A few days ago, I received my copy of the most recent ESPN The Magazine in the mail and read the article written by Tim Keown describing the current mindset in Arlington in regards to pushing their pitchers physically beyond the comfort levels of the average Major League franchise.
The article is worth reading in its entirety, but in a nutshell Keown surmises that by not coddling their arms with restrictive pitch counts and pushing stronger cardio and long-toss work in the hot Texas sun, the Rangers, led by team President Nolan Ryan’s imposed regimen, have turned around a staff who have for years been considered among the worst in baseball.
But this post is not about the Rangers, and I am only mentioning them because of what the Yankees are currently doing with Joba Chamberlain. By now, I’m sure most of you are aware of the phrase “Joba Rules”, referring to the annual innings limits that the club imposes upon their potential future ace. It is thought that if you allow a young pitcher to increase his workload dramatically from year to year, the risk of future injuries escalates. And in today’s baseball world where the enormous value of quality talent making the league minimum is well understood (yes, even by the Yankees), no one wants to be the guy who ruined a promising career – or, more accurately, several seasons of cheap yet dominant performances.
In 2008, the Yanks limited Chamberlain to 100 innings, and this year, it was already up to 130 prior to his start on Sunday. So what did the Yankees do? Oh, just your average “pull your starter after 35 pitches” routine. That’s right. The Yankees had Joba on a 35-pitch limit, which was enough for three innings (surprisingly). Me thinks they overreact.
It’s certainly understandable that teams want to protect their assets to the best of their abilities. And with the Yankees as mortal locks for the playoffs, they can experiment with this without real repercussions in the standings. However, is this really the best solution?
The most drastic scenario that I hope wasn’t even considered for more than two seconds is to have shut down Joba for the rest of the regular season. The Yankees could obviously use Chamberlain in the rotation come playoff time, and simply shelving him for the next month could very well leave him unprepared for that. Another potential route was the one we initially thought the club would take, which was to give Joba a longer period of rest in between starts than normal. But they scrapped that idea as well and simply decided to start him on normal rest albeit with the stipulation of the 35-pitch count. I suppose that with the rosters expanding in September, that finding relievers to come in after Joba maxes out isn’t much of an issue at the moment (the Yankees now have 15 pitchers in the bigs). But why are they reinventing the wheel?
The most traditionally sensible thing to do was of course simply put him into the bullpen until the playoffs. There really aren’t many truly “high-leverage” situations that the Yanks should be facing with such a cushy lead, but at least the guy could get his work in when he was needed.
So why was this option nixed? This is pure speculation on my part, but I wonder if no one in that front office wanted to deal with the worst (okay, maybe not) case scenario – what if he was great in that role? The “should Joba be a starter or reliever” debate should never have even happened (200 innings vs. 70 innings. Which workload do you prefer your best pitchers handling?) but ridiculously, it still is happening in the papers and on talk radio. Perhaps the Yankees simply didn’t want to add fuel to those ridiculous flames. Or, less conspiratorially, it was simply a case of being able to guarantee Joba routine work. But that’s no fun, is it?
In the end, there really is no easy answer. But I do know this – a month ago, I thought that capping annual innings for young pitchers wasn’t a bad idea. But actually seeing it in practice in such a severe form as this is making me seriously consider the alternatives. Maybe there is something to what Nolan Ryan is preaching. Maybe clubs are coddling their young arms too much which in turn makes them less capable of handling the workload necessary to be the best players possible. At the very least, it is safe to say that there is no such thing as a fail-proof plan. Each pitcher is different and some can handle the workload while others can’t.
So the true question is, how do you know which is which? For the Rangers, you push them to see who doesn’t break. For the Yankees, you impose a gradual process that may never test their limits. I suggest that we all keep a close eye on what’s going on in Texas. If their young pitchers are still effective and healthy in a few years, we may see this approach take hold around the league.
Or maybe expecting every pitcher to emulate the work habits of a legendary fireballer who, despite pitching over 5300 innings over his 27 year career, was still able to throw a 95-mph fastball in his mid-forties, is just bat-shit insane.