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Point/Counter-Point: Inning Limits and Bumped Starts

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The idea of inning limits is not a new one, but is it outdated? Does it work? BBB contributors Mike Hannah and Jared Book discuss.

Aaron Sanchez's skipped start has fueled the debate over protecting young pitchers
Aaron Sanchez's skipped start has fueled the debate over protecting young pitchers
Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports

(PLEASE NOTE: This collaboration started before Aaron Sanchez went on the DL and as such some of the information or points are perhaps, regrettably, out of date. So, while we understand that he's injured and so the topic no longer applies to him the points made are still valid for any and every young arm in the system. While Sanchez is the example often given in this article the conversation is about inning limits and bumped starts for young arms. Please keep that in mind.)

Almost as soon as it was reported that Aaron Sanchez would miss his most recent scheduled start (June 10th start vs. Miami) the conversation began around Blue Jays Nation about how to best keep young pitchers healthy into the future. 

Though Shi Davidi reported that John Gibbons and the team based their decision on Sanchez experiencing "overall body soreness" and that it was just a precaution (which later became a DL stint), the conversation still exists in baseball circles about the validity of innings limits, bumped starts and the effect of heavy workloads on young arms

The most famous example in recent memory of a team protecting a pitcher by limiting his innings came in 2012, when the Washington Nationals decided prior to the season to cap phenom Stephen Strasburg's innings at 160. Then, keeping to their decision despite being in the midst of what would be their first playoff season since moving to Washington, proceeded to follow through and shut down the then 23-year-old starter after his start on September 7th, much to the dismay of Strasburg and the Nats' fans.

While the specific conversation no longer applies to Sanchez, his skipped start being due to injury and not a team-imposed limit, the conversation seems to creep back up every season when young arms reach the Bigs. Especially as those young arms spend time in the bullpen or have starts bumped to "manage their innings".

But should teams protect young pitchers in this way? Is there really anything to worry about with young arms taking on a heavy workload of innings early in their career?

In the first instalment of Point/Counter-Point, myself and fellow BBB contributor Jared Book examine the opposing views of the issue. 

MIKE HANNAH

To me, the idea of keeping a young pitcher from pitching big inning totals is one that, to my knowledge, has little to no evidence to support it as the theory has never been proven that lessening the innings load or pitch counts of pitchers has any correlation to the health or success of said pitcher.

If it isn't proven to do either, then what purpose is it really serving?

Let's start with health.

The obvious first bullet against is a study performed by the University of Waterloo and published, among other places, in the Toronto Sun clearly shows that there is no verifiable correlation between the two. The evidence seems to suggest that injuries are unpredictable (surprise!) and there is no sure-fire way to prevent injuries.

Now look at Stephen Strasburg, the modern era's face of the innings limit now three years removed from his abridged 2012 season capped at 160 innings. He finds himself on the DL with a strained left trapezius, which I believe is part of the back or neck muscles but I am no doctor. He's pitched over 200 innings just once in his career, and his numbers have been basically the same in every season from 2012 to 2014.

In 2012 he had an ERA/FIP/xFIP slash line of 3.16/2.82/2.81, while 2013 saw 3.00/3.21/3.15 with a 3.14/2.94/2.56 in 2014.

Do you know who wasn't carefully watched over? Felix Hernandez.

In 2005 between Triple-A and the Majors The King pitched 172 innings as a 19 year old. He has pitched no less than 190 in every season since. And no less than 200 in each of his last seven seasons. He's remained mostly healthy. Mostly dominant. And despite taking on a serious workload three years younger than Strasburg when he'd been shut down, Felix has not missed many starts or had his arm fall off.

Mark Buehrle was 22 when he saw his first 200 inning season, coming off a 169 inning season the year before (split between the Minors and MLB), and he's been the model of consistency his entire career with 14 straight 200 inning seasons.

Clayton Kershaw saw 170+ innings in his early seasons before hitting the 200 inning mark at 22 years old. Justin Verlander, in his first full season in the bigs at 23 years old, pitched 186 innings and has hit 200 every year since with remarkable durability (until this season). At 20 years old Madison Bumgarner pitched 190 innings split between Triple-A and the MLB, and has seen the 200 mark ever since.

All of the names above saw heavy workloads in their early career. All were at or about the age of Aaron Sanchez and other young arms coming up through the Jays system who will likely be part of the innings limit/bumped start conversation in time, and not surprisingly have managed to keep their arms from falling off. There are many names where they came from and many to come. Because while there are obviously pitchers who have succumbed to the heavy workload, there is no way to know who will ahead of time.


