Aaron Sanchez at Center of MLB's Latest Debate over Playoff-Race Innings Limit

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterAugust 11, 2016

TORONTO, CANADA - JULY 31: Aaron Sanchez #41 of the Toronto Blue Jays walks off the mound at the end of the fifth inning during MLB game action against the Baltimore Orioles on July 31, 2016 at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Aaron Sanchez has one of the best ERAs in the American League, and his Toronto Blue Jays have one of the best records in baseball.

And all anyone wants to talk about is whether the Jays should keep starting him.

On the surface, the discussion is nuts. This isn't to say the Blue Jays are crazy to look for ways to protect a kid who just turned 24 and is just starting to fulfill his potential as a first-round draft pick in 2010. The Jays weren't necessarily wrong when they hatched a plan to move Sanchez to the bullpen at midseason. They're not necessarily wrong now either, as they experiment with a six-man rotation designed to answer their big Sanchez question.

"It's not for you or me to say what the Blue Jays should or shouldn't do," said Dr. Glenn Fleisig, who has a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering and a career full of studies related to the pitching arm and how to protect it.

The problem with that, of course, is we all want to have a say—just as we did when the Washington Nationals shut down Stephen Strasburg in 2012 or when the New York Mets didn't shut Matt Harvey down a year ago. We want to learn from those decisions, even though there's no way to really know if the Strasburg shutdown kept him healthy (and helped make him one of MLB's best) or if Harvey's continued play had anything to do with the injury that did shut him down this summer.

Sanchez is different, because unlike Strasburg and Harvey, he's not coming back from Tommy John surgery. But Sanchez is also similar. He's a young pitcher heading for a big innings jump on a team with World Series aspirations, and that team is debating how much he should pitch.

The Strasburg question only mattered to us because he was so good and his playoff-bound team depended on him. The Harvey question mattered to us for the same reason.

The Nationals' decision to sit Stephen Strasburg is still debated four years later.
The Nationals' decision to sit Stephen Strasburg is still debated four years later.Dylan Buell/Getty Images

We hadn't faced the issue at that level before. Not because teams didn't shut pitchers down (they did), but because either the pitchers weren't overwhelmingly good at the time or their teams weren't. When the Nationals shut down Jordan Zimmermann in 2011, they were 22.5 games out of first place in the NL East.

The Blue Jays took over the AL East Wednesday. Sanchez, with his 2.85 ERA and 11-2 record, is a big part of the reason they're that good.

The problem is that before this year, Sanchez had never pitched more than 133.1 innings in a season. He's already at 145.1 this year. If he pitched every fifth game the rest of the way and continued to average 6.6 innings per start, he'd be well over 200 innings before the playoffs began.

There's plenty of debate over how risky a big innings boost is for a young pitcher who doesn't have any other obvious warning signs (previous injury, fatigue, velocity drop, etc.). Whatever the risk is, though, the Blue Jays want to mitigate it.

"I did make one absolute statement, this guy is not going to pitch 220 innings this year, he's not going to pitch 230 innings," Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro told MLB Network Radio (via Shi Davidi of Sportsnet.ca) last week.

The original plan—one the Blue Jays had been quite open about since spring training—was that at some point during the season, they would move Sanchez to the bullpen. Relievers don't pitch as many innings as starters, and Sanchez was effective out of the pen last year, so it seemed like a way to let him keep contributing without overdoing his innings.

When the Blue Jays acquired Francisco Liriano from the Pittsburgh Pirates, it forced a decision on Sanchez.
When the Blue Jays acquired Francisco Liriano from the Pittsburgh Pirates, it forced a decision on Sanchez.Ed Zurga/Getty Images

The Sanchez-to-the-pen plan played into the Jays' July trading strategy—they acquired starting pitcher Francisco Liriano from the Pittsburgh Pirates just before the Aug. 1 deadline. That acquisition turned the Sanchez question into one that required an immediate answer. Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins joined the team in Houston on Aug. 4 to provide it.

The answer, at least for now: Sanchez stays in the rotation. The Jays use a six-man rotation, and if they keep it through the end of the season, Sanchez will likely drop from 10 more starts to eight. Meanwhile, they keep a close watch for signs of fatigue and also consider skipping starts.

"The most likely scenario is that he stays in the rotation for some time to come," Atkins said, according to Gregor Chisholm of MLB.com.

That seems perfectly reasonable given what we know now. The problem is that we know so little.

Fleisig said that while studies have been done on usage risks to high school pitchers, there hasn't yet been enough research of the effects on professional pitchers.

"I wish I had a better answer," he said. "But the good news is that we are working on it."

Fleisig was referring to a five-year study being conducted in cooperation with MLB and the MLB Players Association. They began with pitchers chosen in the 2014-16 drafts, doing MRI imaging, physical exams and biomechanical analysis of pitching mechanics, and closely monitoring their usage and health. The plan is to determine how all of these factors together predict risk of injury in professional pitchers.

Until then, we have opinions and what amount to educated guesses. We have another team in another pennant race trying to keep another young pitcher healthy for the future while also trying to win now.

I wish I had a better answer, too.

    

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

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