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How the Yankees might handle Domingo German’s innings limit

Domingo German has emerged as a top Cy Young Award contender in the American League, but the Yankees plan to cap his innings this year.

New York Yankees starter Domingo German has emerged as a top Cy Young Award contender in the American League.
Yankees starter Domingo German has emerged as a top Cy Young Award contender in the American League.
Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into spring training, Domingo German was expected to compete with Jonathan Loaisiga, Luis Cessa, and Chance Adams for positioning on the Yankees’ starting pitching depth chart. To some, this depth was unacceptably thin, and General Manager Brian Cashman ultimately added former standout Gio Gonzalez to the group on a minor-league deal.

When ace Luis Severino suffered a shoulder injury, German outperformed the other candidates in camp to earn his way into the season-opening rotation. No one could have predicted what happened next, as he quickly became the Yankees’ most consistently excellent starter. Believe it or not, that’s actually an understatement. At just past the one-quarter mark of the 2019 campaign, German has emerged as a legitimate Cy Young Award contender in the American League.

German is 8-1 in eight starts, and leads Major League Baseball in wins. Among qualifiers in the Junior Circuit, he ranks second with a .518 OPS against, fourth with a 0.95 WHIP, and fifth with a 2.50 ERA. Suffice to say, German has been a godsend for the injury-plagued Yankees.

Unfortunately, German’s unexpected emergence has become a double-edged sword. His team-leading 6.04 innings per start puts him on pace to throw 195 frames this year — if he starts every fifth game for the remainder of the season. His career high of 124 innings came in 2017, but he hurled only 94 frames last season.

Why is this so important? Well, it has to do with the Verducci Effect. In 2006, longtime baseball writer Tom Verducci published his theory about how a jump in innings pitched from one year to the next exposed pitchers to an increased risk of ineffectiveness and injury.

To one extent or another, MLB clubs followed Verducci’s advice and began setting innings limits as a way to prevent injuries. The Yankees got on board fully, with the “Joba Rules” becoming an infamous example of the practice.

Verducci has evolved his theory over the years, and currently red-flags any pitcher who makes a 30% jump in innings from one year to the next as being at a heightened risk of ineffectiveness or injury during the subsequent season. For example, prior to the 2018 campaign, Verducci listed Severino among three pitchers at risk due to a large jump in innings pitched from 2016 to 2017.

Although Severino made 34 starts in 2018 (including the playoffs), he has yet to pitch this season due to a shoulder injury and a lat muscle strain. Also appearing on Verducci’s 2018 pre-season list was Braves hurler Luiz Gohara and Dylan Bundy of the Orioles. Gohara missed most of the 2018 season with a shoulder injury and has yet to return. Bundy pitched to a 5.45 ERA over 31 starts, while leading the league with 16 losses and 41 home runs allowed.

Verducci acknowledges that “not every 30% jump is the same,” due to mechanics, age, and size. “Pitchers on the younger and smaller side of the spectrum, for instance, would be more at risk of regression,” he wrote. Using only the 30% jump in innings as a hard and fast benchmark, the now 26-year-old German stands to be at greater risk for ineffectiveness and injury next year if he throws more than 122.2 innings this season.

Joel Sherman of the New York Post was the first to report that the Yankees plan to cap German’s innings. He noted that Cashman refused to disclose the precise limit the club had in mind, but opined that the Yankees might cap German at 150 innings. I have no idea how Sherman arrived at such a high number, considering that throwing 150 innings this year would represent a whopping 60% increase for German. Sherman’s Post colleague Greg Joyce notes that another factor to keep in mind is that German threw only 10.2 frames after July 26th last year — when he left a Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre game early and was diagnosed with an ulnar nerve injury.

Let’s assume that the Yankees take the most conservative approach with German and cap his innings at 122. There are a number of ways they could go about handling this.

One option is to simply let him pitch without restraints until he reaches the limit, and then simply shut him down. At 6 innings per start, German would hit the cap after 12 more starts — sometime around July 22nd. The Yankees could easily go this route, while hoping that either Severino or Jordan Montgomery are ready to rejoin the rotation in his place at that time.

A second option is to cap his innings on a per start basis. If the Yankees limited him to five innings per start, then German could start around 15 more games before hitting the cap. This would allow him to remain in the rotation until mid-August.

Still another option is to have German skip starts. The Yankees could go this route if they want his arm available for the playoffs. This would be trickier, though, as they’d essentially have to begin skipping him immediately — while also limiting his outings to five innings — if they want German available to make potentially several starts in October. Skipping starts has been tried before, and I can’t recall an instance where it actually worked. Expecting a hurler to maintain effectiveness pitching every 10th day seems like a fool’s errand to me.

It appears that the first option is the most likely one. Not only do the Yankees have Severino or Montgomery lined up to take German’s spot in the rotation, but they will have other options available as well. Once MLB’s amateur draft concludes on June 6th, the Yankees can sign Dallas Keuchel without a draft pick penalty — if they want to. Additional attractive arms might become available in July as the trade deadline approaches.

Whatever option the Yankees choose, I’m glad that they are keeping German’s health in mind. He really turned a corner this season, and we should expect him to remain a force in the Yankees rotation for years to come.