Innings limits, pitch counts the new reality

MILWAUKEE — Heavy is the head that wears the crown as baseball’s most promising young pitcher, and for Washington Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg — whose injury history has been a major topic of discussion since the day he was called up to the big leagues — that crown has gotten only heavier as time has passed this season.

That’s because the Nationals have stated, on several occasions, that Strasburg won’t pitch past 170 innings in 2012. And with 117 innings already under his belt, he’s on pace to reach that mark with about a month left in the regular season, never mind the playoffs.

For months, the argument on Strasburg — a 24-year-old phenom who had Tommy John surgery in 2010 and missed almost all of 2011 — has soldiered on: Limit him or don’t limit him? Risk his health for the chance at the World Series or play it safe and secure him for the long haul?

For the Nationals, the response to those questions has been firm and unwavering. They are as careful as any team has ever been with a top young pitcher. Strasburg’s surgery was almost two years ago, and he has proved he’s healthy — he even told MLB Network Radio that the Nationals would have to “rip the ball out of my hands” if they made it to the World Series. Still, his situation is as unique for a young pitcher as Brewers manager Ron Roenicke has ever seen.

“I think it’s unusual, but his situation is unusual,” Roenicke said. “Here’s a guy who came up at a pretty young age, obviously tremendous talent, big future for what the organization wants to do, and he’s already had arm surgery. I don’t think you just take that player and throw him back out there and say we’ll go for it again. I think it’s a smart way to do things on their part to make sure this guy is OK so they can have him for the long run, not just two, three years.”

Roenicke has never had the burden and blessing of managing an elite pitching prospect like Strasburg. But he understands the caution involved in trying to ensure Strasburg’s longevity — it’s a delicate yet admirable game that the Nationals are playing, he said.

But would Roenicke do the same thing? It’s hard to say. His only experience in handling a top pitching prospect in the Brewers’ organization is with Wily Peralta and Tyler Thornburg this season.

For Peralta, that has meant staying at Triple A for the majority of the season and waiting for a possible September call-up. Conversely, Thornburg’s has been an interesting road, one that has changed course on multiple occasions.

Now Thornburg finds himself in the bullpen — a situation he didn’t expect when this year began. But his handling has been oddly similar to Strasburg’s — although no one would ever make that comparison, talent-wise. The decision to use Thornburg in relief was as much to limit his big-league innings and bring him along slowly as it was out of need. He doesn’t quite have an innings limit — at least one the Brewers are discussing — but Roenicke is cognizant of the amount of work he’s getting, even while the plan for his development continues to evolve.

“There’s a plan, but that changes at times,” Roenicke said. “This is a way of keeping down some of his innings. I feel like he has developed as a starter, and we’ll see what happens when we get into September. He could end up starting again at the end of the season or just give us a better read on him for next year.”

Thornburg, a 23-year-old who all but skipped Triple-A, doesn’t have the looming past of Tommy John surgery, like Strasburg, but even for him, innings limits and pitch counts are a reality — something he and other top prospects have had to get used to in recent years.

Thornburg sympathizes with the frustration Strasburg must be feeling, but as he’s had to deal with his innings being further limited and his pitch counts being watched more closely, he’s started to understand the other side of the argument as well.

“If I was in (Strasburg’s) situation, definitely I’d be frustrated,” Thornburg said. “It’s going to frustrate him if they shut him down, but he knows it’s the right thing to do. He just doesn’t want to do it. I’d be the same way. After a season like he had, he got hurt with Tommy John, it’s the right thing to do to cut him off. But no pitcher anywhere is going to do want to do that, especially when you’re contending like they are.”

As a prospect drawing closer to the major leagues, Thornburg said his outings began to grow increasingly more regimented. And with that strict plan in mind, he laughs when wondering how things used to be long before his time — when managers rarely worried about limiting a pitcher’s innings or even a pitch count during a game.

“It’s hard to think about, compared to now,” Thornburg said. “There’s a lot of pitchers that had no pitch count back then. I don’t even know when the pitch count got big. Guys then stayed healthy their whole career without a pitch count. But then again, there’s a lot of guys you probably never heard about because they only hung around for a year or two. I definitely think the pitch count is what’s best, though. It’s something we probably need in this day and age.”

“We have more information now,” Roenicke added. “You have pitch counts, you have innings, the age is usually different — they don’t spend as much time in the minor leagues. … If you can pitch, you’re not going to be in the minor leagues very long; whereas, before even if you could pitch, you still went up level by level and you still logged a lot of innings before you got here.”

The plan with Thornburg, as Roenicke has promised, will continue to change. Unlike Strasburg, Thornburg now has to prepare for pitching out of the bullpen, while still assuming that a start could come at any moment. It’s how the Brewers have chosen to groom one of their top pitching prospects for a long future in the team’s rotation.

But for Strasburg — as the entire nation debates whether shutting him down in September is the right decision for the Nationals — the plan has and will likely stay the same. And with 53 innings remaining before reaching his supposed limit, Strasburg’s crown as baseball’s best young pitcher has likely never been heavier.

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