Teams invest heavily into pitching. It is almost a more valuable commodity to baseball teams than water is to humans. They pay out the nose to get pitchers. They coddle them, pamper them, and hold their breath with every wince. But teams regiment innings and monitor pitch counts yet still pitchers go down frequently. Just in the past couple of months, we have heard about Patrick Corbin, Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, and Jarrod Parker needing to undergo Tommy John Surgery, just to name a few. And after Matt Moore suffered an ulnar collateral ligament injury, there is a real chance he could be next. If teams are going to continue to obsess about pitching, shouldn’t they find a better way to handle them?
There was a time that wasn’t so long ago when pitchers completed the bulk of the games they started. Twenty-seven times in the 1990s pitchers completed at least 10 games in a season. In the thirteen years after the 90s ended, that mark was surpassed only twice. Why when athletes are bigger, stronger, and better prepared are pitchers more fragile, pitch half what their counterparts 25 years ago did, and still get injured with greater frequency? To put it in perspective, in 1986, Burt Blyleven completed 16 games and he was third in that stat. THIRD. That isn’t ancient history either. Last I checked, film was around in 1986. You can see Blyleven pitch and not rely on obscure printed accounts like for say Christy Mathewson.
Let’s face it. The radar gun makes scouts go gooey. If you tell a scout he could draft Aroldis Chapman but he would have to leave his wife, he probably would do it. However, at the end of the day, Greg Maddux, who threw 20 miles slower, accomplished more in his career than Chapman probably ever will.
Dr. James Andrews, the doctor who has become more synonymous with the name Tommy John than Tommy John himself, said in an interview that high school pitchers exceeding 85 mph with their fastball are exceeding the “developmental properties” of the human body at that age. The strain they put on their arm makes it more likely for future problems to arise. Matt Moore sat in the 89-91 regional his senior year and topped out at 95. The ulnar collateral ligament supposedly hasn’t evolved, even though pitchers throw so much harder.
But that makes it sound like pitchers of yore had to light the baseball on fire if they wanted to be considered a fireballer. Did no one throw hard? Well, it’s complicated. Radar guns have just been perfected the last number of years and other less scientific methods were employed even further back. But pitchers did throw hard. In the 1940s, Bob Feller was timed at 98.6 MPH by a photo cell device at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Feller also was clocked at 107.9, though not an “officially approved” rating and 104 at Lincoln Park in Chicago (though again subjective). According to Baseball Almanac, “(Feller) was measured using the ever-popular speeding motorcycle test, once used in 1914 with Walter Johnson who reached 99.7 MPH, and Feller reached 98.6.” Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Walter Johnson, could all rush it up there, Johnson did it side-armed, and Lefty Grove threw hard as well. Even if the average fastball velocity is higher now, it is naive to think that today’s pitchers throw so much harder than pitchers of the past with all the examples out there to the contrary.
Sliders are harmful on a pitcher’s arm, or so we’re told. The Rays franchise philosophy is to not teach a slider, and that is becoming more common around baseball. Matt Moore doesn’t throw a slider. The Rays’ Chris Archer does. He hasn’t suffered an arm injury, whereas Moore has. Notable pitchers that threw a slider to great effect and infrequent injury were Randy Johnson, Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton. From his first full season as a starter at the age of 25 to his last at age 38, the fewest innings Bob Gibson threw was 175 in 24 starts. That figures out to a 7.2 per start. Randy Johnson had his injury problems. The fewest amount of innings he threw while making at least twenty starts 160 in 23 starts, 6.9 Per start. The most innings he threw in a season was 271. Steve Carlton had a long and very distinguished career. From 1968-1980, he didn’t throw fewer than 200 innings once. Johnson, Gibson, and Carlton are three of the best pitchers of all time, but pitchers can clearly throw sliders and have a great career.
Everyone agrees that a pitcher has to be “brought along.” Incremental increases in innings in the developmental phase of their careers are necessary to build up arm strength over time. However, when does the developmental phase end? Essentially, pitchers today throw beyond their body’s capabilities as an audition to get drafted. That does damage on their arms that they pay for later. Instead of building up their arms, the would-be draftees look to “wow” rather than pitch. We even see the same with college pitchers (for example Trevor Bauer), building up massive pitch counts before getting babied in pro ball. If we are truly going to bring pitchers along slowly, we have to actually do so–it can’t be that it starts in pro ball with years of little restraint already under these pitchers’ belts.
What changes can teams implement to better protect their pitchers? We can throw ideas out there, but how they will react remains to be seen. All that we know is Matt Moore could very well be the next topflight major league starting pitcher to undergo Tommy John Surgery, the latest negative outcome that makes us shake our heads. Something has to be done.