- Associated Press - Thursday, September 10, 2015

When it comes to all this talk about inning limits, Tommy John is a skeptic.

“Nobody knows,” he said. “What’s too many?”

It was John, of course, whose recovery from a groundbreaking elbow operation in 1974 set the stage for so many other pitchers to come back from similar injuries. But although the procedure has become more common, its aftermath is still fraught with anxiety - and the delicate challenge of managing a pitcher’s workload is almost certain to affect this year’s postseason.

The issue flared up again recently when Matt Harvey indicated he had been advised by his doctor not to pitch more than 180 innings this season. That put his availability for the NL East-leading New York Mets in doubt and brought back memories of when playoff-bound Washington shut down star Stephen Strasburg under similar circumstances in 2012.

Harvey and Strasburg were both coming off Tommy John surgery - the commonly used name for a procedure in which an elbow ligament is replaced with a tendon harvested from elsewhere. John pitched all the way until 1989 after his operation - his final big league appearance came shortly after his 46th birthday - and he says the key was getting through the initial recovery phase.

“The longer out you go, the less chance you have of breaking down,” John said in a phone interview this week.

John says when he became a free agent after the 1978 season, the Dodgers were hesitant to re-sign him for more than a couple years, concerned about how long his surgically repaired arm would hold up. He went to the Yankees instead and ended up pitching for another decade.

The dilemma that’s come up with Harvey and Strasburg involves what a pitcher should do in the very early stages of his return. Is it prudent to limit a pitcher’s innings (or pitches) in his very first year back on the mound?

“I think that may be valid,” John conceded. “Maybe.”

After sitting out the 1975 season, John came back and threw 207 innings in 1976. He says he could have pitched even more.

“The only thing that affected my endurance was Walter Alston, our manager,” John said.

It was a different era then. John exceeded 200 innings five times before his operation, so his 207 in 1976 didn’t come close to a career high. Nowadays, teams are hesitant to have their pitchers throw too many innings, too early in their careers. That’s true whether they’re coming off a major operation or not.

Pittsburgh right-hander Gerrit Cole is skipping his next start. The 25-year-old hasn’t had the major arm problems that Harvey and Strasburg have, but Cole has already thrown 180 2/3 innings this season.

The NL Central-leading Cardinals will need to decide how hard to push Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha down the stretch, especially since St. Louis is almost assured a spot in the postseason.

The Mets are considering whether to skip a start for Jacob deGrom.

“The topic in itself is a bigger topic today than it’s ever been in my time in baseball,” Houston manager A.J. Hinch said. “We all try to be smart. You manage your own team, you manage your own players, every guy is different.”

The Astros have handled 21-year-old Lance McCullers with care, even sending him to the minors last month during a stretch in which he made only one start in 19 days. That’s one way to manage a pitcher’s workload. Teams can also skip starts, pull pitchers early from games or try a six-man rotation.

By being creative earlier in the season, a team can avoid the prospect of shutting a pitcher down toward the end - but as Harvey’s situation proves, it’s not that easy.

What makes this issue so tricky is that the expanded postseason can add a substantial number of innings to a pitcher’s ledger if his team reaches the World Series. By the time the San Francisco Giants won the championship last year, Madison Bumgarner had made 39 starts and thrown 270 innings, postseason included. Bumgarner was used to shouldering a significant workload, but other pitchers may not be able to handle it.

“I think there’s all kinds of things you have to be concerned with, especially with young pitchers getting from that 140-150 inning season to where even if you try to limit, they’re going to be 190 innings, 200 innings possibly if they’re doing well,” Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “All it takes is six innings a start for 34 starts and you’re 204 innings.”

The 26-year-old Harvey is now at 171 2/3 innings after Tuesday night’s start at Washington. The Mets are considering a plan that could include him making two more starts in the regular season.

As for the postseason, they’ll see.

“When we put this plan together last winter we really didn’t put any specific plan together with respect to the playoffs,” Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said Wednesday. “We thought conceptually he’d be available but we haven’t really talked about how we’d practically implement that.”

Tampa Bay left-hander Matt Moore could see the predicament.

“I’m sure that’s a tough situation to be in,” said Moore, who had Tommy John surgery in 2014. “It’s a game of passion, so you do absolutely get wrapped up in what’s going on this season right now, but every year there is a championship season. So I can definitely see both sides of the argument.”

Moore had his operation early enough last year that he’s been able to return and pitch a bit this season, so when he takes the mound in 2016, he won’t be coming back from a whole year off like Harvey did. There’s another crucial difference: After the 2011 season, Moore signed a five-year contract that guaranteed him $14 million - and it would be worth at least $37.5 million over eight years if the Rays pick up additional team options.

Harvey is slated to make only about $614,000 this season before becoming eligible for arbitration.

A big payday presumably awaits as he earns more service time, but Harvey needs to be healthy. So the Mets and their star right-hander, as they pursue a championship, must weigh the benefit of additional innings this year against the potential effects on his future health.

It’s murky territory with seemingly no easy solution.

“I definitely wouldn’t want to be in that situation, especially playing in New York. They’ve been waiting for a squad like this for a while,” Moore said. “I think if everybody had the decision Matt Harvey has to make right now, they’d probably walk the same line he’s walking.”


AP Baseball Writer Janie McCauley contributed to this report.

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