I’m not mincing words here: I am sick and tired of people claiming that “Joba is babied.” Honestly, I think it’s just something to complain about now that the Yankees are consistently winning. There’s no other explanation for it. Why would anyone complain that the Yankees are taking precautionary steps to protect a player whom they view as a future top-of-the-rotation performer? Why put him at obvious and considerable risk just to “push him to his limits”?
Look, I’m not saying the Verducci Rule is the be-all, end-all in this conversation. There is plenty more that goes into it, which is why the Yankees aren’t capping Joba at exactly 30 innings more than his previous season high. They’re working through a plan they devised in order to not drastically increase Joba’s workload and put him at risk for injury. That’s to the benefit of the team’s long-term outlook. It might hurt the short term, but that’s sometimes the price you have to pay to cultivate an ace.
Think about it this way. If you’re going to start lifting weights, you don’t go in and lift as much as you can the first day. You don’t lift as much as you can the second time in. If you do, you’re going to burn yourself out or get hurt. Instead, you work yourself into a routine, adding a bit more weight each time to make sure your muscles can handle the load. It works this way in many facets of life. The Yankees are simply building Joba up so he can handle the workload of a starter, rather than taking the chains off instantly.
This is a direct response to Mike Silva, who has been on the “Joba is babied” bandwagon for a while. He offers nothing but anecdotal claims to back up his position, while completely ignoring the physical realities of pitching in the modern era. As Joel Sherman noted, things have changed a bit since then.
[Bob] Gibson never faced hitters who watched their at-bats against him before and during games to pick up patterns. Gibson did not face an era of players steeped in the value of the long at-bat and drawing walks. Gibson enjoyed a larger strike zone and — at times — a higher mound. He did not use a more tightly-wound ball against lighter, whip-like bats designed to zip through the zone for more damage. And we haven’t even mentioned steroids yet.
Yet we should treat pitchers the same as we did back then? It seems a bit absurd after reading that Sherman paragraph, no?
Silva does offer one name as a comparison: Tim Lincecum, last year’s NL Cy Young winner at age 24. Why was he able to pitch 227 innings last year with little ill effect? Because he was built up to that point. He pitched through his senior year in college and racked up over 330 innings with the University of Washington. The year he was drafted, 2006, he threw 180 innings, 125 in college and another 31.2 in the minors. When the Giants called him up in 2007, he finished the year with 174 innings. This made the jump to 227 innings the next year a bit easier.
Yes, that’s a considerable jump, 47 innings from the career high he set the previous year. But it was a work up. Entering 2008, he’d had about 550 innings of pro and college ball under his belt. That’s considerable experience. Joba does not have this type of experience. According to The Baseball Cube, Joba pitched just over 200 innings at the University of Nebraska over two years. He did pitch some winter ball to augment his 89.1 innings at Nebraska in 2006, the year he was drafted, and worked up to 112 innings the next year.
Unfortunately, Joba succumbed to injury last year, limiting him to just 100 innings of work. So, entering this season, Joba has never pitched more than 127 innings in a season. In college and pro experience he had just 458 innings of experience over four years. When the Giants allowed Lincecum to pitch 227 innings in 2008, he’d thrown 551 innings over the past four years. That’s nearly 25 extra innings per year that Lincecum could build up.
Like any kind of physical work, Joba needs to work up to full capacity, rather than being allowed to just run his way into a wall. The 121.2 innings he’s pitched this year is just shy of his previous total, which came three years ago, and a decent start today could put him at or over that total. His 22 games started, 23 once he throws the first pitch today, is already the greatest number of games he’s started in his career in one season. Yet there’s still a month and a half left in the season, plus the playoffs. You really want him to go full bore in personally uncharted territory? In a pennant race? When he has so much to offer over the next four, five, six years?
To advocate allowing Joba to throw 200 innings this year is to completely eschew the long-term for the short-term. Yes, we all want Joba to keep pitching on a regular schedule this year, but physical realities render that a poor choice. You can bang the drum of Nolan Ryan, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, and all the other greats who pitched when men were men, but it does no good. The modern game is different. Babe Ruth once ended a season with more individual home runs than any team combined did. That doesn’t happen any more. In the same way, pitchers tossing 250 innings in their rookie years doesn’t happen. You can either be patient and accept it, or complain about it. In any case, the Yankees are making the right move by not letting Joba go into the gym and load up the bench press with eight 45 pound weights.