Phil Coke played a major role in Detroit’s rise to the World Series in 2012: Tigers manager Jim Leyland turned to him as the closer over the unstable Jose Valverde. However, his career in the big leagues almost never happened. According to Jonah Keri’s column in Grantland, Coke was heading down pink slip lane:
Coke made his short-season debut in 2003 in the Gulf Coast League, returned the next season, and ran into the first of his bouts with elbow trouble. He finally got a clean shot at starting the next year … and was terrible, posting a 5.42 ERA, giving up 122 hits, and striking out just 68 batters in 103 innings in Class A at Charleston of the South Atlantic League. He wasn’t throwing hard enough, wasn’t hitting his spots, and above all else, was trying too hard, letting his wrestler’s mentality affect his emotions and his pitching.
Coke’s velocity was too poor to get advanced hitters out, and the lack of velocity made him nibble instead of challenging guys, which tends to reduce your velocity, which means you have to hit your spots… it’s a never-ending cycle that leads to being released rather quickly. (Read Dirk Hayhurst‘s books for evidence of the same phenomenon: the mental adjustment from level to level is huge.)
Coke had to turn to outside help for assistance—finding an alternative trainer who dared to think outside the box:
His career at a crossroads, Coke sought the help of a training guru named Adrian Crook. Crook’s teaching was grounded in Shaolin kung fu. For Crook, the goal of Shaolin was to develop flexibility, balance, and core strength as the pillars for training athletes in any sport. By becoming more flexible, Crook believed athletes could recover from even the most intense workouts and dramatically lower their injury risk. In training baseball pitchers, the focus would be on dissecting every element of throwing mechanics, right down to what the fingers and the wrists do. Crook’s pitcher pupils would use weighted balls to exercise each part of the arm and hand, via what he called “ridiculously high reps.” Coke loved these ideas and was eager to start training with Crook immediately.
The sentence that stuck out for me was the “ridiculously high reps” quote. Modern baseball pitchers are taught that “you’ve only got so many bullets in your arm.” (Former Blue Jays’ GM JP Riccardi)
As Peter Brand (yes, I know who it’s supposed to be) from Moneyball says, “baseball thinking is medieval. They are asking all the wrong questions.” Questions like: “How many pitches has he thrown? How far did he throw his long toss? Did he touch weighted baseballs in the offseason? How much does he bench?”
Overuse isn’t the problem; undertraining the arm is the real issue. Coke’s velocity went from 87-88 mph to 94-95 mph after he exposed his arm to “overuse” through “ridiculously high reps” and he’s been extremely durable, going to the DL only for a bone bruise on his foot.
Baseball definitely needs to preserve the arms of its most valuable assets—cost-controlled studly pitchers—but wrapping them in plastic and curtailing their throwing programs isn’t the way. Think of it this way: Throwing a baseball is the only activity where we tell people to do less of it to get better at it.
It’s not overuse. It’s undertraining. Asking your best pitchers to step up in the highest leverage situations without adequately preparing them is the best way to abuse their arms.