This is in keeping with my observation from the other day that, when talking about the pitchers of yesteryear and their heavy work loads, people almost always talk about the exceptional and other-worldly talented, not the ones who never made it because their arms blew out.
Here’s Tom Seaver talking to Bill Madden of the Daily News about how today’s pitchers get hurt because they’re coddled, and how his generation (and the generation before) was not coddled and look how good they were:
“Take a look at all of them, Marichal, Jenkins, Spahn, what do you think made them successful?” Seaver asked. “They conditioned their arms by pitching more, not less, starting from when they signed their first contract. Jenkins threw 300 or more innings half a dozen (actually five) times. Same with Palmer, Carlton and Marichal. I keep going back to that (July 2, 1963) Marichal-Spahn game when they both pitched 16 innings and threw almost 500 pitches between them.
“Neither one of them had any adverse aftereffects from it.”
No, they didn’t. And that’s one of the things which made them absolutely incredible pitchers. It’s quite possible, however, that there are tons of anonymous guys who would have come up in the 50s and 60s and had great careers — or even good careers — but never did because they blew out their arms in Double-A or two years into their major league career and were done for.
The point isn’t that coddling pitchers is the way to prevent injuries. Obviously guys still get hurt, so Seaver’s points about coddling not being the answer could have a lot of validity to them. His point that we don’t know what’s going to lead to injuries certainly has validity, because we don’t. The point is that Hall of Famers like him and Marichal and others are not the best examples of a better way of doing things precisely because they were, by definition, exceptional.
I am certain there are pitchers in the game today who could log the innings that those guys did and be just fine. Felix Hernandez? Justin Verlander? CC Sabathia? There have to be several. But there are tons of guys who fate and physiology are not going to allow to do that, just as there are guys who pitched alongside Seaver back in the day who could not do it either without blowing out their arms.
Teams and doctors need to figure out how to help those guys. How to tailor workloads and physical regimens to — if possible — prevent catastrophic injuries from occurring. Maybe that is futile. Maybe there is absolutely no way to prevent this stuff. But I feel like it’s worth trying to do that with the best information and evidence we can rather than to just throw up our hands, say “there’s no hope” and immediately go back to four-man rotations and 300 inning workloads for everyone.
Because while that did work for Tom Seaver and Fergie Jenkins, it didn’t work for a lot of Joe Shlabotniks whose careers were over before they began thanks to blown out arms.