Normally, teams don't like to increase a pitcher's workload by more than 50 innings from one year to the next, with 30 being a more optimal number. Neither was realistic coming off a season as short as 2020, in which the major-league leader in innings had only 84.
A more realistic approach was to treat 2020 like a bonus season, having pitchers pick up where they left off in 2019, and it seems to be the approach most teams have taken. Save for the occasional six-man rotation, things have proceeded about like normal.
But the second half is where the rubber meets the road. Some pitchers, particularly up-and-comers, are now exceeding their 2019 allotment for innings, much less their 2020 allotment, and what comes next is anybody's guess.
On the one hand, it's the usual time of year when innings limits come into play, threatening to end a pitcher's season early or at least curtail his workload. On the other hand, the most impacted pitchers may be harder to identify after the unconventional year that was.
We'll use 2019 as our standard for comparison, basically ignoring each pitcher's inning total from 2020 (which, again, would be small in every instance). By that standard, here are 14 of the pitchers most at risk for a slowdown or shutdown.
MIA Miami • #28 • Age: 23
Trevor Rogers may seem like one of the likeliest pitchers to be shut down given that he's a rookie who has yet to miss a turn for a team with no serious playoff aspirations. Turns out pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. already addressed the issue in June, telling MLB.com that Rogers could throw as many as 175 innings. "I really would love to try to find a way to make sure he makes all his starts without having to send him out," Stottlemyre said...I remain skeptical given the incentive to protect such a valuable asset in a lost season, but it's reason to think twice about dealing Rogers in redraft leagues.
MIL Milwaukee • #39 • Age: 26
The Brewers are on track to win their division, which makes a hard shutdown for Corbin Burnes virtually impossible at this point, but he's already well past his workload from 2019, when he pitched mostly in relief. In fact, the last time he was a full-time starting pitcher was 2017, when he was still in the minors, so the Brewers are already pushing the envelope with him here in July. They'll have to curtail his innings at some point just so he has something left for the playoffs and are installing a sixth man in their rotation with that in mind. More aggressive measures would make sense, though, if they have the division more or less locked up by the time September arrives.
MIL Milwaukee • #51 • Age: 25
Like Burnes, Freddy Peralta had spent much of his career to this point in relief, so it's not surprising the Brewers are taking steps to slow him down now, skipping his first turn back from the All-Star break. Just going by their 2019 workloads, Peralta would seem to be less of a concern than Burnes, who threw 8 1/3 innings last time out, but maybe Burnes is scheduled for a skipped turn, too. Bottom line is you shouldn't rely on either of these pitchers for as much volume in the second half, but given the Brewers' place in the standings, a hard shutdown is unlikely for both.
Julio Urias SP
LAD L.A. Dodgers • #7 • Age: 24
The plan for Julio Urias early in his career was to ease him into a starter's workload by having him split his time in the bullpen, but as with Burnes and Peralta, the pandemic came at the worst possible time for a pitcher on that trajectory. The Dodgers were finally ready to turn him loose last year but of course couldn't. They seem to have thrown caution to the wind this year, though, despite manager Dave Roberts saying at one point that it would be "reckless" to let Urias throw 200 innings. Well, what about 180 innings? Injuries have eaten away at their pitching depth, but as the Dodgers continue to build up David Price and Tony Gonsolin, we may see more four- and five-inning starts for Urias -- just keeping him warm for the playoffs, basically.
Carlos Rodon SP
CHW Chi. White Sox • #55 • Age: 28
Some additional context: Carlos Rodon threw only 7 2/3 innings in 2020, his first year back from Tommy John surgery. You'd expect the buildup to be particularly cautious after a reconstructive procedure, but Rodon's breakthrough has only invited more work. The White Sox don't have much incentive to slow him down seeing as he's not on the payroll for next year, and it's worth noting that pitching coach Ethan Katz didn't anticipate treating any of his pitchers differently coming off the short season. "The main thing is, nobody knows," Katz said in spring training, noting that it'll depend how each individual pitcher is feeling. He also suggested that 200 innings was a goal for every pitcher, playoffs included, so in his mind, Rodon may be right on track.
Casey Mize SP
DET Detroit • #12 • Age: 24
The Tigers warned of a decreasing workload for Casey Mize as far back as May, and we've seen it take effect in his past three outings, each limited to 3-4 innings despite him continuing to pitch well. The plan isn't for the rest of his season to go this way, though. According to the Detroit Free Press, the Tigers will turn him loose again, likely at some point in August, and whether they decide to pull back again will depend on the way he's looking. His goal is to make it through September, but manager A.J. Hinch isn't looking that far ahead. We'll see, but don't cut Mize loose just yet.
