Major League Baseball has a major problem on its hands. And no, it’s not a problem they’re particularly accustomed to facing. See, the MLB has faced its fair share of nuisances: the gambling escapades of Shoeless Joe Jackson in the 20’s, as well as of Pete Rose in the late 80’s. Oh, and I would be remised to not mention the whole steroid era thing, which I’m sure all of us tired of hearing about that by now.
Though, before getting into the problem that the MLB is facing here in 2014, I should clarify that the so-called “problem” has evolved at such an alarming rate over the past two or three years it has quickly manifested into an epidemic, and rightly so.
The name Tommy John refers to the former major leaguer who spent twenty-six years in the majors (fifteen after the surgery), racking up a hefty 288 wins over his career. Though, lately the name has become the biggest symbol of fear for every pitcher regardless of age. Even when I played ball in high school our coach reminded us every practice how throwing incorrectly or too much could lead to arm problems. And that was when kids were throwing 75 to 80 mph, not 95 to 100.
Since the 2014 season began back in March, eighteen, yes, EIGHTEEN, pitchers have undergone Tommy John Surgery. This is the largest amount of surgeries conducted this early into a season since the surgery was first performed way back in 1974 by Dr. Frank Jobe on, you guessed it, Tommy John. With numbers like this, it seems as if the MLB is on a collision course to break the record of thirty-five surgeries administered during the 2012 season.
Quite frankly, Tommy John Surgery has become a part of the game. It is expected that a healthy amount of pitchers will have to have the procedure done at least once by the time their career is over. But the reason why the occurrence of these arm injuries is so alarming is because it is in the arm of the young stars where the surgery has found its new home. The young stars such as, Stephen Strasburg, Jose Fernandez, and Matt Harvey, are what the MLB craves and needs in order to compete with the likes of the NFL and NBA.
For an injury/surgery that was always affiliated with the normal wear and tear that accompanies an extended career in the league, it is becoming more and more apparent why the young players are the ones being affected.
For a young high school or college pitcher to get noticed by scouts now a days they have to have one of two qualities, if not both: a fastball that reaches at least 90 mph and/or an effective secondary pitch (slider, curve, change-up, etc.). The reasoning behind a pitcher needing an effective secondary pitch is usually to make up for their fastball’s ineffectiveness.
The stress that is put on such a young arm is unnerving. According to Glenn Fleisig, a biomedical engineer at the American Sports Medicine Institute, the stress on an individuals elbow when throwing a 100 mph fastball equates to the same amount of stress that holding “five 12-pound bowling balls” would create.
There lies problem number one. Young kids, in an attempt to make it to the bigs, are placing so much stress on their arms that by the time they reach the big stage their elbows resemble that of a wily veteran, not a twenty-something year old.
Managers have attempted to protect their young guns by limiting their innings and shutting them down once they’ve reached around 170 innings pitched, give or take a few. Though despite all the restrictions the story remains the same, young guys are dropping left and right. The simple fact is that regardless of how young pitchers are handled once they make it to the big league, for many players their arms are already damaged to a point of no return.
Commissioner Bud Selig, who is riding off into the sunset of retirement, has vouched to find answers. “[I’m] almost afraid to pick up the paper because of the bad news,” he said, “nobody has [answers], I’ll tell you that — including the doctors and trainers. Everybody you talk to has a different opinion.”
But there lies the problem with attempting to find what is wrong with these young pitchers who are at the major league level. There is no answer, because the answer to solving the epidemic is placing less strain on pitchers arms and elbows when they are playing little league, high school, and college ball. The MLB has no jurisdiction over amateur baseball, but maybe the league should start there if they want answers.
Just the other day in a college game, Southern Utah University pitcher Jacob Noyes threw 146 pitches over 8 1/3 innings. Crazy right? But not to be outdone, the opposing pitcher for North Dakota State, Shane Bushland, threw 176 pitches in 11 1/3 innings. Just imagine the amount of strain placed on those two kids arms’.
THIS is why arms are breaking down at such an alarming rate. Major League managers can try as much as they want to protect their young guys, but until amateur coaches take the initiative this problem will persist. Coaches, whether it is little league, high school, college, need to protect the arms of their hurlers. And until that happens, the question will remain the same: how can we avoid arm injuries?
Bud Selig here’s your answer: we can’t avoid them, but we can hold them off. Less pressure, more development.