(Nothing wrong with wanting to keep the big guy as healthy as possible. Courtesy of Getty Images)
Pitching limits are a tricky thing. People are either in support of them as a way to lessen the stress on a pitcher's arm and reduce risk of injury or vehemently against them because they don't allow a pitcher to build up the arm strength needed to make it through a full season without getting hurt, with very little gray area in between. Typically these debates are had in reference to young pitchers making the transition to the Majors, but the Yankees stoked the debate fire last week when they brought up the idea of reducing the workload for their ace, CC Sabathia. Sabathia is coming off a season dotted with DL stints that saw him pitch fewer regular season innings (200.0) and make fewer regular season starts (28) than he has since 2006, and is fresh off surgery to clean bone spurs out of his pitching elbow. Not surprisingly, Sabathia stated last week that he was against the idea of limiting his workload moving forward, but there may be some merit to the idea.
At first glance, this looks like a knee-jerk reaction on the part of the Yankees to Sabathia's injury troubles in 2012, and to a certain degree it probably is. Sabathia's hefty workload combined with his hefty body size has always been a talking point within the organization. In an age where pitchers seem to go down with shoulder and elbow problems hourly, Sabathia has racked up a ton of appearances and a ton of innings without the slightest indication of health problems. His durability has become the stuff of legend, at least until this season when he was struck with the elbow issues that had to have at least some negative impact on his performance. Having seen the paths that 30-somethings Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira have been on health-wise the last few years, the last thing the Yankees need is to have another high-dollar piece of their team start to break down.
And Sabathia isn't just another piece, he's THE key piece of a rotation that is and will continue to be a question mark moving into these next few seasons of financial limitation. Sabathia was re-upped through 2016, with an option that could push the deal through 2017, and the expectation is that he will be the anchor of a rotation that is going to have to include some cheap internal options, one of those options the possibly damaged-for-good Michael Pineda, to make the owners' payroll goals work. The team can probably get by with a declining/injured A-Rod or an underperforming Ivan Nova as part of the equation, but not without a healthy, productive CC at the top of the rotation. Knowing that, it makes sense to take steps to make sure that bill of health stays clean moving forward.
And I'm not talking about Strasburgian levels of limitation on CC. He's way past that point of kid glove treatment. But I'll admit that there have been times over the past few seasons where I've questioned why he was coming out for the 7th or 8th inning after putting in a hard 100-110+ pitch effort in the first 6 or 7 of a regular season start. Making the call now to end CC's day after those 6 or 7 innings and handing it over to the bullpen could be a way to limit his work without drastically changing the way he goes about pitching. It's really more about the number of pitches than the innings, and if Sabathia has thrown 107 pitches in an outing in May or June and has the lead, what's the harm in shutting him down and letting the bullpen finish up the win for him?
Pitchers never like giving up the ball or coming out of a game for any reason, and CC is no different. He said both times he went on the DL this season that the injury was something he could have pitched through but the team wanted to play it safe, and I imagine that's the same logic the team is following with plans to limit his workload. They've got a lot invested in Sabathia for the future, a future that has been clouded by the injury problems and decline of other older players on the roster, and they can't afford to have CC go down the same path. I don't think we're going to see him skipped in the rotation or come out after 4-5 innings as a precaution, but if pulling him after 6-7 innings and 100 some odd pitches when they have the chance to in the regular season helps to keep his workload down and save some bullets for later, I think it's a smart move to make.