Making Sense of Joba's Inning Limit

The problem with the inning limit, estimated at 150-160, the Yankees have imposed on Joba Chamberlain for the season is not the number of innings, but that there never seemed to be a plan for implementing the limit. Did Yankee management really think that starting Chamberlain every fifth day for half the season and every sixth to tenth day for the second half of the season was a good idea? Did they really think that this was a good way to get the most out of him in the post-season? On August 1st, Chamberlain looked like he could be the Yankees number two starter in October. Thus far in August, he has pitched his way into the number four spot in the post-season rotation; and there is real danger the Yankees will not want to use him at all in October.

The problem the Yankees face is made more complicated because every time Chamberlain has a bad start, there are demands from fans and writers to put him back in the bullpen. These demands are not always rational, not least because there is no guarantee he would pitch at his magical 2007 level if he were to return to the bullpen, but they are persistent.

If the Yankees really had been serious about Chamberlain’s inning limit, they would have made him a five inning pitcher for the whole season, or had him pitch every sixth game all season. Instead, the Yankee plan seemed to be start worrying when Chamberlain got to about 110 innings, which is, of course, no plan at all.

So far this has not worked out so well. Pitching on Tuesday on about ten day’s rest, Chamberlain had one of the worst starts of his career, lasting only four innings while giving up seven earned runs, nine hits and three walks. Giving Chamberlain a week or more to think about that before pitching again does not seem like the best way to build up a young pitcher’s confidence.

The Yankee concern about Chamberlain suffering an arm injury from overuse is legitimate, particularly given the high ceiling which Chamberlain seems to have. However, Chamberlain is neither young enough or good enough for the Yankees to treat him as if he were in an unprecedented situation. He is far from being the first young pitcher with a live arm who is susceptible to arm injury from overuse.

As the Yankees know, the history of baseball is dotted with pitchers who threw out their arms at a young age, but even looking only at the years since 1990 there have also been a fair amount of good pitchers who threw a healthy amount of innings at a young age and went on to have pretty good careers. John Smoltz threw 231 innings at age 23, Chamberlain’s age this year. Kevin Appier threw 185 innings at age 22 and 207 at age 23. More recently, Matt Cain, currently 24 years old threw 190 or more innings in each of the last three seasons. Other pitchers who at the age of 23 or younger pitched more than 160 innings in a season since 1990 and went on to have good careers include: Mike Mussina, Pedro Martinez, Andy Pettitte, Mike Hampton, Matt Morris, Kevin Millwood, Javier Vasquez, C.C. Sabathia (four times), Barry Zito, Brad Penny, Ben Sheets, Mark Buehrle and Cole Hamels.

These successful pitchers notwithstanding, the Yankees are right to be somewhat concerned about the possibility of Chamberlain injuring himself. But this concern has led them to forget that pitchers don’t just have career ending injuries, they also have crises of confidence, get injured because they try to throw to hard after long rests and fail to learn how to pitch deep into games. These are all real possibilities for Chamberlain.

Clearly, letting Chamberlain throw 220 innings or 120 pitches in several starts this year would have been a big mistake, all but guaranteeing an injury for the young pitcher, but the Yankees had other options. A higher innings cap, a more complete plan, starting the season with Chamberlain in the bullpen to keep his innings down would have all been better than, as appears to be the case, having no plan, just a cap.