DUNEDIN, Fla. – Five years ago, there is no way the Toronto Blue Jays would have considered letting prospects like Aaron Sanchez, Daniel Norris, Miguel Castro or Roberto Osuna go wire-to-wire in a big-league season.
In 2010, you may remember, Brandon Morrow’s transition to a full-time starter was handled with kid gloves, his season cut short after 146 innings, just under the 20 percent year-over-year increase studies at the time suggested was best for building up pitchers. The right-hander’s workload rose by just over 20 percent in 2011, too, when he reached a career-high 179.1 frames.
Still, all the careful coddling the Blue Jays did with Morrow and the rest of their staff, and other big-league teams employed with their arms, young or old, hasn’t kept the injuries from piling up all around the game.
That’s why when asked if his fabulous young foursome would be subject to a similar innings cap, Alex Anthopoulos barely let the question finish before replying: "We’re going to change that."
"We’re re-evaluating innings and the way we look at some of those things, so we’re not set on a number," the general manager says during an interview. "We talk about it, monitor it but we’re not so much married to 20-inning bumps, or 20-percent bumps, or 30-inning bumps – we’re just not going to be fixated on a number. We’re going to monitor workloads as the year goes on."
This shift away from safe industry convention – described as "an evolution" by Anthopoulos – is a crucial one for the Blue Jays, whose success to some degree depends on their young arms being able to contribute all year long.
Based on the club’s relatively regimented innings caps employed in years past, Sanchez (133.1 innings) and Norris (131) would be facing shutdown at around 160 innings this season. For Castro (80.1 innings) and Osuna (35.1 in first season post-Tommy John surgery) the caps would kick in much sooner.
The Blue Jays believe, barring the unforeseen, each of them has enough of a physical base to thrive over the course of the season, wherever the innings total lands.
"We’re not concerned," says Anthopoulos. "No one knows what the health is going to be, but in the past we’d talk about we only have so many innings, and so on, that’s not how we’re going to look at it. We’re not going to sit there and say, ‘Oh, a guy had a 40 percent jump, or a 30-inning jump.’ That’s not going to factor in. How someone feels, how someone is doing, what our trainers are saying, what our strength coaches are saying, how we’re monitoring the players, that’s going to be what we look at more so than just an artificial number on a sheet. …
"I don’t know that anyone can say what we’re doing as an industry works," he adds. "We all seem to be doing a lot of the same things and it’s not working. So we’re going to look to do some other things."
Few can argue that change isn’t needed.
According to a list of Tommy John surgeries compiled by Jon Roegele of The Hardball Times, as complete an accounting as publicly available, 96 players had the procedure last year, young talents like Jose Fernandez, Tyler Skaggs, Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin, Matt Moore and Jameson Taillon among them.
So far this year there have been 10, a group headlined by Yu Darvish, Zack Wheeler and Tim Collins.
Three Blue Jays at the big-league level required Tommy John surgery in 2012 (Drew Hutchison, Kyle Drabek and Luis Perez), and though no one on the 25-man roster had it in 2013, Morrow missed time with a forearm injury and Josh Johnson hit the DL with an elbow injury that led to the procedure last year.
That injury-filled 2013 season prompted the Blue Jays to do a wider re-evaluation of how they handle their pitchers, and changes were implemented last year, when R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Hutchison, J.A. Happ and Marcus Stroman made 144 of the team’s 162 starts.
Among the adjustments was on occasion pushing the entire staff back a day by calling up Liam Hendriks to make three spot starts. The other things?
"I wouldn’t want to get into it," says Anthopoulos. "I’m not trying to be vague like we’re reinventing the wheel – we’re not. But Drew Hutchison, he threw 184 innings, we didn’t sit there before the season and say he’s going to throw 184, 160, 195, we watched him as the year went on. There were times we felt he was getting tired, we would adjust, there were maybe things we might be doing with his routines, but we didn’t sit there and predetermine a number. Stroman the same way.
"We have an idea of where they’re at the year before in terms of workloads, but it wasn’t like as soon as they hit a number, it was over."
Reliever Neil Wagner, who spent most of the season at triple-A Buffalo, was the only Blue Jays pitcher with big-league time to blow out his elbow last year. On the minor-league side, there was Tom Robson, Clinton Hollon (who was drafted with elbow concerns) and Colton Turner, while Jeff Hoffman was selected after he underwent Tommy John.
"Was it an anomaly? Was it luck? Was there something to it? You need more than one year of data," says Anthopoulos.
For now, the Blue Jays’ revamped approach to pitching workloads is limited to the majors and upper levels of the minors – "I haven’t really spent a lot of time looking at Gulf Coast League, extended, things like that," says Anthopoulos – and the way the team rehabs pitchers from Tommy John surgery will continue unchanged.
The Blue Jays wait a minimum of 12 months before activating pitchers post-op, although the spate of injuries to hit players that were recently recovered or on the verge of activation – Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, Cory Luebke and Daniel Hudson – was described by Anthopoulos as "a little alarming."
"It made me ask more questions internally," he says. "Knock on wood, for the most part we’ve had guys recover from Tommy John and again, knock on wood, we haven’t had someone have a second. We don’t bring anyone back for at least 12 months and looking at what’s gone on in the industry, I wonder if we should take even more time."
The challenge, obviously, is that there are no easy or straightforward answers.
The extreme caution the Tampa Bay Rays used with Moore and New York Mets employed with Matt Harvey didn’t prevent either from blowing out, while logging big innings at a young age hasn’t been a problem for Felix Hernandez (172 innings at 19) and Clayton Kershaw (168 innings at 20).
Adhering to strict innings caps and playing it safe may protect coaches and executives from criticism, but is it ultimately the right thing to do? That debate is an ongoing one within the sport, and the search for an easy explanation can make people reluctant to challenge accepted norms.
"I know it’s easy for us to just look at an innings total and say, ‘Well, so and so blew out because he pitched 40 percent more innings when it should have been 20,’" argues Anthopoulos. "But no one has the answers because there are plenty of guys that have been protected from an innings standpoint that have still gotten hurt. Maybe there were other things. Like Osuna, he had a pre-existing condition (when he signed), maybe it’s a delivery, maybe it’s arm action. There are so many things that go into it, but the bottom line is I don’t know that there’s a team that’s spotless in terms of track record."
Instead, the Blue Jays are going to use a combination of factors to judge the health of their pitchers, tailoring their approach to each individual. Treating something like the 20 percent year-over-year rule as gospel doesn’t make sense since 20 percent of 100 innings isn’t necessarily the same as 20 percent of 180, and the volume of pitching injuries doesn’t suggest it’s helping keep pitchers healthy.
The Blue Jays won’t be making things up as they go along, but they’re not going to box themselves in with artificial constructs, either.
"We’re definitely not doing that, I just don’t want to get into the specifics," says Anthopoulos. "What if there is something we felt we’ve found? Just like last year, we didn’t know how it was going to turn out, but we knew what we were doing before needed to get better."
For one season it did. And with very little depth behind the young arms they’ll be counting on in 2015, the Blue Jays very much need that to continue.