Baseball’s Newest PED?

Well, folks, another week has come and gone. I once again lost twenty smackers in less than two minutes picking the wrong horse’s name out of a beer pitcher. I drew Pablo Del Monte who was a 30-1dog. My guy flew out of the gates to take the first leg but it’s amazing how long the next minute and a half took with a little bit of money on the line! Needless to say, California Chrome came through as expected and predicted by Wayniac Nation’s very own Triple Crown analyst, The Sport Illuminati, and crushed the competition. (Please be sure to follow him via Twitter for horse racing, baseball, and soon enough, football odds at @SportIlluminati.)

Enough of the ponies, we got bigger fish to fry. Andrew Cashner, starting pitcher for the San Diego Padres, is the most recent in a slew of baseball’s promising young pitcher’s to hit the DL with a sore elbow. There is most likely a trip to the infamous Dr. James Andrews in his future. Cashner and the Padres are hopeful they don’t hear those awful words most often heard from a Dr. Andrews visit: You need Tommy John surgery.

Photo credit: FanGraphs.com
Photo credit: FanGraphs.com

One time, not so long ago, when a pitcher was heading to Dr. James Andrews, it only meant one thing: he would walk out of that office knowing he was going to be on the shelf for the next year and a half. Fans everywhere would cringe at just hearing his name. Now, it’s almost as if some of these pitchers WANT Tommy John surgery and the doc has started to turn some of these youngsters away. Elbow discomfort used to be a two-step approach. First, the pitcher would try some rehab and strengthening. If that didn’t work, then Tommy John surgery was often the end result. These days it has become cut him up, doc, we need his arm.

Dr. Andrews himself has called the Tommy John surgery trend an “epidemic”, a trend that pitchers are becoming comfortable with. The rate of pitchers getting new elbows is outrageous. There have been 18 this year alone! It’s not just pitchers anymore, either. Twins’ top prospect, third baseman Miguel Sano, is on the shelf after getting Tommy John surgery. Why are people flocking to Dr. Andrews at an alarmingly high rate these days? Put yourself in a young man’s shoes. Wouldn’t you miss out on 12 to 18 months of your life if you knew you would come back stronger? For every success story Dr. Andrews pumps out it seemingly lessens the fear of Tommy John surgery for the young fireballer. Without that fear, that knowledge that Tommy John surgery does indeed have its risks, baseball could be at risk of losing a large chuck of its future aces. The new commissioner will certainly have his hands full.

I’m from the last generation that never cared about pitch counts or how many innings a pitcher logged. I can remember a time when pitchers could throw a complete game and come back out the next start and do it again. Then came The Joba Rules and baseball changed. Much like the Yankees’ did with Chamberlain, it became a game of throwing less innings at a harder and faster pace. Young pitchers were thrown out there with limitations. For those of you that haven’t watched a game of baseball since 2008, let me fill you in on something. The Joba Rules didn’t work. He is neither an elite starter nor a shutdown closer. He is a mediocre middle reliever with a losing record.

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The real epidemic is moronic coaching. Starting at a young age, high school and college coaches are mimicking what is going on in Major League Baseball. In simplest terms, they are having their pitchers throw as hard as they can for a limited amount of innings determined by a pitch count. It isn’t that these young pitchers are being forced to throw hard. It’s simply that kids are bigger and stronger these days. While the younger pitchers can throw harder than they use to, the elbow has simply not caught up. The problem is that these youngsters are learning how to throw when they really need to learn how to pitch. They learn how to throw sliders and other out pitches at a younger age putting even more stress on the elbow. They are then encouraged to play winter ball, spring ball, and summer league.

Leo Mazzone is one of the greatest pitching coaches of all-time. When the Washington Nationals ended their ace’s season AMID A PLAYOFF RUN, he blew his lid. Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post caught an earful when he asked Mazzone what he thought of the Nationals’ strategy in shutting down Stephen Strasburg to prolong his longevity. Amongst the words pathetic and absurd, Mazzone explained:

“We had a saying in Atlanta, we only had one goal with our starting pitchers: When it’s your turn, you go to the post, and the rest will take care of itself. We never gave ‘em innings [limits]. We never gave ‘em pitch counts. We never gave ‘em anything other than go to the post when it’s your turn, and the rest will take care of itself. What we did was everything we could do to help that along. And here’s a good point: as a pitching coach I used to tell them look, my longevity’s only as good as yours. So why would I come up with a philosophy or a program that would hurt me?

“So what we would do is throw them more often with less exertion… You go through all these types of programs, because you have to teach pitchers — Strasburg included — that you can make the ball do something without maxing out your effort. That’s how your arm injury risk goes down, if you can do that… It’s based on common sense, the control of the effort by a coach. And if a coach can’t do that, they shouldn’t be a pitching coach. It’s based on common sense, it’s not based on innings pitched. It’s how you throw the baseball. Period.”

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This summer, two of those guys Leo Mazzone helped along with their pitching, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, are going into the Hall of Fame. Next summer, their good buddy John Smoltz will probably join them. He also coached the pitching staff that anchored the Atlanta Braves run of 14 CONSECUTIVE National League East titles. Most of his pitchers would throw well over 200 innings a year and, aside from Smoltz who went down nine years into the run of all of those titles, most of them didn’t get hurt. Do you remember what happened when Smoltz did get hurt? Mazzone helped instruct him to become the league’s best closer.

