Pitchers’ careers balance on a thin ligament

Baseball teams and their medical people have reduced workloads, refined mechanics and changed diets to get the most out of their pitchers. To no avail

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When I was a kid, my baseball hero was Mickey Lolich, the MVP of the 1968 World Series for the Detroit Tigers. Lolich was something less than a fitness fanatic – he loved donuts – who learned to throw left-handed when he broke his right shoulder as a child.

When his teammate Denny McLain faltered due to gambling and other issues, Lolich picked up the Tigers, won three games against St. Louis in a famous Wold Series, and had all the donuts he wanted. From 1969 to 1975 – and despite his round belly – Lolich pitched 280, 272, 376, 327, 308, 308 and 240 innings in consecutive seasons.

For perspective, David Price, the Major League Baseball leader in innings pitched in 2016, threw just 230 innings. The last pitcher to throw over 300 innings in a season was Phil Niekro in 1979 – and he threw a knuckleball.

So you’d expect that the reduced workload for MLB pitchers has resulted in healthier arms. And you’d be wrong. There are many pitchers who can’t hit the 300-innings mark for a career before breaking down, needing so-called Tommy John surgery or simply giving up.

In an age of advanced medical and mechanical research, throwing arms are fragile things.

The collateral damage is not from neglect. Teams and their medical people have reduced workloads, refined mechanics and changed diets so their pitchers might post something remotely close to Lolich-like numbers.  All to no avail. It seems you’re not MLB-certified unless you’ve had surgery to replace ligaments in your elbow or shoulder.

The quest to find a better way to throw above 90 miles per hour without tearing up your arm is the subject of Jeff Passan’s book, The Arm. It charts the development of pitching and related medical innovations through the years. It also follows the recovery of two MLB pitchers (Todd Coffey and Daniel Hudson) looking to come back from ligament-replacement surgery in their pitching elbows – Tommy John surgery.

It also describes the anguish and elbow pain in the 1960s that ended the career of Sandy Koufax – considered by some to be the greatest left-hander ever – in a time when no one had the slightest idea how to take a ligament from a leg or wrist and put it in your elbow to replace the one that tore.

When I mentioned Lolich’s durability to Passan on my podcast The Full Count With Bruce Dowbiggin, he was quick to point out the differences between 1970s pitching and today. “I believe if we asked Major League pitchers today to throw 300-plus innings a year, there would be some who could do what Lolich did. That being said, the baseball was thrown in a very different way back in the 1960s and ’70s. The velocity on fastballs was at least eight miles an hour less. There were guys who could hump it up in the 90s. But most guys lived in the low-to-mid-80s.

“Because of that disparity, it’s a lot easier to throw as an adult when you have lower velocity.” And more than just pure speed has changed, says Passan. Grips on the baseball, cutters, sinkers and situational strategies have also conspired to make pitching more taxing on arms.

MLB teams spend a combined $2 billion on pitchers – five times the combined salaries of all today’s National Football League quarterbacks – trying to find the next Chris Sale or Dallas Keuchel. They are dependent on a development system that now pushes prospects to tax their arms earlier in a quest for a million-dollar signing bonus.

As The Arm shows, this leads to 14-year-olds throwing in the 90s before their arms are mature enough to the handle the stress. According to Passan, the development system “tries to reach certain benchmarks that are going to help a kid stand out to (MLB) scouts or college coaches. It’s about winning in these insane seasons that these kids play. Kids are playing 60, 70, 80 games a summer at 10-or-12-years-old. That’s obscene, that’s irresponsible. And the parents are not properly educated. And neither, frankly, are the coaches.”

He cites studies in Japan of nine-to-12-year-old pitchers who already have significant ligament damage. And while everyone wants to end the madness, no one has yet suggested a better way to produce MLB arms that consistently throw in the mid-90s.

Yes, baseball’s a game. But the search for a safer way to treat the pitching arm is very personal.

“There’s a lot at stake here,” says Passan. “This is people’s lives. People’s livelihoods.”

Time and again, Passan’s drama returns to an innocuous part of human engineering upon which millions of dollars can flow.

“All of this is in the hands of one tiny ligament that resides in a place in the elbow where it’s not strong enough for most people.”

Bruce Dowbiggin is the host of podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on anticanetwork.com. His career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster. Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy.


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