Pitcher injuries and witchcraft

It’s happened once again: A big-time draft pick out of college gets into affiliated baseball, and within a year he’s shelved with a major elbow or shoulder injury. The scouts and player development departments point fingers at each other, blaming one another for failing to detect whether a pitcher is more likely to be hurt or for ailing to keep him healthy once he’s in the organization. Meanwhile, fans boo the organization and wonder what is happening the black box of “player development.”

Or a top prep player hurts his arm in high school because his coach doesn’t prepare him to pitch 100 innings per year. He rehabilitates his arm, and his physical therapists suggest looking into a specific type of training to help strengthen his arm. The athlete researches the topic vigorously and buys into the program, and after rehab, his arm feels better than ever. He is throwing the ball harder than he ever has, and he has no pain. When he reports the great news to his prep coach, the coach says “It’s my way or the highway. If you don’t lift with the team and drop those stupid exercises, you won’t pitch for us.”

Here are some stories, all true—though personally identifiable details may have been changed to protect the players and coaches—about this ridiculous phenomenon.

The college star

Michael is an very good college pitching prospect—in his draftable year, he will be in the top five of his conference in both strikeouts and walk rate. While his velocity is nothing eye-popping (89-91 mph), his plus command and his pitching ability have him projected to go in the top five rounds of the draft. Michael’s pitching coach in high school was very open-minded, and sent him to a pitching camp to learn how to build his arm up. The coach also recommended the college he attended, since the pitching coach follows a similar program and has had a very good record of keeping his pitchers healthy.

Michael’s team washes out of the college regionals, not getting close to Omaha, but his draft stock isn’t hurt by it. He’s picked in the top rounds and signs quickly, going straight to his pro team’s short-season affiliate. While there, he pitches well, but he’s not used to the organization’s pitching philosophy. The team makes him do a lot of long-distance running and limits its pitchers to throwing warm-ups at only a certain distance.

Michael’s usual warm-up takes him over an hour to complete when done properly, and it includes many different exercises with unique implements. The coaches in the organization think this warm-up is dangerous, but when Michael gently tries to have a conversation about his program (Michael studied exercise science, so he knows a bit beyond the rote stuff he gets from his trainer), the coaches say: “We are the employers, you are the employee. Deal with it.”

Six weeks later, Michael’s velocity has fallen to 85-87 mph. His arm is in constant discomfort, though it’s not painful yet. Getting accustomed to the new warm-ups and the five-day schedule was tougher than Michael thought.

In his last start of the season, Michael throws a slider and immediately grabs his pitching forearm—it feels like he’s been shot! He looks down and sees pulsing in the middle of his arm; it now feels like someone has plunged a hot knife into his arm. He begs off the mound, and runs to the training room. The trainer tells him that it’s very likely a torn flexor tendon or a major UCL tear (Tommy John), and that he needs to ice it and see the team doctor.

MRIs confirm that Michael’s ulnar collateral ligament has been ruptured. When Michael’s doctor compares his pre-draft MRI (clean, minimal fraying of the UCL) with his post-draft MRI (full rupture), he is at a loss for words.

The college sleeper

John is a short, unassuming pitcher at a major Division I school. His pitching coach is very laid back and allows John to train the way he likes, though the pitching coach wishes he would throw more and do some of the exercises he has recommended for him. John thinks all the stuff that looks like ballet is a load of garbage, and he internally laughs at his teammates who are into it. The pitching coach doesn’t mind that much, since he’s a player’s manager, and as long as John gets guys out (3.90 ERA) and doesn’t hassle his teammates too much, he can continue to pitch.

John goes undrafted after his junior year—not surprising for a 5-foot-11 pitcher who throws 87-88 mph with minor control issues. While John has a good breaking ball and a feel for the spot, his stuff is simply not good enough for pro ball. John resigns himself to having a nice college career and getting into the work force after he completes his degree in mechanical engineering.

However, a new strength and conditioning coach has been hired, and he is sick of John’s attitude. Having been the assistant in the past, he looked at John’s wiry body and knew that John should get himself together and listen to the pitching coach. This coach gets in his ear and yells at him all offseason, even chasing him around the campus telling him he’s wasting his life, and he shouldn’t come out to the baseball team next year.

John doesn’t take this very well, and he responds with a ton of anger. The strength and conditioning coach tells him he just wants him to be the best pitcher he can be, and to give him four weeks to demonstrate that he (and his pitching coach) aren’t idiots.

John mulls it over and accepts the challenge. He’s not exactly ready to let the pro ball dream go.

After four weeks, John is lifting huge numbers in the weight room and loving the physical changes to his body. He can now long toss the ball much farther, and his arm doesn’t get sore. John throws almost every day to the point where the pitching coach is having to tell him to take breaks.

At the beginning of his senior year, John is throwing in the mid-90s. The pitching coach tells him he wants him to be a closer, since he’s still a bit wild. John loves it and continues to work very hard, knowing he has to throw only 20-25 pitches per game. His velocity tops at 98 mph and he comfortably sits in the 95-96 range.

Despite his size, John is third in his conference in strikeout rate, and his stuff has now reached elite status. He is picked in the first round of the major league draft, but negotiations take a long time, and he is unable to pitch for the organization until the following year.

The organization signs him to a large bonus and tells him that he must follow its off season workout regimen—that he can no longer lift heavy, throw whenever he wants, and do the strange exercises he wants to do. John doesn’t take kindly to this, and goes to parks to long toss—until he finds the local area scout pulling up in a car to yell at him for throwing in cold weather and past 120 feet.

John gets a call from the team’s director of player development, who threatens to ruin his career if John doesn’t follow his organization’s rules. John sighs, and does so.

