The pitching-workload landscape is a markedly different beast today than it was even a mere half-decade ago.
We're in the midst of the first truly "normal" season -- as far as pitcher "ramping up for the season" patterns are concerned -- since 2019, with the 2020-21 seasons threatened by the cloud of COVID-19, then the 2022 campaign being slightly delayed and with a compressed spring training following the lockout. Frankly, one could still make the case that this year's patterns were also somewhat altered by the World Baseball Classic.
Pitching workloads have been increasing of late, at least relative to the modest amounts we saw in the first year-plus following the 108-day delayed start to the 2020 season, but how much might their ceilings ultimately reach? Specifically, what are the odds we might someday soon see 81 pitchers reach the ERA qualification threshold of 162 innings pitched, or one per team game? We last saw that happen a full 10 seasons ago, in 2013. At the very least, could we at least see a rebound to the mere 57 who did so only a half-decade ago, in 2018?
So far in 2023, 70 pitchers find themselves on pace to qualify for the ERA title, while 13 are on track to reach 200 innings -- a huge boost over the mere 45 and eight who reached those thresholds in 2022. The harsh reality, however, is that "it's early" is an appropriate reaction to these early workload returns, as through an equal number of days in 2021, 64 pitchers were ERA-qualified with 17 on track for 200-plus innings, and in 2022, 62 were ERA-qualified and eight paced for 200-plus frames. In short, workloads generally evened out over the full 162-game schedule, and that should be expected again -- at least to some degree -- this year.
Recently, pitchers who absorbed hefty early-season workloads have paid more of a price in terms of performance later in the year. We'll toss out Trevor Bauer from 2021, as he landed on the restricted list soon thereafter, but collecting the remaining 24 individuals who, through 62 days of each of the past two seasons (roughly one-third of the schedule) paced for 200-plus innings, the group saw a marked downturn in performance after the All-Star break of those years. Whether that trend might improve in this season -- again, the first that not to be truly interrupted at its start -- remains unknown, but at least the 2021-22 returns suggest that pitchers who tallied unexpectedly high innings totals through this point of the year should warrant some concern.
The pitchers who paced for 200-plus innings through 62 days of either 2021 or 2022 averaged 15.6 fantasy points per start during that time but only 10.9 points per start following the All-Star break of those years.
A full 11 of the 24 landed on the injured list sometime during the latter two-thirds of those seasons, with seven of them enduring at least a one-month stint.
Of these 24 pitchers, nine enjoyed a 200-IP pace that also would have represented an increase over their previous single-season high for innings as a pro by at least 30 innings. This group of nine averaged 6.3 fantasy points per start fewer after the All-Star break than during the season's first 62 days, and the only one to both avoid a lengthy IL stint as well as keep his average within five points in either of these two time spans was Toronto Blue Jays starter Alek Manoah last year -- and he only now appears to be paying the price for his hefty 2022 workload.
A little uneasy with all this hard work
With all that in mind, the pitchers enduring similarly hefty workloads thus far in 2023 should at least raise a warning flag for their fantasy managers, warranting a closer examination or at least some shopping as sell-high candidates. As it is, one of them, Eduardo Rodriguez (on pace for 206⅔ innings), just landed on the IL himself on Tuesday because of a finger issue.
Here are three others who stand out from this group of unusually durable arms:
Nathan Eovaldi, SP, Texas Rangers: The A-No. 1 example of "gosh, he can't possibly keep this up," Eovaldi sports a career-best 2.42 ERA, more than a run and a quarter better than his next-best number, while pacing for a major league-leading 223 innings. His previous best for innings was 199⅔, set in 2014, and he has exceeded 125 frames in only two of his past seven seasons, during which time he has made seven trips to the IL.
Eovaldi has been a sensation for the Rangers, but none of his underlying skills looks markedly different from those in his better past seasons, and Statcast has him performing about a half-run better in ERA than he should have been. His Rangers have also gotten a good number of their games against weaker offenses into the books already -- they're done with the Colorado Rockies, Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates and have played seven of their 13 against the Oakland Athletics -- so the schedule should get more challenging.
Logan Webb, San Francisco Giants: While he did amass a pro-best 192⅓ innings last season, his pace of 212 frames this year could be a concern considering some of the mild injuries he has had over the past two-plus years, including shoulder issues that landed him on the IL in 2021 and a back problem that pushed back one of his May starts. Webb isn't an overpowering type, relying more on his sinker and changeup to generate a good number of ground balls rather than peak velocity, but that also demands consistently good command to remain successful. I could go either way on trusting him coming off the hefty early workload, but if the sell-high price is that of a prospective top-20 starter, I'd deal him away.
Anthony DeSclafani, Giants: He's as strong a sell-high candidate as you'll find, between the 198⅓ inning pace -- that's more than 30 more than he has thrown in any of his previous seven seasons and 13⅔ more than his pro high -- and the modest 18.0% strikeout rate, 10th lowest among the 70 current ERA qualifiers. DeSclafani isn't so much doing it with smoke and mirrors as he has shifted his repertoire to his more effective pitches while improving his overall control, and his 3.3% walk rate is easily his best in any of his 12 pro seasons. He's another pitcher with a checkered injury past, most recently dealing with ankle issues in both 2021 and 2022.
Not nearly as concerned
Mitch Keller, Pittsburgh Pirates: He was the subject of one of my more recent columns, and since he's also on track for a 206-inning campaign, he at least belongs in the discussion among hot starters who might pay the price for it later in the summer. After all, he totaled only 159 innings last season, and previously had pitched 151⅔ innings between the majors and minors in 2019 and 142⅓ in the minors in 2018 as his two next-largest seasonal totals. Still, Keller's Pirates tend to bake workload management into their rotation plans, often shuffling starts around days off to keep their pitchers on track for seasonal innings targets.
In Keller's case, 190 seems like a rational target number, which is only 16 off his current pace, and that's something that could be managed with perhaps his being pushed back directly after the All-Star break and/or perhaps some early exits or times skipped in September, especially should his Pirates not remain in the playoff race by then. If they do hang in there, his workload might become a late-season worry, but considering his skills bumps this year, he's a pitcher not regarded as valuable enough to warrant a sell-high case, based upon what he might still offer in the coming weeks.