As contracts get more expensive and overuse injuries continue piling up, teams are doing more and more to protect their young pitchers from throwing too many innings. We saw it three years ago when the Washington Nationals shut down Stephen Strasburg prior to their first postseason run since their days in Montreal, and are getting a repeat viewing this season with the ongoing Matt Harvey saga. There have been several less prolific instances as well, including the Tigers limiting Matt Boyd's innings down the stretch this season.
Which brings us to Tuesday evening, when Daniel Norris threw 54 pitches in the first inning of the Tigers' 7-6 loss to the Texas Rangers. According to many, manager Brad Ausmus has now inherited Jonathan Papelbon's title as Current Worst Person in Baseball for letting his young starter -- two weeks removed from the disabled list, mind you -- throw too many pitches in one inning.
Before we go any further: yes, I think Norris should have been pulled. But the decision wasn't as bad as [insert baseball writer here] will lead you to believe.
Norris, who was activated off the disabled list on September 16, threw 63 pitches in his last start, a five-inning performance against the Minnesota Twins on September 22. The Tigers did not specify a pitch limit for Norris on Tuesday, but a reasonable expectation would have been in the neighborhood of 80-85 pitches.
Norris made it more than halfway to that mark in the first, when a leaky defense did him no favors. He did not record an out until Mitch Moreland, the Rangers' sixth hitter, grounded to third base. By that point, Norris had already thrown 35 pitches. He recorded his second out four pitches later, then was allowed to face second baseman Rougned Odor. On Norris' 46th pitch of the inning, Odor lined a triple into the right-center field gap.
Many people, myself included, expected that to be the end of Norris' night. Instead, he was allowed to face catcher Chris Gimenez, and threw another eight pitches before finally retiring the side. After a break in the dugout during the top half of the second, Norris threw 17 more pitches in the bottom of the inning before leaving the game with two outs. The final count: 71 pitches in 1 2/3 innings, and an angry mob of fans and baseball writers alike.
Fox Sports' Rob Neyer was the first into the fray on this topic, and his thoughts generally mirror my own.
I just want to point out, however briefly and cursorily, that I'm still waiting for someone to present some hard evidence that throwing 54 pitches in the first inning -- unfatigued, I will mention, by previous innings, since there weren't any previous innings -- is somehow deleterious to the health of a 22-year-old pitcher.
It's difficult to create scientific evidence in an uncontrolled environment like a baseball game, and there are no hard-and-fast rules about the number of pitches that should be thrown in an inning and in a start. The 100-pitch threshold is still little more than a guess, and is not the same for every starting pitcher in the major leagues. While we don't know much about pitcher injuries (and injuries in general), we do know some of the factors that increase the likelihood for injury. Two of the most prominent factors are (1) a previous, similar injury, and (2) fatigue.
Norris has not had any significant arm trouble in his career, and his stint on the disabled list was an oblique strain, an injury that does not present any additional risk to a pitcher's arm, provided their mechanics are similar pre- and post-injury.
However, after 30- or 40-odd pitches, he was probably fatigued. Subjecting him to another batter or two in that first inning is putting him at risk for injury, but we do not yet know to what extent. Most of the research that has been conducted on pitcher injuries focused on the cumulative effect of pitching over a long season and career, and the necessity of long periods of rest in between seasons. More research is being done on the effect of continued stress and fatigue over a long season, but the data collected has focused on overall athletic performance, not a specific body part.
Meanwhile, Norris had a few variables working in his favor. People will be quick to point out his youth, but from a medical standpoint, that works to his advantage. A 22-year-old arm will recover from the stress of this outing faster than a 32-year-old arm, and much faster than the 39-year-old Randy Wolf, who also threw a 50-pitch inning this month. Norris also had a full week off between starts, when he threw 63 relatively low-stress pitches against the Twins. And thanks to that finicky oblique, he had thrown just 8 1/3 innings since August 19. For a major league pitcher in September, that's about as well-rested of an arm as you're going to find.
Again, I don't necessarily agree with Ausmus' decision to let Norris pitch to Gimenez, but this was a fluke situation in a flukier game that put the Tigers' manager between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, he needs to protect his young starter, but the Tigers also want Norris to log a few more innings before the season is out. The experience of facing live MLB hitters cannot be replicated to the same extent anywhere else, and that may prove to be invaluable in the coming years when the Tigers return to contention. It probably wasn't the right move, but it wasn't as bad as many will think.