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Innings Limits: Are Today’s Starting Pitchers Babied?

brenemil
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When the Houston Astros shut down Dallas Keuchel in September 2014 after 200 innings pitched, the discussion continued about innings limits. Is this necessary, or ridiculous overkill? Are modern hurlers being babied?

Eight Houston pitchers have thrown 200 or more innings 16 times in the 14 seasons since 2000. That’s about average for MLB teams (Tigers – 23, Phillies – 22, Red Sox – 19, Dodgers – 18, Astros – 16, Nationals – 12, Rockies – 10).

Limiting pitchers may seem to be a new strategy (or affliction, depending on how you view it). However, records indicate it is not so recent or as drastic as one may think. The yearly leaderboard at MLB.com Stats shows a gradual trend throughout baseball history, a trend that reflects the strategies of the different eras.

Although it may seem that today’s teams are unnecessarily limiting pitchers, the statistics suggest otherwise.

Pre-1900 pitchers generally threw considerably more innings – the most in history. They did so because those teams had fewer pitchers on their rosters, and for whatever reason, they were conditioned to pitch more. From the beginning of the 20th century, teams began to carry more pitchers. Because starters were expected to go longer in those days, the average innings per hurler was higher than today.

The trend of pitchers throwing more than 200 innings reached a peak in the 1920’s. The 1930’s on saw a steady decline, with a resurgence in the 1970’s and 1980’s. From the 1990’s onward when teams were more inclined to use five or six starters, the trend reversed again, with fewer pitchers throwing 200 or more innings.

Although it may seem that today’s teams are unnecessarily limiting pitchers, the statistics suggest otherwise. In 2014, thirty-four pitchers threw two hundred or more innings, with David Price leading at 248. The number in 2013 was 36, and in 2012, 31.

It is interesting to look back at the numbers.

David Price threw a Major League high 248 innings in 2014. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Detroit’s Justin Verlander, the 2011 Cy Young Award winner, pitched 251 innings that season. Randy Johnson threw 271 innings in 2002, and Roger Clemens did the same in 1991. Steve Carlton, Phil Niekro, and Jim Palmer all threw more than 300 innings in a season several times. In 1946, Bob Feller pitched the astonishing total of 371 innings. Feller’s mark seems incredible until we look sixty-seven years earlier.

In 1879, Will White, pitching for the Cincinnati Reds, set the record that still stands. He threw the unbelievable total of 680 innings, starting and completing 75 of the Reds’ 81 games. Six hundred eighty innings is surely a fluke, isn’t it?

Surprisingly, the answer is no.

Baseball Reference.com shows that 423 times in MLB history, pitchers threw at least 340 innings. The same record source shows that between 1879 and 1892, nine men pitched more than 600 innings 13 times. (A statistical oddity is that all were right handed.) White’s feat was by no means a fluke.

Pitching anywhere close to 600 innings is, of course, a ridiculous extreme, at least by modern standards. Although it may seem that today’s pitchers are being babied, the historical record indicates that is not necessarily the case. Considering that 34 pitchers were at or above 200 innings in 2014, it should be enough to realize teams are not coddling most of their starters. The modern norm of 170-210 innings is simply part of current strategy, not necessarily related to fear over arm injuries.

Some pitchers may need to be closely watched. After Stephen Strasburg returned from Tommy John surgery in 2012, the Washington Nationals limited him to 159 innings. At the time, I thought they were being overprotective. However, looking back, I realize they were guarding their investment until they could be certain he really was healthy.

As for Keuchel, Astros fans certainly hope the team will not limit his appearances. He hasn’t shown any sign of arm problems, and he’s a big, strong pitcher. Let him go for it and prove he can be a modern day workhorse. He won’t come anywhere close to Will White’s incredible record, but 200-220 innings will do fine for the Astros.

Next: Who is the Face of the Houston Astros?

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