Shake Hands With the D.L.

In May of this year, I read that 104 pitchers have been on the major-league D.L. (disabled list) since the beginning of 2012, that number likely rose by 50 or 60 more by season’s end. If memory serves, at one point in the 2012 season there were something like 35 pitchers out of action and scheduled for Tommy John surgery, many of them relief closers. That procedure deals with the elbow only and doesn’t take into account frequent injuries to the shoulder (often rotator cuff), wrist, forearm, back or legs.

Of course Blue Jays’ fans are well acquainted with this, in 2012 the team lost three of its five starting pitchers to injury in one week, two of them for the whole season (Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison) and the other for a good chunk of it (Brandon Morrow.) This doesn’t include relievers Sergio Santos (out again after missing most of last season) and Luis Perez (on the D.L. long-term) or Dustin McGowan, who’s been out so regularly he’s considering changing his name to D.L. McGowan. Or Ricky Romero, who didn’t injure his arm last year but rather his pitching psyche, maybe permanently by the looks of things this year.

Nobody could remember seeing anything like what happened with the three Jays starters in 2012; it was quite bizarre and marked the beginning of their season’s slide into oblivion, this past season wasn’t much better in this regard. Pitchers getting hurt is nothing new of course, they’ve always been prone to various arm injuries mainly because the human body – and the arm in particular – was not designed to withstand the unnatural strain of throwing a baseball as hard as possible 100 times every five days or so. The recent situation is different though, it’s of epidemic proportions and has a lot of experts searching for answers as to why pitchers are getting seriously hurt so often. And how to fix this, not quite the same thing but related.

It’s really confounding, because at least on the face of it, there have been all manner of advances in sports science, kinesiology and other forms of knowledge that should add up to fewer injured pitchers, not more. Pitchers now benefit from greater awareness about diet and nutrition, better training techniques and equipment, scientific approaches to exercises improving fitness, endurance, flexibility and so on. Moreover, organizations have seemingly bent over backwards to avoid overworking pitchers in their systems – especially young ones – with an eye toward avoiding arm strain or injury. Pitch counts are closely watched, there are strict limits on pitches per game in the minors and even at the major league level, not to mention ceilings put on innings per season for young pitchers, such as Stephen Strasburg the last two seasons.

Certainly pitchers are not throwing more pitches than in the past, the rash of injures must have something to do with how or what they’re throwing, not how much. And yet, still more and more of them are going down; indeed some think all this modern science and uber-concern is the problem, that pitchers are being coddled to death, over-protected. There may be something to this, but mostly it sounds like old-fartism to me. Some have posited that with so many teams now, pitching has become thin and young arms are being rushed to the majors without enough seasoning, but older pitchers are getting hurt too. Others have said that pitchers aren’t throwing enough in their teenage years, are being under-prepared with disastrous results coming later. Generally, there are a lot of baseball people out there shaking their heads, wringing their hands and shouting, “Just what the hell is going on here?!?” I have a general theory of my own which I’ll come to later.

I got to wondering what the major-league prognosis is for young pitchers like Drabek and Hutchison, what the odds of their full recovery are and how well they could be expected to pitch in the future and how soon, if at all. Obviously, Tommy John surgery has been a game-changer and has improved the outlook at least for elbow problems. When Dr. Frank Jobe first performed the surgery in 1974, he gave John a 1 in 100 chance of recovering enough to pitch again, these odds have now improved to between 85 and 92 percent. It’s still vague in terms of what ‘full recovery’ means though – does it mean pitching again, period? Or pitching as well as before the surgery? Or better? Really, the surgery just physically repairs the torn ligament. What a pitcher does with this is entirely up to him, a matter of his ability, age, attitude, desire and know-how.

I did some reading on the subject of pitchers who have had success after dealing with serious arm trouble. Bill James wrote an interesting comment on this in his 2001 Historical Abstract.  In the entry on pitcher Dazzy Vance, James mentions that among the really important pitchers in baseball history, there were only nine who went on to have their best seasons after a bad arm or shoulder injury. Mind you, he says that to get to nine, he had to count borderline cases, but he’s also drawing from a sample size only from the ranks of elite pitchers, guys who had long careers and won a lot of games. The nine he found are :

Jim Palmer. Palmer had a serious shoulder problem early in his career, 1967-68, bad enough it was thought to be maybe career-ending. He had surgery and obviously bounced back big, winning 16 games in 1969, and 20 or more 8 times between 1970-78.

Luis Tiant. Tiant had arm trouble from 1969-71, but recovered and won 20 games three times in the ’70s, at a fairly late (but undetermined) age.

Dennis Eckersley. Eck was a chronically sore-armed starter by the early-’80s, before he moved to relief pitching, where he had great success.

