Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Should MLB adopt a Rule that Limits Innings Pitched by Young Pitchers?

Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci has a good column on the relationship between an increase in innings pitched from season-to-season and injuries suffered by young pitchers. Here's an excerpt:
One small part of such understanding is monitoring the innings of young pitchers from one year to the next. More than a decade ago, drawing on the advice of pitching coach Rick Peterson, I developed a rule of thumb that pitchers 25 and younger should not increase their workload by more than 30 innings. It's the same theory as training for a marathon: you risk injury by jumping from a 10K to the marathon instead of incremental increases. I called it the Year After Effect because the wear and tear often was followed by regression or injury the next year.

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In recent years a new term has come into the game to prevent injuries, not just treat them: prehabilitation. Governing the workload of young pitchers has become standard procedure. Shutting down healthy pitchers in September, for instance, is a common occurrence.

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Personally, I think one of the benefits of teams shutting down a young pitcher after he throws a certain number of innings is that it is a bright-line rule and takes the matter out-of-the-hands of the pitcher's manager, whose incentives may be short term and thus not always match those of the pitcher or general manager. Of course, the decision to shut down a pitcher is a team-based and not league-based decision, with some teams--and their managers--more protective of their pitchers than others.

So a thought: should the MLBPA try to collectively bargain a bright-line rule with the owners that would institute a league-wide limit on the number of innings thrown by a young pitcher, depending on his age?

Such a rule would surely attract criticism, especially since young pitchers, like all pitchers, are not equally susceptible to injury. For example, physically larger pitchers seem to be more durable than smaller guys, while pitchers with certain kinds of windups cause their arm more tension. A bright-line could consider a player's height/weight, but more likely it would only consider his age and number of innings pitched. Alternatively, instead of innings pitched, the rule could be based on pitches thrown - the same idea (and drawbacks) would be there.

Whatever a bright-line rule on innings pitched lacks in nuance and player-specific accuracy, it might still save some careers. It would also ensure that young pitchers don't fret about criticisms that they're more worried about their arms' health than their teams' success -- it wouldn't be the pitchers' choice, after-all, they would have to shut down after throwing a certain number of innings.