Carleton: Do innings limits work?

From Russell Carleton at Baseball Prospectus on April 29, 2014:

Let’s go back to 2012, when the Washington Nationals made one of the most controversial decisions in recent memory by shutting down pitcher Stephen Strasburg late in the season, even though it meant that Strasburg, though not injured at the time, would not pitch for the Nationals in their Division Series. The Nationals lost that series to the St. Louis Cardinals three games to two, and Lana del Rey wrote “Summertime Sadness” as a result (no, not really). The Nationals justified that decision by saying that they wanted to keep Strasburg below 160 innings pitched for the season to prevent him from further injury. In 2011, Strasburg only pitched in five games, spending most of the season recovering from Tommy John surgery. He was healthy through most of 2013 and has been so far through 2014.

Flash forward to 2014, where a laundry list of starters (Jarrod Parker, Patrick Corbin, Jameson Taillon, Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, Josh Johnson, and Matt Moore) have already reported to Dr. James Andrews’s office, and we’re not even out of April. Could something have been done to save them? Perhaps the Nationals had it right. Maybe taking it easy with Strasburg in 2012 was the right move.

Today, we’re going to look at the tricky subject of innings limits for pitchers and whether or not they actually “work.” That is, do they show any effect on a pitcher’s health later in his career? But before we jump in, let’s discuss something first. I’m going to be looking at this from a public health perspective. Injury prevention is likely best done with actual X-rays of a pitcher’s elbow and shoulder and a firm understanding of his mechanics and how those mechanics put stress on his joints. But, in the same way that knowing a man is overweight tells me something (but not everything) about his chances for developing heart disease, we can look at innings workloads as an indicator. In the aggregate, do they help or hinder a pitcher’s health? If the answer is yes, then we can at least say that teams should have a bias toward innings limits or not.

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Originally published: April 29, 2014. Last Updated: April 29, 2014.