Not About Jordan Zimmermann & Innings Limits

On Sunday, Jordan Zimmermann continued his excellent season with six and a third shutout innings at home against the Rockies. He struck out six, walked none, and it was the 17th time in his 18 starts that he walked fewer than two batters. Though he doesn’t have an above-average whiff rate or strikeout rate, his excellent control has proven that he should remain a good major league starter for the forseeable future.

Or, at least for another seven starts or so this year. If Bill Ladson’s reporting is correct, the team will be limiting the 25-year-old right-hander to 160 innings this year. Though the pitcher hasn’t mentioned any health issues, the Nationals would like to be cautious and will make Zimmermann the fifth starter so they can skip the occasional start and limit the innings. After all, he’s still coming off Tommy John surgery and hasn’t ever pitched more than 134 innings combined in one calendar year.

But, as you might have noticed from the titular hint, this is not a post about Jordan Zimmermann and innings limits. Instead, it’s about some comments that Nationals manager Davey Johnson made about the plan to limit the innings.

Here are the semi-controversial words from this MLB.com piece:

The Nationals placed a 160-inning limit on the right-hander, and pitching coach Steve McCatty drew up a plan to get Zimmermann to that mark once the roster expands in September. “I’ve heard the plan, and I’m not that comfortable with it,” Johnson told MLB.com. “We’ll have a healthy break to discuss that. I’m not quite set on how that will go down.” … “He’s obviously pitched a lot better than a fifth starter, so if we’re trying to win … you can figure it out,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if this is a medical decision and he needs extra rest. There’s all kinds of things to talk about, and [the decision] is probably being made above me by smart doctors, but I’m looking at it from a baseball standpoint.”

The pitching coach is tasked with keeping his pitchers happy, healthy and effective. The field manager is tasked with winning games. The general manager is tasked with winning pennants year-in and year-out. In this particular case, it seems that their mandates have found conflict. We don’t know everything about the best practices of developing a young pitcher. But what we do know about those best practices doesn’t include doubling a Tommy John surgery survivor’s career high in innings totals two years after the surgery. And yet, if you’re trying to win games, there’s no way you want to skip your best pitcher, ever.

Flip over to the standings page and the argument might be over for many. The Nationals are at .500 and have allowed two more runs than they’ve scored. They’re fourth in a division with two heavyweights at the top. It’s probably not happening for them this year, eight games out of the wild card hunt with six teams ahead of them. Next year, when Stephen Strasburg returns and Derek Norris and Bryce Harper are another year closer to the bigs, they might be able to put something together. This year? They should probably protect the health of their long-term assets.

And yet there’s no reason to begrudge the manager his skepticism about the limits. If he’s supposed to know his players on an every-day basis and win games from the dugout, he’s supposed to look at his healthy ace and want him on the mound as much as possible. And the pitching coach is supposed to find a way to keep his pitchers healthy. And the general manager is supposed to groom a sustainable contender of a roster. Everyone has their roles.

A recent interview of Theo Epstein and Terry Francona by Mike Barnicle on Grantland produced the excellent paragraph below. Perhaps it will soothe some of the anger of the eager Nationals fan as they bemoan the missed starts that Zimmermann could have won.

“Communication is different in the clubhouse than it is in a boardroom. The heartbeat that exists in the clubhouse … you don’t find that same type of heartbeat in the front office. There is a cloak of intensity in the clubhouse that doesn’t exist here,” the general manager points out. “There is a little more objectivity here in this office. We see the game at 10,000 feet. Tito sees it 50 feet away. Tito is looking at tonight’s game and those of us in baseball ops, a lot of the time, are looking at the next five years.




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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.


22 Responses to “Not About Jordan Zimmermann & Innings Limits”

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  1. sperm wail says:

    Zimmerman is 2 years removed from Tommy John Surgery

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      Fixed.

      Also there was a comment here that had to be erased because of a poor choice in username that pointed out that pitches is more important than innings limits. I purposefully chose to focus on the communication and roles of the different coaches and managers involved because I believe that pitches/IP and limits thing is pretty well raked over and I didn’t have research to add.

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  2. RMR says:

    This seems like a perfect case where the Nats should be using some sort of biomechanical measurement to keep tabs on him. Are they measuring his fatigue/strength and its recovery? I’m floored that teams are willing to (seemingly) base such decisions on Tom Verducci’s unscientific study. If you’ve got millions and millions on the line, shouldn’t you be using a few bucks to make a decision informed by more than an arbitrary round number?

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  3. buck turgidson says:

    Is Latos experiencing the Verducci effect?

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  4. NEPP says:

    Pitching limits are a good idea…just ask Joba Chamberlain.