And holding them back won't better their odds.

As for the practice of bumping pitchers back, a practice the Jays have used in recent years on Drew Hutchison and, we thought, on Aaron Sanchez, the same argument can be used. It does not guarantee health. But, does it guarantee better performance?

Not exactly.

Drew Hutchison had a start bumped last season in late May, similar to Sanchez though not for the same reason (Hutch having come back from TJ surgery). The bump didn't really seem to do much of anything though.

Prior to the bump Drew was sporting a 3.88 ERA with a 3.98 FIP and a 3.90 xFIP averaging about 6 innings per start. In the rest of the season his ERA was 4.81, his FIP and xFIP did decrease to 3.78 (both), and his average start fell to 5.2 innings per start. He pitched 184 innings and to my knowledge there is no difference between 184 and say, 190 (which based on his average start duration is where he'd have ended up). 

So, if bumping starts back doesn't improve performance (and remember, Hutchison was okay and reported to be unhappy with missing his scheduled start) and it doesn't guarantee health, what exactly is the point of it all? Far be it for me to agree with Gregg Zaun in BlueBird Banter but if a pitcher is in the big leagues what reason is there for him not to pitch 200 innings if his arm can handle it? If their arms are going to fall off if stressed to 180-200 innings, why are they in the bigs? 

We cannot know how a pitchers health or the stability of their arm will stand against the test of time. But if evidence points to the fact that injuries, like most things, are unpredictable and random then we need to be done with the practice of bumping young starters and setting limits.

That goes not just for the Blue Jays but Major League Baseball as a whole.

JARED BOOK

For the record, let me state that I was in favour of Stephen Strasburg’s innings limit in 2012, and I think that the Blue Jays and other teams have figured out what the Nationals ignored that year.

Once the Nationals realized that they were on their way to contention in 2012, they should have been thinking about not only Strasburg’s innings but when those innings were thrown. If they would have had him skip some starts in June, July and August, they would have been able to use him in the playoffs either as a starter instead of Edwin Jackson or as a reliever that may have been able to hold on to a huge lead in Game 5 of the NLDS.

A Scott Copeland start in June, (or the possibility of a few more with Sanchez on the disabled list) is fine if it means that Sanchez is good to go in August, September and lord-be-willing, the playoffs.

The Blue Jays have so little depth in the rotation right now that they need to make sure Sanchez - who has pitched much better after a slow start - pitches the most important innings possible especially now that they are right in contention in the American League East and the Wild Card race.

Now, the Strasburg and Sanchez situations are very different. Strasburg was recovering from Tommy John and Sanchez has not had any injury history that should concern the Blue Jays.

Mike mentions Felix Hernandez is the exception to pretty much every pitching usage rule in the last 20 years. You may recall that the Mariners used a similar approach with Michael Pineda, and he had an almost three-year road back to Major League prominence.

One of the most referred-to rules of pitcher development is the "Verducci Effect" which was the theory from Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci that said pitchers who increase their innings more than 30 innings from the previous year are higher risk for injuries or have a significant decrease in effectiveness.

The theory has been disputed rather widely but inning progression from year-to-year is still a theory that many people look at when developing pitchers to avoid injuries. It’s one of the things many people were concerned with when the momentum of Miguel Castro (no injury history) and Roberto Osuna (injury history) making the Major League team started in Spring Training.

The fact remains that Sanchez was already almost at the half-way point of his professional innings maximum (66 compared to last year, 133.1 between the minor leagues and major leagues). If you expect his performance to continue with his more recent starts, that pace is probably a little further as you would expect him to pitch more innings per start.

These are all reasons to be cautious with Sanchez. If he had some discomfort, there’s no reason to have him pitch through it. Have him rest, recover and be able to produce quality starts in important innings instead of shutting a pitcher down when the games get more important.

There may not be any history to suggest that innings limits keep pitchers healthier, but there is a significant list that proves that overworking pitchers does cause injuries and could ruin careers. If you could be cautious without hurting your team, why not do it.

There is no reason to believe that this will keep Sanchez healthier for 2016, 2017, 2018 or beyond and that he will never get hurt. However, it is the best course of action if you want to maximize his value in the 2015 season and if you could balance both Sanchez’s development and your chances in 2015, it’s a no brainer for me.

That’s what teams are learning from Washington’s mistake in 2012. It’s not the decision of placing a limit on Strasburg, it’s the way they did it. Because as his injury history since 2012 has proven, you can't prevent all injuries so take advantage of a pitcher's health, especially when you are in contention.


That's our take on the issue, what do you think? Join the conversation below!