In the first true full season of his career, not only has Gallardo pitched more innings than he ever has in a big league season, but he's shouldered the load of an entire (disappointing) rotation. In 175 innings, he's struck out 192 batters, molded a 3.59 ERA, and has managed a winning record of 12-11 despite some very poor run support and middle relief that's lost their fair share of his starts.
But if the Brewers aren't careful, history may repeat itself.
In a lot of ways, Gallardo's 2009 season is similar to Ben Sheets' 2004 season. As a 25-year old, Sheets went 12-14 with a 2.70 ERA and 264 strikeouts in 237 innings. It was good enough for an 8th-place finish in the Cy Young voting despite pitching for a horrible 67-94 team. Unfortunately, it was the last season where Sheets wasn't hampered by some kind of injury. Due to years of the Brewers overworking Sheets' young arm as the only good starter on some pretty bad teams, he began to break down. In 2005, he was only able to make 22 starts. In 2006, he made 17 starts. In 2007, he took the mound 24 times. It wasn't until last season that Sheets hit the 30-start mark again, starting in 31 games but running into elbow issues at the end of the season.
Ironically, it was Sheets' injury last season that contributed to the Brewers rushing Gallardo back from knee surgery in September. If Sheets never gets hurt, Gallardo is probably limited to a bullpen role or perhaps never comes back at all in 2008.
The Brewers obviously misplayed their hand when it came to Ben Sheets, but they're far from the only organization to put too much stress on a young stud pitcher. The Cubs severely altered the career paths of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood through overuse. In the past two seasons, the Reds overworked Edinson Volquez to the point of Tommy John Surgery. The Rays rode Scott Kazmir hard until he developed injury problems, and recently traded him for much less value than they could've had a year or two ago.
On the surface, it doesn't look like Gallardo's been worked too hard. He hasn't hit the 200-inning mark this year, and likely won't make it there even if he makes the rest of his scheduled starts this year (and it's looking like he won't, since Ken Macha has said he's going to give him extra rest before his next start). At the most, he may make 30 starts this year. But it's not the innings pitched or games started that has a lot of people worried about Gallardo -- it's the number of pitches he's thrown this year.
Baseball Prospectus keeps track of Pitcher Abuse Points, which essentially measures how much stress is being put on a pitcher's arm. As of September 6th, Gallardo is 11th in all of baseball in PAP, trailing the likes of Justin Verlander, Tim Lincecum, and Zack Greinke. There are a lot of flaws with PAP -- mainly that you're likely going to see the best pitchers in the league near the top of the list every year, due to the fact that they're making more starts per year and working deeper into games. Some pitchers, like Roy Halladay and CC Sabathia, have proven that they can take that kind of abuse and not succumb to injuries or ineffectiveness. When it comes to young pitchers, however, it's still a cause for concern.
More concerning than Gallardo's PAP ranking, though, is the average number of pitches he's throwing per start. It's become pretty clear that he's been laboring through his starts lately -- he hasn't had a 7-inning start since August 9th, and has had only three since the All-Star break. When he's been removed early, it hasn't been from ineffectiveness...it's been due to his pitch count.
While the strikeout numbers are great to see, he's been using too many pitches to get those numbers, and has seen a rise in his walks as well. The result is an average of nearly 108 pitches per start, ranking him 5th in all of baseball. The only pitchers that have averaged more? Verlander (110.9), Ubaldo Jimenez (108.6), Lincecum (108.3), and Jon Lester (108.25).
People who study pitcher abuse will tell you it's not necessarily the number of innings that does a pitcher in, it's the number of high stress (long, high pitch count) innings that's the killer. In the second half of the season, we've seen Gallardo have quite a few of those innings, especially the second time through the order.
With the Brewers falling further out of the playoff race with every series they lose, it only makes sense to shut Gallardo down for the rest of the season. He won't be happy, but hopefully the front office realizes that this is the future of the franchise -- more so than Prince Fielder or Ryan Braun -- and needs to be treated accordingly. This is a pitcher that only threw 28 innings last season. This is a pitcher who will give you an enormous amount of value due to his high production at a ridiculously cheap price tag for the next few years. This is one of the few pitching prospects this decade who hasn't flamed out before reaching the majors.
Fans won't be happy, but they'll be a lot more unhappy if Gallardo misses time due to injury in the future. It appears that the organization is already taking steps towards preserving Gallardo's arm, skipping his next start and apparently thinking about only giving him another two or three starts before the end of the year. The next step would be shutting him down for the rest of the year and bringing up Tim Dillard, Mike Burns, or anyone else to fill those starts to end the year.