MLB Regression Report: How far can a young arm go?

By Adam Burke  (VSiN.com) 

July 16, 2022 07:09 PM
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Something I like to look at as we approach the All-Star Game are the workloads for young pitchers. Baseball is a hard game and playing at the highest level is extremely stressful. It can lead to some second-half downturns for pitchers experiencing the full grind for the first time.

Minor league seasons are a month shorter. Every minor league has a universal schedule with Mondays off. Pitchers are usually held to stricter pitch counts and have innings limits. 

Teams will have to make some big decisions regarding their young pitchers the rest of the way, and those pitchers are the subject of this week’s Regression Report.

Shane McClanahan (Rays) 

Let’s start with the three AL Cy Young candidates in line for huge workload increases. McClanahan topped out at 123.1 innings last season and has already thrown 104.1 this season. He’s having an incredible year with a 1.73 ERA, 2.28 xERA and 2.48 FIP. His 88.2% LOB% and the gap between his ERA and FIP suggest some natural regression, but the extra second-half strain could also be a factor. An innings limit might make sense, as past Rays pitchers to throw 130+ innings include Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi and Yonny Chirinos, who all have been hurt or jettisoned from the roster.

The Rays have a huge question to answer because they desperately need McClanahan for the wild-card push, but at what potential cost?

Alek Manoah (Blue Jays) 

The Blue Jays are in a similar boat with Manoah. Because of injuries and an underperforming team, slowing down Manoah may not be an option. He’s up to 107.2 innings after throwing 129.2 last season across two levels. He didn’t pitch in 2020 and threw 17 pro innings in 2019 after his college season ended. Like McClanahan, Manoah has some statistical regression signs with a 2.34 ERA, 2.87 xERA and 3.41 FIP to go with an 80.8% LOB%.

Limiting Manoah hurts a team built to win right now, but the Blue Jays might not have a choice.

Shohei Ohtani (Angels) 

The Angels do have a choice and they are likelier to exercise it than the previous two teams. Ohtani’s recent pitching dominance has moved his Cy Young price from 40-1 to almost single digits, as he’s allowed one earned run in his last five outings entering Wednesday’s scheduled start against the Astros. He’s struck out 34 batters over his last three starts.

However, Ohtani is on a team going nowhere and he maxed out at 130.1 innings in 2021. He only threw 1.2 innings in 2020 and did not pitch at all in 2019 after suffering UCL damage in 2018. He threw at least 140 innings from 2014-16 in Japan, but the Angels are probably going to err on the side of caution with the best player in baseball. He’s only thrown 65.2 career innings after the All-Star Break.

Logan Gilbert (Mariners) 

Gilbert is the one on this list that most fits the spirit of the Regression Report. He has a 2.80 ERA with a 4.20 xERA and a 3.60 FIP, so he has the most glaring signs of regression in his statistical profile. The Mariners have gotten hot to get in the wild-card discussion but have other huge regression candidates in Chris Flexen and Marco Gonzales.

Now that the Mariners are featuring prominently in the playoff picture, any hopes of rolling back Gilbert may go by the wayside. He’s 6-foot-6 and pushing 230 pounds, so he has the frame for a workload increase, but he’s two or three starts away from setting a new career high in MLB innings. He threw 135 in 2019 before missing the 2020 season with no minor league baseball during COVID. 

Tony Gonsolin (Dodgers) 

Shifting to the National League, another prominent name in the Cy Young discussion is in the spotlight. Statistically, Gonsolin is absolutely a regression candidate with a 1.62 ERA, 2.89 xERA and 3.36 FIP in 88.2 innings. He has a 90.8% LOB% and a .183 BABIP against. This is the first time Gonsolin has thrown more than 56 innings in an MLB season. He maxed out at 128 innings in 2018 across High-A and Double-A and never threw more than 58.1 innings in a college season.

The Dodgers have the luxury of pitching depth and will get Walker Buehler and Dustin May back in the second half, which could allow them to give Gonsolin a blow here and there. It won’t materially impact the Dodgers, but it could impact Gonsolin’s Cy Young chances.

Spencer Strider (Braves) 

The Braves’ flame-throwing rookie is having a monster season for a team that also made a huge push to get back in the postseason picture. With a pitcher regularly throwing triple digits from a 6-foot, 195-pound frame, you’d like to err on the side of caution, even if he might have the strongest lower half in baseball. Strider threw just 12 innings in his final season at Clemson in 2020 and 94 innings across five levels in 2021 as a rapid riser through the system.

On one hand, you could argue that his arm is remarkably fresh, especially for a pitcher who played his college ball in the South. On the other hand, how far do you push a guy who has never exceeded 100 innings in a season? The Braves do have some pitching depth, but replacing what Strider has done is virtually impossible. Given that the Mets just got Max Scherzer back and will be getting Jacob deGrom soon, is the NL East arms race too powerful to scale back Strider? If so, can he sustain this level of performance as the innings mount?

There are plenty of other pitchers to consider who are going to experience sizable innings increases, and those are guys you want to follow for velocity or spin rate decreases to see if there are any signs of fatigue or injury. It will help with your daily betting as well as any futures or awards markets you invest in.

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