The Long Sad History of Injured Pitchers

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There seems to be an impression out there that pitchers get hurt today more than they ever did before. It seems that every time a high profile pitcher gets hurt — the latest of these being Mets phenom Matt Harvey — that we get a rash of stories like this one from my friend Terry Moore, recommending some solution for this “epidemic of starters and relievers” who pitch well, then feel pain, then go the DL, then go under the knife. Terry’s recommendation is pitchers throw more, something I’ve heard from a lot of veteran baseball people (“Operation Long Toss”) and it’s a perfectly reasonable concept. I’m personally all for it.

But let’s be clear about something: I don’t believe for one minute that there’s some new epidemic of starters and relievers getting hurt. I think this is a story as old as baseball. I think that as long as pitchers throw baseballs as hard as they can, often mixing in various twists and turns and grips, elbow ligaments will burst and shoulders will pop and rotator cuffs will tear. And while there might be ways to protect pitcher’s arms, to limit the damage, to give pitchers their best chance to survive — long toss, limited innings, ice treatments, heat treatments, five man rotations, progressive inning increases, occasional skipped starts — the worldwide reality will not go away. Pitchers get hurt. A lot.

I think maybe we think of the old days different because when pitchers got hurt then, they were simply discarded and never heard from again. The code phrase for this was “He had arm fatigue” or “”he stopped being effective.” It’s actually pretty comical, if you think about it. You see those phrases, or something similar, scattered throughout baseball history.

Take Russ Ford. Have you ever heard of Russ Ford? In 1910, Ford at age 27 came to play for the New York Yankees and he went 26-6 with a 1.65 ERA and 209 strikeouts in 299 2/3 innings. He gave up just 194 hits, meaning the league hit roughly .188 against him, and he gave up four home runs all year. Yes, it was the Deadball Era, but this was a spectacular debut. Truth is, Russ Ford had invented something new — a pitch that would be called the “Emery Ball.” He had learned that if you scuff up a baseball you could make it move in unpredictable ways. Others would take the trick all the way to the Hall of Fame.

But the point is — Russ Ford soon suffered from, yep, “arm fatigue.” What’s that? His arm hurt. He had a good second year, but by his third he led the league in losses. They Yankees dumped him after the next year. He picked up with Buffalo in the Frontier League and had a good year, then a lousy one, then was out of baseball where he nursed a sore arm for pretty much the rest of his life.

You know the story of Mark Fidrych. Amazing in 1976 at age 21. The talk of baseball. One of the biggest sports personalities of my entire childhood. He went 19-9 with a 2.34 ERA and a ridiculous 24 complete games. The next year he blew out his rotator cuff. He pitched in the Majors again, but he never made it back. Arm fatigue. And he stopped being effective.

Tommy Thomas at age 27 won 19 games with a 2.98 ERA for the Chicago White Sox. He led all pitchers in WAR. Three years later, he blew out his elbow, suffered from ptomaine poisoning (pitchers had it seriously rough in those days) and spent the next eight years just struggling to hang on in the big leagues as the pain shot up and down his arm.

How about Bill James — the pitcher. In 1914 he went 26-7 with a 1.90 ERA. He was called Seattle Bill and he completely turned around the fortune of the Boston Braves, who went from 69-82 to World Series champions. The Miracle Braves, they were called, and Bill James was that miracle. The next year he came to camp with that dreaded “arm fatigue.” He won five games. He tried shoulder surgery after shoulder surgery. He never pitched another Major League game.

Remember Justin Thompson? He was 6-foot-4, left-handed, an exciting young pitcher. In 1997, age 24, he went 15-11 with a 152 ERA+ and a 151-66 strikeout-to-walk. He made the All-Star Team. Injuries ended his effectiveness.

Do we need to talk about Mark Prior? As a 22-year-old — 18-6, 2.43 ERA, 245 strikeouts in 211 innings. Injuries. Never made it all the way back.

