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.

Baseball in Arizona as early as May is pure madness

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UPDATE: Major League Baseball has released the following statement in the wake of Jeff Passan’s ESPN report overnight, discussed in more detail below:

MLB has been actively considering numerous contingency plans that would allow play to commence once the public health situation has improved to the point that it is safe to do so.  While we have discussed the idea of staging games at one location as one potential option, we have not settled on that option or developed a detailed plan.  While we continue to interact regularly with governmental and public health officials, we have not sought or received approval of any plan from federal, state and local officials, or the Players Association.  The health and safety of our employees, players, fans and the public at large are paramount, and we are not ready at this time to endorse any particular format for staging games in light of the rapidly changing public health situation caused by the coronavirus.

9:04 AM: Overnight Jeff Passan on ESPN followed up on the Associated Press’ report of preliminary talks between Major League Baseball and the MLBPA about the potential resumption of the baseball season. The plan, which is nothing short of radical — and nothing short of highly-fraught — would potentially have baseball resume as early as next month. June at the latest.

The talks are highly preliminary at the moment, but Passan describes the following topics that are at least on the table:

  • All 30 teams would play games at stadiums with no fans in the Phoenix area, including at the Diamondbacks’ Chase Field and various spring training facilities;
  • “Players, coaching staffs and other essential personnel would be sequestered at local hotels, where they would live in relative isolation and travel only to and from the stadium;”
  • Teams would carry significantly expanded rosters to (a) allow for players who get sick or who test positive for COVID-19 to be easily replaced; and (b) to allow for ample rest give that games would be played in the triple-digit heat of the Arizona desert;
  • There would be an electronic strike zone to allow the umpires to keep their distance;
  • There would be no mound visits;
  • There would be seven-inning doubleheaders to allow them to schedule as many games as possible;
  • On-field microphones would be used by players, “as an added bonus for TV viewers;”
  • Players and team personnel would sit in the empty stands 6 feet apart instead of in a dugout to ensure proper social distancing.

There’s a lot to chew on there, but I want to hold off a moment on that chewing. I want to resist the urge to do what we usually do when some radical new idea about sports comes up such as a rules change, the implementation of a new technology, divisional realignment or playoff expansion, or something to that effect. I’ll get to that stuff in a moment, but for now I want to take several steps back and leave the specifics of those things aside and ask a question:

What in the hell are we doing here?

Don’t get me wrong: I miss baseball. Everyone misses baseball. Setting aside the financial incentives at play for the moment, MLB exists to put on baseball games and they want baseball games. Players live to play baseball and they want to play. If we could snap our fingers and make that happen, God, it would be wonderful. If we could play baseball or any other pro sport right now, it would definitely be a pick-me-up for a large part of the nation.

This plan, however, is patently absurd. Less in form than in its very conception and existence.

How, in light of all that is going on at the moment, is this at all justifiable?  How is the level of necessary logistical support to pull this off — the transportation, the isolation, and the prioritization of a few thousand baseball people for testing and attendant medical care if someone gets sick — close to rational?

Just yesterday a member of New York’s city council announced that they will be burying the city’s many dead in temporary mass graves in public parks, ten to a row, and that prison inmates will be offered $6/hour to dig the graves. The governor of Illinois said last night that states are bidding against one another to try to obtain desperately needed medical supplies to treat the national surge in the sick and the dying. Is that what everyone is going through right now? No, of course not. Most of us are bored at home. But that — the tens of thousands of dead and counting and the overarching fear and anxiety which is affecting the populace — provides the national backdrop against which these negotiations are occurring. To call it “incongruous” to be talking about a far-sooner-than-expected return of baseball is a monumental understatement.

Yes, sports have, traditionally, served as a rallying point for the nation. But this is not a war. This is not a natural disaster. This is not a situation where our defiant assertion of normality will help pull us through. We do not need a Winston Churchill figure and, in fact, attempting to be a Churchill figure, we have unfortunately learned, is precisely the opposite of sensible. This is not a situation where keeping calm, carrying on, and acting resolute in the face of peril will help us prevail. A viral pandemic is not impressed with our composure, our resolve or our symbolic gestures such as playing baseball in the face of what can only be described as horror. The only thing we can do in the face of this horror is to take sensible precautions. To collectively sacrifice. To collectively appreciate the risks, stay at home, ride it out, and provide every possible bit of support available to the sick, to those who treat the sick, and to the millions of people displaced, economically and psychologically, by the crisis.

