The Arm, Jeff Passan’s new book that was released today, has enough material for several books. That can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how the material is presented, treated and respected. For instance, the recently released movie, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, really drives home the importance of weaving one story element into another, because when it is done poorly — as it was in this movie — it is quite jarring. The Arm had the opportunity to be equally as jarring, but it never is because Passan is able to tie every element into a larger narrative about Tommy John surgery.
The Arm covers an incredible amount of ground in the book in search of the answer to two questions — “How did baseball fail the pitching arm, and what can be done to save it?” Passan, one of the main columnists for Yahoo! Sports, combines insightful columns with excellent reporting. He has previously been a reporter for The Kansas City Star, and co-authored the book, Death to the BCS. Back in 2014, Passan appeared on an episode of FanGraphs Audio, where he debated the methodology behind Wins Above Replacement with Carson Cistulli and Dave Cameron.
Passan spent three years researching and reporting the book, in a seemingly endless search of stories that would feed his curiosity and make for a richer tale. I say tale because often the book reads like a novel. It sometimes feels like peak Michael Crichton, in that Passan seamlessly weaves technical details into the stories of people’s lives.
The two main characters in the book, other than himself — much of the book is written from his first person perspective as he was investigating each story — are pitchers Daniel Hudson and Todd Coffey. Both underwent Tommy John surgery in the time Passan was undertaking The Arm, and the book often centers on their surgery, recovery and road back to the big leagues. Passan spent a great deal of time with both, and often came away with chilling stories. One such story came after Hudson’s first rehab start:
It started when he threw breaking balls from the mound for the first time in April 2013. Soreness shot through his forearm and elbow. He knew he should have said something to Ken Crenshaw, the Diamondbacks’ athletic trainer, or Brad Arnsberg, the pitching coach the organization had hired especially to nurse him back. Except there was supposed to be soreness, and it would go away, and it did, and when it returned, it was somewhere else, down along the flexor muscles in the forearm, which made him think that was normal as well, even though it hurt not just when he was throwing but when he was simply drying his hair with a towel. And perhaps, even then, the soreness was appropriate. The impossible mystery of the pitching arm was that no one knew for sure what Hudson did to make his arm hurt. At this bar, on his third drink, the night young enough for a few more, he damn sure didn’t know himself.
Maybe it was just inflammation or scar tissue or something else. Maybe it would go away with some soft-tissue work using a fascial abrasion tool, a cast-iron implement that hurts like mad when a trainer scrapes it across your skin to loosen muscles and feels like heaven when the muscles comply. Anything but the other maybe.
Seven months earlier, just as he was starting to throw, Hudson had marveled at his good fortune. Not an iota of soreness. Not a single setback. He knew better than to trust that. Beware the pitcher who’s free of fear. ‘That’s what I keep telling myself: It’s going too well right now,’ Hudson said. ‘Something bad is going to happen, but it hasn’t happened yet.'”
Focusing on these two pitchers would be enough — there were enough tendrils hanging from these two stories to put together a good book. But Passan wanted other stories.
Not content to focus on broken pitchers, Passan also entered the realm of the healthy pitcher, and the fear that comes with trying to sign even the healthiest of pitchers. In this case, the pitcher was Jon Lester. Passan shadowed him and his agents throughout Lester’s free agent process in November and December 2014. This was an illuminating chapter, rich both in anecdotes and insight. Among other things, we learn that Theo Epstein drinks Jägermeister. That is but the tip of the iceberg.
Passan could have stopped there. Two sides of the coin, healthy and injured. But he kept going. He went deep into what he calls the “Perfect Game Generation.” As the parent of a child who was starting to play baseball, he wanted to know more about the Tommy John epidemic among children and teenagers. He details the rise of Perfect Game and its founder, Jerry Ford, as well as the kids who wind up in its grasp, like draft prospects Anthony Molina and Riley Pint. Perfect Game, on its website, proclaims to be “devoted to furthering the development and career of the talented amateur baseball player.” It accomplishes this by setting up player showcases and team tournaments across the country. Some kids start playing Perfect Game before they’ve lost their baby teeth.
If you’ve heard of Perfect Game, and thought of it as a company that exploits children for profit, this book is unlikely to change your mind. Here’s a brief excerpt about its recruiting strategy for its marquee games.
About a week later, Perfect Game called. Neil [Pint, Riley’s father] apologized, but Riley couldn’t come. He didn’t break promises, and he pledged to go to Chicago [to competitor Under Armour’s All-America game]. Different Perfect Game representatives called his advisors, Greg Schaum and Jason Wood, and even the coaching staff at Louisiana State University. When that didn’t work, Ford paid Pint a personal visit and tried to talk with Neil about San Diego, even though Schaum explicitly said not to bring it up. Perfect Game’s inability to tolerate rejection did not endear the company to the Pint family, least of all Riley.”
