Whenever you talk to your grandfather about baseball, the subject of pitching is sure to come up. Not so much the idea of pitching itself, but more so the description of the pitchers. You may let a little smirk escape as your grandfather launches into the “Well, back in my day…” speech.
What was expected of pitchers throughout the 1960s and 1970s was simple: just pitch. They were described as iron men, they got injured less frequently, and nobody back then obsessed over inning counts or pitch counts.
Then, the game of pitching evolved, though not in the eyes of everyone.
From 1960 through 1985, the average of innings pitched by the league leaders of their respective leagues was 299 innings. The average from 1986 to the present among league leaders of that category? 245, which presents a staggering difference of 54 innings.
It's clear the workloads of these arms are being lessened, but why?
A simple argument would be to say it's not the '60s and '70s anymore, and that nowadays we're more concerned about the health and safety of these players. However, has this made us overly cautious? Do we now baby pitchers too much? While discussing Yu Darvish of the Texas Rangers, Will Carroll argues “Pitchers' fatigue levels and durability should be measured and maximized not by fear, but by ability.”
Yet, as we tend to do with baseball, we rely on stats. We become fearful of the repercussions of what could happen to a player, not of what is guaranteed to happen to a player.
A perfect example of this is Washington Nationals' ace, Stephen Strasburg.
In the 2009 Major League Baseball draft, Strasburg was the 1st overall pick, signed a record deal of $15.1 million, and debuted for the Nationals on June 8, 2010. Strasburg dazzled in his debut, as he worked seven strong innings while striking out 14 batters, not allowing a single walk, and only scattering 2 runs on 4 hits.
Arguably, it was the best debut of any starting pitcher in the history of the game. Then things took a turn south as something unfortunate occurred.
Upon being called up in June 2010, the Washington Nationals set an innings limit for Strasburg at about 105. Apparently his arm did not want to get to that point, so on a Saturday afternoon in August, a pitch to Dominic Brown of the Philadelphia Phillies would turn out to be the last pitch Strasburg threw that season.
After that game, it was determined he required Tommy John surgery, which included 12-18 months of rehabilitation. His inning count at that point? 68, a number far less than the 105 inning limit that was placed on him. You know what they say about the best laid plans? It applies to baseball just as well.
Was it the right call? After all, the Nationals were a powerhouse that year, finishing 98-64 and contending for a World Series title. Strasburg wasn't available in the postseason, per the innings limit, and the Nationals were eliminated in the National League Divisional round by the St. Louis Cardinals in 5 games.
Tommy John, the player who the surgery is named after, blasted the Nationals' plan of shutting down Strasburg that year, saying: “From the time I came back until I quit in 1989, I never missed a start in 13 years. Now, we were archaic back there, but here's my take on the thing: There's no guarantee (if) you shut him down. There's no guarantee that you're shutting Strasburg down, that he's going to be healthy down the road.”
A tear in a muscle can happen at any point with a pitcher. Strasburg could have torn something on his first pitch in June, or in his 100th inning as a starter.
The fact is, you cannot really plan for a muscle tear. Sure, the wear on an arm could lead to a significant injury, as Orel Hershiser could attest to. He led all of baseball in innings pitched from 1987 through the 1989 season, and then blew his arm out in 1990.
But, do inning and pitch count limits guarantee longevity? A study recording injuries from 2002-2008 found that “pitchers are 34% more likely to be injured than fielders,” but that “77% of all injuries to pitchers happen before the All-Star game.”
As it relates to Strasburg and any other pitcher who has had Tommy John surgery, the study found “79% of all shoulder and elbow injuries happened to pitchers before the All-Star game.” That's quite the telling statistic, as inning limits are typically in a range that a pitcher does not reach until long after the All-Star game.
Glenn Fleisig of the American Sports Medicine Institute believes teams that are placing inning limits on pitchers are going overboard, stating, “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 pitch counts as a feel, 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.”
Monitoring a players' health and safety is a noble cause and nobody should argue against maintaining the health of another human being. That said, where do we draw the line between monitoring a player's health and over-managing out of fear?
Common sense should indicate that we can only hope to prevent these types of injuries, that at times there is an element of randomness to a pitcher's muscle tearing, and that more than just innings pitched go into such a tear.
But in a game driven by statistical analysis and the worry that stems from such, the continued decrease of a pitchers' workload is inevitable.
By: Shaun Ranft