Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Concern Over Tanaka's Workload?

(Courtesy of Getty Images/AsiaPac)

There's not much that can slow down the Masahiro Tanaka train now that the 30-day negotiation window has been opened.  He's young, he's strong, he's very good, and he's generally regarded as the hands down best starting pitcher available on the FA market this offseason.  If anything could, however, it could be a growing sense of concern over the workload already accumulated on Tanaka's arm.  Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports posted a story on this very topic yesterday, quoting multiple unnamed MLB front office personnel who expressed varying levels of concern about Tanaka's arm and the stress that's already been put on it.

I'm not one to get all worked up over pitch counts and innings counts and how much or little a guy is pitching when he's younger.  If recent MLB history has taught us anything, it's that managing young pitchers' workloads is basically a crapshoot.  For every Matt Harvey who gets managed "correctly" and safely by today's standards, there's a Tim Lincecum or Felix Hernandez who come up and throw 200+ innings a year at a very young age with no problems and no repercussions.  Attempting to control what appears to be an uncontrollable thing doesn't seem to have much influence over whether guys get hurt.

That said, I will admit that my eyebrows went up once or twice reading some of the figures in Passan's article.  I didn't realize Tanaka had thrown that much at that young an age.  Back-to-back 135+ pitch outings at age 20 are unheard of over here in the states, and his 160-pitch start and next day 15-pitch close of this year's Japan Series would have gotten some Major League managers or pitching coaches fired.  Whether you think there's a connection between young workload and arm injuries, there's no denying that Tanaka has a lot more mileage on his arm than arguably any other 25-year-old pitcher in the world.

While that concern will cause some teams to pull back a bit on their pursuit of the Japanese ace, I don't expect that to be the case with the Yankees.  As Passan said in his article, the allure of a pitcher with Tanaka's ceiling almost always prevails over impossible to define injury concerns like this, and the Yankees' need for help in their rotation combined with their gobs and gobs of money should help ease whatever level of concern they have when it comes to Tanaka's arm.  If they do sign him, they're going to give him a thorough physical and if everything checks out that's really all they can do.

There's a certain amount of risk that comes with every pitcher no matter where he comes from and how much he threw while he was there.  The physical motion of throwing a baseball overhand with that kind of velocity is bad on the shoulder and the elbow.  Tanaka hasn't shown any classic signs of extra wear and tear on his arm despite throwing much more than a pitcher his age would in the American Minor Leagues and so there's really no sense in getting scared away by the high pitch counts.  I mean, it's not like Ubaldo Jimenez and Matt Garza aren't injury risks in their own right, right?

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