There nothing sensible about this nascent plan currently being floated by Major League Baseball, however. And make no mistake: it is being floated. With a purpose.

This report comes two days after President Trump held a conference call with Rob Manfred and all of the other major sports league commissioners in which he expressed his desire for sports to return as soon as possible. It is in his and his administration’s political interests for that to happen. As it would be, to be fair, in the interests of any president. There was a reason FDR pressed baseball to play on as usual during World War II. My political leanings are pretty plain to those who have read this website for any length of time, but I do not begrudge Trump this impulse, in and of itself. As a leader there are very good reasons for him to want the public to be happy and entertained and, as I said, we would all love to be happy and entertained at the moment.

President Trump, however, has been demonstrably shown to have made countless missteps in his handling of the pandemic thus far. Missteps that, in at least one case, appears to be born by personal financial interest. I simply do not trust his judgment in pressing professional sports back into service and I do not trust Rob Manfred to sensibly push back against political pressure urging him to take what would, clearly, be irresponsible steps in order to make baseball happen the way it is being described in Passan’s column.

And it is irresponsible. Let’s just play this out for 30 seconds:

  • Passan describes a scenario in which players would be isolated for more than four months. Are they supposed to not see their families during all that time? How are they supposed to function under that scenario? Even worse, what if their family members get sick? What if one of their parents die? Is their season over or do they stay in Arizona?
  • No quarantine can be perfect, so there’s a non-trivial chance that despite these efforts someone gets sick. Passan mentioned that they would be removed from their teams and put into isolation. That may be fine for a physically fit 24 year-old, but many managers, coaches, trainers and clubhouse attendants are older and, as such, at far greater risk of complications if they get sick. Some players are too. Adam Duvall is Type 1 diabetic. Kenley Jansen just had heart surgery. Carlos Carrasco and Trey Mancini are cancer patients. What about them?
  • If players are quarantined in hotels or resorts, there are hundreds if not thousands of people cooking for them, cleaning for them, doing the laundry and stuff like that. They all have to be isolated too, no? Just as a virus propagates itself exponentially, so to does the support necessary to put on Major League Baseball games, even in these radically different circumstances.

That’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure there are many other things that infectious disease experts and people who are more involved in the details of putting on games under these circumstances could imagine. Yes, I understand that the idea behind flattening the curve and slowing the spread is not to prevent every single person from becoming infected. That’s impossible. But at the same time, Major League Baseball should not be creating conditions under which a highly infectious disease has an entryway into a in environment where 26 guys and a staff x 30 teams all share close quarters as a rule.

That’s especially true when we look at the benefits of all of this. Benefits which, as Passan freely notes in his article, are primary financial. Or, as noted above, may have some broadly inspirational or symbolic significance. And that’s before you start to assess the actual quality and integrity of the baseball which would be played under these extreme circumstances.

Could they figure this all out? Maybe. Will they do it? I don’t know. It might actually happen. Nothing would surprise me at this point. But even attempting it seems profoundly incongruous to what’s happening in the real world. And profoundly misguided.

And one more thing.

To the extent this misguided plan gains traction, it will be because a lot of us — particularly people in my industry, but fans as well — approach this idea solely through the prism of sports. It will be because, when presented with the idea of a 2020 baseball season in the Arizona Bubble League, we spend more time debating electronic umpiring and whether East Coast Bias is the reason the Yankees and Red Sox get more games in air-conditioned Chase Field and that Oakland A’s have to play more games in 105 degree heat at HoHoKam Stadium in Mesa. It will because we thought of all of this as great fun or a cool intellectual and competitive exercise and judged it, as we judge so much else in sports, only on those terms.

We need to think bigger than that. We need to think smarter than that. We need to set aside our laser-focus on sports as the be-all and end-all, set aside our strong and understandable desire to have sports return as soon as possible and treat the current situation with the gravity it deserves.

And this plan ain’t it, jack.