NCAA playoffs push coaches to lean on star arms
Pressure of college postseason allows for potential overwork of young pitchers
A television producer ordered up shots of the bullpens with Thomas Eshelman, Cal State Fullerton's ace, and Nebraska's Chance Sinclair locked up in a scoreless game in the NCAA postseason tournament on Friday. They looked like ghost towns, with no one in sight.
"The way these guys are pitching, we might show those bullpens again in the 12th inning and it'll look the same,'' said the play-by-play man, Mark Neely.
He was kidding. But he was also right.
In the NCAA baseball tournament, with winning so prioritized by all parties involved, you never know how a coach will handle his pitching staff. That's why the Major League Baseball scouts and executives who are finalizing their lists for the upcoming First-Year Player Draft are, as usual, watching the action on the road to Omaha full of trepidation.
Circumstances are ripe for ambitious coaches to push their pitching staffs to the breaking point, and sometimes beyond.
"There's a jerk out there every year,'' one MLB executive said.
A year ago, the University of North Carolina went into the regionals as the No. 1 overall seed after a great regular season.
The Tar Heels' ace, Kent Emanuel, was seen as a guy who could be taken in the first few rounds of the Draft. He threw 124 pitches over 7 2/3 innings on Saturday in the regional at Chapel Hill but was used out of the bullpen after one day's rest, throwing 51 pitches in 1 2/3 innings as North Carolina scrambled to salvage a 12-11 victory over Florida Atlantic.
The good news in this story is that both Emanuel's arm and his standing for the Draft held up. He was taken by the Astros in the third round, received a $747,700 signing bonus and is currently in the rotation in the Class A Advanced California League.
But happy endings aren't guaranteed for college pitchers. Former big league pitcher C.J. Nitkowski, now a broadcaster for Fox Sports 1, watched his St. John's teammate Anthony Sagnelli throw 183 pitches in a regular-season game against Georgetown, and says Sagnelli was never the same again.
Nitkowski learned firsthand about the competitive nature of college baseball and has also studied it from the perspective of an analyst. He was broadcasting the Big East tournament last week when Creighton used its senior closer, Bryan Sova, for a complete-game, 110-pitch victory to reach the championship game, which it lost.
"That was something we would never see [in professional baseball],'' said Nitkowski, who had a 10-year Major League career. "You think about a reliever coming in to make a spot start, you're looking to get five innings from him, if you're really lucky. At the college level, they'll go ahead and let a kid go ahead and throw who knows how many pitches, which, of course, is absurd.''
Nitkowski does empathize with the coaches, who face daily conflicts in trying to win and not overuse their best pitchers.
"It's extremely difficult for these guys, extremely difficult to try to balance it,'' Nitkowski said Friday. "Even in the big leagues, there's only 30 big league managers, and I will tell you that they don't all run their pitching staffs that great, use their bullpens right. You go into these double-elimination tournaments, the coaches' competitiveness takes over. That's where the good [coaches] have to kind of keep themselves in check. Chances are, most of the kids are going to be OK with it. I don't think you'll find kids complaining about it. They want to win, too. They want to go to Omaha, even though, yes, they have these pro careers potentially hanging in the balance, in that moment.''
White Sox general manager Rick Hahn believes that most college coaches do the best they can to protect their players, just as Major League teams do. But he admits that stress on arms is a major concern, especially for teams with picks near the top in the First-Year Player Draft.
"From the outside, you can have the presumption that [coaches are] messing with a kid's career professionally,'' Hahn said. "But we certainly ask of people from the outside to understand that we have better information inside, knowing the players and knowing what they can handle, what they're feeling and what they're reporting, so I want to give [college] coaches the same kind of benefit of doubt -- that they know their players. That said, there is concern of how these people are getting used on a weekly basis. Some of them. There are a lot of good coaches out there that take care of their guys.''
Nitkowski did not have one of those. He was in his sophomore season at St. John's when his team got on a roll that had it closing in on a spot in the College World Series in Omaha. He threw 151 pitches in a complete-game victory over Cal State-Northridge in the regionals and then was brought back with one day's rest to pitch relief in the regional final, against Arizona State.
He had told the coach, Joe Russo, that he was good to go because he understood the significance for his school.
