The Stephen Strasburg Talk

The best part about being a writer for THT is that I get to be part of the Yahoo! Group. Over the last few weeks, we’ve had our version of The Stephen Strasburg Talk and I wanted to share my own reactions. Let me warn you and make this clear, this is a completely subjective post that draws on my experiences. No data allowed.

I’m sure you know what I mean when I say The Stephen Strasburg Talk. It’s the same as The Mark Prior Talk or the Nolan Ryan Abolishes Pitch Counts Talk. Really it’s just our effort to rationalize why we suck at understanding how to keep pitchers healthy. As players continue to get hurt at the major league level despite every effort to protect them, more and more people are wondering if it’s not the way we handle our youth that is resulting in professional injuries. And of course the growing consensus is to protect them. It’s all well and good to protect our youngsters, but I’m hoping that there will still be enough leeway to allow some self determination.

First, allow me to frame our Talk. Anna McDonald was the one who opened this particular can of worms when she expressed interest in seeing one of us write up something that second-guessed the Nationals’ handling of Strasburg. My response—I happened to be the first to respond although Steve Treder wins the award for parsimony—was as follows:

I haven’t second-guessed because they took one of the prevailing ideologies of our time and applied it in a consistent and transparent fashion. If anything is to be second-guessed, it’s our collective understanding of how to protect pitchers.

It could be that cutting him loose in the minors would have prevented this. More likely it was unavoidable with anything short of not allowing him to pitch. As Will Carroll is always trumpeting, why don’t more teams do biomechanical analyses? That’s the only thing I second-guess.

I can’t fault the Nats for using a logical plan that failed.

And, of course, no Stephen Strasburg Talk can end there. It’s not enough to say the Nationals did what they could; the organization may be exonerated, but the culprit remains at large.

At the end of the day, two related explanations are the most attractive to me. The first, which I’ll touch on briefly, is the balance between talent and attrition. Simply put, there are a lot of youngsters who grow up with a talent for throwing baseballs very hard. There are also a lot of youngsters who mature into extremely durable players. Very few combine those traits. Strasburg is in the top percentile of those hard throwers, but it could be that his body isn’t properly designed to handle his talent. It’s a familiar story.

The other explanation is youth specialization. This is where things get tricky. You’ll see lots of people say “kids shouldn’t be so focused on one sport.” Such statements are usually accompanied by incredibly rational explanations detailing why this is true. I often find myself nodding my head, ready to hop aboard the bandwagon before I pause to remember my own life narrative.

I was a youth specialist. My parents always diligently signed me up for every youth sports league our town offered: baseball and soccer in the spring, all-star baseball in the summer, soccer in the fall, and basketball in the winter. I was maybe 10 when I decided I didn’t like basketball. I sucked at it, couldn’t dribble, couldn’t get the ball over the rim. Fast forward two years and I was a specialist—my goal: to become a professional ballplayer. Everything I did revolved around baseball. I participated in increasingly elite leagues, played on multiple teams per season, until the point where I was playing well over 100 games a year.

Then I started working out. My dad was very careful to research (and pay for) the best programs available. Strenuous weight lifting is dangerous for growing youngsters. The program I did focused on core strength, body weight, and light dumbbell exercises, making it safer than most.

I found my way into Joe Barth’s Player Development Academy (a program run by Joe’s business The Hit Doctor) around freshman year of high school. That entailed a continuation and expansion of my previous workout plan. Additionally, in the winter there were six days a week of strenuous throwing, lots of hitting drills and mechanical work. During the playing season this was cut to two or three days a week.

Injuries began to linger. I believe I was 13 when I had elbow tendinitis. I switched from pitcher/shortstop to second base for the duration of the rehab (I also finally learned how to dribble left handed—part of the reason I left basketball in the first place). My next injury was more flukish, a stress fracture in my L5 vertebrae that left me functionally crippled for the summer (related hamstring spasms) between freshman and sophomore year of high school. Several major leaguers have a similar condition. Cole Hamels and David Bell are two I’m aware of. I think it’s the same issue Joe Mauer has, too.

