Without any supporting evidence, I’ll wager that the Nationals would have handled Stephen Strasburg differently after his Tommy John surgery. They wouldn’t have rushed him back quicker and they wouldn’t have tossed the famous innings limit in the trash. But they might have massaged his return a little bit. With a little more rest, some extended spring training while the rest of the team began the season, maybe the innings limit and postseason appearances didn't have to be mutually exclusive.
With $175 million dollars of supporting evidence, I’ll wager that the Nationals, Strasburg, and Scott Boras are okay with how the innings limit turned out. Sure, we don’t know exactly what would have happened with an extra 40 or 50 frames. But we know what happened without them: a huge contract and an ace who’s currently 10-0 with the lowest ERA and highest strikeout rate of his career.
This is the state of caution in Major League Baseball. The risks are what-ifs; the rewards are extended health and productivity. You can deal with what-ifs. There are usually 29 teams that deal with bushels of them every year.
Which brings us to Aaron Sanchez, pride of Barstow and bright young Blue Jays pitcher, who has an innings limit. Well, not an innings limit. A role limit. A ... look, I don't know what to call this.
Gibbons reiterates once again that Sanchez will be going to the 'pen later this season: "It's going to happen." #BlueJays— Gregor Chisholm (@gregorMLB) June 15, 2016
Sanchez is in the middle of a breakout season, as Catherine Slonksnis detailed here, and he’s emerged as one of the rotation’s leaders. That’s a good thing, considering that R.A. Dickey is typically inconsistent and Marcus Stroman is struggling. But he’s not long for a postseason rotation. He’s not long for a stretch-drive rotation. Heck, he’s not long for the July rotation.
The exact date that Sanchez will shift to the 'pen remains uncertain. Sounds like they've discussed a few possibilities. Likely post ASG.— Gregor Chisholm (@gregorMLB) June 15, 2016
Before you react, let’s check in with the state of throwing caution to the wind in Major League Baseball. The risks are potential short- and long-term struggles from a player. The reward is that teams have fewer specific what-ifs about a postseason run. The Mets won the pennant, and they fought off an agent’s recommendations about innings limits to get there. There’s no way to tie it directly to Matt Harvey’s struggles — and he’s had three excellent starts in a row, by the way — but if you have a better, more logical explanation for his slow start, the world would be very interested to hear it.
Got that? The Nationals were safe with Strasburg, and now they’re reaping the rewards. The Mets pushed Harvey a little more than they might have been planning to, and now they’re second-guessing themselves. So it’s agreed. The new, hot trend is treating pitchers like they’re human beings and helping them avoid calamitous injuries. What a world.
So we’ve reached a conclusion. The Blue Jays are right to take one of their best pitchers out of the rotation and put him back in the bullpen, even if he’s not a Tommy John patient, like Strasburg and Harvey. Caution is the land of the law now.
Except, hold on. We’re not talking about an innings limit, here. We’re talking about moving a starter into the bullpen, where he will continue to throw baseballs as hard as possible in an effort to deceive major league hitters. Jeff Passan’s book The Arm investigates the riddle of overuse and pitching injuries, deftly weaving between the stories of a pair of two-time Tommy John patients, Daniel Hudson and Todd Coffey. Hudson is already back and thriving. Coffey is on the Long Island Ducks, still trying. He hasn’t pitched in the majors in four seasons, and here's an applicable stat to Sanchez's situation:
Number of career starts for Coffey: 0.
This is what makes the Blue Jays’ plan so interesting. The only way to save an arm from injury is to avoid pitching. If there’s evidence that coming out of the bullpen every other day is healthier, it’s evidence we don't have. Some All-Star closers over the last 10 years:
- Brian Wilson
- Heath Bell
- J.J. Putz
- Greg Holland
- Joakim Soria
- Jason Motte
- Neftali Feliz
I stopped the list because I got bored, not because there weren’t any other pitchers. Relievers get hurt. They get hurt often. The relationship between pitching and injury has more to do with velocity than role. In fact, while this was being written, it was announced that Twins' closer Glen Perkins will miss the remainder of 2016 because of labrum surgery.
We have even less data on what it means to convert a starter into a reliever in the middle of the season. Is it better for the arm to move from the rotation to the bullpen than it would be to move from the bullpen to the rotation? That seems intuitive, sure. It’s possible, if not likely, that the Blue Jays have all the data they need on this, and they're doing exactly what science suggests. They’re the multimillion-dollar corporation, and I'm just a guy on a couch, typing away in my Pete Rose-endorsed jockey shorts.
But I’ll tell you what I would do if I wanted to move a young pitcher into the starting rotation: I’d do it in phases. Start slow, with maybe a dozen starts one year, and then stretch him out a little big longer the next year, keeping an eye on his pitch counts and innings while making sure he’s not struggling through six-inning grind-fests.
In other words, what the Blue Jays have done with Sanchez already. He went to the bullpen last year after 11 starts and missing time with a pulled lat muscle. Ideally, that would have worked in reverse, with his time in the bullpen morphing into a starting role, but it’s not like he hasn’t had starting pitching experience before this year. He’s been stretched out a little, already.
It’s one thing to prevent a pitcher from pitching. There should be a Surgeon General’s warning on every baseball. We know those things will murder arms dead. But the Blue Jays are saying that it’s safer for a pitcher to throw 18 pitches every other day than it is for him to throw 100 pitches every five days. If that’s proven to help pitchers stay healthy, the research is proprietary information that the Blue Jays are keeping to themselves. From here, it looks like relievers are injury risks, too, especially when overextended in a lengthy pennant run.
The hot new trend around baseball is to treat pitchers with care and respect, yes, and it’s a welcome trend. I’m not sure that’s what the Sanchez situation is, though. The Blue Jays are trying to have their seed and eat it, too, limiting a pitcher’s innings in the interest of staying safe, but still allowing him to pitch. It’s a risk when it comes to wins and losses, considering that Sanchez has been one of their most effective starters and there aren’t going to be great options to replace him on the open market, but teams are increasingly willing to take that risk.
With this plan, though, it seems like there’s still a substantial injury risk. The point of risking the wins and losses are to avoid that outcome. The only possible answer is that the Blue Jays know something we don’t.
The most effective strategy: Never pitch. The second-most effective strategy: Stop pitching. After that, we’re all guessing. After breaking a two-decade postseason drought, though, Blue Jays are really, really confident in their educated guess with Aaron Sanchez. Here’s hoping they don't futz it up.