February 9th, 2013

Jeff Jones on managing pitcher workloads

Jeff Jones showed last year he could take the challenge of handling a pitching staff coming off a deep postseason run. Despite many Tigers starters pitching well past their career highs for innings in 2011, they stayed relatively healthy in 2012. The few injuries they had — Doug Fister’s oblique issues and Max Scherzer’s late-season shoulder problems — weren’t season-threatening, and only closer Jose Valverde had a really severe dropoff.

Now, he’s trying to do it again. And after back-to-back years with deep postseason runs, Jones isn’t taking the issue lightly.

“There’s always going to be concern after going to the postseason two years in a row,” Jones said Saturday. “We’ll do whatever we can to make sure that we don’t push them too hard, too early.

He looked at innings and workload numbers for the biggest increases, and he had discussions with manager Jim Leyland, whose Pirates staffs had three consecutive extended seasons when they ruled the NL East in the early 1990s.

The result: Several Tigers starters held off a bit on starting their throwing program, notably Justin Verlander. Others will use the longer camp this year thanks to the World Baseball Classic to build up their arms slowly.

“To me, it’s to our advantage this year,” Jones said of the longer camp, “because we have some guys that threw an awful lot of innings last year and the year before. So the extra five days, I think, will help us be able to go a little bit slower with some of them.”

Though Verlander fell shy last year of his 2011 total, even with the extra round, he didn’t fall short by much: 266 2/3 innings last year, 271 1/3 innings in 2011. Anibal Sanchez’s postseason meant he pitched about 20 more innings than his previous high, though he had come close to 200 innings in each of his previous two seasons. Scherzer fell a few innings short thanks to his shoulder issue, but racked up about 415 innings over the last two years.

Some pitching staffs handle it well, such as the Yankees in the late 1990s and into the 2000s. That was a more experienced pitching staff, and the rotation went through some tweaks over the years with free-agent additions. Other staffs went through some issues.

“Once you go through it and you play longer, you go the playoffs, I think it’s just experience that tells you when [you] need to start this year,” Jones said. “JV and I talked extensively about when he wanted to start, things like that.”

Jones made the point with Verlander that he made with others: Don’t feel like you’ll be behind schedule. With the extended spring slate, you won’t be.