Want to avoid injuries? Let pitchers pitch more
Increase in arm ailments may be due to increase in clubs' cautiousness
Pitchers need to throw more. That's the problem, and that's also the answer when it comes to this epidemic of starters and relievers completing a cycle these days. First, they have impressive outings. Then they encounter aches and pains out of nowhere. After that, they sprint to the disabled list before a trip to a surgeon's operating table.
Here's the latest: Matt Harvey.
Just like that, Harvey is gone from the Mets' rotation, courtesy of a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right pitching elbow. He is the National League's leader in strikeouts. He also has a splendid 2.27 ERA to complement a 9-5 record. Not only that, his throwing mechanics are as fundamentally sound as they come at 24 years old.
Which is why Mets general manager Sandy Alderson and others associated with the franchise and beyond say they are shocked by it all.
"Shocked" is the operative word around Harvey, because he is on the verge of becoming the latest in a slew of pitchers to require Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery. If so, he likely wouldn't pitch again until 2015. But he sought to spin things toward the positive this week by telling reporters that he was "optimistic" he could avoid surgery through a vigorous rehabilitation routine.
He also said, "When I first heard the news, I was pretty shocked."
I'm not shocked, and you shouldn't be either. From now until the unforeseeable future, the only time you should respond with raised eyebrows after reading a health report on a Major League pitcher is when it says that pitcher won't need surgery.
This is an epidemic, all right. Consider the Braves, owners of baseball's best record. They also are continuing their decades-long run as a prolific franchise for pitching. They are second in baseball in team ERA at 3.22 to the Pirates' 3.19, but get this: Within the last five years, the Braves have witnessed seven of their pitchers undergo Tommy John surgery, and that's just at the Major League level.
The scary thing for the Braves is, there hasn't been a pattern for pending disaster for their pitchers. For instance: They could blame Jonny Venters' unorthodox delivery for his arm issues, and they could attribute Tim Hudson's need for surgery four years ago to a veteran who had produced a lot of crucial pitches for the Braves and for the A's.
As for those other Braves pitchers with significant arm-related pain, well, they were like Harvey. Young. Vibrant.
It's got to be that throwing (or the lack thereof) thing, not only for the Braves, but for everybody, because pitchers used to throw forever. I'm talking about in the Major Leagues, in the Minor Leagues, in Little Leagues and in sandlot leagues. And let's get that ridiculous example out of the way in Walter Johnson. After he made his Major League debut in 1903, he pitched 200 innings or more 18 times in 21 years. He even went nine straight seasons throwing 300 innings or more. Two-hundred innings once was the standard for starting pitchers during a given season. Now, not so much.
Different times, you say -- you know, regarding that iron man era of Johnson, Cy Young and the rest? How about Tom Seaver, who spent his only year in the Minor Leagues in 1966 at 21 throwing 210 innings? That would cause today's pitching coaches to faint. Later, Seaver threw more than 200 innings per season in 16 of his 20 years in the Major Leagues. In fact, during his rookie year with the Mets in 1967, Seaver threw 251 innings. Conversely, Harvey threw a combined 245 innings during his two seasons in the Minor Leagues, and before he left for the disabled list this week, he pitched 178 1/3 innings this season.
Not the stuff of Seaver. Or of Bob Gibson (12 seasons of 200 or more innings, including two of more than 300). Or of Sandy Koufax (who finished three of his last four seasons throwing 300 innings or more).
Still not current enough for you? The Braves' Big Three of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz spent the overwhelming majority of their time during a given season hurling baseballs from a pitcher's mound, either in games or between starts. In addition to combining as a trio to throw more than 200 innings season after season, those future Hall of Famers threw significantly more than that, because they were part of the Braves' record run to 14 consecutive division titles.
Leo Mazzone was their legendary pitching coach, and he learned his philosophy of having members of his staff pitch, pitch and pitch some more from Johnny Sain, who practiced what he consistently preached as a Major League pitcher and as a pitching coach at many levels.
"I look back, and I'm trying to figure out the Tommy John surgeries we've had, and I only can come up with Kerry Ligtenberg, and then we had Smoltzie over a period of time [since he fluctuated between starting and relieving], which you can understand that one," Mazzone once told me during a time of reflection. "Paul Byrd may have had it, but he wasn't with us very long. I can't think of anybody else."
For good reason, because there wasn't anybody else.
So much for the tried-and-true approach of Mazzone/Sain for keeping pitchers whole more often than not. Instead, during the eight years since Mazzone left the Braves, baseball has become strikingly more protective of pitchers. Among other things, managers yank starters and relievers at the slightest sign of trouble, partly due to the emphasis on bullpen specialists, but mostly due to a heavy dependence on pitch counts. Once a pitcher reaches a certain number of pitches during a game or even a season, he's history, just like Stephen Strasburg last autumn.
I mean, how are these pitch counts working overall these days when it comes to keeping guys in the lineup?