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?