Tommy John. Daahhh, the guy the surgery was named after. John was a left-handed control/finesse pitcher whose career was saved by the (then) experimental operation. Went on to have a good, long career afterwards.

Sandy Koufax. Had control issues and arm soreness early in his career and, after fixing the control problems, reached maybe the highest peak of pitching performance in history, 1962-66. Even during his best years though, he battled arm injury and soreness, which became so severe he decided to retire at 31 rather than risk permanent disability.

Ted Lyons. He had chronic arm pain in mid-career during the early 1930s, but recovered to pitch well for another decade after adding a knuckleball to his arsenal. It also helped that the White Sox often started him just once a week (in regular Sunday double-headers) later in his career, when he became known as “The Sunday Pitcher.”

Babe Adams. He had two years of bad arm trouble after pitching a 21-inning game for Pittsburgh in 1914, ended up in the minors but bounced back with two 17-win seasons 1919-20 and pitched pretty well after that for another six years, retiring at 44.

Eppa Rixey. After six seasons, Rixey quit baseball in 1917 to fight in WWI. He tried to return too soon and battled arm troubles 1919-20, was considered washed up. He had his best seasons after this though, pitching until 1933.

Dazzy Vance. Vance had great stuff, but mostly bounced around the minors 1912-21 with a perpetually sore arm. In 1920 the pain worsened when he injured the arm, requiring emergency surgery. It worked and by 1922 he was in the big leagues with Brooklyn, at age 31. He had a great run as the dominant pitcher of the National League from 1922-28 and was still good after that, pitching till 1935, also retiring at 44.

I might be tempted to add three other pitchers, all of whose careers came after 2000 when James compiled the above list, each with a Blue Jays connection: Chris Carpenter, Roy Halladay and R.A. Dickey.

Carpenter has had at least two stints of injury/arm trouble and is in the midst of another which may well end his career at 38. After establishing himself as a promising young pitcher with Toronto, he had shoulder injuries/surgery, missing all of the 2003 and 2004 seasons with St. Louis. He bounced back, winning 15, 21 and 15 games (and a Cy Young award) the next three years. Next was an elbow injury and he eventually had Tommy John surgery. He recovered from this to pitch well again, but had issues with a strained side and more shoulder problems. The pattern here is that he’s really effective when healthy, but very injury-prone, despite his big size and good conditioning. Carpenter has had great post-season success and won 144 games; this would be more like 200 without all the time on the D.L. He’s one of the few pitchers I can think of to have recovered so well from at least two serious arm injuries/operations.

Roy Halladay may or may not belong on this list, it’s borderline. Early in his career in 2001, the Jays sent him to Class A ball to remake his delivery and arm angle, to make the ball sink more, be more deceptive. There was concern that Roy was overthrowing, relying too much on strength alone and would blow out his arm. It worked; in 2002, Roy had a breakout 19-7 season, followed by a 21-win, Cy Young Award season the next year. In 2004 though, he suffered from what he called a ‘tired arm’ all season, limiting him to just 133 innings and an 8-8 record with many more walks given up than before. Halladay put it down to too much conditioning work in the off-season, adjusted this and went on to become arguably the best pitcher in baseball 2005-11. It’s not exactly clear how serious his 2004 injury was; it didn’t require surgery, but it was certainly a concern. 

The case of R.A. Dickey is of course familiar to almost all by now. Dickey’s career was basically over due to ineffectiveness and the discovery that he actually was missing the key elbow ligament needed, the ulnar collateral (UCL.) He shouldn’t have been pitching at all, not so much a case of injury as one of disqualification, an injury waiting to happen. He was unwilling to accept this and set about learning to throw the knuckleball, a process taking years. He bounced around the minor leagues and in various stints with Milwaukee, Minnesota and Seattle 2006-9 with mixed results, finally finding real success with the Mets during 2010. He proved this was no fluke by winning 20 games and the Cy Young Award in 2012, a truly unique and amazing story.

Even if you accept the three pitchers added to this list and that Tommy John surgery improves the outlook in some cases, it’s still not a rosy picture. The surgery per se seems to work in replacing the damaged ligament, but is far from a sure thing because of the recovery time of at least one to one-and-a-half years involved. This means that not only is a pitcher older when he returns, but also that he hasn’t pitched in a long time, not ideal. The nine on James’ list were drawn from the pitchers he considers the top 100 of all time, making the odds of successful recovery from arm problems about 10 to 1 against. His main conclusion is don’t bet on a sore-armed pitcher to bounce back, once a pitcher has had arm trouble he’s not likely to return to top form. Most really good starting pitchers come from the slender ranks of those who have managed to avoid serious arm injury.

