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Evolution of the workhorse
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Five innings from Justin Verlander is better than nine innings from almost anyone else on the planet.

Indeed, in five shutout frames Monday versus the Twins, Verlander was able to record seven strikeouts. That's the same amount Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw had in nine innings of work against San Francisco.

But can you really blame me for wanting more?

Five innings once every five days just isn't enough Verlander for me.

Verlander owners aren't the only ones who got shortchanged this week.

Matt Cain, the National League's starting pitcher at the 2012 All-Star Game, left the mound after just six innings in his season opener Monday at Dodger Stadium.

Just like Cain, Washington's Gio Gonzalez was limited to six innings of dominance in his season debut.

Aces Jon Lester (5 IP against the Yankees) and Tim Lincecum (5 IP versus L.A.) also received light workloads in their first starts.

Entering Friday, just 17 starters in the league have pitched seven innings or more this season. That leaves a total of 75 starters who haven't made it into the eighth inning (81.5 percent).

So where have all the workhorses gone?

Before we go down that road, it's probably worth acknowledging that stats from the first week of the season can be pretty deceiving. Pitchers are still trying to build up arm strength in April and rarely go over 100 pitches.

That's nothing new for big league starters. Five years ago, only 20 percent of starters went seven innings or more in their first start. Even five years before that, the likelihood of a starter pitching into the eighth inning was about one in five.

But that's where the similarities seem to end. Eleven years ago in 2002, Arizona lefthander Randy Johnson led the league with 260 innings pitched. The following season, Roy Halladay logged a baffling 266 frames over 36 starts.

In 2012, Justin Verlander led the majors with just 238 innings pitched. No starter has tossed more than 255 innings since Livan Hernandez finished with that exact number for Montreal in 2004.

Last year 31 pitchers in MLB threw at least 200 innings. Rewind to '03 and the number was 44.

These would appear to be pretty significant changes but for fantasy owners, the impact isn't as great as you might think. By throwing fewer innings, starters like Verlander and Cain are losing opportunities for strikeouts, but other than that, their fantasy values are mostly the same.

For example, Verlander led the majors with 239 K's last season. That's well below Johnson's league-leading total in 2002 (334). But that year, there were six 20-game winners, which is only two more than the number we witnessed this past season.

While strikeout totals have certainly tailed off a bit in recent seasons (no one has reached 290 K's since 2004), the number of 20-game winners in the major leagues has followed a cyclical pattern.

In 2003, league-leader Roy Halladay was one of three big-leaguers with 20 or more victories. Three years later Chien-Ming Wang and Johan Santana tied for the league-lead with just 19 wins a piece. 2009 also featured no 20-game winners, though three pitchers reached that threshold the following season (Halladay, CC Sabathia and Adam Wainwright).

Perhaps, Verlander and Randy Johnson aren't so different after all.

In fact, if you look at pitches per start, Verlander's 2012 average was identical to the one Johnson posted a decade earlier. Both flamethrowers tossed 114.2 pitches per game.

Though it's unlikely that manager Jim Leyland would ever allow Verlander to throw 149 pitches (that's how many Johnson threw against Montreal on July 31, 2002), the idea that managers are more conservative with pitchers now than they were ten years ago is simply not true.

Twenty of the 30 teams in major league baseball had at least one pitcher throw 200 innings last season. All 30 have had a 200-inning guy in the last three years.

Verlander's league-leading six complete games in 2012 were just two fewer than the number Johnson and Bartolo Colon threw when they tied for the league-lead in 2002.

The difference between the workhorses of today and the ones that toed the rubber a decade ago comes down to one word: efficiency.

During his Cy Young campaign in 2003, Halladay averaged 13.6 pitches per inning. Verlander needed just under 16 pitches to get out of an inning in 2012 (15.8).

That doesn't seem like a big difference but over the course of the game and a season, it adds up.

If Verlander's normal pitch count is around 115, he'll usually get there in about 7 1/3 innings. Halladay (at least the 2003 version) could go almost a full nine innings before getting to that number. You won't see a more efficient performance than the one Halladay turned in against Detroit on September 6, 2003 (10 IP, 99 pitches).

Then again, perhaps the difference has nothing to do with pitching at all.

Maybe it's the hitters. Hitting coaches are telling players to take pitches when they face superstars like Verlander. By being patient, hitters can drive up Verlander's pitch count and force him out of the game earlier.

Of course, Verlander's approach lends itself to throwing a lot of pitches. He's always been a strikeout pitcher while Halladay (204 strikeouts in 2003) usually pitches to contact.

Whatever the difference, fantasy owners need not panic. Verlander has averaged 238 innings over the last four seasons and has never thrown fewer than 186 in a single season.

Even for me, that's a lot of Verlander.




Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Jesse Pantuosco at jpantuosco@sportsnetwork.com.

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