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Scott Boras, Matt Harvey, and the myth of the innings limit

The medical evidence does not support a hard innings cap. The Mets should let Harvey pitch.

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Putting aside the sucker-punch timing of the announcement and his past statements to the contrary, Matt Harvey’s insistence on a 180-inning cap sounds reasonable. Scott Boras cannot let his client—and the Mets cannot let their ace—become another Mark Prior, another youthful phenom whose arm crumples before his hair grays.

History is riddled with such disappointments and the Mets have been the staunchest record keepers with the likes of Bill Pulsipher, Paul Wilson, and Jason Isringhausen of Generation K, as well as Dwight Gooden. Other examples from around the league include Kerry Wood, Steve Avery, and Mark Fidrych.

Note, though, that when we talk about pitchers who succumbed to overuse, we generally focus on names from over 15 years ago. The game is different today. Ligaments and rotator cuffs are now protected like storied home run balls. Tommy John surgery is widespread, but the best evidence suggests that the primary causes are not overuse as major leaguers. Instead, the leading factors tend to be poor mechanics, pitching year round as adolescents, and throwing with maximum effort, none of which pertain to how the Mets handle Harvey.

Certainly setting a strict limit of 180 innings would reduce the likelihood of injury, but it is the job of professional athletes and teams to balance potential risk with winning. In an era in which pitchers’ health is already prioritized, shutting Harvey down sacrifices the latter for marginal help in the former.

Wood, Prior, and Generation K were martyrs of the pitch count revolution. Before them, pitchers regularly threw more than 120 pitches in a game without blinking. But the Cubs’ and Mets’ pitching flamed out so publicly and so quickly that it drew national attention to the issue of overuse. In 1998, statisticians of the nascent sabermetric movement began agitating for managers to monitor pitch counts. For the first time, MLB kept pitch counts as an official stat. Rany Jazayerli of Baseball Prospectus invented Pitcher Abuse Points (PAP) to quantify overuse. Soon, an innovative Oakland Athletics pitching coach named Rick Peterson imposed strict limits on his own generation of pitchers: Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito. The trio went on to win 275 games for the Athletics.

Peterson was as a pioneer of the "Verducci Effect." The pitching coach once told Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci that he preferred to not increase a young starter’s innings by more than 25-30 innings year-to-year. The "effect," which states that pitchers who exceed those innings increases are prone to injury or regression, has been thoroughly debunked (basically, injuries are common among all pitchers, and many pitchers naturally regress to the mean after a stellar season), but it contained the pivotal insight that young pitchers had to be protected. Most organizations, including the Mets, now use his rule of thumb.

After Wood’s implosion—which entailed striking out 20 batters in a game in May of 1998 and landing on the operating table the following March—teams began listening. The percentage of games in which starters threw over 120 pitches, after slowly declining for a decade, plummeted from 9.3% in 2000 to 4.8% in 2001. It’s fallen further every year since.

Harvey and his cohorts have been the beneficiaries of this new approach. A 2012 analysis for Grantland by Jazayerli found that modern reductions in pitch counts helped lower the burnout rate for young pitchers by a third. That same year, sabermetrician J.C. Bradbury published a study that found a direct (albeit small) link between high pitch counts and performance regression. In 2013, Baseball Prospectus’s Russell A. Carleton found that the greatest predictors of injury are past injury and pitches thrown in the previous season.

It’s clear that the pitch count revolution has saved arms. What’s not clear is that taking the revolution a step further (i.e., imposing unbending innings limits) will lead to any further improvement in pitcher health.

Overlooked in this whole debate is just how carefully the Mets have handled Harvey to date. Comparisons to Generation K or Prior are not apt because Harvey has not pitched at all like his predecessors did. Both Pulsipher and Isringhausen threw more than 210 innings between the majors and minors in their rookie seasons at ages 21 and 22, respectively. Harvey is 26 and has carefully built up innings over time.

Prior is an appealing comparison because he too was involved in a playoff run. But in September and October of 2003, the 23-year-old broke 130 pitches in four different starts. That’s as many 130-plus-pitch starts as the entire major leagues have seen in the last two seasons combined. No pitcher as young as Prior has done it since Matt Cain in 2006. Harvey’s highest pitch count this season? It was 115 pitches, and it was the only time he broke 110.

