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Limiting the innings of Carlos Martinez

The Cardinals starting pitching has been among the best in baseball despite injuries to their ace and Lance Lynn's current stint on the disabled list, but the team will have to make adjustments moving forward.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Taking away starts from one of a team's best starters seems like a pretty poor idea, but conserving innings so that as many arms as possible are strong for the stretch run and October is a pretty good justification for the practice. The Mets have gone back and forth publicly with their different plans to save innings for their young starters and everyone wants to avoid a shutdown that would preclude pitching in the playoffs like the Nationals did a few years ago. Such is the decision the Cardinals face with Carlos Martinez.

Over his last six starts, Martinez has gone at least six innings in every single outing and given up as many as two earned runs just once in that time. He has pitched 40 1/3 innings with 42 strikeouts, a 0.89 ERA and a 2.61 FIP. He's beaten the Dodgers twice, traversed the thin mountain air in Colorado and navigated a lineup without the benefit of facing the pitcher. Albert Pujols had 18 fewer home runs the last time Carlos Martinez failed to go six innings. El Gallo is one of the very best options on the Cardinals' team to take the ball every fifth day, and over the last month, he might be the very best on a team. Martinez has looked great in increasing his workload this season, but he is young and the Cardinals reasonably want to conserve his innings.

Mapping out starting pitching schedules can be a fairly fruitless exercise. We can pencil in a five-man rotation at the beginning of the season, and then watch the Cardinals use eight different starters in the first two months without using the presumed sixth starter for a single start. We can assume that Jaime Garcia will never regain his old stuff after battling multiple injuries and several surgeries, and then watch him average seven innings per start his first month back. We lock Lance Lynn in for innings as he was the only remaining pitcher to go more than 200 innings in the last four seasons, and then see him need some time off.

Planning innings for any group of pitchers provides a guarantee that plans will soon change, but the Cardinals still have a young staff that might need protecting as the season goes on, and planning is the only way to prevent burning out those starters. The Cardinals have 20 games left before the All-Star Break, and 93 games left total. With 20 games and five starters, it might be easy to give every starter four more starts, but that is not very likely.

After a day off next Monday, the Cardinals will play 14 games in 13 days before the break because of a double-header with the Chicago Cubs that is happening due to Wrigley Field not being able to handle fans at the beginning of the season rain-out. Tyler Lyons, who gave up a few too many home runs in his starts but otherwise pitched very well with 28 strikeouts and 7 walks in 23 innings pitched, will presumably take one of those starts against the Cubs. That schedule makes it difficult to skip any starts if they are looking to limit innings for Carlos Martinez.

At the beginning of the season, Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez looked to be on an innings cap. Neither pitcher had a full season starting at the major league level and Wacha was coming off an injury-shortened season with questions about his shoulder's ability to handle a workload. As Derrick Goold has reported, Wacha's innings limit has fallen by the wayside as his impressive performance has given the team confidence that he can handle more innings. In a story a few weeks ago regarding a potential six-man rotation, John Mozeliak admitted as much.

The 23-year-old starter took an unbeaten, 7-0 record into Saturday's start. He had yet to have a start less than five innings or more than 105 pitches. While neither number, on its own, is used by the team to determine the stress on Wacha's arm, the consistency and strength he's shown has them recalculating their limits for him. General manager John Mozeliak described Wacha as "in the best shape of his life" and agreed that the team has had to consider responding with a less conservative plan for the righthander.

With 93 starts to go, John Lackey and Lance Lynn (expected back Thursday), are unlikely to be on any innings limits the rest of the way. Assuming they each take the ball four more times before the break and are the first two pitchers to go after the break, they are set to make 20 more starts. If they can average six innings per start, Lackey will eclipse 200 innings for the first time since 2010 while Lynn will get close to that level as well, the short time on the disabled list potentially costing him a shot at reaching 200 innings for a third straight season. Jaime Garcia is not likely to be put on any limit moving forward as he will be allowed to pitch as many innings as his arm allows. He has already pitched 41 innings in six starts with a fantastic 1.76 ERA and 2.89 FIP, exceeding any expectations the team might have had for him.

While Wacha might not be on the same limit the team set for him at the beginning of the season, it is not clear if there is no limit at all. Wacha has already made 14 starts and pitched 88 1/3 innings. If Wacha gets another 20 starts and averages six innings per start, he will have exceeded 200 innings before October begins. While much of the talk regarding skipping starts has been centered on Carlos Martinez to preserve innings, it might be a good idea to skip at least one Wacha start in the next month before the Cardinals get deep into the summer months and a potential pennant race. The Cardinals have been set back by injuries to both hitters and pitchers this season, and as the season wears on, those injuries could have a greater impact than we have seen thus far. Having all players at their strongest down the stretch will be important if the Cardinals slump in the coming months.

As to Martinez, Derrick Goold indicated in the same piece above, that the Cardinals plan to try and give El Gallo a rest this season like they have done in the past for Martinez and Shelby Miller. Due to the double-header, skipping Martinez is difficult prior to the All-Star Break. The team could give spot starts to both Tyler Lyons and Tim Cooney in the coming weeks in order to give Martinez a break, but giving Tyler Lyons the fifth starter slot immediately coming out of the All-Star Break seems like the more likely move.

The Cardinals do not need their fifth starter after the All-Star Break until July 25, and by using Tyler Lyons for that single start, they could delay Martinez's first start after the break until July 30. Delaying his second half and skipping what would be his final start of the season gives Martinez 16 more starts the rest the way. If the Tsunami continues to average six innings per start, that puts his final season number right at around 175 innings, a reasonable target for the impressive 23-year-old.

How much a two-week shutdown actually helps is up for debate, but just because we do not know exactly how to keep arms fresh and prevent injury, that does not mean no method should be tried. The Cardinals' rotation will likely go through a lot of changes as the season rolls along, but if the Cardinals need to limit innings for any of their pitchers and Carlos Martinez in particular, the period right after the All-Star Break is a good time to give it a shot.