Herb Score? The common perception is that Score’s brilliant young career — as I’ve written before, he was Koufax before Koufax — was detailed by a line drive off the bat of Gil McDougald. That was the lead sentence of his obituary in the New York Times (which you might not be able to read right now because of the cyber attack), and it is partially true, though the full truth from many people around him seems to be that it was actually ARM troubles in his comeback that cost him what seemed sure to be a Hall of Fame career.

Ernie Broglio? Remembered for being on the wrong side of the Lou Brock trade, but Broglio at 24 went 21-9 with a 2.74 ERA, 188 strikeouts, and he led the league in WAR. What happened? “(The Cardinals) got a heckuva player; they gave up damaged goods,” Broglio told ESPN in 2011. “I think that they knew I had a bad arm.”

Cy Blanton led the National League in ERA in 1935 as a 26-year-old. He pitched reasonably well for pretty good Pirates teams the next three years before basically disappearing. Blanton was an alcoholic, and he died at age 37, and many blamed his ineffectiveness on alcohol. But, his fall as a pitcher traces directly to a serious arm injury he suffered in spring training 1939.

Gary Nolan was a phenom, only the second pitcher in baseball history to strike out 200 batters in a season before he turned 20 (the first was Bob Feller — Dwight Gooden became the third in 1984). He had so many arm issues that, at some point, the Reds sent him to a DENTIST and told him they had solved the problem (they thought it was all in his head).

Sparky Anderson predicted Don Gullett would be in the Hall of Fame the year Gullett turned 22 years old. Everybody thought so. He had 100 wins before his 27th birthday. He finished with 109 after blowing out his rotator cuff at 27.

How about Brandon Webb? Cy Young winner at 27, a 22-game winner at age 29, out of baseball at 30 after shoulder surgery.

Jon Matlack. Rookie of the Year. Three-time All-Star. Elbow Surgery at 29. One full season after that.

Dizzy Dean. Led league in strikeouts four straight seasons, won 30 and 28 games back to back. At age 27 he was hit in the toe with a line drive. This, legend has it, caused him to change his pitching motion, which led to him badly hurting his arm. It also could have been the 1,531 innings he had thrown the five previous years. It also could have been that pitching hurts arms. He tried to hang around on his name with junk pitches, but he did not win a game after age 30.

Schoolboy Rowe won 24 games as a 24-year-old and charmed everyone with his superstitions — they say he would carry around luck charms galore and would always wear his lucky tie. In 1937 and 1938 he suffered that all-encompassing arm fatigue and disappeared. He spent the next 10 years bouncing up and down, pitching well for stretches and then having completely lost seasons. He won 158 career games, so this made him one of the lucky ones with arm fatigue.

The late Dick Radatz was such an overpowering reliever from 1962-1964 that Mickey Mantle was known to call him “The Monster” which led to him being known as, yes, the Monster. Through his first four seasons, he went 49-32 with a 2.57 ERA and 608 strikeouts in 538 innings pitched. Then he had what was called a “puzzling drop in velocity.” That’s another code phrase. “Puzzling drop in velocity.” LIke it’s really puzzling. He was traded to Cleveland and won three games the rest of his career.

Craig McMurtry finished second to Darryl Strawberry in the Rookie of the Year balloting in 1983 and was seventh in the Cy Young voting. Then: Elbow problems.

You can go like for much, much longer — though I sense we’ve gone on too long already. If you go down the list of pitchers who had early success in the big leagues, you come upon injury after injury after injury. And for many — Wilcy Moore, Buck O’Brien, Herman Pillette, Whitey Glazner, on and on — there’s no clear injury to talk about because pitchers just ascended and descended so quickly that nobody really bothered to keep track. And don’t even get started on the hundred, no, thousands of promising minor league pitchers through the years who have had their dreams crushed by injuries.

This, of course, is not to say that teams should stop trying to prevent injuries. They should absolutely keep trying, keep studying the arm, keep studying the mechanics of the windup, maybe get pitchers to throw more like Terry suggests. It’s more important now than ever with all the money and interest in the game.

