Carleton: Innings limits and Tommy John surgeries

From Russell Carleton at Baseball Prospectus on September 29, 2015:

We know that the Mets are going to the playoffs. We know that Matt Harvey plans to pitch in the playoffs. But should he? Harvey, of course, missed the entire 2014 season after Tommy John surgery, and a couple of weeks ago there was a small kerfuffle over whether Harvey would be “allowed” to pitch in the postseason. It seems now that the issue has been resolved and the answer is yes.

It looked for a brief moment that we were headed for a repeat of the 2012 Stephen Strasburg saga. For those who have blocked that one out of their memories, Strasburg had Tommy John surgery in 2011, and in 2012, the Nationals decided that he would only pitch 160 innings and would not be on the postseason roster. The Nats eventually lost the Division Series three games to two to the Cardinals. It’s hard to say that Strasburg would have been the difference, but … they would have won the World Series that year with Strasburg.

The logic then was that Strasburg needed to take it easy during his first year back, and that to push him would be to risk him for the next few years. It might mean that the Nats were punting a bit of their chance in 2012, but of course, the Nats were a young team on the upswing. Better to make sure of a healthy Strasburg for the 2013, 2014, and 2015 playoffs. At least they made it to the 2014 playoffs. The number we heard all summer was that Strasburg would pitch 160 innings, and no more. (He ended up pitching 159 1/3, plus one in the All-Star game.) The rumor swirling around Harvey was that he was supposed to max out at 180 innings, but apparently that’s not a very firm limit. And it looks like the Mets will have Harvey on the mound for Game 1 or 2 of the playoffs.

Intuitively, the idea that teams should be careful with their returning TJ patients makes sense. We know that the best predictor of pitcher injuries is previous injury, so a returning pitcher already has a strike against him in avoiding the DL. But is an innings limit the best way to keep a guy from having to take time off? We know that within a season, it appears that individual outings with super-high (more than 115) pitch counts are associated with both a risk of injury in general and specifically for the kind of catastrophic injury that Harvey suffered to begin with. But can pitching too often be a problem by itself, even if the pitch count within each game is reasonable?

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Originally published: September 29, 2015. Last Updated: September 29, 2015.