Pitching injury rates

I wrote these thoughts down a while back, and added to them this week.
Some linked articles are old, but the links are updated.

The injury issue

Pitching an extensive amount is not good for the human body.
In fact, it has become debilitating.

Starters are breaking down.
The way the closer role is set up is incredibly harmful to the players.

The words “elbow surgery” appear 37 times on the current USA Today injury report, only once in reference to a position player (catcher Matt Wieters). 102 pitchers are on the disabled list (n.b. one of those is for food poisoning).

So why is it nothing is being done about it?
It would seem that either the players or the owners would care enough about the problem to speak out and do something to fix it. Yet they stay silent.

The root of the problem

Is the league so motivated by money that pitchers going down in vast numbers is not a concern?
Perhaps. And it is a rational conclusion.

After all, the owners get their money. The players get their money.
Players might think of the injury as an inconvenience, followed by “I’ll get through it.”
As physically unhealthy as that is, the reality stands that players who have big contracts get paid regardless of health problems.

So when I see a routinely dominant pitcher start to be inconsistent, my first thought is injury.

Maybe it’s noble that they play through their injuries. After all, no one wants to let the team down.
But maybe it’s also stupid that we let them do it.

If I can tell that a pitcher is injured a month or two before he goes on the DL simply by watching him throw, how much more should the trainers be able to see?
Perhaps they do know, but the solution they’re allowed to give is not rest. Or at least, the prescription isn’t followed. I surely hope this isn’t the case, but it’s hard to believe no one noticed something was wrong with Roy Halladay at the beginning of the 2012 season. I remember the press did ask many questions about reduced velocity.

If we truly care for the players holistically, we should be worried about their health, not their numbers.
Their numbers are always better when they’re healthy anyway, so there’s even more reason to have the appropriate amount of concern.

But let’s say your ace is playing injured. His ERA has inflated by a whole run, but that makes it 3.89 instead of 2.89. Do you let him keep playing, or give him some rest?

While it depends on the scenario, a problem here is that even while injured, your starter’s WAR may be high enough to make it worth it to continue starting him. So he keeps playing injured, usually making matters worse.
As a physical therapist told me when she saw me limping around, “When you compensate in one area, you usually injure something else.” Even if the solution is rest, the problem needs to be addressed in some way.

So it is with some pitch deliveries, too. It should have been obvious that Stephen Strasburg’s mechanics were going to catch up with him. His delivery as he entered the league screamed elbow/shoulder problems. It may have been pointed out along the way, but obviously it was never adjusted enough to prevent injury in 2010.

Tim Lincecum, who pitched his second no-hitter against the Padres yesterday, has adapted his repertoire since entering the league. His delivery doesn’t lead him to whip his arm around and across the body as much as it did when he first started with the Giants. I’ll touch on the difference in his “stuff” later.

Koufax could have lasted longer if not for his mechanics-driven, career-ending injury. Let’s not make that the norm.

Power vs. control

There’s another aspect of pitching injuries I’d like to touch on — the emphasis on power and high velocity.

Here’s the reality: Fans are wowed by triple digits on the radar gun and a nasty slider. And the more we value power, the more we allow pitchers to become injured.

The stress of these pitches on the hurler’s arm is many times too much, and it breaks down. So we react with multiple Tommy John surgeries, continuing the problem for those who follow.

The real solution can only come in preaching control over power. Precise pitchers generally last longer than hurlers. That can’t be a coincidence.

Jamie Moyer won more games after becoming a softer thrower than before the retooling. Closer Trevor Hoffman reinvented himself after the ’94 season and saved 576 games after that point. You could claim Hoffman is the outlier, but perhaps what can be learned from his career is that the closer role doesn’t need to be limited to someone with an overpowering fastball and a plus secondary pitch.

Lincecum has also adapted to keep himself in the majors. To what extent he will succeed is yet to be determined, but he could no longer rely on power pitching. Power pitchers generally do have to adjust as their careers continue, but might they be at less risk of injury if they were to start their careers with more emphasis on control? Perhaps so, but it may be quite some time before that consensus is reached.

Reactions to other injuries

The league does seem to be slowly dealing with some injury issues. Reliever Alex Torres recently became the first to wear a newly-approved cap that protects pitchers from line drives to the front and sides of the head. After Alex Cobb was famously struck by a line drive last June — one that has kept him out of baseball since — the reaction has produced a protective cap that will be better refined in the coming months.

Rule 7.13 has attempted to cut down on collisions at the plate to protect catchers especially, as well as runners. The new “experimental” rule was implemented three years after a Scott Cousins-Buster Posey collision broke Posey’s leg and ended his season.

The difference between the issues confronted by these measures and the injuries of pitchers is that these were brought to the forefront with very dramatic, visual events. These scares hurried along the process of finding a solution. While a pitcher’s arm injury may have a dramatic moment, it is for the most part something that did not appear in a particular instant. These injuries are usually gradual and, sadly, are all too common. It becomes just another issue writers and broadcasters circle back to from time to time.

Modern day pitching needs a closer examination. Perhaps it’s not pitch counts that will keep pitchers from injury, but adapting style to reduce stress on the arm.

The urgency should be there to fix the problem. Each arm reconstruction tells me it isn’t.

Dan Johnson is editor-in-chief of Three for Ten Sports and former managing editor of The Collegian at Grove City College.

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