While we are still reeling from the very annoying loss to the Pirates on Thursday afternoon, I noted that many folks on our Facebook page were freaking out because Cubs manager Rick Renteria dared to take out Travis Wood after a brilliant pitching performance. Naturally, we shouldn't be too high on a guy like Brian Schlitter, who, while he had fairly strong peripherals in the minors, languished in said minors for the bulk of his professional career. Schlitter set up James Russell to fail miserably as Russell tossed a batting practice/Home Run Derby ball to Pedro Alvarez and pretty much confirmed our opinion of him over the past couple seasons. I mean, Jesus Christ, you had ONE JOB, James Russell! But I digress.
At the point of his removal from the game, Wood had thrown 106 pitches and couldn't get the leadoff man out in the seventh inning. I'm usually terrible at this but I'm going to guess from the Pitchf/x data that Wood had run out of gas by that point, given the steady decline in pitch velocity. This is particularly relevant given that a tired pitcher is more prone to injury, and good golly Miss Molly do the Cubs already have their fair share of busted pitchers, including Kyuji Fujikawa still rehabbing from his Tommy John surgery and Arodys Vizcaino just coming back from his. This is in spite of the fact that the front office recognizes that healthy pitchers may be a market inefficiency (h/t Cubs Insider). I'm more than satisfied with Renteria removing Wood; in fact, I don't even though Wood should have started the seventh inning, but that's really not my call now, is it?
The reason that this is such a big deal is because of the rash of new Tommy John surgeries that cropped up this year...and it's barely mid-April. Just from this list (h/t Kevin) we see TWENTY new surgeries scheduled or already completed, including Atlanta Braves rotation stalwarts Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen. The list has also grown to include Pittsburgh Pirates phenom Jameson Taillon and will more than likely add Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Matt Moore to its ranks. The cover picture for this blog, of course, is Ryan Dempster, who underwent his own Tommy John surgery a decade ago.
I was going to put forth my own theories on why all this ligament damage is suddenly cropping up, but baseball Twitter pal Harry Pavlidis clued me in on an interview with Dr. James Andrews on this very topic:
Andrews: throwing breaking balls too young, but throwing over 85 is a risk for youths (!!!)
— Harry Pavlidis (@harrypav) April 9, 2014
Dr Andrews on new TJ Surgery advancements: "Trying to add stem cell at the time of TJ surgery to try and increase healing"
— MLB Network Radio (@MLBNetworkRadio) April 9, 2014
Obviously, there's a reason Dr. Andrews is the expert and I'm just the kind of doctor that doesn't actually help people, but his words pretty much back my hypothesis that modern pitchers are getting so big and strong that their ligaments no longer keep up with the stress and strain of all those power pitches. And when I look at the freeze-frames of certain pitchers, especially those with goofy mechanics like Chris Sale, I cringe because I'm just counting down the days until their ulnar collateral ligaments crap out, if their shoulders don't go first.
Behind the Ivy suggests that the supination of the forearm, or the rotation of the forearm forcing the palm of the hand to face upwards, will cause undue stress on the elbow, particularly in the UCL which has been blowing out at an alarming rate across baseball this spring. Couple that with what Dr. Andrews is saying about youths in baseball and you have your answer as to why the number of surgeries is increasing.
The skyrocketing salaries for solid-to-elite pitchers, coupled with the natural human evolution leading to increased mass and strength, is persuading coaching staffs to be much more careful with their pitchers. However, there really isn't any way to predict WHEN a UCL will blow out, though you can map out the risks by watching how many innings the pitcher has thrown, how much recovery time he has, etc. The accumulated stress from throwing the baseball from a very young age increases the risk of a UCL tear. Once a report comes out that pitcher X has a forearm strain, it almost always precedes a Tommy John surgery.
Is there any way to prevent this? With scouts always bringing their radar guns to high school games, as Dr. Andrews said in his interview, there is a lot of pressure (in addition to the steady stress on the young pitcher's elbow) to throw as hard as one can to impress said scouts. The financial incentive of developing a 100+ mile-per-hour fastball is worth the risk to many of these kids and they'll unfortunately pitch through fatigue and pain to get a shot at the big time. It will be very interesting to see whether the surgery can be improved and whether more effective preventative measures can be implemented to save the UCL before surgery is required. Perhaps there can even be exercises to strengthen and develop the UCL to keep up with the increased muscle mass and stress demand of high-level pitching. No matter what, the organization that discovers how best to keep their pitchers healthy will derive a competitive and financial advantage based in no small part on keeping all that money off the disabled lists. Hopefully that organization is the Cubs, and as a show of goodwill, they're willing to share that information so many potential careers can be saved or extended.