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Should Bud Norris be limited in his innings pitched in 2009?

In yesterday's Houston Chronicle, columnist and TCB friend Zachary Levine had a question and answer session with the Astros' president of baseball operations, Tal Smith. I know Zachary reads our blog at least from time to time, so let me say that it's really cool that those of us who love the Astros have Zachary as a resource to ask the kind of intelligent questions that we all would if given the access to the front office. So a hearty "thank you" goes out to Mr. Levine.

The Q & A gave us answers to some pretty important questions about Minor League ace Bud Norris. In conversations DQ and I have had in the past few weeks, both of us wondered about Norris' innings pitched so far this season, and whether or not the organization was going to put him on an innings limit or something similar. Norris was limited to only 80 IP last season due to injury, and has already amassed a total of 120 in 2009.

Before we delve into the answer from Tal Smith I wanted to be more specific in what I meant by "innings limit". With the rash of pitching injuries that have occurred in the past 10-15 seasons, baseball organizations are more careful than ever when utilizing their young, promising pitchers. It has gotten to the point where a hitting prospect is as valuable (or moreso) than their pitching counterpart because the chances of a hitter staying healthy and producing consistently for a number of seasons is greater than a pitcher.

That being said, Tom Verducci of Sports Illustraded has laid out this rule of thumb when discussing the limitations on young hurlers:

The unofficial industry standard is that no young pitcher should throw more than 30 more innings than he did the previous season. It's a general rule of thumb, and one I've been tracking for about a decade. When teams violate the incremental safeguard, it's amazing how often they pay for it

To build upon that theory, Verducci lists the names of pitchers that, entering the 2008 season, were potential victims of being bitten by the injury bug:

Ian Kennedy
Fausto Carmona
Ubaldo Jimenez
Tom Gorzelanny
Dustin McGowan
Chad Gaudin
Yovani Gallardo

Hmmmm...looks like he was right about a number of these players, most notably Kennedy and Carmona. The former was ineffective in 2008, while the latter was injured. Tom Gorzelanny's rate stats and ground ball ways betrayed him, and he too had a sub par 2008 season. For what it's worth: Dustin McGowan will miss the entire 2009 season, Chad Guadin has been used extensively as a reliever since 2008 (though he has ventured into the rotation for San Diego this season), Yovani Gallardo missed most of 2008 with a knee injury. The only pitcher to escape the "Verducci Effect" has been Ubaldo Jimenez, who is looking better and better as time progresses.

Fast forward a year to 2009, and three of the most prominent pitchers in baseball, Tim Lincecum, Jon Lester and Cole Hamels all seemed susceptible to being felled by this rule of sorts. Here is a mini breakdown of their careers (in some cases a season's IP total consists of both minor league and major league innings) since 2007:

Player 2007 IP 2007 FIP 2008 IP 2008 FIP 2009 IP 2009 FIP
Tim Lincecum 31 MiLB/146.1 MLB (177.1 total) 1.39(AAA)/3.63 227 2.62 148.2 1.98
Cole Hamels 183.1 MLB 3.83 227.1 3.72 110 3.92
Jon Lester 77.2 MiLB/63 MLB (140.2 total) 3.87(AA)/3.93(AAA)/5.24 210.1 3.64 128.1 3.10

What can we take away from these three? Well, as a caveat, these are three of the best pitchers in baseball and it's tough to compare them to Bud Norris. Norris, while a talented player in his own right, is most likely never going to be a #1 starter for a major league club. He's good, but these guys (especially Lincecum) are outliers. From 2007 to 2008, all three of these young starters surpassed the 30 IP increase mark by a wide margin. Additionally, Hamels and Lester both had deep post season runs to add to this total. Lester pitched roughly 27 more innings in the playoffs, while pitched another 35 or so.

Tim Lincecum is a freak, and Tom Verducci knows this better than most, since he was the writer who wrote the excellent story on Tiny Tim for SI. Keeping in line with that theory, Lincecum in 2009 has been even better than in his 2008 Cy Young campaign. Jon Lester has been brilliant since the middle of May, but he got off to a very slow start in April. Finally, Cole Hamels missed time in 2007 with a left elbow strain and had a similar injury this season as well. He, more than Lester, and much more than Lincecum has seemed to be effected by the innings increases that he has seen occur during the course of his career. His numbers are down this season, but much of it is due to luck/the HR/both.

Getting back to Tal Smith, when asked by Zachary Levine about whether or not Bud Norris would be placed on an innings limit for this season, Smith responded:

They're all individual situations. It depends upon the age and the body and how long he's been pitching. Bud's been around a few years now. He's more seasoned, he's more mature, and I don't think it's a consideration there like it would be if he were in Lexington in his first year. We are trying to monitor the work load there, because it's such a transition for players in their first and second years of full years of service.

Smith elaborates on the question, and makes a few valid points about not being too conservative with pitchers, and how the magic "100 pitches limit" doesn't always make sense, it's just a round number. I question whether or not his judgments based on the Colt .45s or the minors during the 1960s are even applicable to today's game, though. Obviously something significant has occurred with young pitchers during the past 15 years that has caused them to be more injury prone than in decades past.

The factors are many, but I don't want to go off on a rabbit trail discussing them. There seems to be enough data that indicates young starters often times are not ready to take on the extra innings that Tal Smith seems to believe they are. With Norris, Bazardo, Trinidad and Felipe Paulino all on the cusp of contributing to the Astros cause in the next season, I hope the organization can synthesize all of the information at their disposal, and comes up with a competent plan to insure the health of these precious commodities. If not, the 2010 season may be a long one.