Friday, May 16, 2014

Is This Destroying Major League Baseball?

      Major league hitters are being groomed and developed like never before in the history of the game.  With the advent of year-round amateur baseball, video analysis and personalized hitting instruction, hitters are raking at all levels of the game.   To counteract this, MLB teams have focussed more and more on power pitchers, live young arms that can blow the ball by the improved hitters.  Between 2008 and 2013, the average fastball velocity of major league pitchers rose from 90.9 to 92.0 mph.  This need for increased speed has filtered its way down to the amateur ranks, where an army of radar gun-armed scouts can be found behind home plate at the games of most of the top prospects, raising their arms in unison behind home plate as the nation's top prep pitchers start their windups.   Unfortunately, many medical experts are telling us that the teenage arm is not built to withstand sustained pitches above 85 mph.   And with more and more top draft picks being sidelined with torn Ulnar Collateral Ligaments in their first few years of pro ball, one wonders what the future holds for major league pitching staffs.
   Lucas Giolito was drafted by the Nationals in 2012 even though he and his 100 mph fastball required Tommy John surgery shortly after he signed.  The ranks of TJ patients among the top picks of the last few years include the Pirates' Jamieson Taillon (2nd overall, 2010), the Orioles Dylan Bundy (4th, 2011), Taylor Guerreri (Rays, 24th overall, 2011), and Cam Bedrosian of the Angels (29th - 2010), as well as the Diamondbacks' Archie Bradley, the 7th overall pick in 2011, who is out with what is termed a strained elbow.  The Marlins Jose Fernandez, who they took with the 14th pick of the 2011 draft,  just underwent TJ surgery as well.  These players all had two things in common: they were all drafted out of high school, and they all hit the mid 90s with regularity in their senior year.
   Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, who penned an excellent article about what he called "The Year After Effect," about the hazards of increasing a young pitchers Innings Pitch beyond 30 from one season to the next, has written an article in this month's SI about MLB's Tommy John "Problem."  Verducci noted that with the advent of "showcase" events held across America, combined with the obsession of a player's "hits" on the radar gun,  many young high school pitchers have become "damaged goods," by the time they're drafted.  They're forming what Verducci calls an exclusive group - "pitchers who blow out their arms before they even accrue any major league mileage."  He adds that this group hardly existed five years ago. Go back to 2002, Verducci researched, and you had a first round group that included pitchers Matt Cain, Zack Greinke, and Cole Hamels, none of whom threw harder than 94 as seniors, and they have gone on to log over 1500 innings.
Rate of Top-30 High School Draft Picks to Undergo Tommy John Surgery
YearsTotal PitchersTommy John surgeriesPercent
2002-09           39                         5     12.8
2010-12           16                       5     31.3

   As we have noted before, damage to the UCL is a cumulative thing.  It happens over a period of time, until the tear in the ligament becomes severe enough that the pitcher is in considerable pain, and experiences a significant drop in velocity.  Renowned surgeon Dr James Andrews, who now performs 3-4 TJ surgeries on high school pitchers per week, claims that the physique and physiology of a teenager can't withstand consistently throwing a ball faster than 85 mph.   Studies by the American Sports Medicine Institute seem to back this up.  One study found that high school pitchers who threw faster than 85 are more likely to have surgery before they turn 20, and more importantly, the risk increases exponentially when a pitcher passes his point of fatigue - the number of pitches either in a game or an inning when a pitcher's tiredness translates into sloppy mechanics. ASMI found that a high school pitcher's risk increased thirty six times when they pass their point of fatigue, which is not an unlikely scenario for a kid pitching for a travel team playing in a weekend tournament (interestingly, the Blue Jays instantly remove a minor league pitcher when they've hit 30 pitches in an inning, regardless of the circumstances).
  The ASMI also undertook a huge 10 year study where they tracked almost 500 young pitchers between the ages of 9 and 14.  They found that pitchers who threw more than 100 innings in a calendar year were 3 1/2 times more likely to be injured than those who threw less.
   But is the radar gun solely to blame?  Certainly, it's a huge factor.  Verducci notes that it's a common sight at the games of 10-year old travel teams for parents to be timing kids behind the backstop with a pocket radar gun that looks like a smartphone.  Even for parents who don't know much about baseball, they know what velocity means.  For scouts, it's very seductive.  Even though location and movement are considered to be equally as important as velocity in getting MLB hitters out, a 96 mph fastball pitcher tends to have a greater margin for error than one who throws 90.
   Dr Andrews believes that there are a number of contributing factors.  In an interview with ESPN, he listed year-round baseball and players pitching in multiple leagues as an issue.  Pitch counts aren't necessarily co-ordinated, and young arms don't get the recovery time they need.  Showcase events are also an issue.  Perfect Game is one of the biggest outfits in the Showcase business, with a full-time staff of 50, who co-ordinate over 100 "events" across America every year.  If a pro career isn't in the offing, a college scholarship might be as a result of participating in one of these events.  85% of players who have attended PG's National Showcase every year have ended up signing with one of the top college programs in the country.
    Verducci added that Taillon threw at six PG events over a 13 month period as a 16 year old. At these showcases, pitchers may be fatigued from throwing only a day or two before, but the pressure is still on to light up the scouts' radar guns.
   Andrews also recommended mandatory pitch counts for high school pitchers, but we think that will take a long time, if ever, to happen.  It's one thing for a parent to let their high school aged son not play with concussion symptoms, it's another to agree to coach taking Johnny out of a game because he's reached his pitch count with an armada of college and pro scouts sitting in the stands.
   The frequency of this injury doesn't seem to be deterring big league clubs.  The Nationals gave Giolito a $2.95 million signing bonus, even though he hadn't pitched past March of his draft year.  LSU pitcher Jeff Hoffman recently was diagnosed with a torn UCL, but it wouldn't be a shock to see him go in the top 10 of this June's draft (it also wouldn't be a shock if the Blue Jays take him if his stock falls to a lower round).  So, are pitchers becoming disposable ?  Certainly, if the Blue Jays are any indication, that seems to be the case, at least as far as bullpen arms are concerned.  
   So the issue doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon.  Until the emphasis on showcases, year round baseball, and velocity decreases, parents and high school pitchers are going to continue to feel pressured to be a part of all of this.  MLB teams no doubt do all that they can to protect their young arms once they come into the club's minor league system, but as Verducci says, its may already be too late: "The American Way has found them first, and when they are most vulnerable."
   The blessing of velocity, Verducci concludes, is also a curse.  "The typical kid who throws very hard probably pitches on multiple travel teams, attends showcases across three seasons, sees a year-round coach, doesn't play other sports, and keeps adding velocity, even though his body may not bear well the wear and tear from its force."
  It can be asked, of course, what the big deal is?   Tommy John surgery has something like an 80% success rate, and that's probably a conservative estimate.  MLB teams have shown that losing a pitcher, even one that they've invested heavily in, is not a big deal.  If this trend is only in its infancy, however, maybe this will become more and more prevalent.  And as the largely unsuccessful return from TJ surgery that Kyle Drabek has had (after his second such surgery, to boot) has shown us, not all pitchers can come back from the procedure.  The radar gun isn't going away, but maybe it's time organizations put more emphasis on the other elements of a bat-missing fastball, as well as command, and the development of secondary pitches like the change-up.

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