“If a major-league team or minor-league team has a hard pitch count across their whole organization, they can do better than that”

That’s Glenn Fleisig talking to Baseball Prospectus on pitch counts, innings limits, and how organizations maximize the health of their pitchers. The interview is republished on Deadspin. 

The relevant question-and-answer:

BL: So without commenting on any specific team or pitcher, would you say that a team that puts hard innings limits in place is just sort of going overboard with risk aversion or covering their own ass? I mean, I’m sure they must base it on some sort of research, but maybe they’re not looking at the right research.

GF: Yeah. I do say that. If a major-league team or minor-league team has a hard pitch count across their whole organization, they can do better than that. They should be using—because they have professional coaches throughout their major and minor leagues, and a professional medical staff—they should be using pitch counts as a feel, as a guideline for who has pitched a lot, who hasn’t pitched a lot, and then they should individualize it and know each of their pitchers, each of their athletes, and know who is a quick responder, who’s doing well on the physical assessments with the trainers and medical staff, who has good mechanics according to the pitching coach, things like that. And they should individualize it and they should say, ‘Oh, Rodriguez, he recovers quickly, but Johnson, he’s always in pain, so let’s keep Johnson lower than Rodriguez,’ and individualize it.

Plus, even within a person—even if they say, ‘Rodriguez, he seems to be healthy and doing well and good mechanics and very fluid and in good shape, all those things,’ they shouldn’t set a pitch count number for him; they should set a soft pitch count number—‘He can go to this level, 100 pitches or whatever”—but then game by game, they should monitor and take him out when he’s giving signs of being fatigued or if there’s a history of he’s been pitching a lot recently, or he’s stinking tonight, other things where you individualize it. But a hard pitch count is really for youth baseball and perhaps high school baseball, when you can’t assume the coaches are all experts.”

This is really a question about the Nationals and Strasburg (and Jordan Zimmermann). This isn’t just any yahoo they’re talking to, either–this is Glenn Fleisig, the leading scientific authority on pitching mechanics. And I don’t mean “scientific” in the 19th-century quack medical sense–I mean peer-reviewed. I have quoted his work debunking “inverted W” scaremongering before. So at first glance this looks like an indictment of the Strasburg limit. In 2012, the Nats had Strasburg on a hard innings limit, just as they had Jordan Zimmermann on a hard innings limit in 2011.

But before you grab your pitchfork and light your torch to storm Mike Rizzo’s office, stop and think for a minute. Rizzo refused to commit to a hard innings limit until Strasburg was finally shut down. At all times, Rizzo said that he was going to monitor Strasburg for signs of fatigue.

Here’s what Strasburg was doing in his last few starts of 2012:

  • August 21, 2012, vs. Brewers: 6 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 10 SO, 0 HR; 94 pitches.
  • August 28, 2012, at Marlins: 5 IP, 9 H, 7 R, 5 ER, 1 BB, 3 SO, 1 HR; 84 pitches
  • September 2, 2012 vs. Cubs: 6 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 9 SO; 97 pitches.
  • September 7, 2012 (“Shutdown Day”) vs. Marlins: 3 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 3 SO; 81 pitches.

What do we make of this?

I’m not really sure. Strasburg himself insisted and continued to insist that he was ready and able to pitch after Shutdown Day. On the other hand, his final appearance showed him laboring against the lowly Marlins.

What you make of this as a Nats fan is really a reflection of what you think of the Nationals and their management. If you tend to trust GM Mike Rizzo, then you will have to assume that the organization had been observing Strasburg’s rest and recovery cycles all season, and decided that those observations, plus the disastrous outing against the Marlins, led them to believe that the time was right to shut down Strasburg.

If you are disinclined to trust the organization, then you’re going to have to assume that there was a hard innings limit from the outset, and that the club refused to deviate from that limit even to the last. One disaster against the Marlins probably shouldn’t have been enough to convince the organization to shut Stras down.

Honestly, I don’t know what else to say about this.

Taking Strasburg to the Limit

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.