I bounced back easily enough from these early injuries. In fact I bounced back better than I had been both times because the rehab programs strengthened things I had overlooked. Then, in my junior year, an injury that I still don’t fully understand began to creep in and slowly leech my skills. It manifested as a biceps strain. Doctors blamed my shoulder and/or hip. Once my bicep started aching, the pain would spike and my velocity would start to drop as my muscles refused to remain limber. I needed more and more rest between outings. Working out could trigger it, throwing could trigger it, swinging could trigger it.

I battled this frequently for the better part of six years, moving from position to position, workout program to workout program, finally settling on pitcher and core exercises only. My last year of college was the worst. Every day I had to “re-learn” how to throw. I gutted out the remainder of the season and haven’t seriously thrown a ball since.

I tell you this truncated version of my story because I’m quite certain youth specialization and the frequent mechanical changes I made along the way led to my breakdown. It’s almost too obvious not to be the cause. Nevertheless, I don’t regret the pain I pushed myself through or the disappointment of slowly and noticeably feeling my talent slip away every time I picked up the ball. This path was my only shot at greatness. If I hadn’t done everything I did as a youngster I would never have played in high school, let alone in college. I would never have had the opportunity to learn and experience all that I did. I would never have had the chance to become me.

When solving undergrad level economics questions, often the pertinent question to ask oneself is “What am I trying to maximize?” Parents who force a diverse mix of sports upon their kids are making a choice for them. They’re maximizing their child’s physical health. It’s a noble goal, but I took a different path. I maximized my odds at realizing my dream. Through countless days of hard work and effort, I turned myself into a player who wasn’t a prospect but played with and against many. I turned myself into a potential Dustin Pedroia. I maximized my experiences in the sport. And then I broke. I don’t regret it.

I turn the floor over to the crowd. What do you think we should maximize? In what ways can we protect youth ballplayers that won’t take away from the experience?

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  1. tbr said...

    While in theory, I welcome the idea of biomechanical analysis, in practice I wonder if it would work because there is a huge contingency that completely discounts their veracity or value.  And for those who do believe, no consensus has been reached as to what constitutes healthy mechanics.  Remember that for every “expert” who said that Mark Prior had perfect mechanics you could find another one who pointed out multiple red flags. 

    Your injury journey further supports the old adage about health being a skill.  Perhaps you are right about overspecialization being a cause, but it really does seem that we just don’t know why some athletes stay healthy and some don’t.  Maybe, like the ability to throw a baseball at 98 mph, it’s a skill that some people are just blessed with, while others weren’t given that gene.

  2. Brad Johnson said...

    The best uses of biomechanical analysis probably deserves a post of its own. I’ll type it up over lunch break for tomorrow. I agree completely as you could probably gather from my comments in Alex Eisenberg’s latest article about Liriano. Nobody really knows what perfect mechanics are, probably because it seems pretty obvious that there such a thing. Certainly there’s a high correlation between certain types of mechnical sets and success, but with the way every body is different, it follows that perfect mechanics means something different for every individual. There can’t be one way to throw or swing in a “perfect” manner.

    Then there are the players who can only compete at the ML level with imperfect mechanics. To them you can only say, good luck staying healthy.

  3. Chris said...

    For every story like yours, though, is the opposite story, where the specialization/dream is the parent’s idea and the kid just wants to run around and have fun.

    The problem isn’t which of these two options is better, its that its difficult to know the mind of a 12-year-old even when you are the 12-year-old. 

    Specializing early is the best way to maximize your skills.  No question.  Its also the best way to make a mistake since interests and skill advantages will change over time.  Having the strongest leg is a huge advantage in 9-year-old soccer, but being able to kick equally well with either foot doesn’t become valuable until later.

  4. Brad Johnson said...

    Nice point about soccer. I went from offensive juggernaut to defensive bruiser very quickly because my ball handling skills never matured along with my leg. Thankfully I remained above average in speed for a defender and was known throughout the rec league for punishing ball handlers. And when the refs are usually high school boys, open field checking is subtly encouraged.

    Of course that’s off topic. Yes, parental influence is a dangerous thing. I’ve long believed that the worst thing a parent can do is to impose their beliefs and goals on their child. That certainly applies to youth sports. In my case, I asked to do everything I did, my parents only rule was that I never quit mid-season. The exception was working out, my dad had to talk me into that initially. But even that’s a half truth, he wanted me to start at 13 and I wanted to start at 15. All he had to convince me was that the program wouldn’t interfere with my growing.