At the beginning of spring training, John’s velocity is down to 90-91 mph despite following the offseason workout to a T. He pitches his first full season and is wilder than ever, and he goes on the disabled list twice for general soreness. The next year, he tears his ulnar collateral ligament, rehabilitates it, and is traded to another organization, which buries him. John is eventually released, and doesn’t sign another pro baseball contract.

The prep weirdo

Robert is a sophomore on a nationally ranked high school team on the east coast. At 6-foot-2, he gets plenty of attention from his coaches, but Robert can’t throw harder than 75 mph. His coaches use him sparingly, and at the end of the year, Robert asks what he can do to improve his velocity. The coaches look at each other and shrug; they have no idea. They say to run a lot and throw a bunch.

Robert’s father shows him some Internet reports of pitchers gaining 10 mph in a single year of training. The problem is that the training site is morethan 1,500 miles away. Though the facility offers books and DVDs, Robert’s dad wants to check out the facility for himself. They save up and book tickets to see this pitching coach, who shows Robert some mechanical drills he can do to get better, and a full-year training program. Robert takes well to the training, and works a summer job to build up enough money to buy the necessary equipment and a huge chain-link fence in the backyard, where he can simulate long toss and bullpen sessions.

His summer ball coach absolutely loves Robert’s work ethic, to say nothing of his fastball velocity, which has topped 85 mph now. The coach was using him as the No. 2 starter, but when he finds out that Robert’s arm never hurts and that he is throwing six days a week, the coach makes him a short starter, throwing 65 pitches per start and doubling as a high-leverage reliever up to two other days of the week. That suits, because while he liked starting, he just loves taking the hill in any form. While the summer coach never really buys into Robert’s program, all he cares about is results—and Robert is delivering them.

Summer comes and goes, and Robert shows up to tryouts with this in his hand:

image

His coach doubles over in laughter and calls the contraption a bunch of vulgar words. His players join in, and Robert tries to explain that he uses it to warm-up, and that some big time pitchers use it!

“Yeah, like that idiot who was traded? I heard Nomar Garciaparra making fun of him on TV and saying he’d never amount to anything.”

Robert fights back tears quits the high school team. He plays only for his summer ball team and a recreational team.

A year later, a scout’s son is playing in a fall recreational league and sees a 6-foot-3 kid throwing 90-92 mph and mowing down hitters. While the competition isn’t very good, the scout has to wonder, so he approaches the pitcher after the game, and asks him where he’s going to college.

“Nowhere, sir.”

“You aren’t playing college baseball?”

“No. I’m not good enough to play.”

“…let me get your contact information, if that’s OK with you.”

Robert signs as an undrafted free agent with the scout’s organization, which lets him continue his weird workout—big black flexible tube and all. Robert is a second-year professional pitcher and was the only starter on his team not to go down with an arm injury.

The overzealous prep coach

Kevin is an imposing figure— 6-foot-6, 240 pounds. He looks more like a Division I power forward than he does a baseball player. And actually, he has been scouted by many Division I schools to play basketball, but he decides his junior year that baseball is his first love. Kevin is throwing just 70 mph because he is uncoordinated, and while he has plus raw power, he can’t square up a ball.

Kevin finds a gym where he can train at 5 a.m. before school and at 8 p.m. after practice, and he works extremely hard with his trainer to develop fastball velocity and bat speed. Kevin wants to switch-hit, but his coaches aren’t enthused with the idea, saying “He can’t hit from either side of the plate.” Kevin shoulders on and works on hitting from both the left and right side in addition to pitching.

During his junior year, the coaches tell him that he has to bat right-handed only, or he will be sent to JV. Kevin tells his coaches that he feels he can hit from both sides, and in tryouts he delivers multiple extra base hits from both sides of the plate, including a pair of homers as a lefty. The coaches stand firm on their threat, so Kevin accepts the demotion rather than changing what he wants to do.

He finishes the year manhandling JV pitching, and plays for a summer team, pitching quite well and hitting fourth in the lineup. An area scout watches him throw and adds Kevin to his professional scout team, where he’ll allow just a single run in 26 innings. At this point, Kevin’s fastball is topping 84, and when he is invited to a closed professional workout, his fastball touches 86.

Kevin is now fielding many college scholarship offers, and eventually decides to commit to a prestigious junior college so he can keep his draft options open. The junior college coach tells him he will start every week and bat in the middle of the lineup, sharing duties at first base and DHing the days before his starts on the mound.

All is right in the world, until he returns to his high school. Despite the fact that the head coach has been fired, the returning coaches know about Kevin’s “problems,” and while they put him on the varsity roster, he never plays. (Not a single other senior is good enough to have a college commitment to play baseball.)

And there are more

I could go on and on. I have at least six other stories I could tell.

These are the attitudes of prep, college and professional coaches everywhere. And it boils down to one word: Witchcraft.

Though performance analysis and quantification of the game has been successful in many areas of major league organizations, their player development still lags far, far behind. We are even further behind where Bill James was when he started pontificating about numbers and baseballs while he worked as a security guard at a pork and beans factory.

We can’t get better at it until we accept that there is a problem.

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Comments

  1. aweb said...

    It seems you are several steps ahead of a lot of pro teams in terms of fastball development, but I was wondering if you have developed expertise on throwing breaking pitches from a health point of view? Sliders and curves are noted arm shredders for some, for instance.

  2. Kyle Boddy said...

    aweb:

    There’s not a lot of medical evidence that shows breaking balls are more stressful on the arm. That being said, I definitely agree that they can be if thrown improperly.

    I have my empirical theories on how to safely throw breaking balls, but that’s for another article entirely!

  3. CoachRyan said...

    That’s a great article.  I really enjoyed reading it.  I can also gather who a couple of those guys are in real life…

    Witchcraft…you may be right.  Baseball has some great traditions but sometime needs to let go of the past.

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