Bryan Price Elaborates on Workloads and Pitcher Injuries

Back in December, Bryan Price opined in these pages that young pitchers should throw more, not less. The Cincinnati Reds manager was referring to the minor leagues — youthful amateurs are a different story — which is essentially finishing school for up-and-coming hurlers. In Price’s view, “throwing is the only way for them to learn the craft.” For that reason, they should “carry a heavier workload.”

Price uttered those words at a winter-meetings media session, which limited his ability to elaborate on, and clarify, certain salient opinions. With that in mind, I recently followed up with the former pitching coach to give him that opportunity. Injuries and causation was the first subject he addressed.

“I don’t see anything in our baseball community — our pitching community — that suggests protecting these kids by decreasing their workload leads to a lessening of the number of injuries that require surgery,” said Price. “We have yet to put a finger on how we’re going to cure, and completely avoid, the Tommy John issues, the ulnar collateral ligament issues. Perhaps it’s training methods, and kids playing year round now, as opposed to playing seasonal sports. That would be my guess, but I don’t know that as a fact.

“What I do know is that, in the last 7-10 years, the amount of innings being pitched, and the amount of pitches being thrown per game, has decreased, yet we haven’t seen a decrease in the amount of injuries in professional baseball. So I don’t think putting these kids in bubbles and limiting them is necessarily the right answer. How do you develop pitchers if they’re not allowed to throw the baseball?”

In the December interview, Price said he wouldn’t mind seeing pitchers in the Cincinnati system throwing twice between starts. He expounded on that in our more recent conversation.

“When I was [a minor-league pitching coach] with Seattle, we adopted a new throwing program,” recalled Price. “That was in 1991. Our starters threw twice between bullpens, from the beginning of the season until about the middle of July. What we did is temper the effort level to about 60-70%. The first bullpen would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 30-35 pitches and was mostly fastball-changeup. The next day, the same starter would throw a second bullpen of 15 to 20 pitches, and work on a breaking ball, or on a quick delivery from the stretch.

“What it did was give a pitching coach two days between starts to work with, and evaluate, the pitcher without asking him to throw one 30-pitch bullpen where he was fully taxing his arm. What we found is that our pitchers increased their strike percentage, improved their overall command, improved their ability to throw a changeup, and improved their times to the plate. We had some very productive years in Seattle with our pitching — not unscathed by injury, but without being crippled by it either.”

The Reds are currently going a more traditional route with their between-starts bullpens. According to director of player development Jeff Graupe, Cincinnati minor leaguers “generally throw one side session of 30-40 pitches, and possibly one flat ground.” The sides are catered to each individual pitcher, with fatigue, performance, and workload factored in.

Along with mechanics, training regimens and velocity are part of the injury-risk equation. Price proffered that while you can’t strengthen ligaments and tendons, you can strengthen the muscle groups around them. As he put it, “The real question is, ‘What’s in the best interest of the pitcher as far as gaining strength and maintaining, or increasing, flexibility?’ I think that’s been the challenge. Every time you have a series of injuries in an organization, you look around to see if everything you’re doing is the right way to do it.”

As for the radar-gun readings being produced by bigger, stronger pitchers, Price might prefer high octane, but he didn’t sound overly enamored with it.

“I’ve never seen so many hard throwers in the game,” said Price. “But that doesn’t mean velocity [correlates] to success. “Right now, we have 35 pitchers in big-league camp, and we might have half-a-dozen guys that can touch 97, 98, 99, maybe 100 mph. And they’re not our five or six most successful pitchers.”

That said, does increased velocity make pitchers more susceptible to injury?

“That’s a tough question,” said Price. “I just know what I’ve seen with my eyes, and I continue to see kids getting hurt under the best of circumstances. The Washington Nationals couldn’t have been more protective of Stephen Strasburg than the were, and he suffered an injury to his ulnar collateral ligament. He’s one example of many, of teams bending over backwards to try to ensure that a pitcher doesn’t get hurt, and he got hurt anyway. It keeps happening, and I don’t have an answer as to why. I don’t think anyone does.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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5 years ago

Wasn’t Bryan Price the pitching coach in Seattle during the years that inspired Derek Zumsteg to write his Attrition War series? Price’s approach absolutely did cripple the Mariners. They destroyed nearly every pitching prospect they had, year after year.

5 years ago
Reply to  Llewdor

During some of the years, but Zumsteg’s piece reached back before Price’s tenure (2001-6):

“The Mariners suffer more serious arm injuries than other major league teams. This is indisputable…

“For this work, I looked at every team’s pitching prospects, as ranked by Baseball America, from 1995-2004, and attempted to find which prospects had serious arm or shoulder injuries requiring surgery that cost them a year of playing time…

“In absolute terms, the Mariners tied with the Reds with nine serious injuries. As a percentage of prospects, they were tied with the Brewers for second place with 32%. The average team was at 20%. Standard deviation was 2.4 (8%). The Mariners were two deviations from the mean. That’s significant, but it’s not huge.”