New York Yankees: Good Decision in Limiting the Innings of Phil Hughes

Phil Hughes, aka Phranchise, will start Tuesday night’s game against the Seattle Mariners and Cliff Lee. Hughes, though, had his last start skipped out on the West Coast trip through Arizona and Los Angeles.

The reason? After throwing mostly in relief last year, he is on an innings limit this season, with the Yankees likely not to let Hughes go above 180 innings. After throwing 105 innings last season, Hughes would have that number bumped up by 75 innings over 2009.

Depending on the source, this number of 180 innings does or does not include playoffs.

Why so much of an increase? The Verducci Effect, says that any young pitcher under the age of 25 who throws more than 30 innings over the prior season is ripe for injury or a lower level of production.

It started out as 40 innings over the prior season, but I guess there were not enough injuries, so Verducci reduced the number to 30. The original theory only contained injuries, but King Tom also added an increase in ERA to prove his points.

Well, Hughes did throw 111 innings in 2007, 100 in 2008 (including the 30 he threw in the Arizona Fall League), and 105 last year. He also threw in the 2007 and 2009 post season.

Maybe the Yankees feel that Hughes has built up enough innings over the last three years (316) that he can withstand the “rigors” of 180 innings.

I feel that Hughes also can withstand those innings, and much more and I would not have sat him at all, especially with the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays in hot pursuit.

But I understand why the Yankees did it. They do not want to be blamed for anything if Hughes ever hurts his arm*. Don’t want to hear if from the fans, the media, the agents or even fantasy baseball owners. They don’t want to lose their future investment of a great arm.

* Newsflash! Almost all pitchers hurt their arms during their careers, many needing surgery. It is the nature of the beast in a most unnatural act. Even Roger Clemens, one of the most durable pitchers of all time, had shoulder surgery in 1985 at age 22. He only won 350+ plus games afterwards, and is 16th all time in total innings pitched.

Those who do not hurt their arms, usually have tremendous mechanics like Greg Maddux, who threw 167 pitches in a game at age 22, and still made his next 700+ starts. Maddux also has starts that season of 131 pitches (twice), 134 pitches and 143 pitches in his first start, April 6th.

Maddux also had accumulated 86 professional innings in 1986, jumped to 186 innings the following season (increase of 100), then threw 196 in 1986. After throwing 183 comined minor and major league innings in 1987, Maddux threw 249 major league innings in 1988, a jump of 66 innings over the prior season.

The reason? Great mechanics, which lessened the pressure on the shoulder and elbow.

The fantasy baseball guys are already complaining about Hughes’ innings limit, but for a different reason. They want the wins and strikeouts that Hughes was bringing to the fantasy baseball table.

And since Hughes has now become what was expected of him, a really good young pitcher and is 10-1, with a 3.14 ERA entering Tuesday, the Yankees are taking it easy.

It is a mistake but I applaud this move by the Yankees to limit Hughes’ innings.  

All the horror stories of Mark Fidrych throwing 250 innings in 1976 at age 21, Doc Gooden throwing 276 innings in 1985 at age 20, are scaring off these teams. And both Don Gullett and Gary Nolan of the Big Red Machine days of the early 1970’s had logged innings totals of 200+ innings in their early 20’s, including Gullett at age 19.

All four of these young pitchers were never the same after many years of these high innings pitched seasons.

Well, can someone please let me know how Doc Gooden would ever replicate one of the greatest pitched seasons of all time when he went 24-4. 1.53 ERA, 268 strikeouts and 0.965 WHIP in 1985?

What many people do not understand that the idea is to win games, not protect your “investments.”

There, I said it.

That means if a young pitcher, like Hughes or Gooden or Gullett, or even Stephen Strasburg, are throwing well in a tight pennant race, they have to pitch. I don’t care how old they are, or how many innings they have thrown.

But I still like what the Yankees are doing with Hughes.