  5. David Wade said...

    As a father of three kids who are coming of age as far as the specialization of activity debate and injury goes, I’m very interested in this subject.  Currently I have decided to try and adopt both sides of the argument. 

    I do encourage my boys to play all sports.  But, the oldest has shown an aptitude toward baseball.  Since being a genetic freak percentile-wise in height and/or weight and/or speed is almost a required trait for success in high school football and basketball, I agree with the author and feel my son should (as long as he continues to enjoys it) devote a lot of time improving his skill set in his ‘best’ sport, baseball, while sprinkling in the others as long as he likes them too.

    I often see and hear negativity that runs along the lines of ‘parents are dragging kids all over hell’s creation all summer to play baseball in search of a college scholarship in 10 years’.

    To this I say that I realize the odds are short to get a college scholarship in baseball.  I also realize the odds are far, far shorter that a kid ever plays a high level in sports with minimal practice as a youth.  But that’s really not my point either.

    Some parents really enjoy the time spent with their kids in competitive sports.  And, it beats them sitting in their room playing XBox 18 hours a day, even though the only health concern with doing that is obesity.

  6. Greg Simons said...

    I wonder if too much specialization at a young age (12-15) constrains the body’s ability to develop in a way that will help prevent injury in the future.  There’s the long-held believe that kids shouldn’t throw curveballs when they’re young, and that they shouldn’t work out with heavy weights – as you mentioned, Brad – because it can harm the body.

    So I wonder if focusing too much on developing the particular muscles/skills/movements of one sport can lead to similar harm.  Perhaps more well-rounded development, which could be achieved by playing other sports and taking a break from the primary one, would build the body up in a more balanced way and reduce injuries.

    And I’m not sure a kid has to focus on a single sport starting in, what, junior high is necessary to excel in that sport.  A fair number of athletes played multiple sports at a high level into high school or even college before focusing on a single one and reaching the top level in their chosen sport.

    I’m not saying I’m right, I’m just throwing this out for debate, because it’s obvious no one has the right answer yet, or else we wouldn’t be having this exchange.

  7. Brad Johnson said...

    “And I’m not sure a kid has to focus on a single sport starting in, what, junior high is necessary to excel in that sport. “

    That depends on the athlete. When you have a Domonic Brown who can be a star wideout and a stud outfielder, sure early specialization probably won’t be necessary to excel. When you have a grind and guts type player like myself who would never have made my college or probably even high school team without all the effort and concentration I put it, it’s another matter entirely.

  8. David Wade said...

    Greg- Dr. James Andrews agrees with your first couple of paragraphs.  He has suggested kids avoid playing the same sport year around and play other sports to be more rounded athletes.

    I do disagree a little with your point about specialization, however.  I would guess that the majority of kids that play college baseball focused more on baseball in high school than other sports, even though they played other sports too. I’m only using anectdotal evidence from the former college baseball players I know- I don’t have stats to back it up.

    Yes, there are a few multi-sport athletes in college, but I think they are the genetic elite, and not the norm.  To get really good at something requires lots of practice.

  9. Brad Johnson said...

    Russell, you bring up a good point, namely that it’s very hard to figure out which programs are good for pitchers and which are neutral or even bad. Yet it is not impossible and is done with some level of effectiveness. In your example you use a number of 10 athletes, but when you have a more widespread program that works with hundreds of athletes, it becomes possible to compare that to other programs with a decent level of statistical certainty.

    As for the rest of your comments, I think you need to look at the logical inconsistencies you present in your arguments. Case in point:

    “I don’t beleive some people can handle pitiching stress better than others. If this were true lincecum should have needed tj surgery by now. He is a 160 pound weed smoker. Strausburgs way stronger. “

    I understand this is probably meant as hyperbole, but the first sentence is seemingly at odds with the remainder of the idea. If Lincecum really is some weakling (a stance which I would argue vehemently against), then his continued health compared to the weight lifting Strasburg would seemingly suggest that health may be a skill. That’s certainly a stronger and more likely conclusion than “weight lifting injures people” given publically available information.

    I fail to see a connection between weed and baseball. At best it’s a case by case thing since marajuana affects everyone in different ways. It’s irrelevant to this discussion.

    I think I’ll try to keep my hands off the remaining stuff. Suffice it to say I disagree. If you want to get into it, feel free to comment or email me.

