PNC PARK – We still don’t know enough about injury prevention.
That’s what I took away from Sunday’s news that Pirates’ top pitching prospect Jameson Taillon requires Tommy John surgery. The Pirates handled Taillon about as cautiously as any top pitching prospect in Major League history. They took his workload and pitch restrictions to an extreme at times in the minor leagues. They ran him through biomechanical examinations, and they drafted him over Manny Machado because he was big, strong and had a clean delivery.
And his arm still broke.
There’s nothing that could have prevented the outcome based on our current understanding of injury prevention. But the industry should strive to improve its understanding.
The industry has spent a billion dollars on injured pitchers over the last five years. That’s billion with a ‘B.’ The industry has to focus much more attention on injury prevention. There was not even an official MLB injury database until 2010. (The DL isn’t a database, it’s a roster-management tool that does not always contain injured players or document every injury).
I suspected that when Neal Huntington said Taillon’s elbow ligament was “intact” last week the No. 2 overall pick from the 2010 draft was dealing with a partially torn ligament. The Pirates do take injury prevention seriously. Huntington said the Pirates have bettered the industry standard in injury prevention but there are no perfect batting averages here.
“We’ll continue to study,” Huntington said. “Whether it’s the biomechanics, whether it’s the size, the strength, the pitch count, the pitch build-up, the stress pitch count, the effective pitch count…. We’ll continue to do it. Twenty-five percent of pitchers on Opening Day rosters last season had Tommy John. We’ve had less than 20 in our six years here so our rate is significantly lower than the major league rate. But we’re still having them.”
The silver lining in this is Taillon and the Pirates decided not to put this off.
Rest and rehab was an option but it has not worked over the past calendar year with Dylan Bundy, Matt Harvey and Miguel Sano. It has just delayed the inevitable.
“(Rest) is not a proven cure. It’s a possible cure or it’s delay and that is one of the challenges,” Huntington said. “We presented Jameson with all kinds of information. I’m sure he did all sorts of research on his own. How much of a factor that played in Jameson’s decision I can’t tell you. … He and we felt it was best to go ahead and have the surgery.”
The silver lining is the likely inevitable isn’t delayed, but make no mistake this is a big blow to Taillon and the Pirates.
For starters, Taillon will not be available as a a second-half impact arm like the club enjoyed in the form of Gerrit Cole last season. The Pirates pitching depth just became considerably thinner.
Moreover, why Tommy John has saved hundreds of careers it’s still not an automatic procedure. Just look at how long it took Francisco Liriano to get back on track. The jury is still out on whether Edinson Volquez ever will get back (though Sunday was a start).
There’s more uncertainty regarding Taillon, now. And it’s a frustrating day for the industry as yet another young, talented arm has fallen victim to the unnatural act of pitching.
What we do know is more must be done to understand how to prevent injuries.
STARTING NINE THOUGHTS
9. One of the things that struck me about the first week of the season was the Pirates’ collective opposite-field approach, offensively. There appeared to be a conscious, collective effort to focus on using the entire field.
8. The best and perhaps most important example of this is Pedro Alvarez. Eight of Alvarez’s first 16 balls put in play have gone to the opposite field. The key to unlocking Alvarez’s ultimate upside has always been using the whole field, which would also allow him to better stay on breaking balls. Against the Cardinals on Friday, we saw Alvarez homer to the opposite field – a missile into the Iron City Beer patio – and later rock a changeup 448 feet. It appears the talk of him maturing as a hitter this spring wasn’t empty.
7. The next generation of shifting? It was fascinating to see the Pirates shifting Cardinals’ third baseman Matt Carpenter by the pitch, by the count, a defense that was nearly in constant motion at times this weekend.
6. The next generation of shifting? The Pirates have also been more aggressive with outfield alignment at there were times this week where Starling Marte was playing so extremely pull-side he nearly needed a ticket.
5. If Ray Searage can fix Volquez he deserves a spot in the Hall of Fame and statue commissioned in Market Square.
We’ve written before about how Volquez has some Francisco Liriano in him. He’s a pitcher with velocity and killer off-speed pitches who couldn’t throw his fastball for strikes.
Well, Searage worked with Volquez on creating a more direct line to home plate this spring and, voila, Volquez throws 32 of his 43 fastballs for strikes Sunday en route to out-pitching Adam Wainwright.
4. Now, it’s a small sample size but with the departure of A.J. Burnett and the injury to Taillon, Volquez just became a more important figure for the Pirates in 2014.
3. First base wasn’t supposed to be a “cookie cutter” platoon but it has been through the first week.
The Pirates faced six right-handed starting pitchers in Week 1 and Travis Ishikawa received five starts and performed well. And oh by the way, with the way Lucas Duda is swinging the bat, I would have to think Ike Davis is most definitely available.
2. Speaking of the Davis, did you see his pinch-hit, game-winning grand slam? The Reds are going to miss Aroldis Chapman.
1. Stability matters so that Huntington and Clint Hurdle received four-year extensions is significant and remarkable given to where the program was a year ago.
HE SAID IT
“I have the pleasure and privilege of watching Mike Trout play every night. I think he’s a very special cup of tea, for which he is deserving of a completely different brew. While few, I definitely consider Bryce Harper as part of the next generation of elite brand of teas. Certainly as a studied connoisseur, I may hold a differing opinion as to the availability, demand and value of tea futures.”
– Scott Boras to the Washington Post on Harper’s potential future contract
STAT OF THE WEEK: 23
Consecutive scoreless innings for Tony Watson . There’s a reason about every team asked the Priates about him this offseason.
HE TWEETED IT
Taillon just latest example that baseball doesn't know how to prevent pitching injuries. At all.
— Will Carroll (@injuryexpert) April 6, 2014
NON-BASEBALL RECOMMENDATION OF THE WEEK
Neil Walker listens to Foster the People, so should you.