Injuries happen whether a pitcher is overused early in his career or not. While Fidrych, Gooden, Gullett and Nolan are on one side, there are guys like Dennis Martinez, Bert Blyleven and Don Sutton who threw a lot of innings before age 25, and had long, productive careers.

And I also contend that Nolan and Gooden had nice careers, too. Nolan ended up having 110 wins and started 30+ games five times, while Gooden started 410 games over a 16 year career, winning 194.

Lots of guys today are having Tommy John surgery (TJS) and have been limited in pitch counts and their innings. Josh Johnson of the Florida Marlins has TJS a few years ago, and was closely monitored throughout his pro career.

The Yankees have a bunch of minor leaguers who have had TJS and they monitor everything pitcher wise, including the use of the minor league “phantom DL” to give guys innings breaks. Heck, a few years ago the Toronto Blue Jays had a slew of young pitchers who had surgery, and they were monitored throughout their careers.

All the precautions in attempts to extend a young pitchers career has eliminated the dominant season (glad Ubaldo is here now), or that run of great seasons. Building up guys over time is fine, but now even veteran pitchers are limited to seven inning starts and a little more than 200 innings a year.

There are too many decisions going to middle relievers, guys with no business being in the critical parts of games. Is asking a pitcher to throw 15 pitches an inning over nine innings too much?

It is ridiculous to ask someone to be like Iron Joe McGinnity again, but to throw 135 pitches over nine innings (15 per inning) does not seem problematic, especially when a pitcher conditions himself to do so.

Most great pitchers like Juan Marichal, Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver and the like only became what they were because they were allowed to become what they are.

Steve Carlton only became Steve Carlton because he was allowed to be Steve Carlton.

And that is to take the ball all the time, throwing enough to win (or lose) the game that day, going out and doing it again every four (now five) days. Those types of pitchers used to “get better as the game went along.”

That phrase was even used this season about Strasburg. But Strasburg is not yet being allowed to become Strasburg. And Hughes is not yet being allowed to become Phil Hughes.

But I like what the Yankees are doing with Hughes, and what the Nationals are doing with Strasburg.

And what the Reds are doing with Mike Leake, what the San Diego Padres are doing with their young starters and what the Baltimore Orioles are doing with young starters Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta.

The Yankees, as well as many other teams, most notably Kansas City when Zack Greinke started games, lost games in which they held middle to late inning leads. What the manager did was remove the starting pitcher after six or seven innings to hand the lead over to the bullpen.

Many times this ends in team losses, and in close pennant races in September, those games blown early count just the same.

Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts died just about two months ago, and he won 286 games, including 20+ wins in six straight seasons from age 23 through age 28. He also won 19 a year later at age 29. He dominated those six/seven seasons, and despite having double-digit wins in eight other seasons.

He was really never the same after age 28 after he averaged 319 innings per season.

But I would rather have the dominating six years, than a real good pitcher for 15 seasons who doesn’t dominate, but gets his obligatory 12+ wins every year. Are these teams trying to get 30 starts out of these guys for 15 years? That would be 450 starts.

Know how many pitchers have started 450+ games? Only 77. In the history of major league baseball, only 77 pitchers have started 450+ games, the equivalent of a 15 year career at 30 starts per season.

And most of these guys began their careers before 1985, the era when pitch counts started to become common.

So let’s get these pitchers to start dominating again over shorter time periods.

Give me Phil Hughes or Stephen Strasburg or a Mike Leake dominating for seven seasons before mediocrity hits. The teams will be better because of it, and if a tam cannot develop another good starting pitcher or two (or three) in seven years, then player development is a problem.

But I like what the Yankees are doing with Hughes, what the Nationals are doing with Strasburg, and what the Reds are doing with Leake.

Because when one of these guys (or any other “limited innings” pitcher) gets an arm injury and needs surgery, then baseball can get back to the days of the dominating, workhorse starting pitcher.

I believe Phil Hughes can be that guy. Just let Phil be Phil.

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