An excerpt from Jeff Passan’s “The Arm”


Yahoo’s Jeff Passan has written a book about pitching. Specifically, about the awful, horrible things that happen to pitchers’ arms and the wonderful, amazing things surgeons have been able to do to fix them once they are destroyed. The book is called “The Arm,” and it’s mostly about Tommy John surgery, how it has changed baseball and all of the things the Baseball Industrial Complex has done to help pitchers avoid ligament replacement surgery, endure it, recover from it and everything in between.

I have an advance copy of it, I’m a few chapters into it and so far so good. Today, however, you have a chance to read a long excerpt from it. It’s about a guy most of you have never heard of throwing a 106 m.p.h. fastball. For real. It’s also about the mad genius in an out-0f-the-way warehouse who helped him do it and why they’re doing it in the first place. All of it has to do with how arms work and break and the work people are doing to keep that from happening.

My thoughts from the excerpt: I am usually skeptical of stories about mad genius outsiders changing established industries. I realize that’s how change happens a lot of the time, but as a literary thing that sort of thing has become something of a cliche in modern non-fiction (some entire books, though not this one, seem to have been sold entirely on the basis of interviews with these kinds of guys). This excerpt and its subject is an archetype of that and it’s hard to shake the notion that you’ve sort of read this whole thing before.

However, I am not as skeptical about it here as I might otherwise be. Mostly because Major League Baseball is about as crazy-conservative an institution as it comes and the level of buy-in you need in order to do something unconventional on a baseball team is so much higher than you may need in, say, technology, that it may very well be the case that all of the big innovation comes from outside rather than inside the mainstream. The form may be familiar, but the substance of it seems pretty legit.

Beyond that, there is a bit of this excerpt — the part where one of the mad geniuses is hired by a club — which makes me wonder about whether we’ll see some ethical issues arise in the near future with respect to Tommy John recovery.

If a club comes up with some new analytical approach — a super stat or a something — it’s obviously proprietary. They’re not gonna share that with another team. Heck, that whole Astros-Cardinals hacking scandal shows just how protected such data is supposed to be, at least in theory.

What happens, however, if a club comes with some technique which cuts recovery time from Tommy John surgery in half? Or, even better, some training technique which helps reduce or prevent ligament damage altogether? If a doctor does this, sure, it’ll be shared because of professional responsibility considerations. But what if a coach or an athletic trainer does? Is there a similar obligation then? Is there a tension between the clear competitive advantage which would come from ensuring pitcher health and the well-being of pitchers overall?

I figure people in the game have thought about this. I also hope — and lean toward expect — that something so important would not be kept in-house given how clearly it would benefit the sport overall. But I wonder sometimes. The problem with the mad genius types who come up with innovation is that they tend to be . . . mad. UPDATE: The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote about this exact topic earlier this month.

Anyway: go read the excerpt. And pre-order “The Arm.” It’ll be key to the conversation about pitching and pitcher health for a long, long time.