"It was huge for us,'' Nitkowski said. "For [a smaller program], you're lucky if you get to Omaha once every 30 years. For a Big East team to even have a chance to get to Omaha, like Stony Brook a couple years ago, that's a huge deal. There's a lot riding on that. It's a badge of honor for the program. For a coach [of a smaller program] to have a chance to take a team to Omaha, it means everything.''
Nitkowski had nothing on his pitches as Arizona State pulled away to the predictable victory.
"We were already losing, might have been down a couple and trying to keep the game close. I pitched an inning and let in four runs. Had I been a little sharper, he definitely would have kept me out there. My coach was an old-school coach. In the sense when it came to pitch counts, he was completely oblivious. It was ridiculous that he left a teammate throw 180 in a regular-season game.''
Even the most understanding coaches struggle with how to handle tight games in win-or-else situations. These situations are a special kind of danger zone for pitchers.
"The coaches, ultimately, most of them are not particularly level headed when the competition starts,'' Nitkowski said. "It's difficult. You see a guy throwing well, you know you're not that deep and he's up to 140 pitches and it's only the seventh or eighth inning. It's hard to get 'em out of there. They're just not deep. Most teams don't have good bullpens. I've done a handful of college games, and they're just not very good bullpens.
"Rarely do you have a team that has more than one or two relievers they're comfortable going to in big situations Now to try to manage that in a double-elimination situation is tough. It's really, really difficult to be able to manage that and think about, 'What am I going to do with these kids' arms, how am I going to take care of 'em?'''
Major League executives still talk about the night in 2009 when Boston College pushed Texas for 25 innings in the regionals. The Longhorns pitched reliever Austin Wood for 13 innings. He threw 169 pitches on top of the 30 he had thrown over two innings the previous day. Boston College extended its closer, Mike Belfiore, for 9 2/3 innings. He threw 129 pitches.
Both have had pro careers, with Belfiore reaching the Major Leagues with the 2013 Orioles. Wood has called that marathon outing "the best thing that's ever happened to me'' even though he needed arm surgery in 2010. Yet there's no expiration date on the debate about their use in that regional.
Orthopedic surgeon James Andrews and the American Sports Medicine Institute just released a position paper on causes for elbow injuries that lead to Tommy John surgery. Nitkowski read it closely.
"One of the things Dr. Andrews has brought up is that guys are most at risk to get hurt when they're tired,'' Nitkowski said. "Yes, pitch counts matter, but it's pitching when you're fatigued. That's where the stuff in the NCAA tournament can be a real problem. A guy throws a bunch of pitches one day and comes back a day or two later. Even relievers, they get used hard.
"When you get tired, you're not using your legs anymore. You're not using them as much, so there's more stress on your shoulder. These are the kind of pitchers who are in big situations with the tournament. The adrenaline is really high. That's when the risk for injury really goes up.''
Coaches often say that they consulted with pitchers before keeping them in the game or using them on short rest. That is a crutch enabling over-use, as players are highly competitive and probably experiencing peer pressure.
"There may be some smarter guys out there who know they shouldn't be throwing more than 120 [pitches], and might say something to their college coach, but probably knowing that environment, guys just usually aren't going to say no even if they know they're potentially going to get drafted,'' Nitkowski said. "Then it looks like they're putting themselves before the team. Their teammates are saying, 'Hey, that's great that you're going to get drafted, but you're here now. You're a member of the UCLA Bruins, whoever. You need to quit worrying about what's going to happen next year. You need to worry about what's happening now with this team.' That's the prevailing attitude. Most guys would not say no.''
North Carolina State lefty Carlos Rodon averaged 126 pitches over a three-start span during the ACC regular season. That caused eyebrows to arch around baseball, as Rodon entered the season as the favorite to be the first overall pick in the First-Year Player Draft.
Nitkowski, who has met Rodon and studied his pitching style, wasn't among those worried.
"For the regular season, that doesn't bother me,'' Nitkowski said. "He's getting six days off in between. I know some people get worked up, but I didn't think it was that big of a deal. I think that number is OK.''
Given his experience, Nitkowski would know better than most. But the teams with a chance to draft Rodon probably felt like celebrating when the Wolf Pack was left out of the field for the NCAA Tournament. Gone was the chance to ride him to the College World Series, tempting fate all the way.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.