Two teams, two different theories about resting their young pitchers
Sale has now had three periods this season during which he has gone nine or more days without making a start and continues to be among the best pitchers in the American League. This provides an interesting contrast with the Nationals' Stephen Strasburg, who has had more than six days of rest just once this season, that coming around the All-Star break when he had eight days between starts, and is staring down an innings limit that, when reached, will see the Nationals shut him down for the season, pennant race and playoffs be damned.
What has been overlooked in all the garment-rending over Strasburg's shut-down date, however, is that the Nationals have slowed his accumulation of innings by pulling him early from games. Strasburg has pitched into the seventh inning just five times this season and never beyond it. As a result, he has thrown fewer innings in 23 starts than Sale has in 20, and stands a much better chance of pitching deep into September than most realize. Looking at the Nationals' schedule and assuming they stay in rotation with Strasburg starting every five games, his turn will come due nine more times this season. Strasburg has averaged 5.8 innings per start this season. Assuming he continues at that pace, adding nine more starts of 5.8 innings to his current total of 133 1/3 gives him 186 on the season.
One recent report put Strasburg's limit at 180 innings. Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo, who has said he is solely responsible for deciding when Strasburg will be shut down, denied that he had settled on that total, but did not offer an alternative figure. If it does prove to be 180 innings, the Nationals could wind up missing out on only one Strasburg start during the regular season, and given their current 4½ game lead in the National League East, they could well have clinched the division by the time they finally have to replace him in the rotation.
The rub is the postseason, and that's where Sale and his skipped starts come in. Based on the above assumptions, every start that Strasburg skipped during the regular season -- save that last -- could have opened up a chance for him to start in the postseason. Asked about the decision not to skip Strasburg, Rizzo told ESPN's Jayson Stark "every injury expert that we have spoken to [says] the effect of shutting a pitcher down and then ramping him back up and having him throw a full go is much more dangerous than having him pitch through the season and shutting him down." Rizzo and the Nationals have clearly done their homework, this is not a decision they have entered into lightly, but Sale's success this season, and especially his return to form after his last bit of extended rest, serve as a data point in favor of giving a young pitcher (and Sale is more than a year younger than Strasburg) the occasional break during the season, something which very well could have allowed Strasburg to pitch in the postseason this year.
Including the postseason, Sabathia has averaged nearly 256 innings a year over the last five seasons. His 1,340 2/3 regular season innings since the start of the 2007 season are by far the most in baseball, and the man in second place on that list, Roy Halladay, is so far behind (more than 40 innings) in part because he has developed his own arm issues this season. Sabathia's workloads in 2007 and 2008 were a common source of concern when he was a free agent after the latter season, but his big frame (which some saw as an additional source of concern, though I was not and am still not among them) and relatively clean injury history strongly argued he was exactly the sort of pitcher whose skill set included being able to shoulder a heavy workload. The corpulent comparisons that sprung to mind were David Wells and Rick Reuschel, but a closer look at those two career shows both had arm surgery in their early 30s. Wells missed the first half of his age-31 season after having bone chips removed from his elbow, and Reuschel's career was derailed for a few years in the early 1980s after he had rotator cuff surgery at age-32.
The good indicator for Sabathia is both returned to pitch multiple 200-inning seasons and make multiple All-Star teams, but to the Yankees, who are on the hook for $94 million over the next four years, hearing the most heavily worked pitcher in baseball complain of elbow pain can't be a good feeling, and may be why they insisted on the disabled list stay despite the clean MRI.
The Yankees picked up Derek Lowe, just released by the Indians, off the scrap heap in the wake of Sabathia's injury, but it will be rookie swing man David Phelps who will take Sabathia's turn in the rotation on Monday, with Lowe expected to serve as more of a long man in the bullpen, at least for now. Stay tuned.
Santana had a nice run of three quality starts in late June, including one dominant eight-inning (and 107-pitch) outing against the Dodgers in Los Angeles on the final day of the month, but those remain his only quality outings in the nine starts he has made since the no-hitter. Santana sprained his right ankle when Reed Johnson stepped on it during a play at first base to start the fifth inning of Santana's first July start. Santana went on to allow four runs in that inning and 12 more in his next two starts before the Mets finally sent him to the disabled list. However, if the ankle was the problem, or if the 22-day DL stay gave his arm some needed rest, you wouldn't know it from his performance on Saturday, when he gave up eight runs in just 1 1/3 innings against the Braves.
Collins and Santana both attributed his struggles on Saturday to rust and command issues and they could be proven right. Santana had good velocity on his fastball and just one of the eight hits he allowed went for extra bases, many of the rest being weak but well-placed. Still, Santana has now posted a 7.98 ERA in his nine starts since his no-hitter, hasn't allowed fewer than six runs in a start since that dominant outing in L.A. on June 30, and has gone 0-4 with a staggering 17.36 ERA in his four starts since. Maybe it wasn't those 134 pitches on June 1 that steered Santana's inspiring comeback season into a ditch, but it's there nonetheless. His next start will come against the Nationals on Friday.
That performance hasn't really moved the needle for the Orioles, who wound up splitting a four-game set with the lowly Royals while averaging just 4.25 runs per game in the series, but it's certainly an encouraging indicator the organization didn't overreach in rushing their top hitting prospect in pursuit of a similarly unexpected chance for a postseason berth. Indeed, heading into Monday's action, the Orioles, who have won nine of their last 13, have the second Wild Card spot in the American League, a half--game ahead of the A's, but also just a half-game behind the Rays, who occupy the top Wild Card spot. You can't expect Machado to give the Orioles the sort of boost Evan Longoria is expected to give the Rays down the stretch, but the unexpected is kind of the Orioles' thing this year.
Also, the Dodgers and Pirates will play four games in Pittsburgh with the Pirates holding a 2½-game lead over L.A. for the second NL Wild Card spot, while the Cardinals, who have the exact same record as the Dodgers, host the Diamondbacks, who lurk on the fringes of contention, five games out in the West and 6½ behind the Pirates, for three games starting on Tuesday.