When news broke that Stephen Strasburg had a torn UCL and would require Tommy John surgery, Drew Magary tweeted "The fun part about Strasburg's injury is all good young pitchers will now be preemptively converted to first base coaches. Can't wait!" And the way things are going around the league, he may not be all that far off; just look at San Diego, where Mat Latos was supposed to make the big step from 142 innings last year to 150 this year, but is now causing much handwringing at the fact that he's already thrown 150 innings. Or look at New York, where the issue of limiting Phil Hughes' innings - Jerry Crasnick from ESPN suspects it may be a cap around 170-175 frames - is heating up shortly after the moronic Joba Rules may have ruined Joba Chamberlain's career. Or look at St. Louis, where Jaime Garcia has already been skipped in the rotation, and likely will be again down the stretch - particularly if the Cardinals fall out of contention. Or look at Toronto, where the Blue Jays have decided that Brandon Morrow has done enough for them this season, and have shut him down for the rest of the year.
I understand where these teams are coming from. Pitchers are notorious for their high attrition rates, and injuries can affect them in more devastating ways than they do other athletes. Off the top of my head, you've got Chipper Jones, who blew out his knee 15 years ago and came back to have a Hall of Fame career. There's Xavier Nady has survived two Tommy John surgeries and mans first base for the Cubs. And how about Jason Kendall, who detonated his ankle on first base and has gone on to play - at catcher, no less - for eleven more seasons? Now think about how many pitchers who sustain a torn labrum, and fail to make it back to the big leagues - or at least in a reduced capacity. Or the guys who don't make it back from rotator cuff trouble, or the guys who don't come back from Tommy John surgery. Indeed, a report from Science Daily tells us that pitchers get hurt 34% more often than position players, and when they do get put on the DL, they spend an average - an average! - of 62.4% of the season there. So they get hurt far more often, and when they get hurt, it's worse. And that's not considering the time it takes to regain the feel for pitching that these guys have. Take Edinson Volquez for example: he came back from Tommy John surgery this July, and has been pretty terrible because he can't throw strikes. That's because when the UCL gets replaced, the pitcher's body lacks the proprioception that it had established with the old ligament; it takes more time pitching with the replacement piece to get fully accustomed to it.
So! Clearly, the answer is for teams to limit their young pitchers' innings, put less stress on their arms, and everyone will grow up to pitch until they're 45, making millions along the way and we all go home happy. Right?
Well, that same Science Daily article presents some evidence that runs counter to the conventional wisdom that we hear in the form of the Verducci Effect and Pitcher Abuse Points and everyone who's ever made fun of Dusty Baker (especially the people who make fun of Dusty Baker). Y'see, 67% of pitcher injuries happen in the upper extremities - i.e. the arms and shoulders. Which makes sense. But of those upper extremity injuries, 79% of them happen before the All-Star Break. As in almost eighty percent. And before the nominal halfway point of the season, no less. What does that mean? Well, that perhaps innings counts aren't what's striking our young pitchers down like so many particularly annoying flies in the kitchen. Perhaps it's simply because throwing a baseball isn't a particularly natural motion. Throwing a baseball 95 mph is also not particularly natural. By extension, throwing a slider is a downright affront to the god of tendons and ligaments, and one that can only be remedied by ritual sacrifice to Dr. James Andrews (or Dr. Lewis Yocum, for the indie crowd).
As I'm sure you've realized by now, this comes back to the Braves in the form of Mike Minor. Minor started against the Mets either this or yesterday evening depending on when you read this piece, and lasted 5 innings, surrendering 2 runs on seven hits and 3 walks while K'ing 4. Not a particularly inspiring outing, I know. But what's significant is that he already has had his turn skipped in the rotation once, and even if he isn't scratched again down the stretch, the Braves are likely to shuffle the rotation to maximize his days off.
As you now know, I do not support this plan - and neither, for that matter, do I support all the other teams capping their young pitchers IP and willfully hamstringing their playoff chances. And even if this is the right way to handle pitchers, why don't teams handle it consistently among the whole staff? Older pitchers are still susceptible to injury; Tim Hudson is barely removed from Tommy John and he's been counted on all year long. Tommy Hanson is still a young'n; no one's talking about capping his innings. Derek Lowe just got a cortisone shot in his elbow; where's the concern for his time off*?
*Yes, I know, there's no concern because he's not all that good anymore. But it's the principle of the thing.
My point is, teams seem to be climbing all over themselves to have their pitchers do less pitching. They do this in spite of the fact that this plan does not seem to be working all that well; I've not seen any significant evidence that says 'If your pitchers throw 150 innings they will be safe from all woes that might otherwise befall them.' If there is evidence out there - and Tom Verducci, in proposing his Verducci effect, says that there is "staggering" data to suggest that he's right - then please do send it along so I can render myself foolish. Until then? I will continue to be bemused by teams that put faith in bogus data in lieu of trying to win. I hope the Braves keep getting great pitching, and render this whole thing moot, but it's a baseball-wide problem that shows no sign of abating.
P.S.: Here are Verducci's 10 pitchers at risk by innings jumps: Cesar Carillo, Bud Norris, Mat Latos, Joba Chamberlain, Homer Bailey, Josh Johnson, Rick Porcello, Max Scherzer, Felix Hernandez and Wade Davis. If you're keeping track at home, that's 3 guys with Cy Young-type numbers (Latos, Johnson, Hernandez), one guy posting the best FIP of his career as a reliever (Chamberlain), and 4 other guys who've improved (and, in some cases, are posting their best career marks) their FIP this season while putting together pretty excellent campaigns (Norris, Bailey, Porcello, Scherzer). Meanwhile, Cesar Carillo didn't even pitch in the majors this season. But, hey, 1 out of 10 (Davis) ain't bad, right? That's the kind of evidence I like when I'm arbitrarily messing with my pitcher's schedules.