Thursday, April 24, 2008

OK, I can't imagine anyone's checking in anymore ...

... but, something actually came up that got me interested enough to write.

Jason over at It IS About the Money, Stupid, recently posted a sort-of rhetorical question: Why is it that pitchers today — particularly young ones — are getting Tommy John Surgery in such high numbers? Jason posits, as many have, that the efforts to help pitchers — restricted pitch counts, five-man rotations, etc. — might actually be the cause. I've heard this said often, and even written about it a little before in this space.

The problem with that idea — and I'm not criticizing Jason, simply offering a counter-point — is that it isn't taking into account one vital, fundamental difference between the "olden-days" when pitchers routinely threw complete games, and today:

It is way, way, way, way, way, way, way, WAY harder to pitch in today's game.

The last time I wrote about this, I challenged the self-reinforcing memory device that allows people to think that pitchers back in the day never got hurt. I wish I had the time to do a breakdown on the length of pitchers' careers in previous eras, but I've got my nose buried in the world of soccer statistics these days and don't really feel like making my brain and/or processor melt with even more Excel work. But I would be willing to bet cold, hard currency that pitchers, on the whole, experience longer careers now than they used to. It's sort of a sucker's bet, because there are so many developments in the game, particularly in the related fields of training and medical treatment, that it is virtually impossible that I'm on the wrong side of this. And the reason that such a counter-intuitive belief has persisted within many circles is because we tend to only remember those who did have long careers, and quickly forget the Jeff D'Amicos of the world who make an impact one season, and are gone a couple later.

However, for the sake of my argument, I can allow for the idea that injuries are more common today for pitchers. To simply hone in on the so-called "improvements" teams have made in pitcher handling as the possible cause of all this TJ surgery distress is missing the forest for the trees; the reason teams have hard pitch restrictions and five-man rotations is because they were adjusting to both the realities of pitcher attrition rates and the fact that, since the lowering of the mound, pitchers must pitch much better if they're to pitch effectively (say that sentence five times fast).

Here's what's changed since Bob Gibson's 1.12 ERA season in 1968, often cited as the single-greatest pitching season in the history of the sport:

• Mounds have been lowered four inches
• Balls have gone from being hand-wound to machine-wound, resulting in a tighter ball
• Balls are often swapped out after a few impacts with a bat, resulting in fewer "softened" balls
• Ballparks have become exponentially smaller, most notably w/r/t power alleys and foul territories
• Hitters have gotten bigger
• Hitters have gotten smarter, thanks in large part to video analysis
• Hitters are encouraged to work counts much more often
• The strike zone has gotten smaller

I'm probably leaving some things off the list, but that will do. Essentially, just about everything that's happened in the last 40 years has been almost virulently anti-pitcher. So, it's tougher to get an out than it's ever been in the history of baseball, if we're talking in broad strokes.

The next logical step is to assume that pitchers must exert more effort, on average, with each pitch than they would have 40 years ago. It's the effort per pitch — not necessarily the raw number of pitchers — that determines pitcher fatigue. And it's when pitchers continue to pitch while fatigued that leads to injuries, as Dr. James Andrews has said a million and a half times. The only reason things like Pitcher Abuse Points exist is because it's much easier to try and figure out a general number for a ceiling that can be applied to the average pitcher than it is trying to figure out a number for each individual pitcher. I'll bet, though, that the individual teams' pitch counts are much more nuanced and specific; coaches should be able to tell, based upon an individuals level of effort per pitch and stamina level, what number works for each pitcher on the staff. If they don't, they should probably be fired (you hear that Charlie Manuel, he who is attempting to end Cole Hamels' career?).

There are a lot of ancillary issues that are leading to the rise in TJ surgery, which is an increased ability to diagnose specific problems as opposed to nebulous terms like "tired arms," specialization at early ages for athletes, the Vanderbilt coaching staff and the 10-year-old curve ball. It doesn't hurt that the surgery is more available and affordable than it's ever been, which allows it to be an option for younger players who probably would have been forced to just give up the game after tearing a UCL in years past. Shit, there's something to be said about the correlation between advanced surgical procedures and the demise of knuckleballers, as many of those who turned to the world of constant manicuring did so as a result of a fastball-killing arm injury.

But the bottom line is that the rise in TJ surgery isn't because pitchers don't train to throw 150 pitches per game or 300 innings a season any longer; they don't do those things anymore because, if they did, it would probably result in an even more TJ surgeries. As far as I can tell, arguments like this come down to figuring out where in the chain of causality one wishes to begin his or her inquest. Starting at the increase of TJ surgery is, I believe, about three or four links too far up the chain.

Thanks, Jason, for writing something that got me thinking.

1 comment:

Jason said...

Well, sorta. Here's the crux of my questioning.

here's how i boil it down: its not the pitch counts, its probably a lack of proper non-game situation pitching to build strength.

I'm a sucker for mechanics and training (even if I hated doing it myself).

I think coaches on the lowest levels, kids-stuff, find the one or two kids who can really throw and ride them. There seems to be a lack of practice where the kids really can stretch themselves out, from 60 feet, 90', 120'. Lots of long tossing to build strength. Non-game situation stuff. Stuff that isn't high stress.

I'm all for pitch counts on kids thru highschool. Even into the pros. But, and I am guessing here, teams go from game to game with little practice in between.

That's the time that arm strength is built. That enables kids, and younger adults, to avoid serious injury.

But what do I know...