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Phillies going against the grain on innings limit for Aaron Nola

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As teams begin shutting down pitchers facing innings limits, the Phils have decided to go another way.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

You may remember, back in 2012, the Washington Nationals famously shut down Stephen Strasburg in September as he approached an innings limit set forth by doctors just ahead of the playoffs. And they stuck to it. One season after having Tommy John surgery, the team shut him down as they were steaming toward the playoffs.

That was a fun and happy debate, and made Stephen just the happiest 24-year-old pitcher in the world!

This year, the Mets are facing a similar situation with Matt Harvey, who is approaching a 180 innings limit set forth by team doctors, 23 months after his Tommy John surgery. The Mets, like the Nats, are steaming toward the playoffs, and having Harvey in the rotation sure would be nice, especially seeing how good that Strasburg thing turned out.

The great debate is raging. Should the Mets shut him down to preserve his long-term health, like Washington did with Strasburg? Or should they continue to pitch him if he's feeling good and the team needs him in October?

It's not an easy question to answer, but it appears as if New York will shut him down at some point in order to make sure he doesn't wreck his arm/shouder/elbow again.

However, the Phillies are going a different way. As MLB.com's Todd Zolecki reported Thursday, it's sounding like the Phils' initial plan to shut down rookie Aaron Nola after 185 innings this year is being shelved, and that Nola could continue to pitch beyond that innings limit.

"I've been trying to get my hands around that for a couple of days," Phillies interim general manager Scott Proefrock said, "just to figure out what we can do and what makes sense. I read an article the other day that talked about Tommy John, and this obviously doesn't apply to Aaron, but they were saying Tommy John was told by Dr. [Frank] Jobe, 'Go by how it feels, by how your arm feels.'

"At this point, there's no indication that there's any reason or necessity to limit them other than what we've set. And I think we're just going to play it by how they feel going forward. We'll see."

Now, there is a big difference here. Strasburg and Harvey had both undergone major reconstructive surgery on their elbows. Nola, by all accounts, is perfectly healthy.

Still, there is a larger issue, one that was addressed by ESPN's Jayson Stark on Thursday.

We're taking a step back from the hysteria to ask some actual experts whether the Mets are handling Matt Harvey correctly. We delved into questions like this:

• In an age that offers us so much information, aren't there better ways to measure pitcher abuse than good old-fashioned "innings"?

• Even if Harvey stays below the magical 180-inning threshold (he's at 171 2/3 innings now), can anyone be sure he'll stay healthy?

• Where are the scientific studies that tell us exactly how much a pitcher like this should or shouldn't be pitching, 23 months after his Tommy John surgery?

• Since trying to win a World Series is kind of a big deal, too, how should a team balance the importance of winning against the long-term health of its pitchers?

Stark goes on to quote the Phils' team physician on whether medical science can predict exactly when it's best to shut a pitcher down.

"No one absolutely knows," said Dr. Michael Ciccotti, the leader of MLB's elbow-study group, the head team physician for the Philadelphia Phillies and the director of sports medicine at the Rothman Institute in Philadelphia. "There's no crystal ball, unfortunately."

And it appears as if that's what the Phils believe with Nola, who again, is different in that he is perfectly healthy. The team looked at that 185 inning number and concluded, why 185? Instead, they're going to actually make this decision based on how the pitcher "feels."

You know, is his arm sore? Is there any stiffness? Has the team noticed a dip in his velocity or the angle of his breaking stuff?

What a concept!

Admittedly, it's obviously a bit dangerous to rely on the player to tell you how he's feeling. As we've seen from Chase Utley and others, players sometimes are not honest when they're not 100%. Cole Hamels was the exception, and because of that, has remained relatively healthy and durable throughout his career.

But if Nola isn't hurting, and he's still effective, why shut him down at 185 innings? Just because you said you would?

Not all innings are created equally. Some innings are a breeze, 12-pitch innings in which the pitcher doesn't tax his arm. Some are late-game, high-stress innings in which a pitcher is going through the lineup a third time and has to put a little extra on his fastball or a little more bite on his slider.

And don't pitches thrown matter more than innings pitched? Are those innings and pitches being tossed in the heat of a pennant race or in the last few weeks of a meaningless season?

Of course, this goes against the grain of conventional baseball wisdom right now. Innings are innings, and lots of 'em must be B-A-D bad!

Nola is expected to make three more starts, and the team will obviously be keeping a close eye on him. And there is no doubt a risk that, if he hurts himself in one of these last three starts after passing the 185 inning limit, the team will come under a heavy amount of criticism. Especially since there's nothing to play for.

But it's unlikely he's going to be throwing any 110-pitch complete games from here on out, and without a legitimate reason to shut him down, doing so just because he's reached an arbitrary innings count is silly as well.

The decision for the Mets is much more difficult, and not one that I would want to have to make.

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