Trying to make sense of a perplexing epidemic
Hall of Famer Niekro weighs in on rash of elbow injuries affecting MLB pitchers
It's crazy. It's bizarre. It's otherworldly. It's all of those adjectives combined with others you could use these days to describe the epidemic of pitchers undergoing season-ending elbow surgeries. Marlins ace Jose Fernandez just became the 18th Major Leaguer this year to tear the ulnar collateral ligament on his throwing arm, and nobody outside of those in the Twilight Zone has a clue about what is triggering any of this.
Pitchers don't know. Neither do managers or coaches. The same goes for trainers, doctors, myself and even Phil Niekro, who is an expert on pitching with longevity.
"I'll just say that even though nobody has the answer for what's happening to these pitchers, everybody has their opinions. It's just that I don't think those opinions mean a whole lot," said Niekro, 75, who was inducted into Cooperstown for his 318 victories, but also for another number: 5,404. That's how many innings he pitched during his 24 Major League seasons. He is fourth on the all-time list, and only Hall of Famers Cy Young, Pud Galvin and Walter Johnson threw more innings than Niekro in baseball history.
I know what you're thinking. Niekro was resilient courtesy of his legendary knuckleball, which traveled from the pitcher's mound to home plate about as quickly as a snail carrying a backpack filled with Louisville Sluggers.
"When the game was over -- eight or nine innings -- I was just as tired mentally as anybody throwing 95 mph," Niekro pointed out. "Maybe I didn't just hurt as much, but after that game, I was done."
Niekro wasn't done throwing, though. He kept throwing no matter what. That's why Niekro compared Major League pitching prior to his retirement after the 1987 season with that of today and added with a sigh, "We didn't know anything about the disabled list."
Which brings us to one of Niekro's secrets for durability, and this could help pitchers today: Ping pong.
"About a month before Spring Training, believe it or not, I would play ping pong about five times a week," Niekro said. "Pitching is all about hand-eye coordination and quick feet. So you had to use quick wrist with the paddle with the ball coming back at you real quick. Being on the mound, I knew there would be a lot of that stuff coming back at me. So ping pong helped me create side-to-side motion and those quick feet, quick hands, quick gloves -- a lot of stuff like that. I'm just saying, because I don't know how ping pong would work for some of these guys right now, but it worked for me."
In fact, many things worked to keep Niekro and his peers healthy. Nobody threw harder than Nolan Ryan. I mention Ryan, because velocity is mentioned as the primary suspect for the rise of injuries to pitchers, especially with flamethrowers such as Matt Harvey, Stephen Strasburg and Matt Moore among those in recent years needing elbow reconstruction.
Here's my point: Ryan is fifth all time in innings pitched. Not only that, Tom Seaver is 19th overall, and Seaver also threw pretty hard. They are joined in the top 50 in that category by noted fastball specialists Randy Johnson (38th), Bob Gibson (46th) and Bob Feller (49th).
Still, Niekro doesn't dismiss The Speed Theory.
"Warren Spahn, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry. I don't think they were throwing consistently in the 90s," Niekro said. "You probably can pick on two hands, if you go back 30 or 40 years, the guys who threw in the middle 90s. The most successful guys at throwing a lot of innings were control pitchers.
"Even with that, I can't ever remember Tom Seaver breaking down. Steve Carlton breaking down. Don Sutton breaking down. Bob Gibson breaking down. Mickey Lolich breaking down. Andy Messersmith breaking down. We just didn't break down, and we were throwing anywhere between 300 to 340 innings every year."
So what happened with pitchers between then and now?
Niekro thought, and then he thought some more. Then he cited the Leo Mazzone theory that guys don't throw as much as they used to between starts ("We threw batting practice," Niekro said). Then Niekro mentioned the evils of the radar gun. Everybody, ranging from reporters to fans to managers to the pitchers themselves, has spent the last decade or so checking the video board at ballparks for the scores of other games as well as the speed of that last pitch.
Not good, Niekro said.
"When I played, the only speed gun we had was that guy in L.A. [behind home plate] with the white hat," Niekro said. "Even then, nobody really paid attention to the whole thing. So what if a guy is throwing 87, 88, 90 mph? Nobody went out there to try to throw any harder than what they were seeing on those guns. You just went out and pitched. With all of this emphasis on speed, I think you've got a lot of throwers right now. It's not how hard you throw. Can you pitch? If you can get a guy out somehow by throwing the ball between your legs or behind your back, you can pitch for me."
Niekro was on a roll.
"Listen, when I played, if you went into the clubhouse and if you wanted to pick some weights up, you had a couple of two-pound dumb bells, and five pounds, maybe," he said. "We did a lot of work on the field with running and exercising and stuff like that, but right now, teams have $300,000 to $400,000 worth of Nautilus equipment. You got them in Spring Training, and every Minor League camp has them. I guess folks feel that if you're not rock solid with no body fat, you can't play this game.
"That's so much garbage. I just think guys are wound up so tight right now that a little thing snaps and the whole darn elbow goes."
Makes sense to me.