The elbow that started it all...
The elbow that started it all…

Peter Gammons has an interesting theory. Is Tommy John surgery happening in higher doses or are we just more aware of it now? The surgery is more readily available in the year 2014 then it was back in the day. Coaches at a younger level push a kid with a sore elbow to seek consultation for Tommy John surgery. A few years back, a young high school flame thrower who threw out his elbow would simply fizzle away. Tommy John is sort of eliminating the Darwinism of youth baseball. It seems as if where it was once only the fittest and best made it to the bigs, now, with 14-year olds having access to Tommy John surgery, more pitchers have the opportunity to make it farther. With more pitchers readily available, there will be an increase in injuries or, in some cases, re-injuries. That’s just how probability and statistics works.

Today, it seems like too many pitching coaches are simply guys who press down the clicker and monitor how much their pitchers are throwing and not what their pitchers are throwing. Pitchers like Charlie Hough and Tim Wakefield made it in the bigs to their mid-40s without a fastball that exceeded the speed limit. There has to be something to the art of pitching than just being able to throw the ball hard and fast.

Andrews has admitted to turning people away at all age levels. Tommy John surgery is not like an appendectomy or tonsillectomy that millions of people have had. The success rate is so good with Tommy John surgery because in the big picture so little people have had it. Do you know how gross Tommy John surgery is? The late Dr. Frank Jobe mastered a way to become an old spinster on someone’s elbow. They cut a tendon from your arm or leg, drill some holes in your bones, and weave figure-eights until you have a new elbow, a robotic elbow, an elbow that inwardly resembles that kids’ game Cats’ Cradle.

It is time for parents, coaches, and agents to wake up and learn what is happening. Tommy John surgery is not the reason pitchers come back and throw harder and lengthen their careers. It is the 12-18 months of endless, painful rehab that these kids learn how to extend their arms and throw the ball. On top of that, there are no guarantees. Just ask Kris Medlen and Josh Johnson. They are amongst the few who are having their SECOND Tommy John surgery in less than five years.

Even if Tommy John surgery is a must, the constant elbow injuries and ensuing surgery is hurting the game. Take the Marlins for example. They were en route to surprise a lot of people and turn their franchise around once again. A fan base that seemed to evaporate last season was once again given hope and started to fill the seats. Yet again, however, another under-25 fireballer has succumbed to the dreaded UCL injury. Now, the reality is that without Fernandez, the Marlins are likely bottom feeders once again. Attendance will dip.

Look at the Mets. This was the year that Matt Harvey, Zach Wheeler, and Noah Syndergaard were supposed to lead a new era of Mets baseball. Instead, Harvey is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, Wheeler is flailing in his new role as leader of the staff, and Syndergaard is at Triple-A being monitored by pitch counts and inning limits possibly setting him up for a future elbow injury.

I have a crazy theory for you, dear readers. You have to begin to wonder if these pitchers are using the surgery to come back and pitch on a bionic level. There is no denying that many come back stronger and better, but again, that is due to a long period of time that they focus on nothing else but strengthening their arm? When home runs increased in 1995, what did baseball fans do? They began questioning the possibility of cheating. They began to suspect players were doing something to gain an edge. Bud Selig knew (he can deny that all he wants, but come on, people, we all knew, didn’t he have to?) and turned his back until the PED implosion occurred. Baseball lost a lot of fans.

We have the technology. We have the capability to build the world's first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster.
We have the technology. We have the capability to build the world’s first bionic man. Tommy John will be that man. Better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster.

Well, take a look, folks. Look at this list of how many pitchers in the bigs have had Tommy John surgery. The strikeout rate amongst batters is rising daily. The strikeout record from the batters’ perspective is broken almost yearly. Are pitchers beginning to do something to gain the upper hand? Is that something Tommy John surgery? Again, I ask, if you were getting paid millions to rehab your arm to come back stronger than ever with the opportunity to make even more millions, wouldn’t you take that risk?

It isn’t that I don’t think pitchers need Tommy John surgery, but it is way more common place. What use to be worked out by rehabbing the arm through exercise and throwing programs is now slice it, dice it, and make it stronger. It almost seems to be the norm that if you are young and a great pitcher, you have to join the Tommy John club. There are roughly 125 pitchers in the MLB who have had Tommy John surgery. Most teams carry 10 to 12 pitchers on the roster. That means about 30 percent of pitchers in baseball have had the surgery and that number is growing.

Whether it is an advantage to pitchers or a safety net, in the long run, Tommy John surgery is hurting baseball and not helping it. The epidemic’s end results won’t be so much the pain and reconstruction of elbows, but the emptiness of the seats. Much like the PED crisis, this UCL/Tommy John surgery epidemic is hurting the games biggest stars. That can’t be good in the long run.

Until next time, maybe The Sports Illuminati’s current odds on who heads to Dr. James Andrews this week are already posted.

The WAYNIAC NATION’S Newest fun feature (Thanks, Uncle Shifty):

TRIVIA QUESTION OF THE WEEK: 

Ok, baseball fans. Only six left handed pitchers have finished more with more wins than Tommy John. Who are they? Post your answers in the comments if you know ’em!

 

 

 

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