Felix Day is always an exciting affair. So far this year he's thrown four complete games, allowed two or fewer runs in fourteen starts, and had seven or more strike outs in ten starts. All this despite his poor (and unlucky) May!
Then again, maybe this is disconcerting. Because he's been in Major League Baseball since 2005, it's easy to forget that Felix is still a young 24 - his 25th birthday won't be until after the start of the 2011 season. We have all heard horror stories of young phenom pitchers having their careers ruined to injury after throwing too often and too hard at an early age. Should we be worried for Felix's future?
Felix is tied with Ben Sheets for the most pitching starts this season, at 19. During these starts he's thrown more pitches than anyone in baseball but Dan Haren (Haren's 2,112 to Felix's 2,104). Felix has faced more batters than anyone else in MLB (565 to second-place Ervin Santana's 522). He has also thrown more innings than any other pitcher (137 2/3 to Sabathia's 124 - Felix is on pace for 247 IP this year). He is behind only Cliff Lee in complete games, four to Cliff's six. The "kid's gloves" are clearly off as far as the Mariners' approach to Felix goes. He is now a workhorse.
But hey! Maybe this is not a big deal. Other young pitchers threw a lot when they were young, and they turned out fine, right? Let's take a look. Baseball-Reference.com lists Charlie Lea, Justin Verlander, Wally Bunker, Erik Bedard, Rich Harden, Mark Prior, Carmen Hill, Scott Kazmir, Chad Billingsley and Jim Weaver as being similar pitches to Felix. Of those ten names, only seven of them pitched in MLB in their early-twenties. Those are the seven names I am concerned about. Time to examine how they did.
Verlander: His first full season was at age 23. He pitched 197 innings, including the post season. He pitched 201 2/3 innings at age 24, and continued to throw for more than 200 innings every season thereafter. He continues to be a star.
Bunker: Wally Bunker pitched more than 200 innings at age 19. His innings/season steadily declined until he threw only 71 innings age 23. Then at age 24 he threw 222 2/3 IP. He struggled the next year, and the proceeding year after that was his last in baseball. Managers must have been real dumb back then.
Harden - Rich Harden began his MLB career at age 21. He threw 189 2/3 innings at age 22. At 23 the injuries started. Since his age 22 season, he's only topped 100 IP/season three times. He is now 28 and ineffective for the Texas Rangers.
Prior - Mark Prior began pitching for the Cubs at age 21, during which time he threw 116 2/3 innings. The next year he threw 234 2/3 innings, including the post season. He started experiencing injuries the following year, and has not thrown a pitch in MLB since 2006.
Hill - Carmen Hill had a crazy time in baseball during the nineteen-teens. Check it out. I don't know what to make of him, but I can tell that his situation was nothing like Felix's. Moving on.
Kazmir - Scott Kazmir broke into baseball at age 20, but his first full season was not until age 21, during which he threw 186 innings, after just 33 1/3 the year before. He threw 206 2/3 innings at age 23, but pitched less and less each year since. Although he used to be considered one of the best young pitchers in the game, he is currently performing horrendously for the Angels.
Chad Billingsley - Chad Billingsley threw 90 pitches for the Dodgers at age 21. He threw 147 at age 22, 200 2/3 at 23, 196 1/3 at 24, and has thrown 95 2/3 innings this year, at 25. It's hard to say how he will do going forward, although I would be remiss if I did not point out that Billingsley is throwing significantly less than Felix, too.
Of the seven pitchers deemed similar to Felix, we have Carmen Hill, who I am going to ignore from here-on out, four pitchers who were wracked with injuries after pitching a lot in their early-mid 20's, and two who, while not having sustained major injuries, are still in their mid-20s. Anything could happen to them.
Felix is not in good company. Even when one looks at the veteran pitching stars of today, like CC Sabathia, Johan Santana, Tim Lincecum and Ubaldo Jiminez, Felix has thrown significantly more than they were at his age (Lincecum arguably being an exception). I love Felix, and the reasons to worry about his health going forward terrify me.