I’ll take a closer look at the last three on James’ list – Babe Adams, Eppa Rixey and Dazzy Vance – in a companion piece to this one, entitled Three Pitchers Who Bucked the Odds”. Partly because they came earlier and less is known about them now, but mainly because each of them had very interesting lives and careers. For now, here’s a quote from Babe Adams about how and why he was able to pitch well for so long : 

“I cannot explain my lasting longer than many pitchers on any other theory than this : I always take things easy, and I never worry. I discovered many years ago that when I exerted myself I was not so effective, for the mere effort of trying to be uncommonly good distracted my mind from the simple task of pitching.” – Babe Adams, answering a reporter’s question after the Babe Adams Day game on June 30, 1923 at Forbes Field.

The above quote rocked me when I first saw it and I find it more illuminating the more I read it. Adams knew an awful lot about pitching, adapted to both injuries and (somewhat) to the lively ball era of post-1920. What he seems to be saying is : pitching is simple, don’t overthrow or worry about blowing people away, throw the ball in there and make the batter hit it and let the eight fielders behind you help out, conserve yourself. Christy Mathewson wrote something along the same lines in his book, Pitching In A Pinch, published in 1912. He said it was folly for a pitcher to show all his pitches early in a game and was crucial to save his best, fastest stuff for “the pinch”, i.e. those tough situations when a game hangs in the balance.

This “anti-effort” thinking is almost Zen-like, but it was easy enough for Adams and Mathewson to take this approach for two reasons. One, during their careers there were many fewer home runs being hit and two, they were always expected to pitch the whole game. So taking it easy was not just possible, it was advisable, even necessary. Contrast this with the philosophy of today, that a starter is expected to go as hard as he can for (hopefully) six or seven innings before turning things over to a seven-man bullpen.

So, I have a general theory on why pitchers are getting injured so often these days, but I wouldn’t stake my life on it. I’m not a pitching expert or a professional, nor have I done any exhaustive studies on the subject, I just watch a lot of baseball and observe. It isn’t any one thing but rather a number of factors acting in concert. My thesis is this : Pitchers today are straining and injuring their arms by trying to throw too hard too much of the time, in facing a lot of stressful innings brought on by the most multi-faceted offense baseball has ever seen. And they’re doing this without deriving much support or power from their legs, using shorter deliveries, putting more strain solely on their arms. Let’s look at these factors separately:

Multi-faceted Offense. Since the mid-1990s, pitchers have been under siege, facing an offense that consists of three main parts : 1) – A historically high number of home runs being hit. 2) – Still significant numbers of stolen bases, with both of these being amplified by : 3) – A greater awareness of the value of on-base percentage, many more baserunners via walks. This three-headed monster has never before existed in the history of baseball, not to this extent. The awareness of on-base percentage and the value of actively drawing walks is a recent development brought on by the sabermetrics that began in the 1980s. Before this, offense in baseball was either dominated by the home run (as in 1920-1960 or 1995 to the present) or speed, as in the stolen base, from 1900-1920, or 1960-85. Rarely did they co-exist for long until now. Stealing bases and other “small-ball” strategies were prevalent in eras when pitchers dominated and runs were hard to come by. They tended to disappear in home-run eras for obvious reasons – the risk of losing a baserunner by way of a sacrifice or a caught-stealing was no longer worthwhile when a home run could be hit at any time. 

Historic highs in home run hitting started in the mid-’90s, fuelled by steroids, smaller, more hitter-friendly parks, thinner-handled bats and a number of other factors. This continued and reached a peak early in the new century. The widespread use of PEDs has been (mostly) curbed and the power numbers have come down, but there are still a lot of home runs being hit in baseball. This time around though, the stolen base as a weapon remained intact amid all the bombs, it declined from the crazy level of the ’80s, but is still prevalent, still something pitchers have to worry about. 

So now pitchers are facing the threat of both the home run and the stolen base, while the increased emphasis by hitters on drawing walks have acted as a supercharger to this. More batters grinding out at-bats and having better strike-zone judgement means pitchers throwing more pitches and getting worn down. More baserunners makes giving up a home run more costly, makes a stolen base more likely and forces pitchers to throw from the stretch rather than with a full wind-up. This has not been healthy for pitchers and the “on-base revolution” of the last 15 years has probably been the most significant and damaging factor.

Throwing Too Hard Too Often. Anyone in baseball will tell you that it’s not how many pitches a pitcher throws, but the number of high-stress pitches he must throw that can be damaging. With the increase in baserunners brought on by greater selectivity at the plate by hitters and the frequent threat of home runs being hit or bases being stolen, these high-stress situations have gone way up. Many pitchers have reacted to this by throwing too hard too often, relying on their fastest stuff. I don’t mean that pitchers now are faster than in the past in a radar-gun sense, just that more of them are throwing as hard as they can as long as they can. The result of this is more strikeouts – not by individuals so much as pitching staffs collectively – and more walks. The higher number of walks is partly from hitters working the count, but is mostly a result of pitchers throwing too hard and not locating the ball well.

