Yesterday, I wrote about Jack Leathersich's injury following a 57-pitch outing in a minor league game. As Leathersich gets examined for potential elbow surgery, I have been looking into Las Vegas game logs to see if there is a pattern of this. While 57, thankfully, is not a common occurrence for a Las Vegas reliever, there has been a tradition of questionable bullpen use.
Two things bother me about how Mets pitchers are used.
1.) Relief pitchers are seeing very high pitch counts very early in the season:
Chase Huchingson: April 14th and 18th, 34 and 38 pitches respectively, his 2nd and 4th outings of the season. The 38 pitches is Chase's most so far this season.
Zach Thornton: April 13th, 37 pitches (still his high mark for the year).
John Church: April 13th, 41 pitches (still his high mark for the year).
Jack Leathersich: April 18th: 31 pitches (his high mark before his 57 pitch outing).
This pattern repeats for seasons prior as well. Erik Goeddel was asked to throw 30 pitches or more for the Las Vegas 51s sixteen times in 2014, including outings of 50, 49 and 47 pitches. The 50 and 47 pitch outings came two days from one another. His max as a big leaguer was 30. He has missed much of the 2015 with, you guessed it, elbow problems. Vic Black's high mark for 2014 came in Las Vegas as well: A three inning, 45 pitch affair on April 18th.
That leads me to my second point:
2.) Met relievers are throwing a lot of pitches per outing in the minor leagues.
This is very strange to me as the Mets are an organization that take incredible precautions with their starting pitchers. Why are the relievers not under similar pitch/outing or ^pitch/outing restrictions? Or, if they are, why aren't the minor league managers following those restrictions?
This is also strange to me because minor league games do not matter. I see no value in pushing relievers' pitch counts so high, especially when most don't see pitch counts anywhere near those highs as professionals under Terry Collins.
Another case of reckless care for a reliever's arm came just two Saturdays ago when Vic Black threw 42 pitches in an outing for Las Vegas. Now, Vic Black had done this before (see above) and had proven capable of being a "multiple inning" guy but that was before shoulder problems. Shoulder problems that may have been caused from overuse in 2014 but that is analysis for another day. Black had been on the mend all year and had struggled mightily in Las Vegas since returning. Wouldn't it be prudent to keep that shoulder healthy and not push the envelope in minor league games?
Other than that 42 pitch outing, Vic Black's season high was 31 pitches. 42 is a 34% increase above his season high. If the Mets were stretching out a pitcher to become a starter and had an accompanying approach and conditioning plan, this sort of jump is fine. Black is not. He is a max effort reliever and one who has been injured/recovering for a while now. 42 pitches is a lot. His average for the season outside of this outing is 18. 42 pitches is a 133% increase over his season average. In fact, Vic Black did not throw more than 25 pitches in any of the 14 rehab outings and minor league appearances he had before climbing the rung back to Las Vegas this year. Once there, he has already done so four times in just 12 Las Vegas appearances. For evidence that 42 pitches is excessive even for a two-inning RP, Terry Collins' long man in the bullpen, Carlos Torres, has yet to throw 40 pitches in an appearance this year.
I cannot help but think the some of the arm woes from the relievers the Mets have are due to improper use in the high minors. In the case of Jack Leathersich, it is a smoking gun. Over the past 24 hours, I have gotten my fair share of criticism for asking that Wally Backman be removed from his post in Las Vegas but I also cannot accept that sort of reckless abandon from someone tasked with caring for young athletes. I do not know the entire story of what happened on June 29th. However, I do know that Jack Leathersich was a fully functioning professional pitcher that afternoon and after 57 pitches, he did not appear in a game until he was placed on the DL a few days later. Now he is under examination for a surgery that will cost him time, money, and perhaps ability as well. It also affects the 2015 Mets. That's what I know.
There are a few takeaways from this besides illuminating how poor the player management on the 51s was that night and others. The Mets as an organization need far more accountability from the people they put in charge of teenage and young adult athletes. If they have a restriction put in place about usage, it needs to be enforced and violators held accountable (I'm talking about coaches and managers here, not players). For an organization that counts every pitch thrown by its starting pitchers from the minors to the majors, I cannot believe that the same attention to detail is not given to the relief pitchers as well. However, the relief pitchers do not get so much focus. They do not get nearly as much attention when they throw too many pitches and they certainly do not get as much attention when they get hurt.
Many have argued that Leathersich may have been hurt before this outing. Frank Viola's son even responded to me on Twitter blaming the injury on Leathersich's childhood. He concluded his response with, "It's baseball. It happens". Arguing the unknown here is a deflection from overwhelming evidence that Jack Leathersich's arm was abused on June 29th. No, there was no constant MRI on Jack's elbow that can be used as definitive proof that the ligament tore or stretched from that outing but Jack Leathersich was a healthy pitcher before he was asked to throw 57 pitches after never throwing that many as a professional reliever and never more than 31 in a game before that in 2015.
In starting pitcher terms, Jack Leathersich throwing 57 pitches relative to his season max of 31 would be akin to Jacob deGrom throwing 211 pitches relative to his season max of 115. Jack Leathersich was used to throwing an average of about 18 pitches. He had pushed it to 30 but not far over. Then he had to throw 57. Then he got hurt. If that is not a smoking gun then I do not know what is. There is a cause-effect relationship here and the Mets need to address it.