MILLER PARK – I didn’t get much of a chance to comment on Jose Fernandez earlier as I was traveling and had to immediately get to work at the ballpark Tuesday, but what an absolute shame for not only the Marlins but the entire sport as this was perhaps the best young arm in the game. While Tommy John surgery doesn’t end his career, it puts a career on hold, and the procedure is not always the automatic cure many believe it to be. Just ask Edinson Volquez and Francisco Liriano. Even Stephen Strasburg isn’t quite as electric as he was before surgery. I hope we get to see Fernandez return as what he was: a remarkable talent.
What’s troubling, including and beyond Fernandez, is this: of the 22 major league pitchers who have had Tommy John since Feb. 18 – an astonishingly high number – the overwhelming majority have been young. The surgery patients have averaged 23.4 years of age. Think about how young that it is? Think about what that tells us? Think about what that might mean, for, say, Gerrit Cole. (Including minor league arms, the TJ toll is at 34 this spring, including Jameson Taillon.)
I think that average age is telling in what is behind this unprecedented rash of pitching injuries.
EXHIBIT A BEHIND THE TJ POX OF ’14:
We are seeing a generation of bigger, stronger, harder-throwing pitchers than we’ve ever seen. According to PITCHf/x velocity has been on the rise every year since 2007, and that is in part because Strasburg, Matt Harvey and Fernandez have entered the game.
Here were the fastball velocity leaders among MLB starters last season:
1. Matt Harvey 95.4
2. Stephen Strasburg 95.2
3. Jose Fernandez 94.8
What do they all have in common?
One has come back from Tommy John surgery (Strasburg), one is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery (Harvey), and one is likely about to have it (Fernandez).
One theory shared by myself and others is this: pitchers are getting bigger, stronger, throwing faster … but those ulnar collateral ligaments are not growing and becoming stronger. It’s simple physics, the harder you throw the more force you exert on your elbow and shoulder. This has been proven scientifically by the good folks at ASMI. In short, pitchers are out-growing their ligaments.
We are seeing young pitchers – amateur pitchers – throwing more often than they ever have before.
It’s not just the absurd 157-pitch count I witnessed Harvey accumulate one afternoon while pitching at North Carolina in regular season game against Clemson. It’s not just the ridiculous 400 pitches Dylan Bundy threw in a three-day period in high school. It’s the sport specialization and the growth of year-round play, the growth of showcases, tournaments and travel ball.
A great read from Tom Verducci over at Sports Illustrated: ”A study out just this month in the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons found that year-round play in the amateur market has contributed to a 10-fold increase in Tommy John surgeries for youth pitchers.”
(Good news for the Pirates: Cole was not a year-round thrower as an amateur player).
What we know is pitchers are often throwing too much at younger ages. We know they are bigger, faster and throwing harder than ever before. The stresses are coming from extra force AND extra reps at younger ages. So despite all of the medical advances, preventative care practices and data entering the game, it explains why we are seeing injuries increase.
It explains why baseball can’t have – or at least manage – nice things.