To be that aggressive in trying to recruit a teenager to one of your events is pretty sick. But by that point in the chapter, the nausea may have wafted through you a few times. Here’s another choice quote from earlier in that chapter that is sick on every level:
Travel baseball has become at least a nine-figure industry, preying on parents’ insatiable desire to secure college scholarship money and a high-paying major league future for their children. In 2015, Perfect Game robbed the cradle with more than a dozen events for nine-and-under teams. The US Specialty Sports Association, originally a governing body for slow-pitch softball that weaseled its way into amateur baseball, ranked thirty four-and-under teams in 2015 — as in, preschool-aged. The hunger for validation in youth sports never ends, and it’s exceeded only be someone else’s hunger to commodify it.
The increase in Tommy John surgeries among children gets a lot easier to understand after reading this chapter.
So, we have present day stories of kids and adults — both broken and healthy. To this, Passan adds a historical component. He interviewed Sandy Koufax, Dr. Frank Jobe, Scott Boras and Tommy John himself, to paint the picture of how the surgery has evolved, and with it the rehab and precautions that come with pitchers coming back from the surgery. The handling of Stephen Strasburg and Matt Harvey is recounted. You probably remember those situations. I know I do. But he also details how Boras got the Tigers and Cardinals to watch their usage of Jeff Weaver and Rick Ankiel, respectively. I didn’t know/remember those, and these details are what make the book so comprehensive.
Passan isn’t just comprehensive, he’s a nerd at heart, and as such, and he shows us just how much by citing the research that informed the stories in the book. There are plenty of mentions for The Hardball Times, and for Baseball Prospectus. Jon Roegele is name checked twice, for his studies on Tommy John recovery times and how long pitchers last once they actually return to major league action. THT’s Jeff Zimmerman was cited for his research on days lost to shoulder injuries and for his work on velocity’s relationship with pitcher arm injuries. BP’s Russell Carleton is cited for his work on the best predictors of arm injuries. Jazayerli gets a lot of play in the discussion of pitch counts, as his Pitcher Abuse Points forever changed the game. Finally, in a bit of very cool trivia, FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron gets a shout out. When the Cubs were beginning the full court press on Jon Lester, they prepared a propaganda video that included quotes from Cameron’s organizational overview of the Cubs.
With all these tales of American pitchers with shredded elbows is bad enough, Passan also went all the way to Japan, where the Tommy John epidemic might actually be worse. He studied the Koshien tournament, a twice-yearly tourney that pits the best high school teams in Japan against each other — once in the spring, and once in the summer. Passan says it marries “the interest of the NFL, the urgency of the NCAA basketball tournament and the parochialism of the World Cup.”
In Japan, Passan found Tomohiro Anraku, who threw 772 pitches in five games in a nine-day span during the 2013 Spring Koshien. He talked to Anraku’s coach, the famed Masanori Joko, and his father Yukari Anraku. He talked to Yu Darvish‘s father, Farsad. He talked to other players, and their parents. He talked to Daisuke Araki, the famous Japanese pitcher and TV commentator for whom Daisuke Matsuzaka is named. Perhaps most importantly, he talked to a spinal surgeon named Dr. Naotaka Mamizuka, who volunteers his time twice a week to look at baseball players’ arm injuries. Here’s a sampling from his visit to Mito Kyodo Hospital:
The boy likely broke his elbow once before, did not allow proper healing, and fractured it again. He was ten years old. And his story mirrored that of almost all the nineteen other patients Mamizuka saw that afternoon, a typical Friday other than it happened to be one day before Summer Koshien was set to begin.”
This dedication to find every story sets the book apart from less ambitious projects, but it also sets itself apart from the competition in two other ways. One is by weaving in the stories of Hudson and Coffey. The pair are ever present throughout the book; their tales of trouble and triumph get their own chapters, but also pepper the chapters that focus on others. The other is by not just looking for stories, but also for solutions.
That search for solutions ranged from MLB’s Park Avenue offices, where we learn the backstory of the seven-day disabled list, all the way to Seattle, to old friend Kyle Boddy and Driveline Baseball. It’s there we also meet Casey Weathers and Trevor Bauer, who is constantly in search of a better way, just like Boddy. (You can read an excerpt of Passan’s time with Boddy here.)
There are no easy answers. Every pitcher is different, every arm is different. But in this book Passan combines history, storytelling and the search for answers, and does it in a comprehensive and engaging manner. My copy of The Arm is already dog-eared, and is sure to find a place among the most referenced baseball books on my shelf, a list that includes Moneyball, The Book, The End of Baseball As We Knew It, Baseball Between the Numbers and The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. If you’re a baseball fan interested in learning more about the past, present and future of pitching, Tommy John surgery or just baseball in general, The Arm is an absolute must read.