Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Jim Riggleman: Scourge of Young Pitchers?

On the podcast yesterday, I mentioned that Jim Riggleman's most lasting managerial legacy may be that he's the manager who broke Kerry Wood. And his overuse of his phenom 20-year-old in 1997 is just one of a number of young pitchers Riggleman used and abused as manager of the Cubs and Padres.

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
You know this tale of woe. Wood was called up at age 20. He won the rookie of the year with a 3.40 ERA and 12.6 Ks per 9. He also walked 4.6 per 9 and was therefore prone to high pitch counts. Riggleman didn't care. He had Wood throw 166.2 innings, including pitch counts of 133, 129, 123, 123, 122 (twice), and 121 (twice). After the season, Wood had Tommy John surgery, missed two full seasons, and has never become the guy he might have been.

At least in this case, however, he broke the pitcher during a playoff race.
  • Geremi Gonzalez
Singed as an amateur free agent from Venezuela at age 16, Gonzalez was never the A-level prospect that Wood was, but he was more highly touted than anyone in the Nationals system not named Zimmermann.

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
Looking back at Riggleman's time in San Diego, Hamilton stands out as the top pitching prospect he handled there. An eighth-overall pick out of Georgia Southern who threw a 100-mph fastball, Hamilton was the top prospect in the Padres' system when Riggleman was hired in 1992. In 1993 at age 22, he threw 149 innings across three levels with a 4.11 ERA. In 1994, he broke through, putting up a 2.73 ERA in 59.1 innings at AAA Las Vegas (in an extreme hitters' league).

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.

# # #

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.


Greg Maddux said...

I was never the same after this.

Steven said...

Thanks for stopping by Dusty. Just keep doin' what you're doing. The old school will rise again!

Anonymous said...


You have been known for your revisionist history with respect to Milledge and Acta. Don't make me go back and find your quotes again about how Milledge's poor attitude is unfounded and that Acta does his motivating and disciplining in private. Just this week you said that "Manny's shown the ability to be an excellent motivator, which in my view is 80% or more of a manager's job".....Come on much more evidence and player quotes do you need to see.......Self Help Books????? sure that worked well for Milledge and Guz...........What were you thinking just a day or two ago with that statement?

Steven said...

I said Manny should be fired. What do you want? I'm not going to say he had no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Steven said...

Phil Jackson is well known for his annual reading recommendations, by the way. I suppose he's a moron too?

Anonymous said...


You said he should be fired? When last week, last month.....What about the day in Feb when he said Milledge was his CFer and Leadoff man or in March when he said it was fine to blow off the team kick off meeting on your birthday? This is the revisionist history what you have become so at ease with. How about when he said that J Harahan was his closer and he had complete faith in him and we should too…….When was it you called for Acta to be fired again?

Anonymous said...

Phil Jackson....come and baseball are too completely different cases. Jackson had Jordan and several all star players in CHI and In LA he had the two best players in basketball when you just play 5 at a time. Are you really comparing Manny and to Phil Jackson?

Ben said...

I'm not sure I see changing ones mind, and having a complex set of feeling on an issue as a bad thing anon.

A lot of people have gone back and forth on when and or if Manny should be fired and, whether he was good at his job or even if he was whether he was good at his job within this organisation.

If you are incapable of changing you mind based on a complex set of circumstances which are constantly in flux you have no sort of mind at all.

Anonymous said...

Well said in the general case but...... Manny Never Changed from day one so it did not take me 3 years to understand what he was.....were did you see all this changing circumstances anyway.....he was the same and responded the same regardless of the inputs and lack of progress.

Anonymous said...

I don't get it - why does every time Stan opens his mouth he says how unhappy he is to have an "interim" GM, and now an "interim" manager. Isn't he the one in charge of this situation?

Maybe it's time to start up the 'Fire Stan Kasten' blog.

Deacon Drake said...

Riggleman should not even be in the discussion. This is why I was hoping they would wait until August or September to make a move, as to not encourage anybody (players, fans, less intelligent front office people) that he was auditioning for the job.