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  5. Jamie says:

    This is what happens when you don’t have a manager locked down for long term and why riggleman left. whats the point for him to try and nurture a young team when he has to go out and get results day in and day out to secure his future with the team.

    its a conflict of interest

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      Now we’re getting to the meat of it. But! Is it not ALWAYS a conflict of interest? The manager gets fired first, so he’s always less long-term then the GM…

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      • Jamie says:

        its a slippery slope with several different grades of hills. but i wouldn’t say its ALWAYS a conflict of interest.

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      • Jerry Reinsdorf says:

        It’s a conflict at every level. Even amongst the owners (or in the head of a single owner) there is a tension between the extra millions every playoff game generates this year and in next-year ticket sales, and the potentially larger but less immediate returns from building the franchise. If there’s even a whiff of a chance for a postseason run, however doomed, the payoff is temptingly large — and much more so for any team that is far removed from its last playoff run (or, in the case of Nats, effectively has never had one).

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  6. Temo says:

    You find an example of players that far divergent in pitches per inning, let us know.

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  7. Templeton1979 says:

    Zimmermann should have been an All-Star

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  8. KB says:

    Where are the studies on the after effects of TJ surgery and the need to limit innings? At some point a pitcher must pitch and develop the ability to throw some innings. Perhaps Zimmermann is too close to surgery for this – but I would like to see the studies or evidence that a limit is needed.

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  9. A DC Wonk says:

    Even ignoring the TJ surgery — JZ has only just turned 25, and I don’t think he has ever pitched more than 135 innings in a season. So, limiting it to 160 or so makes sense to me.

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  10. Jon says:

    You misunderstood what plan davey johnoson was talking about. He was referring to the plan to skip a start after the all star break for j. Zimm to “stretch” him out closer to the end of the year. All davey was saying was that he was gonna keep him on the normal schedule until he hit his innings limit. He wasn’t saying he wants him to pitch more than 160 innings.

    Sorry, but big misread of the quote by the manager.

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      Disagree. What’s this then:

      “He’s obviously pitched a lot better than a fifth starter, so if we’re trying to win … you can figure it out,”

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      • Jon says:

        The full conversation was about whether he should miss a start. Davey Johnson was saying that he’s one of the best, if not the best starter, he has, and so he’s gonna treat him like that and run him out there every five days until he hits his innings limit.

        The other option is to have him skip a start, which Davey Johnson was equating to a fifth starter getting a start skipped because he isn’t good enough, or because its better for the team to skip your fifth starter when there’s enough days off and go back to the top of your rotation.

        The plan that McCatty has talked about involved skipping some starts in order to get him pitching into September, or to stretch out his season. Johnson was saying he sees no reason for that, and he’s heard no medical evidence that its better to let him pitch 160 innings over the course of the entire season as opposed to just running him out there every five days.

        Sorry, this is a big misunderstanding.

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  11. longbeachyo says:

    Why not give him all he can handle to effectively build up his arm strength??? Give him 200 innings this year, so his arm knows what to expect next year… That’s what I say!… (since I have him on my team)

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  12. Jon says:

    Actually, here is the full quote, and tell me he’s not talking about skipping a start to extend his season deeper into September:

    “I’ve heard the plan, and I’m not that comfortable with it,” Johnson said. “We’ll have a healthy break to discuss that. I’m not quite set on how that will go down.”

    Zimmermann is already at 108 2/3 innings in his first full season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and he has another start Sunday against the Rockies. He only has five wins to show for it, but his 2.82 ERA is the best on the team.

    With the club having a .500 record at the latest point in the season since finishing 2005 at 81-81, Johnson does not want to toy around with his best starter’s schedule and lose him in the middle of a potential playoff race.

    “He’s obviously pitched a lot better than a fifth starter, so if we’re trying to win … you can figure it out,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if this is a medical decision and he needs extra rest. There’s all kinds of things to talk about, and [the decision] is probably being made above me by smart doctors, but I’m looking at it from a baseball standpoint.”

    Johnson already said Zimmermann will be Washington’s fifth starter in the second half, but would prefer he pitch on a regular schedule. If there is an off-day and Zimmermann is bumped, he understands, but he does not want to recall pitchers for spot starts.

    Johnson is OK with Zimmermann potentially hitting his inning limit before September callups if it means a regular schedule. And he understands he should be prepared to have the same conversations next season when Stephen Strasburg returns to the rotation.

    “You really want to be careful about guys coming back from an injury,” Johnson said. “Maybe instead of Strasburg and Zim being Nos. 1 and 2, they’re 4 and 5. I’d hate to think that, but I don’t know.”

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      I won’t pretend I didn’t miss that “OK with Zimm potentially hitting his innings limit before September.” Perhaps I was focusing more on direct quotes.

      But I think the point of the article still holds. Three dudes trying to win and trying to protect their pitcher, three dudes with different ideas, three dudes with different senses of time.

      And when things don’t work out, it’s the pitching coach first, then the manager, then the GM that get fired. That probably has a lot to do with how far into the future they think.

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