Cut4 Library: Jeff Passan tells us what surprised him the most while he was writing 'The Arm'
If you like a good baseball-themed mystery, Jeff Passan's "The Arm," is the book for you. Passan, an MLB columnist for Yahoo Sports, spent three and half years learning about baseball's greatest enigma: the pitcher's arm, and how to keep it healthy. Large portions of the book, which hit shelves this week, delve into the rising tide of Tommy John surgeries and the new strategies MLB teams are using to keep hurlers effective and on the mound.
Passan very kindly stopped by the MLB.com offices to chat with me about "The Arm." The following interview has been edited for length.
How did you decide that this was the topic you wanted to write about?
For a sport that is so rooted in efficiency and so proud of its intellect, to have a thing as important as the pitching arm that it totally doesn't understand -- I felt like was a great conflict there to start. The story was originally going to be framed around Todd Coffey and Daniel Hudson, or any pitcher who let me follow him through his Tommy John surgery and recovery, but it went in so many different directions that I wasn't expecting, and I think it became a much richer story for that.
What was the most surprising thing that came up in your research?
I don't think I was intending on focusing on kids as much. I have a son who's eight years old now and I did want to understand this for him. But the fact that a recent study over a five year period in which Tommy John surgeries were performed showed that 56.8 percent of them were on teenagers -- that was an 'oh my god moment,' and I don't think people recognize just how this has pervaded youth baseball. And once it pervades youth baseball, inevitably, it's going to ride up into Major League Baseball as well.
When it comes to your son -- is there anything you're changing about the way you're letting him play?
I like to think I'm taking the proper proactive steps, you know, limiting the pitches because they're eight and nine years old. I know Pitch Smart says if you're eight years old you can go up to 50 pitches, and I'm sure that would be fine, but when it comes to eight and nine year olds, why? What is the upside of putting a kid out there for longer than he or she has to be? There is none. Because winning as an 8 or 9-year-old does not matter. At all!
And that's the problem. I mean, I'm going have to convince some of the parents on the team of this too. Because everybody wants to win but for that to be the M.O. of Little League is so misguided. So much of this book is targeted at parents and coaches who either don't know any better or who do know better but have the wrong incentives in mind. If I can get it to the point where one parent on every team out there has read this book, and is not afraid to speak up, I think kids are going to be in a lot better shape the next generation.
You talked to a lot of experts while writing this book. Is there anyone you feel really has a bead on what's going on? Anyone whose advice you might take in your own pitching coaching of your son?
There are a couple of different approaches. I think Glenn Fleisig [the research director of the American Sports Medicine Institute] is on the more conservative side but has done as much research as anyone on this. If he says something I might not straight up listen to it, but I want to know more about it and the methodology behind it.
And Kyle Boddy [of Driveline Baseball] is on sort of the pushing-the-envelope side. He studies like Glenn. He reads everything. He's done everything. I think he just applies a really big brain and the willingness to think of things that I'm not smart enough to think of, and tries to figure out if it's right or wrong. He's OK being wrong. But at the same time, Drew Rasmussen, who I wrote about in the book, the kid from Oregon State, blew his UCL last week. And he was one of Kyle's guys! And so, it's almost like when you throw really hard, which is what Kyle is trying to build in pitchers, you're more susceptible to injury.
So, what does that say that you're trying to teach somebody to do something that makes them likelier to get hurt? Of course that is not something unique to him -- it's everywhere in baseball. And that's the inherent conflict that we've got here. Velocity works, and velocity gets you hurt. So does Major League Baseball as a sport try to deemphasize something that has been so effective? Or does it just take this as collateral damage for something that might win you a championship? It's a very difficult moral and ethical quandary that baseball is in at this point, because if velocity is here, making it go away is not going to be an easy thing.
Are you still in touch with Daniel Hudson and Todd Coffey?
I am! I was texting with Huddy yesterday. And the Coffey text is actually even better. Just Todd Coffey sitting on his couch in baseball pants. I'm very lucky, because they did not know me, and they opened up their lives to me. They were very honest and candid and insightful and vulnerable and all the things that you need to really truly understand what drives a human being. They're the heart of this book. Without them, it would have been a good book, but I think with them in there, that's really what's going to make this a timeless thing. I'm hopeful that it is that, because their stories are fantastic and I think they deserve a wide audience seeing what they were capable of doing at the nadir of lives.
The first chapter, when you get an up-close-and-personal view of [Coffey's] Tommy John surgery itself, is so action-packed. It kind of felt like an episode of House.
Honestly, I was afraid I was going scare people off, because the details are --
It's pretty graphic!
It's pretty gross! It was awesome.
Were you in the room?
Yeah, I was in the room.
What did you have to do for them to let you hang out in there?
I first needed Todd's permission. And then I called up Dr. [Neal] ElAttrache [a surgeon at the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic], who I had spoken with a couple times in the past for stories. And between him and Stan Conte [the then-Dodgers medical chief], they both said yes. That was a requirement for me to follow guys. [I told them], "I need to be in for your surgery. I need to be there."
Especially since the surgery is so common now, I think most people don't think it's that big of a deal, but this passage is really gripping.
I was the luckiest person in the world on this book. I truly believe that, because every dramatic element possible that could have happened, did. I saw a crazy surgery. But the saddest moment, and I didn't put this in the book, was when Hudson called me after he found out, and told me he tore [his UCL] again. But what ended up happening, I mean, it just -- I think it made him a better person, with the development and the evolution that he had.
It's really interesting contrasting his optimism after his first surgery and what happens when he has to consider what will happen if he can't come back after the second.
That's the element that I think people need to understand here -- that these guys are baseball players. They're not people. And baseball players who have baseball taken away from them are empty. So if you have this emptiness on top of monotony, on top of pain, physical and mental, on top of this grueling rehabilitation -- it takes a desperate toll on you. This is not easy, coming back from it, in any possible way. I say this in the book, but we look at surgery as the day you get cut and the day you come back, but it's all those days in between that make a person who he is.
What will the afterword in the 10-year anniversary of this book be?
I hope it's that Tommy John surgeries in children are down. Because if it that actually were to happen, if there were to be a tipping point, and it went in the other direction, I would be as fulfilled as anything.
"The Arm" is published by Harper and you can find it at your local bookstore.
Gemma Kaneko has been a writer for Cut4 since the end of her term as Witch President in 2014. She is the proudest Tigers fan in New York City.