Pitching Injuries: The Next Frontier

PHOENIX, AZ - Catcher Buster Posey #28 of the San Francisco Giants signals for a trainer after starting pitcher Barry Zito #75 was injured during the Major League Baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Four of the five closers in the American League East are now on the DL. There are bum shoulders, bum knees, and bum wings. Jim Johnson sleeps with the light on now. Actually, his real name is probably Chaz Stemple, but he changed it to the inconspicuous Jim Johnson to avoid detection. This is some Final Destination crap right here. Johnson is cheating the DL's design.

It's 2012. You can get episodes of Family Ties shot into space and sent directly to your phone, but pitchers are still getting hurt. Medical science chugs along, but no one can figure out how to keep pitchers from falling apart. Tom Verducci wrote a piece about it for SI.com last month:

But since 2007 -- right after amphetamines joined steroids on the banned list -- the rate of injuries has not improved despite the advances in science, nutrition and training. Walk into any major league clubhouse before a game and you will see all kinds of strength trainers, masseuses, massage therapists, doctors, whirlpools, hydrotherapy pools, hot tubs, cold tubs, weight rooms, gyms ... and injured pitchers.

The article quotes Stan Conte, director of medical services for the Los Angeles Dodgers:

That means this method is not working," Conte said. "Injuries have not gone down. With all due respect to the medical professionals, and they're great, we're not putting a dent in it."

The increasing rate of injuries has long been a special concern of Conte. In 1999, he co-authored a research paper for The American Journal of Sports Medicine on the subject, finding that the average disabled-list days per team increased from 571.9 in 1989 to 787.1 in 1999. Since then, things haven't been getting better.

Total days on the disabled list:
1999: 23,614 (Source: the research paper linked above. Don't make me do an official, properly formatted citation. I'll lose interest and wander off to look at cat videos on YouTube.)
2011: 24,784 (Source: FanGraphs)

Total days on the disabled list (pitchers only):
1999: 13,129
2011: 14,926

It's not like the problem is one of awareness since Conte's original paper, either. Right around 1999 is when pitch-count mania began in earnest. In 1999, 63 different starting pitchers had a start of 133 pitches or more, which is what Baseball Prospectus called a "category-5 start" in their pitcher-abuse points metrics. Twenty-four pitchers had more than one such start. Randy Johnson and Russ Ortiz had nine each.

In 2011, nine different starting pitchers had a start of 133 pitches or more. Felix Hernandez had four. Eight other starters had one. That's the entire list. Hernandez would have ranked 10th in pitcher-abuse points in 1999; the fifth-place finisher in 2011, Roy Halladay, would have finished 38th in 1999. Since Conte's original paper, things have changed dramatically. Starting pitchers aren't working nearly as hard.

Thirteen seasons later, pitchers collectively spent almost 1,800 more days on the disabled list.

If you're expecting me to come up with a conclusion on what's going wrong, you're not familiar with my work. I make stupid jokes. But it's interesting to note that the pitch-count brigade -- those mollycoddlers -- won. Condolences, Hrabosky; the old-school lost. But nothing has changed. Pitchers are still getting hurt.

The Rangers are already off the pitch-count bandwagon. Trevor Bauer is one of the new breed of pitchers committed to crazy long-toss routines. Maybe one of these approaches will work.

Or maybe Alice Cooper has it figured out:

I would say the last thing you want is for your ace to throw his arm out. But I would ask him how he feels; if his arm feels strong, then I would say finish the game. But you have to have an expectation that your pitcher will be honest. Trust is key here.

Thanks, Alice. Regardless of what the exact approach to keeping pitchers healthy is, there's going to be a team that figures this out before the rest of the league. That team will breed healthy pitchers from all parts of the organization and keep the good ones around for as long as they'd like. Maybe there's a team that's already on the right path.

They're going to have a competitive advantage that makes Moneyball look like The Celestine Prophecy. Eventually the other teams will catch on. The competitive advantage might disappear, but baseball will be much, much, much better. Here's hoping ...

***


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