Are pitch counts and early shutdowns actually helping pitchers?

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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.

Kyle Schwarber: Before and After

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It’s always a bit deceiving to see offseason workout photos of players who are said to be getting into great shape because guys in those pics are wearing compression shirts and crap and we’re used to seeing them in baseball uniforms. I remember pics of Miguel Cabrera and David Ortiz in the offseason looking svelte, only to see them in uniform come spring as their familiar beefy selves. Uniforms are often loose and billowy and the players wear  a couple of layers when they’re suited up, so at least visually speaking it’s better to compare apples to apples.

Which brings us to Kyle Schwarber. All offseason long we’ve been getting reports about Schwarber working out, losing weight and, of course, getting into The Best Shape of His Life. And some of those pics have definitely shown a young man who has cut fat and gotten lean. Good for him!

Let’s see how that translates to Schwarber in uniform. Here is is at spring training last year:

MESA, AZ – FEBRUARY 21: Kyle Schwarber #12 of the Chicago Cubs poses during Chicago Cubs Photo Day on February 21, 2017 in Mesa, Arizona. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

 

Here he is toward the end of last season:

CHICAGO, IL – SEPTEMBER 09: at Wrigley Field on September 9, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

And here he is now:

MESA, AZ – FEBRUARY 20: Kyle Schwarber #12 of the Chicago Cubs poses during Chicago Cubs Photo Day on February 20, 2018 in Mesa, Arizona. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

 

Nice goin’, kid.