But let’s not kid anybody. Pitchers get hurt, and there’s no solution for that. The Matt Harvey story is a tale as old as time. The thing that has changed, the miracle here, is that, with treatment and possibly surgery, Harvey will have the opportunity to come back and, we all hope, be as good or better than ever. That’s new. If he pitched 50 or 70 or 90 years ago, Matt Harvey might have a two paragraph Wikipedia item talking about how he was an exciting young pitcher until, inexplicably, arm fatigue caused him to have a puzzling drop in velocity. And he stopped being effective.

And That Happened: Saturday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the rest of Saturday’s scores and highlights:

Athletics 10, White Sox 2: Matt Olson, Jaycob Brugman and Franklin Barreto stole the spotlight on Saturday, going deep for the first home runs of their respective major league careers. Not only was it a franchise first for the Athletics, but it was the first time three rookies accomplished the feat for any major league team to date. The last trio to pull it off did so for the Kansas City Packers of the Federal League, when Duke Kenworthy, Art Kruger and John Potts went yard for their first home runs in 1914.

Lost in all the mayhem? James Shieldscareer 2,000th strikeout, a 1-2 knuckle curveball that caught Khris Davis looking to end the second inning.

Rangers 8, Yankees 1: Aaron Judge may be unstoppable, but the Yankees are not. The rookie slugger collected his league-best 26th home run on Saturday afternoon, putting the Yankees on the board with a solo shot during the sixth inning.

It was a mistake Texas’ right-hander Austin Bibens-Dirkx wouldn’t make again, shutting down four of the next five batters he faced and leaving the bullpen to polish off the win with two scoreless frames.

Royals 3, Blue Jays 2: Jason Vargas may not have the pinpoint control of Ivan Nova or the sheer strikeout power of Chris Sale, but as of Saturday afternoon, he now owns the best record in the American League. He cruised to his 11th win against the Blue Jays, spinning seven innings of two-run ball and striking out just two of 27 batters. Marco Estrada matched him pitch for pitch, but lost the edge after Alex Gordon tripled to break the 2-2 tie in the seventh.

Nationals 18, Reds 3: It’s safe to say this was not the season debut Homer Bailey had been anticipating. The veteran right-hander was activated from the 60-day disabled list on Saturday and lasted just 1 2/3 innings against the Nationals’ blistering offensive drive. A six-run second inning forced Bailey’s early exit and brought his ERA to a bloated 43.20 mark after he surrendered eight runs on six hits and two walks. Trea Turner and Michael Taylor were the centerpiece of the Nationals’ 18-run drubbing, combining for nine hits, two home runs and five RBI as the Nats coasted to their 45th win of the year.

Orioles 8, Rays 3: Goodbye, ugly losing streak. Hello, Dylan Bundy. The Orioles pulled within five games of the division lead on Saturday, giving up fewer than five runs for the first time since June 2. Bundy led the charge, issuing three runs on five hits and four walks and striking out eight over seven innings for his eighth win of the season. An explosive four-run effort propelled the club to a comfortable lead in the seventh inning, while Manny Machado‘s eighth-inning sac fly put the finishing touches on an 8-3 finale.

Cubs 5, Marlins 3: After 12 years in the majors, Cubs’ veteran lefty Jon Lester still had some career firsts left to record — including his first win against the Marlins. He cut through Miami’s lineup with expert precision during Saturday’s win, giving up a J.T. Realmuto home run in the first inning and settling down to retire 18 of the next 20 batters he faced. The next team on his list? The Red Sox, whom the Cubs are not scheduled to face this season (barring a chance meeting in the World Series, of course).

Braves 3, Brewers 1: Is R.A. Dickey… good again? The knuckleballer commanded his third quality start on Saturday, squelching the Brewers’ offense with just one run and six strikeouts over seven innings. His only snafu came in the first inning, when he turned to pick off Travis Shaw at third base and was instead penalized with a balk, his first of the year.

The Freeze, meanwhile, was not nearly as successful as his parent club, missing the finish line by mere inches during the customary between-inning sprint around the warning track.

Twins 4, Indians 2: There’s nothing more tragic than a solid pitching effort gone to waste. Corey Kluber allowed two runs and fanned 13 batters for his fifth quality start and second no-decision of the month, dropping what looked like a guaranteed win after Brian Dozier and Chris Gimenez reclaimed the lead with a pair of home runs in the eighth and ninth.