  10. Russell said...

    I think that it’s bad mechanics and overuse that leads to injury. However, I think diffrent people might need diffrent mechanics, and this makes it really hard for instructiors who may or may not know what their doing. I beleive that if a kid has good mechanics and no arm issues then he should be fine to throw a proper curve by 13. However, a mechanicly bad curve might lead to arm issues despite decent mechanics and a bad curve with bad mechanics can be distraous. This is even more true with a slider. I don’t beleive some people can handle pitiching stress better than others. If this were true lincecum should have needed tj surgery by now. He is a 160 pound weed smoker. Strausburgs way stronger.

  11. Russell said...

    Also I think the rehab stuff may do more harm than good. My arm never hurts when I pitch but i feel it when I use medical bands or overly strech it. Weights really don’t help velocity at all. I think lifting is bad for pitchers. I’d bet strausburg lifts more than lincecum, and I beleive this may have hurt his already weakened muscles. I think we really don’t have a clue about what helps and what dosent. If one progam produces 10 injury free kids we might think it’s due to the progam whn it might have done nothing. Sort of like how Joe Morgan claims jeeters intangibles help the yanks win world series more than an an arod bomb, or if you go. 4-4 in a game 7 your clutch when your really just lucky

  12. Russell said...

    What I mean by the weightlifting argument and rehab arguments is that it seems like the kids who do them a lot are the ones who have injuries. By rehab I mean those medical bands and tennis ball cans filled with sand etc. I beleive this is not because those things neccairly hurt them but that it dosent fix the problem, their mechanics. Also with the lincecum argument I meant that if strausburgs and timmys mechanics were exactly the same I think timmy would get hurt first asuming they both used an identical “average” motion. Basicly I think it is mechanics that determine a pitichers injury rate. Wether or not we can know what a pitchers ideal mechanics are I don’t know. I think you can pitch pain free, and if it hurts it would be wiser to change mechanics then start on some arm exercises. Those exercises won’t stop the injuries to your arm while you pitch.

  13. Brad Johnson said...

    Much better. Thanks for clarifying. smile

    I can get behind most of what you’re saying except 1). I’m pretty damn confident that ideal pitching mechanics differ between individuals. By extension, but less certain, I suspect MANY pitchers do not have a mechanical set that would keep them healthy indefinitely, and B). We can’t really figure the direction of causality between injuries, mechanics, and strengthening exercises.

    #1 is basically the belief that some portion of health is a skill. Again causality plays a role. If someone impinges their shoulder working out and doesn’t know about it, their mechanics WILL change to something sub-ideal, regardless of what they were before. If they don’t know about and don’t deal with the impingement, they will never have correct mechanics no matter how we define the term. That’s a strong example, we know that anything from a pinky toe injury to a stiff neck could significantly alter mechanics for one or more games and cascade into a more serious problem.

    A couple years back when I was still playing, the latest cutting edge info was that flexible tubing was bad for the joints, but the same exercises done with very light free weights were beneficial. I don’t know the current opinion on that kind of stuff. I know it seemed plausible enough to believe at the time.

  14. David Wade said...

    I’m not sure I buy the notion that pitchers who lift weights are more inclined to get injured than those who don’t.  Strength training can add velocity.  If done properly, it can also strengthen muscles that stabilize the shoulder.  Avoiding resistance training for pitchers is almost as old-school as avoiding resistance training for hitters.

  15. Brad Johnson said...

    If I accidentally implied that I agreed with that, my apologies. What I meant is that strength training is certainly risky, especially for the vast majority of youth who don’t have access to high quality semi-personal trainers like I did. I invoked causality to cover the fact that there is a statistical chance working out increases injuries even if that is pretty unlikely.

    As you get older the risk decreases, but a bad work out plan can result in injury at any age. It’s important to try to build a “smart” workout plan while acknowledging that there’s a fair bit of uncertainty regarding any program.

  16. David Wade said...

    Actually Brad, I was responding to the post above yours- sorry about the confusion. 

    And, now that I look back up at it, there was some backing off of the stance against weight training, though weight training was still lumped in with rehab.  But, I’d probably still argue against that as well.

    While rehab won’t fix mechanics, it can fix other things and be part of a solution.  It certainly doesn’t have to be either / or.

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