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On Inning Limits and Aaron Sanchez

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Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

There is a curious situation brewing around Aaron Sanchez and the (potential) issue of his workload. With a career high of just 133 innings in 2014, there is concern that a full season in the rotation (potentially 200+ innings including playoffs) could put the long-term risk of his arm health at risk. Other teams have shut down young starters to limit their innings, even those in playoff position, so it was going to be interesting to see what direction was taken.

Ross Atkins commented on multiple occasions that there was no hard target, that they'd monitor how he's feeling, as well as objective data for consistency. Given the lack of actual evidence on the efficacy of limiting workloads to preventing injuries, this seemed like a very intelligent, and flexible approach. Certainly, the bias should be towards an abundance of caution and protecting their long term investment. But it makes little sense to be a slave to arbitrary targets, especially in the case of a 24-year-old who should be close to physical maturity as opposed to a 20-year-old who is still developing physically (and one who has added 25 pounds of muscle this winter).

But more recently, John Gibbons has insisted that there is a hard target of about 160 innings, and that Sanchez would definitely be moving to the bullpen at some point. This directly contradicts what Atkins—who outranks him in the decision making hierarchy—has had to say. Theoretically, it's possible that there's been a shift in thinking, but that magnitude of change in such a short period is unlikely.

Rather, it appears there may be a power struggle going, especially since Gibbons is a holdover. In any event, it's certainly not a good thing, since the regardless of what strategy or tactics are used to manage Sanchez over the second half, having the manager and front office not on the same page and potentially at crosscurrents is not a good scenario. And there may be some examples of that recently.

I would assume that at the end of the day, Atkins hold the trump card and his approach will prevail. If there's no hard cap, the Jays should definitely be taking advantages of opportunities as they occur to pull back on Sanchez where they can. And that requires managerial buy-in and co-operation. It's one thing to lean on him in a close game where he's pitching really well and key relievers might be overworked themselves or not available. But it's dumb to do it in other circumstances.

Last Friday in Baltimore, the Jays jumped out to an 11–2 lead against Baltimore in the top of the 4th. After good 5 innings, Sanchez had thrown 83 pitches while allowing 7 hits, 2 walks and striking out 5. The game was well in hand, and yet Sanchez came out for the 6th, ending up 100 pitches. Certainly, this is not egregious overuse—but considering Gibbons is adamant that Sanchez has a hard cap at 160 innings, why? Give him an easy night, and beyond saving an inning, I'd think there's a qualitative benefit beyond that.

Then there was Friday night's game. While limiting the White Sox to 2 runs over the first 5 innings, and walking just a single batter, it was also clear that his command was not nearly as good as it's been for most of this year. He was constantly working deep counts, and also working around baserunners all night. And to top it off, the top of the 6th went on for something like 25 minutes. And yet, at 94 pitches, he came back out for the 6th. I'd totally understand sending him back out if overall he had been quite effective, but the evening was more of a high wire act, which is not when you lean on a pitcher. Beyond the fact that it probably wasn't optimal in terms of winning the games, it was a good opportunity to dial back a little.

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One final thought. Suppose that a hard inning limit of around 160 innings was going to happen, because it was determined it was the right way to protect his arm. The preferred method for doing this appears to be sending him down the bullpen for the last couple months. But beyond considerations of whether that actually will protect his arm (throwing harder in shorter, more frequent stints), losing him from the rotation will be a significant setback given how well he's pitched.

An alternative approach is to skip some starts, which might stretch him out. But given that he's already at 97 innings, and likely to cross 100 before the end of June and the halfway mark by games played, that probably just forestalls when he goes to the pen. What's crossed my mind is that a better option might be to shut him down for a stretch of around a month, and then allowing him to stay in the rotation for the rest of the season, and the playoffs (that might push him over 160, but more innings in the playoffs would be spread over more time, which at the very least would mitigate workload concerns).

As it turns out, the schedule would have been very amenable to doing that from late-June to late-July, minimizing how many starts would need to be covered, and line them all up with Drew Hutchison (who is pitching very well in Buffalo).

With the two days off last week, the Jays could have shut down Sanchez after his June 17th start. This weekend, they'd have gone with R.A. Dickey, Marcus Stroman, and Marco Estrada, each on six days' rest instead of seven. J.A. Happ would have started the Colorado series, with Hutchison slotting in to the rotation for the second game on Tuesday (which lines up since he went Thursday, June 23). That rotation turns over 2.5 more times into the All-Star break.

Coming out of the All-Star break, the schedule is again very weird. They have a weekend series with Oakland, then another two days off sandwiched around a two game set. So the rotation resets, I'd suggest Estrada, Stroman, and Dickey in Oakland, then Happ on July 19th to open the two gamer. They could re-introduce Sanchez as late as July 26th with the rest of the rotation on normal rest, or maybe the second game of the two game set, taking advantage of the two games in four days to give him a short start to build back up, with the bullpen fresh to log more innings.

All of this would have left Sanchez at around 100–110 innings by the end of the July, while only requiring 3 more starts, all from Hutchison without affecting his routine. It would mean leaning a little on the other pitchers, all veterans, but if that was too much it wouldn't be hard to work in an extra Hutchison start.