The Nationals’ decision to shut down starter Stephen Strasburg after his September 7 start last year was controversial, starting a debate that wasn’t even close to settled as the 2013 regular season was under way. The Nationals won the NL East title last season and went into the NLDS against the Cardinals without Strasburg. The Nats were dispatched in five games, leading many to speculate that the organization was being too careful with their 23-year-old phenom, needlessly weakening the team in the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 1981.
This year, the Mets and Marlins took similar precautions with their young aces. The Mets vowed to shut down Matt Harvey early before he ended up suffering an injury, and Jose Fernandez recently made his final start of the year for the Marlins with a few weeks to spare.
As MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince points out, pitchers are still getting injured quite often despite these preventative measures. Castrovince spoke to a number of people about the issue of pitcher health, including Dr. Marcus Elliott, a physician who trained at Harvard. Elliott said, “I’m certain we’re going to look back on what we did here in 2012, 2013 and not too far into the future and think that it was really primitive.”
Elliott continued, saying, “There are reasons guys end up tearing their ulnar collateral ligament or end up with repetitive trauma to a rotator cuff. There are mechanical explanations for all these things. And we haven’t spent a whole lot of time trying to understand what those reasons are.”
Castrovince also highlighted Arizona State University associate head coach and recruiting coordinator Ken Knutson, citing Knutson’s rather impressive track record of producing pitchers who don’t get injured. According to Knutson, he hadn’t had a pitcher need Tommy John surgery since the beginning of the millennium, and only because the pitcher didn’t follow Knutson’s warmup program. Knutson described that program as a “dynamic body warmup”. “Movements and runs and agility things. We do a lot with body blades or shoulder tubes. We do some strength training with a two-pound medicine ball, then we go through some body movement and throwing heavy balls.”
The entire article is enlightening and worth a dedicated reading. Castrovince raises a very good point, which is that for all of the progress baseball has made over the years in terms of technology and analytics, injury prevention — specifically for pitchers — is an area that has really yet to be broached, let alone conquered.
Mike DeBonis of the Washington Post reports that, according to three congressional officials familiar with current talks, an upcoming spending bill could exempt minor leaguers from federal labor laws. This is an issue we have spent some time covering here. A bill proposed in 2016, H.R. 5580, would have amended language in Section 13 of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 which would have made it so minor leaguers wouldn’t be protected under a law that protects hourly workers. There is also an ongoing class action lawsuit over unfair labor prospects.
As DeBonis notes, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is among the representatives backing the measure. The provision specifically concerning minor leaguers didn’t appear in any of the draft spending bills, but DeBonis spoke to officials familiar with the negotiations under the condition of anonymity who said it was under serious consideration by top party leaders.
DeBonis got a comment from Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner. He said, “We’re not saying that [minor league pay] shouldn’t go up. We’re just saying that the formula of minimum wage and overtime is so incalculable. I would hate to think that a prospect is told, ‘You got to go home because you’re out of hours, you can’t have any extra batting practice.’ It’s those kinds of things. It’s not like factory work. It’s not like work where you can punch a time clock and management can project how many hours they’re going to have to pay for.”
O’Conner said as much in an interview back in December. It’s an extremely disingenuous deflection. O’Conner also said, “I don’t think that minor league baseball is a career choice for a player.” This is all about creating legislation that allows Minor League Baseball to keep money at the top, which is great if you’re a team owner or shareholder. If they could get away with it, every owner of every business would pay its employees as little as possible, which is why it’s important to have unions and people keeping an eye on legislation like this that attempts to strip laborers of their rights in the dead of night.
Minor league players need to unionize. Or, better yet, the MLBPA should open their doors to include minor leaguers and fight for them just as they would a player who has reached the majors. Minor leaguers should be paid a salary with which they do not have to worry about things like rent, electricity, food, and transportation. They should be provided healthcare and a retirement fund. And if anyone tries to tell you it’s not affordable, MLB eclipsed $10 billion in revenues last year. There’s plenty to go around.
The owners are banking on this legislation passing and labor still coming in excess due to young men holding onto the dream of making the major leagues. According to CNN, “far less than 10 percent of minor league players ever get the chance to make it to the major leagues.” Some of these players have forgone college to work in baseball. They arrive at the park in the morning and leave late at night, putting in far more than your standard eight-hour work day. Since their bodies are their vehicle for success, they have to exercise regularly and vigorously off the field while maintaining a healthy diet. (And teams are still reluctant to invest even the smallest amount of money to ensure their young players eat well.) Minor leaguers make tremendous sacrifices to pursue their dream and now Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying Congress to legalize taking further advantage of them.