Cain and teammate Tim Lincecum present the clearest modern examples of pitcher abuse. Blessed with some of the best young hurlers in the last decade, the Giants chose to let their starters loose, and while that no doubt helped bring championships in 2010 and 2012, both Cain and Lincecum are now injured shells of their former selves. Lincecum threw over 130 pitches twice in a three-week span as a skinny, 5-foot-11-inch 24-year-old in 2008. He led the majors in PAP that year and finished fourth in total pitches. After enduring similar labors in 2009, his 98-99-mph heater vanished, and soon thereafter, so did his effectiveness. Harvey, by contrast, ranks 70th in PAP this season and 58th out of 87 qualified starters in total pitches.

The lesson is not that teams need to coddle pitchers, but that they shouldn’t abuse them. Overprotecting a pitcher can be ineffective or even counterproductive. Back in 2001, the Tigers imposed arguably the first publicly stated pitch counts on a pitcher, limiting rookie Jeff Weaver to 110 pitches per start. By 2008, the same line of reasoning led to the infamous "Joba Rules" and the spectacle of a promising young hurler seesawing between the rotation and the bullpen, and occasionally making a three-inning, 35-pitch start. Weaver went on to a healthy career. Joba Chamberlain went bust as a starter and had Tommy John surgery in 2011.

But maybe Harvey, because he is recovering from Tommy John surgery, is different. It’s a logical assertion. Pitchers coming off of major injuries should be handled with extra care. Boras even has examplesShaun Marcum, Josh Johnson, Jarrod Parker, and Kris Medlen—of pitchers who threw nearly 200 innings after their operations and suffered further elbow complications.

Yet a sample size of four is hardly a sample size at all, and the examples don’t really hold up. Medlen didn’t come out and throw 200 innings immediately after his first surgery. He threw 138 innings in his first year back, and 197 his second; the last 49 innings he pitched occurred more than three years after his operation. Parker presents a similar case. Johnson’s problem was that he basically skipped rehab, returning to the big leagues less than a year after his operation.

Boras says the Mets should follow the 2012 Nationals, who shut down Stephen Strasburg at 160 innings in his first year back from Tommy John. But Strasburg himself has hit the disabled list twice since then.

Harvey, moreover, had built up a stronger base of innings before his operation—reaching 178.1 in 2013—and therefore should be able to handle more in his return. He also rehabbed for almost the maximum recommended recovery time: 17 months. When the Nationals shut down Strasburg, he was barely a year removed from his operation. If Harvey were to pitch in the playoffs, he would be pitching a full 24 months removed from surgery.

Because of doctor-patient confidentiality laws, Dr. James Andrews will never disclose what he told Harvey. But Dr. Neal ElAttrache, the Dodgers’ head physician and surgeon at the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic (Jobe referring to Dr. Franklin Jobe, the man who performed the first Tommy John surgery in 1974), told the New York Times that the long 17-month rehab could allow Harvey to "push the envelope." He also said that any limit was a best guess, not a strict rule. That aligns with what the American Sports Medicine Institute’s Glenn Fleisig, a leading expert on biomechanics who has worked with Andrews, told Baseball Prospectus's Ben Lindbergh in 2012:

"In an ideal world, there should be no pitch count rules or limits...pitchers and coaches should use pitch counts as guidelines….But the pitch counts shouldn’t be rules, they should be guidelines to give you a feel for if he has had a high workload or not. The rule should be that when a pitcher has arm fatigue, he should come out."

The Mets have done everything to limit Harvey’s fatigue this season, monitoring his pitch counts, skipping starts, and moving to a six-man rotation. If he’s nevertheless out of gas, then the Mets owe it to their ace to shut him down. That’s what the last twenty years of baseball—what Prior, Wood, Wilson, Pulsipher, and Isringhausen—have taught us. But setting an arbitrary limit on a pitcher’s innings when he says he feels "healthy" two years after surgery is to set an arbitrary limit on the Mets’ success.