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Innings limits need to be used more effectively

Aaron Sanchez is in the midst of a Cy Young race... and is currently at Single-A.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Cleveland Indians Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Over twenty seasons between 1971 and 1990, Nolan Ryan pitched 4631.1 innings. That’s more than 230 on average per season. To put that into contemporary perspective, that’s an elite amount of workload for the modern day pitcher. Over the past ten seasons, there have been 45 instances in which a starter has pitched 230 or more innings. This is just meant to illustrate how different that era of baseball was.

Let’s take it one step further though. From 1972-74, Ryan threw 942.2 innings. That’s three seasons of 314 innings pitched on average. That’s inconceivable in this era of baseball. Even his lightest workload of that range—1972’s 284 innings—would eclipse the innings pitched leaders since the 1988 season.

Bringing it closer to the our era then, if we go to FanGraphs and do a simple leaderboard of pitchers with the most innings pitched in a single season we learn something interesting: just five of the top 30 have happened in this millennium. To top it off, the most recent of which was in 2004—12 years ago—by Livan Hernandez. The cherry on top: that season happened with the Montreal Expos; that’s how long it’s been.

Welcome to the 2016 season, where a legitimate Cy Young contender was optioned to Single-A in the name of body preservation through innings limits. For the next few days, the Blue Jays will stash Aaron Sanchez with their minor league affiliate in Dunedin.

All of this is part of a grander plan though. With an off-day on Monday, the Blue Jays will roll with their five-man rotation skipping just one of Sanchez’s starts and call him back up ten days after being sent down for a key game against the division-rival Orioles. This matches the minimum amount of time that a player must be optioned for, and enables the Jays to add another player to their 25-man roster.

This isn’t the first and definitely won’t be the last we hear of innings limits. In fact, the Sanchez case feels almost exactly like the 2012 handling of Stephen Strasburg. The Nationals were headed to the postseason that year, but remained true to their goal of shutting Strasburg down after just under 160 innings in early September. The Nationals went on to lose in the Division Series after winning 98 games during the season—the most in all of baseball.

The main difference with the Sanchez case is the fact that the Blue Jays are attempting to rest him enough now that he can be used in the postseason. At the moment, Sanchez has logged just over 156 innings and it is assumed that he will be shut down around the 180-mark. The Blue Jays toyed with moving him to the bullpen in order to preserve innings, but it appears that converting him back into a starter for the postseason would have been too risky of an obstacle.

It’s actually somewhat amazing that teams have taken it upon themselves to enforce innings limits. When you think about it, the incentive to ensure the future health and safety of a player—especially during a postseason run—doesn’t seem apparent from the team’s perspective. However, Sanchez is at the beginning of his career and is a controllable asset for through the 2020 season. The Blue Jays then don’t particularly have to care about Sanchez’s ability to play into his thirties. They just need to concern themselves with the next three seasons.

Hypothetically losing a full calendar year to an elbow injury—which would still burn service time—would be a detriment to Sanchez’s worth. It’s apparent then that major league teams have done their cost-benefit analysis and prefer ensuring health over the possibility of— how ever slightly—increasing their World Series probabilities. And, honestly, that’s a good thing for everyone involved.

The problem is, the arguments both for and against limiting workload by innings—at least from outside the sport—is by no means definitive. On one side, the correlation between injury and workload based on innings is a weak one based on small samples. However, erring on the side of caution is never the worst idea.

What I personally believe on the matter isn’t especially important—I am by no stretch qualified to discuss the medical implications of wear on an arm. However, innings do seem like a strange way to measure workload. Pitch counts can fluctuate wildly and, at face value, seem to equate more closely with ‘workload.’ Then there’s measuring stress on an elbow as well; it feels as though pitch 25 in a single inning would cause more stress on an arm than pitch 10 for instance.

Personally however, the way the Marlins have handled Jose Fernandez’s return from Tommy John surgery has been an immaculate model. Two seasons removed from his surgery, the Marlins have been semi-regularly skipping starts throughout the season. Instead of staggering the workload then, Fernandez’s workload has stayed relatively static throughout the season while on pace to pitch as many innings as Sanchez—perhaps even fewer.

The discussion quickly becomes about ‘fixing baseball.’ Baseball fans seem to be enthralled with tinkering their favorite game sometimes. Pace of play is relatively in-vogue, but so too are innings limits with many fans citing burden of proof and largely ignoring preventative measures because they aren’t proven.

To those people I would like to make one thing clear though: innings limits are here to stay. In the future, they may be less about limiting innings specifically. Perhaps we will find a better measure; pitch counts or stress or breaking ball usage or something entirely different. But the days of starting pitchers topping 300 innings pitched per season are gone. Nolan Ryan’s records will live on, sure, because he was a phenomenal pitcher, but also because teams now care about the well-being of their players.

Perhaps teams care about the health and safety of their players for their own reasons: to get the most out of assets they define as their property.

Strasburg was notably and publicly displeased with the fact that he got shut down during a postseason run. And players can be upset all they want, but more should realize that teams shutting them down is also in their best interest. A second or third Tommy John surgery—especially during the renewable contract or arbitration phases of a pitcher’s career—could be both financially and literally debilitating.

It’s somewhat interesting then, that service time rules have this strange benefit to players. Typically, service time rules are seen as a detriment to establishing a player’s true worth. It is a way to control a player right up until their most productive seasons at a low cost. However, without service time rules, teams may not see the value in the preservation of health for their players.

Perhaps then, the way to get rid of innings limits is by abolishing the current service time rules. And you can put the chances of that happening at absolutely zero.