As most baseball fans know by now, the Washington Nationals have put an 160 innings limit on starter Steven Strasburg to help preserve his career after he had Tommy John surgery in his 2010 rookie season. This seems to have caused some debate among players and management in the Nationals organization and also amongst those in baseball circles. Some people think the Nationals are doing the right thing in limiting Strasburgs innings and then there are some (including anonymous players in the Nationals clubhouse) who feel the team is making a mistake on the innings limit placed on Strasburg because the team is in playoff contention. I'm going to give some examples of where innings limits have either helped or hurt up and coming pitchers and their teams in the past few seasons.
Joba Chamberlain & Phil Hughes- New York Yankees. Back in the 2008-2010 seasons, Yankee fans became all too familiar with the "Joba Rules" or the "Hughes Rules" imposed on them by Yankee management by limiting their innings. After 2007 when Chamberlain threw 112 innings in his rookie season in the bullpen, the Yankees decided to increase his workload somewhere between 140-160 innings and put him in the starting rotation which did not work out too well because he wasn't able to pitch deep enough into games as a starter which taxed the bullpen. After a couple of injuries and being moved back and forth from the bullpen and the starting rotation, Chamberlain is back in the bullpen again this season but has not been the same since his rookie season in 2007. As for Phil Hughes, back in the 2010 season the Yankees placed him on a innings limit plan where they either gave him an extra day or two of rest and also skipping his turn in the rotation. He posted a 18-8 record while pitching 176 innings that year and helping them to the postseason. In 2011, he suffered from arm fatigue due to shoulder inflammation and his velocity went from 92-95 mph to 87 mph and spent half the season on the disabled list. He has been at best a fourth to fifth starter in the Yankees rotation after an All-Star season in 2010.
Mark Prior - Chicago Cubs. Prior entered the draft in 2001 as a highly touted prospect who signed for a then record 10 million dollars. By his second season in the majors, he won 18 games, pitching in 211 innings and having a average pitch count of 113 per start which his manager at the time, Dusty Baker later took a lot of heat for. In September of that year and the postseason, his pitch count per game averaged up to 120. After 2003, Prior only pitched 3 more seasons in the majors due and due to nagging injuries was out of the league by the time he was 25 years old which is considered prime years in baseball. He has bounced around in the minors ever since the 2006 season but has not been back to the big show since. A huge fall from grace for such a talented pitcher at one point in his career.
Jordan Zimmermann - Washington Nationals. In his rookie season, Zimmermann found himself on the disabled list early on and needed the dreaded Tommy John surgery on his collateral ligament shutting down his 2009 season and missed an entire year. He was able to come back briefly towards the end of the 2010 season. In his first full season back after the surgery, the Nats put him on a innings limit which he hit at the end of August 2011 at 161 innings. This season, it seems to have payed off as Zimmermann is top 10 amongst all National League pitchers in ERA and has helped Washington stay on top in the National League East.
Bottom Line: Are the Nationals making a mistake limiting Strasburgs innings? This can be a two part answer based on who's perspective you're looking at. If you ask a Washington National fan, they would want Strasburg to be shut down now and not make his last two remaining starts so he can pitch in the postseason which the Nationals look to be headed. If you ask any GM or someone on a MLB medical staff, they will tell you the Nationals and GM Mike Rizzo are doing the right thing shutting down Strasburg. They have Joba Chamberlain and Mark Prior as examples not recovering fully from their surgeries. While its understandable that players may not like these innings limits for selfish reasons because they want to win (and money, don't let them fool you), the question they have to ask themselves is "Do I risk my career long term or do I trust the experts who are looking out for my career"? I saw a stat on ESPN that at least 50 percent of all starting pitchers wind up on the DL at least once during any given MLB season. Nationals manager Davey Johnson said it best when he was quoted as saying " I don't look at this as the only chance you're going to get to be in the postseason, the World Series. This team wasn't just pieced together for one year. It was built to last, and we're trying to make sure it lasts". Can't blame Washington looking out for its future. As I like to punctuate in most of my twitter hashtags, that's real talk.
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