The fact of the matter is that Riggleman took over a good team in San Diego and rode them straight to Strasburg territory. Shortly after he left, they were in the playoffs.

He took over a talented Cubs after the Treblehorn disaster and even with the one playoff run in 1998, consistently played well below .500.

The Mariners made some moves to drastically improve their team this season, but they still lost 100 games last year with him on the bench.

The Nats will lose 100 games with him finishing the season on the bench. It should be noted that during his first two managerial stints and this season with the Nats, he was associated with team that often played well below what their numbers would indicate (check out the Pythagorean numbers on those 90s teams).

His record in the minors is similar to his major league record, and while managing in the lower levels is different, it didn't change the results.

Hiring Riggleman would set the franchise back several seasons, and judging by what Steven wrote, probably risk what ever dollar amount they put on Strasburg's right arm, as well as the stash of vulnerable pitchers already on the roster.

Greg P said...

"The Nats will lose 100 games with him finishing the season on the bench."

Not to nit-pick, but chances are the Nats are going to lose 100 games no matter who the skipper is. It's just a matter of if it'll be 102 games or 120 games.

I'm pretty sure Riggleman isn't the solution, but I appreciate what he did in Seattle last year to keep them from winning the Strasburg sweepstakes.

JayB said...

I think what is needed is a major rework of the roster....start today.....

Cut Kearns and Billiard today

Trade Guzman, Johnson and eat salary if you must...but get some position player prospects of minor value but get something now.

Line up today should be

CF Morgan
RF Harris
1B Willingham
LF Dunn
3B Zim
C Bard
2B Hernandez
SS Gonzalez

Start rewarding AAA and AA players who are hot and have options....bring them up for a tryout of 30 AB's each over the next 2 months.

Make a statement by signing all of the first 30 Draft picks. Pick out 5 of the best of the rest and sign them away from college plans with above slot bonus money.

Establish a player’s court that fines players who do not give their best or make mental errors. Anyone not at the part 15 mins early gets a $1000 fine. All fines go to IMPACTA fund.

Mr. Mustache said...

Wait a second JayB...

You want Willie Harris playing RF?!?!?! Why? Did you think this through?

Why is Alberto batting 8th behind Anderson?

JayB said...

If you note I have traded Johnson and Guz in theory. Dunn can not play or will not work enough to play first. Willingham seems like a worker so I put him at first to learn fast. I put Gonzalez eight to so pitcher get practice bunting him over and to hit Anderson.

JayB said...

That is "hide" Anderson and in hopes that he will get some strikes to hit without a pitcher behind him

JayB said...

I have DFA Kearns and Belliard and I am waiting to see if Maxwell or Dukes earns a return trip to MLB level. I also am looking for position players in return for trade and salary eating of Johnson and Guz.

JayB said...

Harris in RF if fine for now. He charges balls which will help his arm some and what choice do we have better for now (given the trades we need to make)? We need leaders like Harris and Morgan to play everyday to set a new tone and expectation of how to play this game.

Mr. Mustache said...

Without even looking, I will guarantee the difference in Runs prevented by shifting Dunn to 1st will be much less than shifting Willie Harris to RF from LF. He has NO arm. There is a reason he has only 1 MLB game in RF. I'd rather put him at 1B and leave Willingham at RF (I wouldn't really do either).

Many have suggested that Dunn would improve his 1B skills if he was there every day. We have the unique opportunity of having a team where such an experiment might be possible (we already are bad).

Rizzo expects Dukes to be up by the end of the year, so I assume he'll be playing RF while NJ is hopefully gone.

If Willie's not in LF, let him be a super-sub for LF/CF/2b/3b.

Putting Alberto ahead of the pitcher means he sees crappy pitches for the rest of the year. Why would you do this to one of the most promising young hitters on the team? Are you doing this with the desire for him to regress? I guess our SP's might hit better than AHernia in the second half.