Why Are We Even Talking About Innings Limits?

Matt Harvey warms up before his first live batting practice since Tommy John Surgery. Spring training, 2015.
Photo: Stephen Guilbert
The talk around New York sports today focused on Matt Harvey's agent Scott Boras' recent proclamation that Harvey has a hard limit of 180 innings for the 2015 season and not a soft or flexible limit that the Mets organization has been reporting for months. This comes as a surprise to many who assumed that skipping starts, creative scheduling around the All-Star Break and the six-man rotation functioned to spread Harvey's innings out so he could pitch into October. Today, at 166.1 innings pitched, Harvey would have two more starts before reaching Boras' limit.

The question I have for Boras, Dr. James Andrews (who reportedly set the limit, according to Boras), and the baseball world as a whole is: What are we even talking about innings limits? Innings are an arbitrary number that represent outs--not pitches. Further more they represent a quantity of an event in baseball and not the process for which that event is achieved.

That last paragraph might be too vague. Here's an analogy instead.

Your boss asks you to go on a run with your co-workers Rey, Shawn and Preston. You have to run a mile.

You get to the gym and your boss says that you have to run your mile on the treadmill on a 15% incline. Rey has to run his in under 5 minutes on an indoor track. Shawn has to run outside in the rain on a trail in sandals. Preston gets to run his mile as leisurely as he wants around an indoor track.

At the end of the workout, you all shower and get to your jobs having run a mile. However, you cannot feel your calves, Rey passed out and will be late to the office, Shawn has a twisted ankle and pneumonia and Preston is just fine. All of you ran a mile, though, right?

The baseball world continues to evaluate "use" based off of an arbitrary number that represents an outcome (three outs achieved, times how many ever times accomplished) while completely disregarding the process.

We know very little about what causes ligament and tendon damage in the arm. Even biomechanic engineers and arthroscopic surgeons admit how inconclusive and inconsistent seemingly causal data can be when determining what makes TJS candidates' arms break. We do know two things: The human arm is not meant to throw a baseball as hard as humans can throw baseballs and repeated trauma increases injury.

I covered how the Ulnar Collateral Ligament in the arm can get damaged under duress in my piece about Jack Leathersich's 57 pitch outing which led to TJS. In that instance, a pitcher was asked to throw twice what he was used to throwing and almost four times what an average reliever throws in an outing which likely caused the final trauma that led the pitcher to the operating table. Conversely, the Mets have been obsessively diligent with Matt Harvey's rehabilitation and pitching from day one of this process and the data backs that up.

Matt Harvey has thrown 166.1 innings in 2015 which is 27th in baseball.

Matt Harvey has thrown 2459 pitches which is 50th in baseball and a ranking which will only go down with an upcoming skipped start and reintroduction of the six-man rotation in Flushing.

Matt Harvey has a 98.4 pitches-per-start ratio which is 53rd overall.

As far as "innings" are considered, they're meaningless. As far as pitches are concerned, Harvey really has not thrown all that many. The Mets are pulling him early and never stretching him too far--never over 115 pitches and over 110 only once. They are monitoring his velocity, number of breaking pitches thrown, his warm-up pitches, throwing days, rehab, conditioning and every and all factors possible to make this the best decision possible for Harvey, the 2015 Mets and the organization going forwards.

Lest Scott Boras forget, the Mets are in this for the long term, too. Matt Harvey has 3+ more years before free agency and possibly much longer than that as a Met and most (if not all) coming in a competition window that just opened this summer. Alderson and his regime are doing more than due diligence to make sure they get this right--they're being obsessive about it. And they should be.

Saying "He should not throw more than xxx innings" cannot be taken seriously. I do not take it seriously. As much as I respect Scott Boras as a business man and Dr. James Andrews as a physician, they are not baseball minds. They cater to, work for and support baseball and its players, but they also understand it at a level that Sandy Alderson probably understands the UCL--he has read the studies, he knows how it works, but he certainly would not operate on one. And here is where I see a disconnect--we assume that the authority on a very specific subject must be the authority on the broader issue as well. But they aren't. In the Alderson vs. Boras or Alderson vs. Andrews or Ricco vs. Andrews (take your pick here) debate, when it comes to medicine, I listen to Andrews. When it comes to how baseball works, I take Ricco or Alderson. Andrews saying "180 innings" tells me that he looks out for his patients but does not really understand what they do at a level required to completely make that call.

To further support my point, consider my example from earlier. Rey ran his mile in under five minutes and he did so on a track, the same place Preston ran his leisurely mile. Both finished the mile. Both did so under the same controlled conditions. One will be very sore the next day. One will not.

Now that we have thrown "innings" out the window as even a scintilla of a meaningful benchmark for a pitcher's arm health, let's put "pitches" under the microscope.

Matt Harvey has thrown 2,459 pitches in 2015. He has faced 659 batters. Only 53 of those batters have come to the plate in "High Leverage" situations (as determined by Fangraphs). That's eight out of every 100 batters. That's about twice a start. 441 of those at bats have come with the bases empy and only 117 with runners in scoring position. His pitches-per-inning ratio of 14.8 is 7th best in the NL.

Harvey's brilliance in 2015 has made those above numbers good but they have also allowed the Mets to extend him past where he would have been if he had thrown more pitches per inning or start and in higher leverage situations. The Mets caught a break because Harvey was so good and pitched so many stress-free innings. There have been plenty of studies covering the dangers of high pitch innings, innings deemed "stressful", and innings in which the pitcher consciously or sub-consciously "reaches back for more" to get that one final strike. Harvey has pitched very few of those and his arm, ideally, is healthier and more rested because of it.

All of the above matters. Whenever I hear someone say something--anything really--about "innings limits", I understand that there is an implication that the formula is not that simple. However, at the same time, I cannot help but reject whatever comes after that statement. Innings have absolutely nothing to do with the starter's arm health in this context. Given Harvey's season--given how few pitches he has thrown each inning and each start and how stress-free those innings have largely been--how can someone say that an arbitrary number of said innings supposedly established months ago must be a "hard cap"?

How does saying so exhibit anything other than a complete misunderstanding of pitching?

I sincerely hope this is not a ploy by Scott Boras to turn a contentious issue about future health and earnings into more dollars in a contract extension. I truly hope the man has more integrity than that. I also understand that baseball players are Scott Boras' commodity and that, as a man of business, he must protect those commodities at all costs. However, this unnecessary debate started because he is trying to enforce something he either chronically misunderstands or understands just fine and is abusing.

Either way, that is not okay by me.



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Stephen Guilbert said...

Two comments on my own piece here:

1- Yes, I cringe just as badly when I hear Ricco talk about 190-195 innings as a cap. First of all, that's not a cap, that's a range. Secondly, we both know you don't care about the actual innings. Call it like it is--you're monitoring everything.

2- Boras, and everyone else, seems to ignore the fact that Harvey was off for 17 months post-surgery. 17. That's a lot more than what these doctors are used to but they're not talking about that. Why not?

Thomas Brennan said...

Good points, Stephen.

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