, Neshek's, and Guerrier's of the bullpen world. Whereas Nathan would generally have the luxury of being able to warm up at his own pace while watching the Twins bat prior to his upcoming save situation.
But last year wasn't quite normal. The Twins for the first time in a long time didn't have a prototypical setup man. Guerrier did his best to fill the role, and did so as well as his limited talents would allow. Indeed, he did so superbly. But the lack of depth in the bullpen often meant that Gardenhire was forced to use Guerrier and Nathan more extensively than perhaps he would've otherwise.
Remember earlier in this piece when I mentioned that Joe Nathan had only twice pitched in 70 games in a season? Well, would anyone care to venture a guess as to how many he pitched last year? If you answered 70, you were either cheating or have a freakishly good memory. Either way I applaud you. Now, who remembers Nathan's mammoth 53 pitch effort on August 21st against the Royals? In that game he threw 24 more pitches than he had in any other game of the year. Indeed, the only other time in Nathan's Twins career where he threw 40 or more pitches was on September 3rd of 2008 at Toronto.
I tell you all of that to tell you this. That game, was the beginning of the end, because that was the game where Joe Nathan hurt himself. The Twins would go on to win that fateful game in mid-2009 5-4, and indeed, without it, there would've been no playoffs, there would've been no game 163. But it was the beginning of the end. While we can't be sure when the Twins were made aware of Nathan's injury, or even that he suffered it during that game, even the casual observer could see that Nathan was less than 100% from then on.
Before the 53 pitch game, Nathan was in the midst of perhaps his best year ever, his line was;
46.2IP - 2HR/11BB/61K - .160BAA - .463OPSA
After that game his line was;
22.0IP - 5HR-11BB-18K - .193BAA - .716OPSA
The batting average against might not look much different, but his strikeout, walk, and homeruns rates were all WAY off. Nathan was pitching hurt - and me saying that should come as no shock to anyone who was paying attention.
As I think we all know at this point, there is widespread belief that injuries to pitchers occur primarily when a pitcher is throwing with a tired or sore arm. One that causes his mechanics to change and in turn, creates stress on joints, tendons, and muscles that they are not accustomed to. The general idea being something like limping with your arms. If you've ever suffered any kind of leg injury (and that should include just about everyone I would imagine) then you know what it's like when you have a bum wheel. You compensate in other ways. You adjust the pressure you put on the other leg and this in turn leads to soreness and fatigue in the non-injured leg. Well, much the same is true of pitchers arms.
When an arm is tired, the ligaments in the elbows and the muscles in the shoulders pay the price.
If you're a Twins fan, you've bore witness to this over, and over, and over again. And while I'll stop this piece short of accusing Gardenhire of knowingly putting his pitchers at risk - it's time that this was issue was brought up. Because knowingly or not, Ron Gardenhire's use of his bullpen pitchers is leading to injury after injury of key personnel. Or at least that's what I've come to believe.
What say you?