Although these sins were committed over a decade ago, it's a real worry for the Nationals, when job one (and two, three, four and five) in DC is to smooth the transition of young pitchers like Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg to the major leagues.
Let's have a closer look at the trail of tears:
- Kerry Wood
At least in this case, however, he broke the pitcher during a playoff race.
- Geremi Gonzalez
In 1996, at age 21, he threw 97 innings at AA Orlando with a 3.48 ERA, 7.9 per 9 K-rate, and 2.6 per 9 BB-rate. The next year, he got the bump to AAA Iowa and threw 62 innings with a 3.49 ERA, 8.40 per 9 K-rate, and 3.0 per 9 BB-rate. That earned him a mid-season call-up. Riggleman, managing a team that would finish the year with 94 losses, rode Gonzalez for another 144 innings, a total of 206 for the year, a grotesque 113-inning jump from the previous season.
These days, it's thought that any innings jump over 30 brings elevated risk. But even in the dark old days of the 1990s, this was downright reckless.
Gonzalez managed a 4.25 ERA that rookie season and got some votes for rookie of the year. But as is typically the case, the price was paid the next year, when his ERA jumped more than a run. Three surgeries followed and he didn't pitch again in the big leagues till 2003.
- Joey Hamilton
Hamilton was called up that year and went on to pitch another 108.2 innings for Riggleman. Over the next two seasons, Hamilton threw 416 innings, all before his 26th birthday. He never had the kind of spectacular break down that Wood or Gonzalez had, but his walk rate rose from a stellar 2.5 per 9 in 1995 to 3.5 per 9 in 1996, a tell-tale sign of overuse. Eventually it would elevate to 4.2 per 9 in 1998, and he missed time in between with rotator cuff inflammation. His ERA spiked all the way to 6.52 in 1999 after being traded to Toronto, and he never had the career many projected for him.
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Of course, pitchers get hurt a lot, and it's possible that Wood, Gonzalez, and Hamilton would have had the same fate even if they'd been handled with kid gloves. We can't know. But these are three cautionary tales that raise flags.
Looking at Riggleman's interim stint in Seattle last year, did he show signs of learning lessons? Maybe.
He had three pitchers that could be considered young, valuable arms: Felix Hernandez, Ryan Rowland-Smith, and Brandon Morrow. None of them had the kind of big innings jumps that we saw from Riggleman in Chicago, but the pitch counts weren't what you'd call "cautious."
Morrow, who missed time earlier that season with shoulder soreness and had bounced from the bullpen to the rotation, had pitch counts of 113 and 114 in consecutive starts in September. One of those was a 5-inning, 6-earned run affair that almost surely should have been cut short sooner. Rowland-Smith four times threw more than 100 pitches, the max being 116. King Felix is a bit of a different case, given that he's already pitched two full seasons before age 22. He threw four games over 110 pitches, never more than 120.
So that's not exactly a record of extreme pitcher abuse. I think it's fair to say Riggleman, like the rest of MLB, has learned something about handling young pitchers over the years. Still, it's something that bears watching if this team really considers him a candidate for the future.