October 25, 2014

Are Innings Limits Here to Stay?

June 22, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

If Hamlet had been a modern general manager in Major League Baseball instead of the tragic heir to the Danish throne, the doomed Dane would have morosely uncovered the reports on his young talented pitchers and mournfully deliberated: “To cap or not to cap, that is the question.”

Innings limits have become ubiquitous as front offices across the country attempt to maximize the value of their investments in young arms.  Are innings limits the solution to prolonging the careers of young talents?  Despite Tom Verducci and the majority of modern baseball philosophy, Nolan Ryan says no.

Stephen Strasburg and his electric stuff have usurped this season’s headlines.  About a year ago, the Nationals invested $15.1 million in the now 21-year-old pitcher who had never faced a major league batter up until a few weeks ago.  Organizationally, it makes sense that they would do everything in their power to make sure that, ten years from now, Strasburg is not a name mentioned in the same sentence as “Prior” or “Fidrych.”  As a result, Washington’s president, Stan Kasten, has already suggested that he will only allow Strasburg to throw between 100 and 110 innings in the majors this year.

After throwing 162 innings more than he had in 2007, Edinson Volquez underwent shoulder surgery in 2008 and has only recently begun rehab.  As a 21-year-old, can’t miss phenom, much like Strasburg, Mark Prior threw 116.2 innings in 2002.  In 2003, he threw 211.1.  He immediately experienced arm troubles and hasn’t delivered a major league pitch since 2006.  Bill Pulsipher pitched 126.2 for the Mets in 1995, and didn’t throw another one in the big leagues until 1998.  Finally, as a rookie, innings limit poster-boy, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych tossed 250.1 explosive innings in 1976 and was out of baseball within four years.

As a result, clubs across the league have acted in accordance with the Verducci Effect[1].  Last season, the Braves kept highly touted Tommy Hanson in the minors until June 7, limiting his innings to 127.2.  After exploding onto the scene in the 2008 postseason, David Price remained in the minors until May 25 and threw 128.1 innings in 2009.  As galling and as difficult as it might be for baseball fans who revel in the days of pitchers grittily finishing what they started, innings limits have become as ingrained in modern baseball as pitch counts, specialized bullpens, the DH, and overpriced beer concessions.

Similarly, after implementing the Joba Rules in 2008 and 2009 with questionable success, the Yankees are planning to skip Phil Hughes’ next start and are introducing what has come to be known as the PHIL-osophy.  Statistically, Hughes has been New York’s best starter.  He’s 10-1, with a 3.17 ERA and a 3.12 K/BB ratio.  On average, he has gone 6.1 innings per start.  And therein lies the rub.  Based on the Verducci Effect, the Yankees don’t want Hughes extending himself beyond approximately 170 innings this season.

However, in Texas, Nolan Ryan is bucking the trend with the Rangers.  In Ryan’s 27-season, Hall-of-Fame career, he averaged almost 200 innings a year, topping out at 332.2 in 1974.  Currently, he’s conditioning his young starters to pitch deep into games.  Like last season, this has paid dividends for the Rangers’ pitching staff, which ranks fifth overall with 41 wins and eleventh with a 3.97 ERA.  Texas remains 3.5 games ahead of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the AL West.

Just like the Ryan Express, there have been plenty of examples in modern baseball of pitchers immune to the dreaded Verducci Effect.  Roy Halladay (105.1 IP in 2001 at age 24, 239.1 IP in 2002), Mike Mussina (87.2 IP in 1991 at age 22, 241 IP in 1992), and Pedro Martinez (107 IP in 1993 at age 21, 144.2 IP in 1994, and 194.2 IP in 1995) are but three examples of modern-day pitchers who played Will Smith’s Robert Neville in I am Legend.

So who’s right, popular thinking or Nolan Ryan?

It’s impossible to tell right now.  Couldn’t disrupting a young pitcher’s routine cause problems with his mechanics and be just as damaging as overuse?  Time will tell.

The positive here is that everyone seems to have the same goal in mind: the welfare of the pitcher, or at the very least, the continued productivity of the investment.  It’s like in Saved by the Bell, when the gang sold Friendship Bracelets as part of a class project for Mr. Tuttle.  The group split up, with Zack and Screech selling the original bracelets and the rest of the group pushing “Buddy Bands.”  Both groups wanted to get an A and ended up earning it when they all realized friendship was more important than success and merged their companies to produce “Love Cuffs.”

Hopefully, the upshot of all this is that pitchers elongate their careers and have the opportunity to succeed or fail based upon their performance on the field.

Oh, and maybe “Buddy Bands” will come back in style.  I need a new go-to gift for anniversaries.


[1] Baseball Prospectus defines the Verducci Effect as “a negative forward indicator for pitcher workload,” based on the study of Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci, which contends that “pitchers under the age of 25 who have 30-inning increases year over year tend to underperform.”

Comments

3 Responses to “Are Innings Limits Here to Stay?”
  1. Mark says:

    Good article. But isn’t the use of innings as the gauge odd? Wouldn’t the # of pitches be more accurate? After all – a 10 pitch inning isn’t the same as a 30 pitch inning. For example, this year Gallardo has thrown (according to Fangraphs) 1638 pitches in 94.0 innings, while Halladay has thrown abt the same # (1652) in 20 more innings (115.0). If we stretch Gallardo to 115, he’ll be around 2000. That’s quite a diff 115 IP than Halladay’s.

    And – these guys aren’t just throwing in games. They throw in practice, before games, every 3rd day, in the off-season, etc. Not all throws, I’m sure, put equal strain on the shoulder/elbow, but these intensive training routines – on top of the pitch counts in game situations – can’t help matters(can they?). So, my question is: Would these guys be less likely to get hurt if they worked their arms less in between starts? And – the follow-up – how would a lesser workload affect their performance?

  2. Roger K. says:

    I am from the Nolan Ryan school of thought. Innings can be monitored but not to the extent they are in this modern era of baseball. Every pitcher has a different body type as well as mechanics. Organizations as a whole should not be centering their entire minor league system around a specific amount of innings at each level. I have read about the many studies, however each player is unique. We have seen what innings limits have done to guys like Joba Chamberlain and organizations struggle on how to approach it correctly. Now Phil Hughues (10-1) is going to skip his next start because of innings limits. How will this play out mentally for the player? Will it take away from his routine and thus hurt his performance the rest of the season? You can go either way on this topic and argue it until your blue in the face. If it’s not broken don’t fix it.

  3. For best results we should go more toward the Nolan Ryan philosophy. The reason for this is simple: pitching success (as is true of all sports skills) depends upon two factors. They are technique and the athlete’s physical abilities, especially as they relate to his technique. Both of these factors are dynamic and changeable.

    Teams use pitch or inning count because they are not capable of scientifically analyzing and improving technique and developing the physical qualities specific to pitching. Although the counts are used to help prevent injury, they can actually increase injuries. The less the pitcher pitches the more he loses his physical abilities and to a certain extent, the consistency of his technique. Since most injuries are due to neuromuscular coordination, these two factors become even more important.

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