Every time you think you have it figured out, baseball throws you a curve.
Take starting pitching, for example.
This season, fantasy owners drafted ace starters higher than ever. Most had proved to be durable and just as consistent — if not moreso — than the top hitters.
With his impeccable track record and history of durability, Clayton Kershaw was in the mix for the No. 1 overall pick.
But Kershaw is on the disabled list and out indefinitely, potentially leaving his fantasy owners’ seasons in tatters — like a Chicago White Sox throwback jersey.
The same could be said for those who chose Matt Harvey as their ace. But while Kershaw had posted six consecutive seasons of at least 198 innings, Harvey’s ability to stay healthy was a concern.
He pitched brilliantly last season with 13 wins and a 2.71 ERA in leading the New York Mets to the World Series. However, he threw 189 1/3 regular season innings (and another 26 2/3 in the playoffs) after sitting out all of 2014 recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery.
To be fair, Harvey’s season-ending injury wasn’t to his surgically repaired elbow, but due to thoracic outlet syndrome in his shoulder. Still, it’s an easy connection to make between his workload last season — no pitcher had ever thrown that many innings coming back from Tommy John surgery — and his disappointing performance (4-10, 4.86 ERA) in 2016.
Once again, the question of optimal pitcher usage is a hotly debated topic.
A dynamic duo
Harvey and Stephen Strasburg will probably always be linked throughout their major league careers because of the way their teams have handled their valuable right arms.
The Washington Nationals famously shut down a 23-year-old Strasburg in 2012 because he had reached his innings limit coming off Tommy John surgery. He made his final start on Sept. 7 and didn’t pitch in the playoffs. The Nationals, despite the best record in the majors in the regular season, were eliminated in the division series.
The Mets, meanwhile, shifted gears last season in the way they handled Harvey once they began making a late-season playoff push. The team had planned to limit the workload for young starters Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, but the opportunity to make the playoffs took precedence.
Leaning heavily on all three down the stretch, the Mets won the NL East and advanced to the World Series. Even though they fell short in the Fall Classic, was it worth it, considering how all three have had physical problems this season?
Or has Washington’s long-term approach with Strasburg finally paid off with his dominance over the past year?
Since returning from a stint on the disabled list last August, Strasburg has gone 19-3 with a 2.50 ERA and a strikeout rate (11.6 K/9) that’s just a shade behind teammate Max Scherzer for the best among all major league starters over that span.
Yet the Nationals still haven’t won a playoff series.
The final verdict probably can’t be rendered until both players’ careers are over, but that doesn’t help executives (and fantasy owners) who must make decisions now.
Interestingly, I found an old spreadsheet from 2013 — the year after the Strasburg shutdown. On it were the names of up-and-coming pitchers under age 25 that included both Harvey and Strasburg, as well as Jose Fernandez, Julio Teheran, Patrick Corbin and Shelby Miller.
A haunting quote from the column I wrote that year came from Mets manager Terry Collins, who when asked about Harvey said the team was “not — NOT — going to hinder this kid’s health by killing him now, when the future is so bright.”
To varying degrees, all five of those young pitchers had their first-half workloads reduced after the All-Star break. But as we know now, Harvey, Fernandez and Corbin ended up needing Tommy John surgery that cost them all or part of the following season.
Even when teams try to exercise caution, injuries can still happen.
This year’s crop
Let’s take a look at some starting pitchers under 25 who’ve helped their fantasy owners the most this season — and where they stand on a potential innings limit. (See table below.)
Each team establishes its own threshold for how far to extend young pitchers beyond their previous limit. For argument’s sake, we’ll use a 20% increase from last year’s innings total as our standard to flag a potential shutdown candidate.
Jameson Taillon is the most interesting case because he missed all of 2014 and 2015 because of injuries, including Tommy John surgery.
For that reason he went undrafted in almost every league this spring, but an outstanding start at Class AAA Indianapolis earned him a spot in the Pittsburgh Pirates rotation.
With former starters Jon Niese and Juan Nicasio already moved to the bullpen, Taillon (2-1, 3.83) should be part of the starting five as long as the Pirates want to keep him there.
Like Taillon, Vince Velasquez of the Philadelphia Phillies previously had Tommy John surgery before he reached the majors. But his came as a teenager and kept him out for the entire 2011 season. He made his MLB debut last year with the Houston Astros and threw 882/3 innings.
After his six innings Sunday, Velasquez (8-2, 3.34 ERA) has topped last year’s innings total; his current pace would put him at 134.
The Phillies have some interesting decisions to make with Velasquez and Aaron Nola in their rotation with both on pace for more than a 20% increase in last year’s workload.
The Toronto Blue Jays converted Aaron Sanchez from reliever to starter this season and have been transparent in their plans to shift him back to the bullpen down the stretch. But his outstanding performance in the rotation (11-1, 2.72 after pitching another gem on Monday) could force the Jays to reconsider.
Through 20 starts, Sanchez has thrown more innings than he did all of last season.
Among this year’s group, only Syndergaard, the Detroit Tigers’ Michael Fulmer (9-2, 2.41) and Blake Snell (2-4, 3.05) of the Tampa Bay Rays currently aren’t in danger of going over their 20% increase in innings.
Several teams used the All-Star break to give their top young arms some extra rest. Syndergaard, Sanchez, Taillon, Velasquez and Snell all pitched in the No. 5 starter slot coming out of the break, giving them at least eight days between starts.
Look for the Mets, Pirates and Jays to find more of those types creative solutions and possibly skip starts here and there to keep their young pitchers available for potential postseason starts.
Since history has shown that even conservative approaches to limiting innings can’t prevent pitcher injuries, teams will likely push the envelope in pursuit of a World Series ring — even if there’s a chance of an outcome like Harvey’s.
Taking it to the limit
How some of this year’s top young pitchers’ projected innings caps compare to their current workloads. (Stats through Monday’s games.)