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.

Astros exemplify the player-unfriendly bent of analytics

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Even as recently as a decade ago, Sabermetrics was a niche interest among baseball fans. As various concepts began to gain acceptance in the mainstream, players slowly began to accept them as well. Players like Brian Bannister and Zack Greinke were hailed as examples of a new breed of player — one who marries his athleticism with the utilization of analytics. This year, much was made of certain players’ data-driven adjustments, including Daniel Murphy and J.D. Martinez. Both had great seasons as a result of focusing more on hitting more fly balls instead of ground balls and line drives.

Statistics can clearly benefit players. They can also be used against them, and not just by opposing players. The Astros, who are in the World Series for the first time since 2005, are a great example of this. The Astros spent a few years rebuilding after a complete overhaul of the front office, which included bringing in analytically-fluent Jeff Luhnow as GM after the 2011 season. That overhaul instilled so much confidence that, in 2014, Sports Illustrated writer Ben Reiter predicted that the Astros would win the 2017 World Series. He’s only four Astros wins away from being proven correct.

The Astros’ front office, though, took advantage of its players at various times throughout the process. Their success is owed, in part, to exploiting its players. On Twitter, user @chicken__puppet chained a few tweets together exemplifying this:

At its core, analytics is about optimization: getting the most bang for your buck. If you read Moneyball, you know this. Wins Above Replacement (WAR) quickly became synonymous with the field and $/WAR was a natural next step. Sabermetrics defaulted to ownership’s perspective, so highly-paid players who performed poorly were scorned. Cheap players who performed well were lauded.

It is no mere coincidence that once most front offices installed analytics departments, teams stopped handing out so many outrageous contracts to free agent first baseman/DH types. Instead, teams focused on signing their young players to long-term contract extensions to buy out their arbitration years ahead of time, ostensibly saving ownership and the team boatloads of money. Teams began to pay close attention to service time as well. Service time determines when a player becomes eligible for arbitration and free agency, so teams that are able to finagle their players’ service time can potentially delay that player’s free agency by a year. The Cubs tried to do this with third baseman Kris Bryant in 2015, as Craig wrote about.

There is a very real ethical component to covering and being a fan of Major League Baseball, despite the common plea to separate sports from politics. The Astros and Cubs aren’t the only ones exploiting their players; the Angels, for example, made some odd personnel choices earlier this season that happened to allow them to avoid paying some players incentive bonuses. Every front office, in one way or another, games the system because the system is set up to benefit ownership first and players second. And if the likes of Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa can be taken advantage of so freely and openly, what hope does anyone else have?

Fans have been conditioned to group players and owners together as one group of rich people. In reality, the player earning $30 million has more in common with the office worker making $35,000 a year than with team owners. When fans hear about Correa making $507,500 instead of $550,000, or about free agent who wants a nine-figure contract, they wonder why he had the nerve to ask for so much money in the first place. We praise players, like Cliff Lee, who “leave money on the table.” Both the player and that fan, by virtue of existing and participating in this system, are locked in an eternal battle with those who cut their paychecks. Regardless of salary differences, the player deserves to benefit from the fruits of his labor as much as the office worker. Part of being a baseball fan should also include rooting for the players’ financial success and not just the owners’.

Praising the Astros for being smart and savvy will only create more incentive for other front offices to mimic these unethical behaviors. The whole theme of the World Series shouldn’t be about smart, analytically-inclined teams reaching the summit; it should in part be about teams getting ahead with a multitude of exploitative practices against their players.