Skaggs to work under innings limit in '16

Angels, LHP working together to determine appropriate workload following '14 surgery

February 20th, 2016

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Angels have been nothing but cautious in how they've approached the recovering left arm of promising starting pitcher Tyler Skaggs. When he underwent Tommy John surgery in August 2014, they ruled him out for the entirety of the 2015 season, never once considering the possibility that he could help them down the stretch after the standard 12-month recovery.

Now that Skaggs is fully healed, and 18 months removed from replacing his ulnar collateral ligament, the Angels plan to put him on a rather strict innings limit for 2016.

That number is expected to be somewhere between 165-175 innings, according to a source with knowledge of the situation, who didn't speak publicly on the matter because details are still being finalized. The cap would be a little less than the 180-innings limit Dr. James Andrews allegedly proposed for Matt Harvey in 2015, a little more than the 160-innings limit the Nationals imposed on Stephen Strasburg in 2012.

Skaggs said Saturday morning that he would meet with Angels coaches in the coming days to solidify his innings limit for 2016. The 24-year-old left-hander would prefer one, mainly because others have told him it's important.

"But at the same time," Skaggs said, "I know I've waited an extended amount of time, so my arm is feeling pretty good."

Skaggs has solicited advice from two of his former teammates and closest friends, Patrick Corbin and Jarrod Parker. Parker has undergone two Tommy John procedures -- in 2009 and 2014 -- and barely avoided a third in the spring of 2015. Corbin had the surgery in March 2014, returned to the Majors a little more than 15 months later and turned in a solid age-25 season, with a 3.60 ERA and a 4.59 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 85 innings.

"Guys that I've talked to said that when it gets to September, they know that limit is good," Skaggs said. "You've been gone for a full year, and you start losing juice at the end. So it's good to have an innings limit."

Skaggs' first priority is to win a job in the Angels' rotation, as one of eight starting pitchers vying for seemingly two open spots. And one of his major concerns is avoiding the drama that engulfed Harvey last season, with the Mets primed to make the playoffs and Harvey's agent, Scott Boras, vocalizing desires that he not exceed his previous career high in innings.

Harvey wound up blowing past that mark, accumulating 216 innings -- including the playoffs -- and turning in one of his best starts at the end, keeping the Royals scoreless through eight innings in Game 5 of the World Series.

It was only the latest example of how random and arbitrary these innings limits can be.

"There is no good data that shows what the number of innings is that somebody could pitch after Tommy John surgery," said Dr. Alan Beyer, a sports medicine specialist at Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Orange County. "We're flying blind here. We're trying to prognosticate about somebody when we don't really have the data to give us a good scientific reason to back up what we're saying."

Beyer believes pitch counts are a more relevant way to account for workload with pitchers returning from Tommy John surgery, because there's a major difference between a low-stress inning (say, fewer than 10 pitches) and a high-stress one (30 or so pitches).

"Not all innings are equal," said C.J. Wilson, who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2003. "But I think the most important thing is to always keep the long-term focus of the player in mind. As a rule. You want to constantly evaluate where he's at in the process, how's his velocity. And we have so many things we can track now -- range of motion, spin rate, fatigue, flexibility. There's a lot of different ways you can check and make sure. You're kind of a science project when you come back because everyone's different."

In hopes of avoiding the drama with Harvey or the inconvenience with Strasburg, who was shut down while the Nationals played in the postseason, the Angels are expected to have some sort of buffer with Skaggs. They'll use off-days whenever possible to skip his starts, be it in Triple-A or the Major Leagues, in hopes of keeping him comfortably below his innings limit in case they play in October and need him.

That doesn't seem easy, though. Skaggs contributed about 6 1/3 innings per start in 2014. If he keeps that pace in 2016, Skaggs would reach his innings limit within 26 and 28 starts, up to seven fewer than what a healthy starter contributes in a full season.

Angels manager Mike Scioscia wouldn't specify his approach, though, saying only: "There are definitely plans and contingencies in place that are going to combine some of the scientific data of guys coming back with where he's going to be. We have limits worked out. We have plans if he has to start in Triple-A, and we have plans if he makes the team for what has to happen."

Skaggs had a 4.30 ERA through 18 starts of his first full season in a Major League rotation in 2014 until his elbow ligament gave out on July 31, 4 2/3 innings into a no-hitter. He expects "some rust," mostly with his offspeed pitches.

"But that's what Spring Training is for," Skaggs said.

With Garrett Richards, Jered Weaver and Wilson locks for the rotation, Skaggs is seemingly competing with Andrew Heaney, Hector Santiago, Matt Shoemaker and Nick Tropeano to be the Nos. 4 and 5 starters.

Eventually, though, he's expected to factor heavily into the Angels' season.

"I like it," Skaggs said of the competition. "We have eight guys who are all capable of pitching in the big leagues. It's one of those things where I just have to go out there and worry about myself. I just have to go out there and make sure I'm healthy to get ready for a season."