Did Innings Limits Help Phil Hughes?
All those who are New York Yankee fans remember the frustration we felt with the stupid Joba Rules a couple of years ago.
For those who may not remember, the Yankee brass, led by general manager Brian Cashman, decided they were going to limit the number of innings Joba Chamberlain would pitch as a starter.
Joba had been a starting pitcher in college and for his entire minor-league career. When he was brought up in 2007, he was used exclusively in the bullpen. But the plan was to have him return to his starting role.
But not really. Or at least not completely. Because Cashman thought Joba was too young to start and go long in 30-plus games as a starter.
So they fiddled around with him, limiting his pitch counts and his innings, and there is at least some credible argument they screwed him up because of it.
Joba injured his shoulder slightly and lost a great deal of velocity on his fastball, which he never seemed to regain as a starter.
In 2010 Joba once more competed for a starter's role but lost the job at the end of spring training to Phil Hughes. Joba went to the pen, where he has been ever since.
So Hughes, who had come up to the Yanks as a starter way back in 2007, was in the rotation. Or was he?
See, Cashman thought Hughes was too young to be turned loose in an unlimited way as a starter. So there were modified rules for Hughes last season.
Now Hughes is hurt, and there is talk it is a circulatory problem affecting his pitching arm.
Can young pitchers go out and throw 200-plus innings per season before they are 24 or 25 years old? Let's check, shall we?
For purposes of this analysis, I looked at stats to determine whether well-known pitchers were able to pitch at least 900 innings by the season they were 25 years old.
Going way back in history, I looked at some Hall of Fame pitchers who are icons of the game.
Cy Young won 511 games in the major leagues, and by the time he was 25 he had thrown 1,023 innings. He would finish his 22-year career with 7,356 innings pitched.
But Young didn't start in the major leagues until he was 23. He threw only 147 innings his first year at age 23, something Cashman would probably approve of.
But Young threw 423 innings when he was just 24 and 453 innings when he was 25. Don't think Cash would approve.
Walter "Big Train" Johnson is another Hall of Famer and by the time he was 25 he had thrown 2,069 innings. Yeah, you read that right—2,069 innings by age 25. What about that, Brian Cashman?
Should Young Pitchers Have Innings Limits?
Christy Mathewson had pitched 1,990 innings by the time he was 25. He would finish his glorious career of 17 seasons with 4,788 innings pitched, or an average of 274 innings over a 162-game season.
Kid Nichols, another Hall of Famer, had thrown 2,524 innings by the season in which he was 25. He would go on to throw over 5,000 innings in his 15-year career.
Okay, all those guys are from the dead ball era at the turn of the century. What about pitchers in the modern era?
Bob Feller was pitching in the big leagues when he was 18, and by the time he was 22 he had thrown 1,446 innings. It would be unbelievable how many Feller would have thrown by age 25 if he had not given three years of his career to serve in World War II.
Robin Roberts threw 1,321 innings by age 25.
Don Drysdale threw 1,628 innings by the time he was 25.
Tom Seaver had thrown 1,092 innings through the season in which he turned 25.
Don Sutton threw 1,217 innings by the same age.
Coming to the present, how are pitchers of the past 20 years and right down to current pitchers faring with this much work?
Roger Clemens had thrown 1,030 innings through the season in which he turned 25, and of course he would go on to win more than 300 games and have more than 3,000 strikeouts.
Pedro Martinez had thrown just over 900 by age 25.
Jon Garland had thrown over 1,000 by that age.
Carlos Zambrano had 975 by age 25.
Mark Buehrle had accumulated 986 innings by then.
Matt Cain of the Giants had tossed in 1,093.
CC Sabathia had thrown 1,163 innings, including the season in which he turned 25.
And King Felix Hernandez, always on Yankee fans' trade radar, had thrown 1,155 innings before he was 25 years old.
There are a couple of young pitchers to consider here as well.
Clayton Kershaw is just 23 years of age, but he is throwing 197 innings over an average 162-game season. At that rate he would have 1,182 innings in the books by the time he is 25.
Trevor Cahill, also just 23, averages 206 innings over the statistical 162-game stretch. At that pass he would have thrown 1,030 in the year he is 25.
By protecting his young pitchers, Cashman has seen Hughes throw only 378 innings to date. With the current questions about his health, we cannot know at this point whether he will ever pitch another inning in the major leagues.
What would have happened if they had allowed Joba and Hughes to go out and start 30 games when they were 21 or 22 years old?
We will never know.
The argument is that using young pitchers in this way creates a grave risk that they will break down before they reach their full athletic maturity and the prime of their careers.
There are examples of pitchers who have broken down after heavy early workloads. But it is impossible to know whether they would have broken down if they had been spared as Joba and Phil were.
Cashman completely ruled out Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances being given a chance to make the major-league roster this season. They were sent to Double A Trenton.
Both Banuelos and Betances were impressive in spring training, when the Yankees seemed desperate for starters. But they were never given a chance to make the Yankee team.
Every team has a system, a working theory on player development.
Other teams develop great young pitchers like Felix Hernandez, Matt Cain, Clayton Kershaw or Trevor Cahill, and they are throwing 200-plus innings at age 21 or 22.
One has to wonder why the Yankees can't do the same thing.
At least part of the reason is that Brian Cashman and other Yankee brass believe too much in limiting innings and pitch counts.