OK, I know this is the kiss of death. Or, more accurately, the kiss of a sore arm. But enough hand-wringing over the Yankees’ CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte, the only three starting pitchers the team used to win last year’s World Series.
Starters can get hurt at any time. Veteran starters with significant inning backlogs are especially vulnerable. But for the Yankees, the end justified the means. And the 2010 outlook is not necessarily as gloomy as some believe.
The Yankees, pitching coach Dave Eiland says, have done everything possible to save wear-and-tear on the Big Three, from giving them extra days off and reducing their side work in September to scaling back their offseason programs and cutting their number of throwing sessions earlier this spring.
General manager Brian Cashman added a fourth workhorse over the winter, right-hander Javier Vazquez, to reduce the burden on the Big Three — particularly if the Yankees again reach the postseason.
And, dare I say it, each member of the Big Three has shown, at the very least, a recent pattern of durability.
Sabathia led the majors in pitches thrown in 2008, Burnett ranked third, Pettitte 24th. Didn’t seem to bother any of them in ’09, when — including postseason — Sabathia threw 266 1/3 innings, Burnett 234 1/3 and Pettitte 225 1/3.
Yes, all three pitchers are another year older, another year closer to the ends of their careers. But a closer look at each is revealing:
Sabathia: I remember asking Indians general manager Mark Shapiro if he was worried about Sabathia’s mounting innings total during the 2007 postseason.
I recall questioning the Brewers for pitching Sabathia on three days rest in each of his final four starts – including one in the playoffs — in ’08.
Sabathia, 30, might break down one of these years. But this singular 6- foot-7, 290-pound specimen cannot be measured by the usual standards of the pitch-count police.
Including postseason, Sabathia has thrown 256 innings or more in each of the past three years. The last pitcher to do that, according to STATS LLC, was Greg Maddux, who threw 263 innings or more from 1991 to ’93. Maybe this is just who CC is — the leading workhorse of his generation.
“I would like to think so,” he says. “My arm feels good. My body feels fine.”
Sabathia exceeded 120 pitches only three times in ‘09 — and not once after Aug. 8, including postseason. But, in case you’re wondering, he was indeed drained at the end.
“I slept for like a week,” he says.
And resumed playing catch on Dec. 1.
Burnett: Extra! Extra! Burnett, 33, has produced back-to-back 200-inning seasons for the first time in his career.
“It makes me wish I had figured something out earlier,” says Burnett, who has made 10 career trips to the disabled list, most for arm trouble.
Burnett credits Roy Halladay for mentoring him during their respective tenures with the Blue Jays. But Burnett also is maturing on his own.
“I’m not going all-out, all the time anymore,” Burnett said. “I mean, I do, but I don’t. It’s not how high I can get the radar gun on every pitch. There’s a time and place for that.
“My in-between work also is a lot different. I used to long-toss and throw as hard as I could every day. Because I could. I never iced (my arm). I just did that.”
Burnett says he plays “light catch” now, and his bullpen sessions are shorter. He asks me how many innings he threw last season, and I tell him 234 1/3, including postseason. His previous career-high had been 221 1/3 with the Blue Jays in ’08.
“I felt the same,” he says.
Pettitte: In ’08, he pitched with shoulder pain and went 2-7 with a 6.23 ERA in his final 11 starts before getting shut down in late September.
In ’09, he missed a start in September with shoulder fatigue, raising concerns about his condition for the postseason.
Pettitte, who turns 38 on June 15, rebounded to earn victories in all three of the Yankees’ series-clinching games.
“He ain’t fragile, that’s for sure,” catcher Jorge Posada says. In fact, Pettitte is even more durable than most would perceive.
Over the past five regular seasons, Pettitte ranks ninth in the majors with 1,050 2/3 innings pitched — more than the Braves’ Derek Lowe, more than the Cubs’ Carlos Zambrano, more than the Red Sox’s John Lackey and Josh Beckett.
Add Pettitte’s 62 1/3 postseason innings over that span to his total, and he zooms up to third in innings pitched, behind only Sabathia and the Diamondbacks’ Dan Haren.
“I feel even better this year because I was able to get through last year not having any problems with the shoulder or anything,” Pettitte told FOXSports.com’s Jon Paul Morosi earlier this spring. “Right now, I just feel pretty good.”
They all do.
I know it’s only spring training. Anything can happen in baseball, and often does. But those counting on regression from the Big Three should — knock on wood — prepare to be disappointed.