Angels 6, Red Sox 3: Not everyone was as delighted about Kole Calhoun‘s run-scoring balk as the Angels were. Calhoun plated a run in the seventh inning after Fernando Abad stopped his delivery on a 3-1 pitch, boosting the Angels’ lead to three runs and eventually securing their 6-3 win. Neither Abad nor Red Sox manager John Farrell saw eye-to-eye with crew chief Bill Miller, however, and contested the ruling after Abad claimed that he inadvertently balked after seeing Calhoun call for a time out.

Mets 5, Giants 2: From injuries to slumps, it’s been a rough ride for the Mets this month. Enter Jacob deGrom, who crafted his third consecutive quality start with eight innings of one-run ball, striking out seven and going 1-for-3 with a single against the Giants’ Johnny Cueto. The Giants, on the other hand, became the first team to record 50 losses this season after the bullpen blew a 1-1 tie in the eighth.

Pirates 7, Cardinals 3: Look, there may be plenty of legitimate baseball-related reasons to skip out on a wedding reception. I can’t think of any compelling enough to leave your own wedding, however, at least not just to watch Lance Lynn give up seven runs during the Cardinals’ 40th loss of the year.

Different strokes for different folks, I suppose.

Dodgers 4, Rockies 0: Clayton Kershaw is still very, very good. After faltering in a six-run outing against the Mets last week, the Dodgers’ ace returned with six shutout innings against the Rockies, striking out eight and matching Jason Vargas’ league-best 11 wins. He manufactured his own run support, too, drawing a bases-loaded walk in the third inning to cement the club’s four-run lead:

Padres 7, Tigers 3: The Tigers continued their eight-game skid with a tough loss at PETCO Park on Saturday, marring six solid innings from Anibal Sanchez with a five-run implosion in the eighth inning. Andrew Romine put up two of the Tigers’ three runs on an RBI double and single, but wasn’t able to single-handedly rally from a four-run deficit in the ninth.

Astros 5, Mariners 2: Sometimes, it’s difficult to identify the exact moment when a game swings out of control. Other times, it’s all too obvious. For the Mariners, that moment could be traced back to one line drive in the seventh inning:

In Mitch Haniger‘s defense, clearing 69 feet in under five seconds is a feat few can pull off, even with the game on the line.

Diamondbacks 9, Phillies 2: Nothing the Diamondbacks and Phillies did — not even the Ben Lively home run that made this play possible — was as impressive as the coordination and grace of this lone D-backs fan:

Aledmys Diaz is trying to improve his defense with strobe glasses

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MLB.com’s Jenifer Langosch reports that Cardinals’ shortstop Aledmys Diaz has been sporting a new look around Busch Stadium with a pair of “strobe glasses,” technology-enhanced specs designed to help athletes focus on the ball. Like a strobe light, the lenses of these glasses affect a player’s vision by rapidly changing opacity, giving its wearers the illusion that the objects they see are moving more slowly than normal. Once a player adjusts to the new speed of play, they gain a greater sense of control and are able to time their actions with more precision.

Diaz isn’t the first MLB player to utilize the technology, just the first Cardinals’ player to do so. It’s been tested by Bryce Harper, Corey Brown, Tommy Joseph, Austin Hedges and Joe Mauer, among others around the league, and has been used for everything from refining a catcher’s reflexes behind the plate to tweaking a hitter’s ability to track a pitch. Per Langosch, Diaz has been using the glasses to hone in on the ball during pregame drills, increasing both his confidence and response time on the field and improving his defense at short.

The shortstop has been the focus of some concern this season after seeing a sizable dip in his production at the plate, and his five fielding errors, 0.6 UZR and 0.6 fWAR haven’t helped matters, either. He sustained a minor thumb injury during an at-bat on Friday night, and was left off of the Cardinals’ starting lineup on Saturday, though manager Mike Matheny didn’t rule out his ability to pinch-hit during the series. While the strobe glasses are a good start, Diaz will need more than a pair of specs to match the spotlight-worthy performance he turned out during his rookie season in 2016.