This is all I am going to say about the Strasburg innings limit.
The Nats have a policy–and a remarkably enlightened one, at that–of limiting starting-pitcher workloads to 120% of the innings a pitcher had pitched the previous year, wherever those innings happened (whether as an amateur, the minor leagues, or the majors). For pitchers returning from major injuries, the innings limit seems to be about 120% of the pitcher’s previous single-season career high total innings pitched.
The entire baseball commentariat outside the Beltway seems to think that this policy of limiting innings amounts to nothing more than a bluff on the part of the Nationals. But the Nationals’ recent misfortunes with pitcher injuries offer us a number of opportunities to see the organization’s pitch-limiting policy in action.
Take, for instance, Jordan Zimmermann. He underwent Tommy John surgery to repair his ulnar collateral ligament in August 2009. He spent 2010 in rehabilitation, pitching 5.0 innings in low-A Hagerstown, 13.0 innings in High-A Potomac, 4.2 innings in AA Harrisburg, 17.0 innings in AAA Syracuse, as well as 31.0 innings for the big league club, for a total of 70.2 innings on the year. In 2011, he returned to the starting rotation, and everybody in Nats town knew his innings would be limited. He ended up pitching 161.1 innings.
How did they reach that number? Well, Zimmermann’s previous single-season high for innings pitched was 2008. He hadn’t cracked the major leagues yet, but he pitched 27.1 innings for high-A Potomac and 106.2 innings for AA Harrisburg, for a career-high 134 innings pitched in a single season. Increasing his workload by an additional 20% in accordance with the organization’s inning-limit policy would have meant limiting him to…yes, 161 innings pitched, which is only one out less than what he actually pitched in 2011.
Zimmermann isn’t the only other Bionic Man in the Nats pitching staff, either. Reliever Ryan Mattheus also underwent Tommy John surgery to repair his ulnar collateral ligament in 2009. He spent 2010 in the minors, rehabilitating, pitching a total of 36 innings. He joined the Nats bullpen in 2011 and pitched only 32 innings. His previous career high single-season innings pitched? 2007, when he pitched 158.2 innings for the Rockies’ AA affiliate. In Mattheus’ case, it appears that the move from starter to reliever was enough of an innings limit in itself. But in 2012, three years removed from surgery, Mattheus has already pitched a total of 32.2 innings (29.2 with the big-league club, the balance on minor-league rehab assignments). The limit, it would appear, is gone.
What does this mean for Strasburg? Well, before his surgery, his previous single-season maximum innings pitched was 123.1 innings in 2010: 68.0 IP with the big league club, 33.1 at AAA Syracuse, and 22.0 at AA Harrisburg. If the Nationals apply their stated policy (no increases greater than 20%), Strasburg’s innings limit would be set at 148 innings.
The number generally bandied about, however, is the 160-inning limit that we saw from Jordan Zimmermann. Will the Nats shut down Strasburg sooner than they shut down Zimmermann? Tough to say. Increasing Strasburg’s workload to 125% of his previous single-season innings maximum leaves us at 154 innings. 160 innings would represent still another increase, to 130% of Strasburg’s previous single-season career maximum. For an organization that values its starting pitchers’ health as highly as the Nationals must, a 160-pitch limit must already represent the outer limits of the organization’s risk tolerance.
Think, also, that Jordan Zimmermann in his “rehabilitation” year of 2010 pitched 70.2 innings at all levels in the organization, so his 161.1 inning 2011 represented a year-on-year increase of 228% in workload–that’s a staggering increase in the amount of stress to put on a joint from one year to the next! Strasburg, on the other hand, pitched only 44.1 innings at all levels of the organization during his “rehabilitation” year of 2011. A 228% increase from that workload would leave us with 101 innings–merely two innings more than the total number of innings Strasburg has pitched to date in 2012. To get Strasburg to the 160-inning mark this season would represent an increase in workload of 361% over 2011!
If the organization opts not to try to “rip the ball out of [Strasburg's] hands,” what would an “unlimited” Strasburg look like? Let’s say the Nats win the pennant. Strasburg’s workload might look a lot like the Rangers’ Derek Holland, who pitched 198 innings in the regular season, and an additional 24.0 innings in the post-season, for a total of 222 innings pitched in 2011. For Strasburg, that would represent an unbelievable increase of 180% from his career single-season maximum innings and an increase of 500% over his workload from last year.
Strasburg is one of the fiercest competitors in baseball today. But even if his will is made of steel, his arm is made of muscle and sinew and surgically-repaired ligaments. Not limiting Strasburg’s innings in 2012 means asking that arm of mortal flesh to bear a load nearly twice as large as the largest it has ever borne, and potentially five times greater than it was expected to bear only a short year ago. I am not an orthopaedic surgeon–but it seems to me that not limiting Strasburg is to ask a very talented, very game young man to risk the total destruction of his only means of winning a livelihood to chase a goal that is, at best, uncertain.
If you’ve read this far and you’re still calling for the Nats to let Strasburg pitch past his “limit,” then you deserve to be called the nincompoop that you are.