Tarik Skubal SP
DET Detroit • #29 • Age: 24
The Tigers' plan for Tarik Skubal isn't as concrete as for Mize, and because he's been less efficient overall, the innings aren't piling up as quickly. The Detroit Free Press reports that the Tigers don't want to limit Skubal's and Mize's innings at the same time, which would seemingly make a hard shutdown more likely for Skubal. But if you're using his 2019 workload as a standard for comparison, he'll be good for another 60 innings or so, which may be enough to see him through as long as he doesn't start going seven innings with consistency. It's happened only once so far.
Luis Garcia SP
HOU Houston • #77 • Age: 24
While a pleasant surprise for the Astros this season, Luis Garcia isn't ready to take on a workhorse role or anything close to it, and it seems inevitable that the Astros will ease him out of it once all their other rotation options are healthy. Right now, Jose Urquidy is the one on the mend. What reducing Garcia's workload looks like is anybody's guess right now. Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle has speculated that the Astros could handle him much like they have Cristian Javier, keeping him more or less stretched out as a multi-inning reliever. It's possible Garcia and Javier could even switch places if the rotation doesn't fill up as quickly as hoped.
Alek Manoah SP
TOR Toronto • #6 • Age: 23
Alek Manoah entered this season with only 17 professional innings under his belt, which gives us basically no standard for comparison. What's typical for a pitcher just beginning his buildup to a major-league workload? One hundred innings? The workload seemed like it would be a problem at one point, but now that Manoah is expected to miss his next couple turns with a back injury, his innings probably won't have a chance to rise to a worrisome level. It helps that the minor-league season was delayed for the first month.
SEA Seattle • #36 • Age: 24
Just judging by where his workload is compared to 2019, there would seem to be no reason to worry about Logan Gilbert, and there probably isn't. But because the Mariners don't appear to be serious contenders (in spite of their current standing), there may come a point when they decide to pack it in for 2021, putting their emerging ace on ice until 2022. It's hardly a forgone conclusion, but it is a realistic enough scenario for me to mention it here.
TB Tampa Bay • #62 • Age: 24
The Rays are usually both tight-lipped and ahead of the curve on these matters, so suffice it to say I have no insight into what they're actually planning to do with Shane McClanahan. As with Gilbert, there would seem to be enough innings in reserve just going by his 2019 total, and the Rays were careful to limit him early, possibly so they wouldn't have to be so stingy down the stretch. They're likely eyeing a deep playoff run, though, and with Tyler Glasnow's availability in doubt, McClanahan would seem to be the most talented pitcher they have. It's still possible they take it easy with him in September in preparation, depending on how the playoff seeding shakes out.
NYY N.Y. Yankees • #50 • Age: 29
Unlike Rodon, Jameson Taillon didn't throw a single inning last year, so he's fresh off Tommy John surgery and presumably subject to all the workload restrictions that go with it. The Yankees have seemingly been careful enough, so far only once letting him throw 100 pitches, but for most of the year, his performance hasn't demanded he throw any more than that. Lately, his output has improved enough that he's back to being a Fantasy asset and is taking on a bigger workload as a result. As much as we'd welcome a few more seven-inning starts from him, they could be what ends his season sooner.
Chris Flexen RP
SEA Seattle • #77 • Age: 27
Chris Flexen is one of the only pitchers in the league who got a decent allotment of innings in 2020 -- more than in 2019, actually -- because he was pitching overseas in Korea. Still, his recent run of success has him closing in on last year's total. The Mariners already have him locked up for 2022, with a team option for 2023 as well, so as with Gilbert, it's possible they decide to save their bullets for next year if they fall out of the race over the next few weeks. Flexen isn't the asset Gilbert is, so perhaps the Mariners wouldn't care to slow him down. But his career-high for innings in a season (minors included) is only 134.
CHC Chi. Cubs • #73 • Age: 26
As you can see, Adbert Alzolay has already sailed past the number he reached in 2019, making the rookie a prime candidate for a shutdown, especially on a team that appears to be selling at the trade deadline. Manager Joe Ross has addressed the issue of Alzolay's workload already, saying there isn't a specific innings limit that they're "pretending to hold him to." But once 2021 is officially deemed a lost cause, more sensible heads may prevail. The most innings Alzolay has ever thrown in a season (minors included) is 120 1/3.