During Joe Girardi's first press conference of spring training Thursday, he was asked about the expectations of Luis Severino (who turns 22 years old today!) heading into his first full big league season. According to Joel Sherman of the New York Post, here is what he had to say:
Girardi on Severino: "I think he can handle 200 innings" #Yankees— Joel Sherman (@Joelsherman1) February 18, 2016
Given the Yankees' recent cautious history young pitching, that statement at first seemed a bit out of place coming from their manager.
When one looks at Severino's case in isolation, it certainly isn't out of the realm of possibility for him to reach the 200 inning plateau. In 2013, the right-hander threw 44 minor league innings across two levels. The next year, he bumped that total up to 113 innings across three levels. Finally, last season, he threw a grand total of 161.2 innings combined between the minors (99.1) and the majors (62.1). So at the surface, 200 innings seems like it would be reachable in 2016.
However, there have been mixed results in recent years regarding the increases in innings for top pitching prospects. Consider the following four homegrown top pitching prospects and how the team managed their innings increases over the years (their organizational Baseball America prospect ranking in the year prior to their MLB debut in parentheses): Chien-Ming Wang (ninth in 2004), Phil Hughes (first in 2006), Joba Chamberlain (fifth after 2006) and Ian Kennedy (sixth after 2006).
Now, there are several aspects of this chart that need clarification. First, in the cases of Hughes and Kennedy, their first MLB seasons in 2008 (after call-ups in '07) were cut short after fewer than ten starts due to injuries and demotions. In 2009, Kennedy pitched in just one big league game, and while Hughes pitched a full season in 2009, he made 44 of his 51 appearances that year out of the bullpen. In addition, we don't know how the Yankees would have handled Kennedy's first full season as a starting pitcher in the big leagues since he did so with the Arizona Diamondbacks following the Curtis Granderson trade in the offseason prior to the 2010 season.
Secondly, in Chamberlain's case, every Yankee fan remembers the infamous "Joba Rules". The set of rules developed in order to manage his innings caused the righty to swing back and forth between the bullpen and rotation in his first full big league season in 2008 (30 starts, 12 relief outings), so his first full season as solely a starter wasn't until 2009.
What jumps out right away in comparing those four past prospects with Severino is that, barring injury this year, Severino is the only one on the list who has both youth and minor league innings going for him. Wang was already 25 by the time he debuted and could theoretically handle a heavy workload, and while Hughes, Chamberlain and Kennedy were all 21 or 22 when they debuted, none of them pitched almost four full years in the minors like Severino. However, while it might be helpful to see how the team has handled the workload of past prospects in their first big league seasons, the roles of injuries and poor philosophies make it hard to make a true comparison with Severino.
Perhaps there is another way to try to figure out Severino's potential 2016 workload. In his eleven big league starts last year, Severino averaged roughly 5.6 innings per start. In the minors from 2014-15, Severino threw just under five innings per start (around 4.93). That's a relatively big jump. For comparison's sake, Kennedy, Hughes, and Wang all averaged well over five innings per start in the minors prior to their big league promotions (with Wang and Kennedy actually just under six innings per start).
This might suggest a shift in the Yankees' handling of pitching prospects. Instead of handling their top young pitchers by having them throw a lot of innings per start in the minors and monitor their big league innings more tightly, they limit the innings per start, and then increase that ratio once they reach the big leagues. (The team alluded to this strategy when they justified why they felt comfortable keeping Severino in a hypothetical playoff rotation rather than shutting him down.)
If Severino averages 5.6 innings per start across 32 starts in 2016, that would allow him to roughly throw 180 innings (which also happens to be just under the average number of innings thrown by the four former top prospects in their first full seasons of starting). An increase to around six or so innings per start is obviously dependent on him, since he needs to prove he can handle pitching effectively deep into games.
So theoretically, it seems like Severino should be able to handle a 40 innings bump in 2016. The unknown as of right now is if the Yankees will actually turn him loose and let him pitch deeper into games, or if they'll be tempted to skip a couple of his starts. Only time will tell.