Wiedmer: We Need A New Health Plan For Major League Pitchers

  • Tuesday, April 16, 2024
  • Mark Wiedmer
Mark Wiedmer
Mark Wiedmer

We’ve all heard the definition of insanity: Repeating the same action over and over again hoping for a different result.

With apologies to injured Atlanta Braves ace Spencer Strider and all those other flame-throwing pitchers currently on the shelf with damaged arms, is’t that what’s going on in professional baseball these days?

They keep throwing harder and harder and getting seriously injured more and more often and no one seems to grasp the correlation between the two.

Or do they?

In an excellent USA Today article last week, veteran baseball trainer Stan Conte, who spent 23 years with major-league teams, told the newspaper: “This is not an epidemic. This is a pandemic. It’s been going on forever, and it’s getting worse.”

Much, much worse.

From that same USA Today article came this fact: More than 260 major-league and minor-league pitchers in 2021 had elbow surgeries, an increase of more than 400 percent from 10 years ago. Beyond that, pitchers requiring a second Tommy John or elbow surgery have now doubled.

There are also these facts to consider: Of the five active pitchers who have won more than one Cy Young, all are currently hurt except for the San Francisco Giants’ Blake Snell. Of the six men who lead all active pitchers in career ERA, five of them are currently on the injured list - Justin Verlander (scheduled to return this weekend), Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom and Gerrit Cole. Of the 10 active pitchers who have won at least one Cy Young, eight are currently injured. Of the eight pitchers who got Cy Young votes last year, eight have already been injured at one time or another this year.

Why is this happening? And can anything be done now or into the future to reverse it?

A couple of former Braves Hall of Fame pitchers who were pretty gifted in other sports as high schoolers - Tom Glavine and John Smoltz - have long advocated playing multiple sports in your teenage years in order to rest certain muscles during part of the year, namely pitching arms.

“Don’t specialize so much,” Smoltz said a few years ago. “Play different sports for as long as you can.”

To that point, Conte told USA Today: “There’s such sports specialization now. The fact that kids are throwing 85 (mph), going on travel teams and throwing all year long catches up to you. It’s like threads on a tire. You keep running them and sooner or later they go bald.”

And don’t think a Tommy John surgery will always fix the problem. According to Conte, while an initial Tommy John surgery has close to a 90 percent success rate, that percentage falls to a 50-55 percent when a second surgery is needed.

Clearly, whether anyone admits it or not, the human body wasn’t meant to throw 95 miles an hour with an obscene spin rate. It’s almost 100 percent likely to one day lead to at least one surgery and one lost season.

And unlike the Dodgers’ Shohei Ohtani, who can be an All-Star at the plate if his pitching arm doesn’t recover, most pitchers are in the big leagues because of their pitching prowess only. If that’s taken away by injury, so is their livelihood.

So what’s the answer? Parents and youth coaches cutting back on innings pitched and the type of pitches a young person throws _ less curve balls, for instance, and lower velocity _ would help, though keeping a young pitcher from throwing his best stuff for coaches and major league scouts seems problematic at best.

Pitchers want to show off their arms. It’s been that way for more than 100 years. But at some point, common sense needs to prevail. There are clearly limits to what most arms and elbows can take, and we’re flying past those like a 7 series BMW on the Autobahn.

The Braves won’t have Strider again until next season. Let us all hope by then that medical science has unlocked the key to keeping high-velocity pitchers on the field and out of the operating room, because whatever we’re doing now clearly isn’t working.

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