Houston Astros: arm breaker Dusty Baker takes aim

With Dusty Baker at the helm, oddsmakers need to set an over/under for when Houston Astros pitcher Lance McCullers’s arm falls off.

The Houston Astros have a manager now, one who is well respected in the game for many reasons. Dusty Baker is the grizzled, old veteran who chews on a toothpick in the dugout and manages off gut instinct. He is a stark contrast from AJ Hinch, the young, clean-shaven wunderkind who manages using data and analytics.

Baker is a great tactician and has tasted success in his twenty-two years as a manager as referenced by his seven division titles, three times being voted manager of the year, and a trip to the World Series in 2002 with the Giants. The knock-on Dusty Baker, however, is how he handles his starting pitchers. Baker has been known to stick with pitchers too long in games, running them out to the mound at the expense of their arms.

The most recognizable cases of this are in 2003 when Baker managed the Chicago Cubs. With the Cubs up 3 games to 2 and leading 3-0 heading into the 8thinning of Game 6, the Cubs were just six outs away from the World Series. Instead of going with a well-rested bullpen Baker ran his starting pitcher Mark Prior back to the mound where he proceeded to give up the lead and the game.  Yes, a lot of weird stuff happened that inning with the Bartman ball and the Alex Gonzalez error, but Prior was left in the game in the midst of five straight guys reaching base before being pulled at 119 pitches thrown.

Series tied 3-3 and Baker sticks with Kerry Wood too long. Wood had already given up six runs through five innings, but Baker ran him out for the sixth and he finished by throwing 112 pitches in a game the Cubs couldn’t keep close enough to mount a comeback.

Two games, a couple of bad breaks, a couple of pitches which didn’t locate, it happens, right? Well that year under the watchful eye of Baker, Wood averaged 110 pitches a start, topping out at 141 one time. Prior averaged 113 pitches per start and went over 100 pitches in each of his last ten starts before the playoffs. In comparison, Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander averaged 101 pitches per start this year and only pitched three games of more than 110 pitches. You may say an average of 9 pitches per start isn’t much. Take 9 pitches over 32 starts and this is an extra 288 pitches of wear and tear on an arm headed into the postseason where every pitch is a high-leverage pitch.

Wood and Prior taxed their arms so much in 2003, Wood only made twenty-two starts the following season and fourteen more in a career which ultimately sent him to the bullpen once his arm troubles set in. Prior only pitched two more years and was out of the league because of arm issues.  And the legend of Dusty Baker Arm Breaker was born.

Remember in 2012 when the Washington Nationals decided to shut down Stephen Strasburg in his first year back from Tommy John surgery? They gave him an innings limit of 160 and held to that number.  He averaged 93 pitches per start so they carefully monitored him and wouldn’t let him pitch in the postseason, one which saw the Nationals make a first-round exit.

How will the Astros choose to handle Lance McCullers, who is coming off Tommy John surgery and right into Dusty Baker’s starting rotation?

In his 80 career starts McCullers has only thrown more than 100 pitches 24 times (30% of the time). McCullers is a curveball specialist, a pitch that adds extra stress to the elbow. An elbow which may not be able to handle the workload Baker has in mind.

The Houston Astros better have a plan in place for how to manage McCullers’ innings/pitch count, for if the “arm management” is left up to Arm Breaker, that arm will fall off by mid-June.