The Trials and Tribulations of Late-Season Innings Limits
You've been enjoying the incredible run of a young pitcher you drafted or acquired shortly after the season began, and he has helped you stay in contention for your league championship all season. However, as the dream season heads into late August and September, your phenom's organization has begun to throw around words like "innings limit" and even "shutdown" so your title chances could take a big hit. It's always a danger with the very best rookie/young arms. Those pitchers who don't help you, typically don't accumulate the innings to be a concern, but the better the performance, the more likely this frustrating part of the game will impact your team. And, the impact can take several different forms, and levels of severity. Let's take a look.
Shutdown is not the only thing to worry about.
It's not easy to swallow, but at least it's a little easier to identify and plan for. Often a team will establish a firm innings limit, and it will allow the pitcher to perform normally - his usual pitch counts, and normal rest - until that limit is reached and then artificially end his season. However, it's more typical to see teams make ongoing adjustments in the pitcher's routine to accommodate their desire to protect his young arm. That could mean shorter outings with a reduced pitch count, skipped starts, taking advantage of off days to extend the time between starts and quicker hooks if the young arm runs into difficulty during any given game. They all contribute to fantasy frustration. In many ways you can't blame the team for protecting their investment, but it still hurts your fantasy team and you want to know what to watch for, and how to plan for the eventuality.
A case study: Matt Harvey of the New York Mets.
Not many pitchers have had the positive impact Harvey has had on his fantasy owner's 2013 seasons. He's won just nine games for the offensively-challenged Mets, but his 0.89 WHIP and 2.25 ERA, along with 187 strikeouts in 171-plus innings has been a perfect storm for fantasy owners. The problem is the 171 innings. He pitched just 169 innings between Triple-A Buffalo and New York last season, and the Mets don't want him to pitch more than about 210 innings this year. Without a calculator you can quickly come up with the problem being Harvey only has about 40 innings left in the tank. For him, under normal conditions, that's maybe five or six starts.
That said, the Mets have already begun to make adjustments to extend his season a bit. His usage suggests he will be given extra days of rest between starts when possible - that makes it far more unlikely that he will be a "two-start" pitcher in a given week - and they have throttled-down on his pitch counts. Expect to see more starts of five or six innings (he has averaged almost seven innings a start this season) and don't be surprised if his average pitch counts dip considerably below 100 per outing, especially if he runs into any higher stress innings where he has to display more intensity.
What this all means to you is somewhat lower overall contribution than you have been accustomed to getting, and potentially even fewer wins since he won't generally be pitching as deeply into games, providing the Mets with fewer opportunities at the plate to generate some run support. It's possible that he won't get many more quality starts if that is a counting stat in your league, and it's possible he could occasionally depart before going the five innings required to qualify for a win. The bottom line is, you may get a few more starts than 40 innings would normally accommodate, but you may not get the same quality of starts, and you may have to make some adjustments to maximize your young pitcher's contributions over the remainder of the season.
So, what do you do?
Watching for solid streaming options and other potentially high-impact arms arriving in September is certainly one thing you need to do, but there are a couple of things related to pitchers like Harvey you can also capitalize on. The Mets are not going to the 2013 playoffs, but they still have a fan base they need to keep happy. That means Harvey will be given a bit more leash in home starts where fans have perhaps come just to see one of the brightest spots on their team. It also means if they can arrange to give him an extra day or two of rest at the end of a road trip, setting him up to start at the beginning of a home stand, they may do that.
Also, add the tendencies of the opponent's hitters into the equation. Other major league teams know Harvey is now less likely to pitch deep into a game. The better teams will probably take more pitches, and do everything possible to get his pitch counts and stress levels elevated in hopes of waving goodbye to him as early as possible. Think about it. Would you rather face an arm like Harvey all day, or show some patience, and get into an extremely vulnerable Mets bullpen all the earlier? These same principles will often apply to other pitchers in Harvey's category.
Some Other Potential Innings Limit Scenarios:
Jose Fernandez (MIA) - We have a projected date on this one. Fernandez has been a breath of fresh air in Miami, but they say he will be shut down Sept. 4. Like the Mets, the Marlins have no reason to abuse their young arms this season, so don't be surprised if Nate Eovaldi and Jacob Turner are used more judiciously too.
Gerrit Cole (PIT) - Unlike some of the arms mentioned that pitch for teams out of contention, Cole's team is in a heated playoff race. Still, he is too valuable to overuse, so the Pirates are contemplating using him in a relief role. Since saves are not likely to be coming his way, that switch would greatly reduce or eliminate his fantasy value.
Noah Syndergaard (NYM) - Pitchers not even in the major leagues can sometimes be impacted by innings limits. I mentioned Syndergaard last week because I would really like to see him try major league hitters, but if he pitches at all after the minor league season ends, like Harvey (and Wheeler) the Mets won't overextend him.
Shelby Miller (STL) - Miller should be in line to pitch about 200 or a few more innings this year, but the Cardinals are in a playoff race and need him sharp. He is probably not in imminent danger of being limited, but there have been some signs that he could be a bit fatigued so watch for the Cardinals to potentially ease off on his pitch counts.
Jarred Cosart (HOU) - It's not always total innings as much as increased innings. Cosart has only accumulated about 140 innings in 2013, but having thrown just 114 innings last season, the Astros may want to keep his innings count down. They haven't announced a limit but somewhere around 160-170 wouldn't be a surprise.
Chris Archer (TB) - He has missed a couple starts during the season, and he has had a few that were shorter in duration so his 118 innings this year, compared to almost 160 last year should leave him plenty of room to finish the season in the Rays rotation. They are unlikely to allow huge pitch counts, but expect normal usage.
Andrew Albers (MIN) - If you have jumped on the Albers bandwagon, be aware that he only pitched 103 innings last season and 98 in 2011, and he is already up to 157 innings this year. He is older (27), and not considered a blue chip prospect, so the Twins may be a little more lenient, but he will likely face at least some limitations at some point.
The Endgame Odyssey
Starters aren't the only ones subject to a bit more rest later in the season. The Cardinals recently gave closer Edward Mujica a few days off as he has endured a heavy workload since moving into the closer's role. They are in a heated pennant race, and he should be fine, now that's he's had a breather. ... The Angels' Ernesto Frieri is now back to "co-closer" with Dane De La Rosa after a couple of solid non-save outings. He should be back to fulltime very soon barring any blow-ups. ... In Arizona, J.J. Putz notched a save recently, but it was in an extra-innings affair, and Brad Ziegler had pitched a couple innings earlier. Still, Putz has been quite effective lately, and a move back into his former end-game role should be expected at some point. ... Jason Grilli continues to say he will return to the Pittsburgh pen sooner than later, and he would presumably step back into the closer's role pretty quickly. The latest projections say early September, so barring a setback, Mark Melancon's fantasy value could take a hit fairly soon. ... Rafael Betancourt has regained his closer status with the Rockies, but Rex Brothers is not completely out of the picture just yet.