Injuries are part of the game. Every team has to find a way through a tough break over the course of the 162 game season, but, have we ever seen an entire league be devastated like the MLB has from Tommy John Surgery this year?
Major League Baseball has seen 20 TJ surgeries already, as the second half is just under way. Since 2000, there have only been two seasons in which there were 20 or more TJ surgeries (20 in ’07 and 36 in ’12). The spike in 2012 was believed to be an oddity for one year, but with 20 in a little over half the year, the issue is more pressing than ever.
What’s even worse, is that it’s happening to some of the brightest young arms the game has to offer. Matt Harvey, Jose Fernandez, Patrick Corbin, and Matt Moore top the list of many other impressive talents that have succumbed to the season ending injury. It’s disappointing for GM’s, front office personnel, and the fans, more than anyone else. However, the game wasn’t always this way.
There is no “cure” to prevent this injury, but we can definitely come to our own conclusions. Many years ago, it was common for pitchers to throw 250-300 innings (sometimes even more) and have several complete games per season. Now, it is seen as a success if a pitcher makes it to 200. Here are some reasons why elbows are in need of serious maintenance.
1. It’s the baseball or bust mentality. From a young age, kids may enjoy playing more than one sport. However, once it’s determined that America’s Pastime is the way to go, all other sports become irrelevant. It’s baseball all four seasons instead of maybe just the summer time. Parents, who see a chance for a college scholarship, and coaches who see big league potential, make baseball the only game to know for some young athletes. What that does is place wear and tear on young elbows much quicker than if they were to play baseball less. Sure, when you’re a high school kid pitching however long coach says to, it doesn’t seem like much of an issue. However, the mileage the elbow picks up at a young age becomes an issue once some of these young hurlers reach the professional stage. If a kid has the talent to make it to the bigs, let him get there at his own pace. Let him play other sports when it’s the offseason and the elbow will thank you later.
2. The Tommy John success rate. So many pitchers have had TJ surgery and have came back without many issues. Sure, some have the surgery again, while others never recover from the initial operation, but because so many players have come back, the risk seems worth it. This is especially true for players at a young age. Stephen Strasburg had the surgery, and is still a top of the rotation starter for Washington. He is just one of the many examples of players that have made a successful return. Some players also come back from the surgery throwing harder. While the injury takes a great deal of time to recover, pushing it to the maximum effort seems okay, because you can be just as good after a visit to Dr. James Andrews.
3. Obsession with the “K.” Strikeouts are at an all time high. Players, coaches, and front office personnel alike, have become almost obsessed with punch outs. It’s also not much of a surprise pitchers are missing bats like never before. Players are throwing harder, getting more movement, and altering their deliveries just to get strikeouts. The art of pitching to contact seems lost. With detailed scouting reports, you can discover where a player likes the ball, at a certain time of the day, on a given day of the week, etc (catch my drift?). Consider this: Matt Harvey would throw his slider near 90 mph last season. A decade ago, most pitchers would throw their heater at the same velocity. Low and behold, Harvey will not pitch this season. Irony?–That’s up for debate, but you can certainly see the reason to worry. The Mets also decided to place lefty Jon Niese on the disabled list, because his velocity was down. Considering Niese has a sub three ERA, this seems a bit unnecessary. Sure, it’s great if you have a staff full of fireballers, but if they are over throwing just to get a better reading on the radar gun, their health is going to deteriorate. Coaching and scouting staffs need to realize it’s OK to pitch at 91 instead of 95. Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine made Hall of Fame careers living at that velocity. Jaime Moyer pitched into his late 40s barely touching 80 for goodness sake. If hurlers can control multiple pitches, get good movement, and keep the opposition off balance, then throwing high heat becomes irrelevant. There’s an old baseball phrase about throwing hard that went something like this… “95 will get you a shot.”
If you can throw hard great, some players just have the right physique. However, movement and deception will win just as many ball games. The obsession with the strikeout needs to end. If a pitcher can play to his strengths and master his craft, velocity won’t matter.