The rarity of complete games these days has people thinking that starting pitchers are throwing far fewer pitches than in the past, but this isn’t really true, it’s an illusion. Starters are still throwing between 100 and 120 pitches per game fairly often, they’re just not getting through as many innings, not getting as many outs with their pitches.

Not Using Their Legs. The factors above have been exacerbated by today’s pitchers using their legs less. It’s an age-old axiom that pitchers derive their power and arm strength from their legs, which helps take the strain off the arm and is why pitchers do a lot of running. But pitchers no longer use their legs as much for one simple reason : the running game. Once the stolen base came back in the early-60s and running became even more prevalent in the next two decades with artificial turf, pitchers were taught to eliminate, or at least cut down on, the high leg-kick and longer wind-up motions of the past – to shorten their delivery to home plate to counteract the running game. If you don’t believe this has happened, take a look sometime at film of baseball from the ’40s, 50s, or early-’60s. One of the first things you’ll notice is the long wind-ups and high leg kicks of all the pitchers, right across the board. Bob Feller, Warren Spahn, Bob Lemon, Don Newcombe, Robin Roberts, Jim Maloney, Allie Reynolds, Early Wynn, Jim Bunning, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal and many more – they were all like catapults out on the mound, looking completely different from today’s pitchers for one reason – they didn’t have to worry so much about the running game. And all of those guys threw huge numbers of innings too, when a starting staff consisted of four pitchers, rather than five. Making things worse today is the universal practice of pitchers throwing from the stretch as soon as there’s a runner on base, even if he’s not a base-stealing threat – using the legs even less than normal. The result is too much strain on the arm itself and more injuries.

I also think the game’s economy is a factor. With the huge draft bonuses and salaries to be made these days, pitchers both young and old are more inclined to take on the risk of arm injury in an attempt to prove themselves, reaching down for that something extra in trying to throw harder than they need to, or can. There’s still a “radar-gun mentality” in pro baseball and the scouting fraternity, wherein the speed of a pitcher’s fastball is too often the deciding factor in his evaluation. How many times have you heard “the kid’s got a hell of an arm”, or “this teenage kid throws smoke, the scouts are drooling” about some phenom who ends up washing out with arm troubles? Right, more times than you can count.

Also, I think the slow pace of many pitchers today – far too much time between pitches – hurts them. I can’t prove or quantify this, but it can’t just be a coincidence that in the past, pitchers threw more innings and pitches with fewer injuries, while generally working quicker. This is another thing you notice from watching old footage – the games move along – the pitcher throws a pitch, gets the ball back and fairly soon, throws another, then another. This creates some pace and rhythm for a pitcher and is a lot more fun to watch than some of today’s statue-fests.

So, pitchers today have more to contend with than ever before and are trying to deal with this by throwing harder than ever, while not using their legs and facing both the pressure and temptation of more and more money. No wonder they’re getting injured so often. As to what is to be done to fix this, well, that’s no easy question. Even though conditions are different now, I still think the Babe Adams quote contains some wisdom. Pitchers should stop trying so hard and simplify things, throw strikes, stop giving the hitters so much respect by nibbling and walking so many of them. Make the batter hit the ball, chances are still good somebody will field it and put the guy out.

If I were in charge of the pitching in an organization, I would emphasize control and efficiency over raw speed and strikeouts, look for pitchers who don’t walk many and can get through innings on 10 to 15 pitches at most, instead of the 20 or 25 that have become customary. Sure, the fastball’s important, but it doesn’t have to be overpowering to be effective, it has to be located properly and mixed with some other out pitches, such as a change-up and some kind of breaking ball. Home runs and stolen bases will happen with the offensive talent in today’s game, the key is to limit the damage of these by staying ahead of hitters and not giving them free passes – it’s the walks that’ll kill you.

I think the growing awareness of on-base-percentage – or to put it another way, the value of actively drawing walks – has been the biggest change in the game brought by sabermetrics. At this point, I still think hitters are ahead of the learning curve on this. Despite the high strikeout totals, there are a lot of hitters and teams drawing significant numbers of walks and this is draining pitchers, both collectively and individually. It’s easier said than done, but until pitchers learn to adjust to this by throwing more strikes with less power and more command, thus using fewer pitches per out, I think the injury situation will continue. It’s a serious problem and baseball will eventually have to address it.

© 2013, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

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