ATLANTA -- Brewers ace Ben Sheets believes the extinction of the Major League complete game can be traced to the Minors, where strict pitch counts protect prospects from injuries but also severely limit their opportunities to pitch into the ninth inning. "I agree, but it's a double-edged sword," Brewers assistant general manager Gord Ash said. "Because to get the complete games you have to get to the 125-140 pitch count, and everybody that you talk to -- medical people, pitching coaches -- say that there is a limit on pitches." The Brewers will try something new at one affiliate to find the middle ground. Beginning this week at Class A Brevard County, relievers will start games before turning it over to the "starters" in the third or the fourth.
By starting the starter later in games, the Brewers hope their young players develop a "nine-inning mindset" by the time they reach the Majors. The idea of using relievers in the early innings has been pushed for some time by Brewers general manager Doug Melvin, and was also endorsed several years ago when the Brewers gathered their organizational pitching coaches and medical people for a symposium. After that meeting, the team put various guidelines in place to protect the health of their young arms. Pitchers generally are not allowed to throw more than 30 innings beyond their total from the previous season, and specific game-to-game limits are tailored to each individual. Brevard County right-hander Jeremy Jeffress, for example, is allotted 205 pitches per two outings. He started Game 1 of a doubleheader on Tuesday and pitched a seven-inning shutout, holding Dunedin to three hits in the first complete game of his career. Because Minor League doubleheaders consist of two, seven-inning games, starters Jeffress and Zach Braddock started for Brevard County on Tuesday. A reliever was scheduled to start beginning Tuesday, Ash said. Ash said the Brewers are considering installing a six-man starting rotation next month at Double-A Huntsville to increase the rest time between starts in July and August, especially for those pitchers tabbed for the Arizona Fall League. "You would like to lighten the load some, and common sense dictates you do that in July and August," Ash said. Maybe the changes will help develop the next Sheets. He leads the National League with three complete games after going the distance to beat the Braves on Monday night. Sheets has thrown 16 complete games in his career and said he steps onto the mound every time out expecting to pitch all nine innings. He knows not every pitch has the same outlook. "I'm not saying anything new, everybody knows the reason -- you're not brought up that way," Sheets said. "In the Minors, pitch count is such a big thing. For the complete game, you have to trust enough to get your pitch count up somewhere around 115, 120. "I think some people leave some of their better innings on the bench. Some guys are in really good grooves through seven, and get taken out when they could probably get through two more fairly easily. It no fault of anybody's; it's just baseball."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.