Baseball has an overengineering problem and pitchers are dropping like flies | MLB


Be warned: by the time you finish reading this piece, yet another Major League Baseball pitcher may have gone down with a significant arm injury. Unlikely? Well, consider this: just as I began jotting down this piece, news came in that 26-year-old Nationals hurler Josiah Gray is out for who knows how long with a right forearm/flexor strain. A little later we learned that Red Sox pitcher Nick Pivetta landed on the shelf with a similar injury. They join the ever-expanding list of baseball’s injured pitching stock: Gerrit Cole, Spencer Strider and Shane Bieber are just a few of the big names who have made cross-country trips getting their MRIs evaluated and their arms examined.

Of course, we all want to know exactly why this is happening. Of course, it’s hard to nail it down. And yes, there’s lot’s of competing theories out there, including some from a pair of the oldest rivals in the sport: players and owners.

On one hand, Tony Clark, the head of the MLB Players Association, said on Sunday that after the pitch clock was installed last season, and lowered this season, that “our concerns about the health impacts of reduced recovery time have only intensified.”

The commissioner’s office, which liked that statement none too much, retorted by saying that the MLBPA “ignores the empirical evidence and much more significant long-term trend, over multiple decades, of velocity and spin increases that are highly correlated with arm injuries.”

Meanwhile, Cole, who will be back in Yankees pinstripes sometime between May and 2025, thinks none of this bickering is particularly helpful, and that it certainly won’t help cure baseball’s ongoing arm rot anytime soon. And that much is true: the sport, also suffering from redesigned uniforms that showcase players private parts, and a gambling scandal which has affected baseball’s only global superstar, Shohei Ohtani, really could use its governing entities to try to figure things out. Because they need to find out how to turn a pastime that’s dissolved mostly into an unappealing, nine inning, starless parade of supercharged future-surgery candidates, who yield early to disposable BB throwing relievers, back into the game we used to know. The sport with pitchers who crafted performances that we couldn’t wait to watch.

Bill “The Spaceman” Lee, then of the Expos, had one of those performances on 30 May 1979, tossing a complete game six-hit shutout over the Phillies at Olympic Stadium in Montreal. After the game, Lee told the CBC: “I struck out the side in the first inning, I don’t think I’ve done that since probably my pony league days. Usually when you strike out the first hitter of a ballgame you’re in trouble: it means you’re throwing too hard. But after the third inning I lost my fastball and I started going to pitching and I did pretty good.”

Bill Lee wasn’t a strikeout pitcher by any stretch, but enjoyed a 14-year career with Boston and Montreal.

“Throwing too hard” isn’t a concept that anyone in baseball today seems to have thought much about in recent times. Lee, one of the most colorful players in the history of the game, had a fine 14-year career despite striking out just 703 batters in 1944.1 innings – that’s 3.3 strikeouts per nine innings. There’s virtually no chance a pitcher like Lee gets a look today.

How did we get here? Well, baseball, like human beings, has an over-engineering problem. Our species has a habit of producing things we like, but don’t always need, that can eventually cause extraordinary damage. Max effort, high velocity, high spin-rate pitching falls neatly into this category.

In 2017, flame throwing Mets star pitcher, Noah Syndergaard, was coming off an All-Star season, and arrived in camp wanting to throw even harder. He was regularly hitting 99mph on his four-seam fastball, 98mph on his two-seamer and incredibly, 93mph on his slider. In May he suffered a lat injury which all but ended his season. Asked about Syndergaard’s injury and pitching in general, Dwight Gooden, who set the strikeout record for rookies in 1984 with the Mets, said: “I think they’re training to get bigger, throw a little bit harder, but to me, pitching is about mechanics, changing speeds, reading bat speeds.”

The lat injury should have been a sign that Syndergaard’s build and his desire to throw so hard, so consistently wasn’t working for his body. He made 57 starts over the next two seasons, but in 2020 Syndergaard had elbow surgery. Today, the hurler once expected to be a Met for all-time, is 31 years old and out of the bigs.

Noah Syndergaard is only 31, but he’s currently looking for work. Photograph: Al Bello/Getty Images

Few players, general managers, managers, pitching coaches, owners, junior level coaches and the increasingly controversial “pitching labs” have been able to recognize and adjust despite the abundance of cautionary tales like that of Syndergaard and, to a lesser degree, that of his former Mets teammate Jacob deGrom. The two-time Cy Young winner figured out how to keep upping his velocity but could not figure out that the added stress on his arm was undermining his health. And so a pitcher, who at moments, looked like one of the greatest who ever played, who upped his strikeouts per nine innings from 8.7 in 2016 to 14.3 in 2022, also fell prey to elbow surgery early last season.

Remarkably, all of these injuries have come during a time when ballclubs have cradled and coddled pitchers to the point where getting more than five innings out of a starter feels like something to celebrate. There’s two reasons for this: one, because bean counters upstairs have determined that pitchers can’t handle an opposing lineup the third time around, and two, because more innings and more pitches at the max effort they throw today constitutes an injury risk.

Future-star pitcher Eury Perez is out for all of 2024 after undergoing “Tommy John” surgery. Photograph: Jeff Roberson/AP

We know that all of this “protection” has done absolutely nothing to help pitchers like Eury Perez. The 21-year-old was supposed to be the type of phenom who energized baseball fans regardless of their rooting interest. In 2023 he threw 19 games and struck out 108 batters in 91.1, closely monitored, MLB innings. Prior to being promoted, he threw 36.2 innings in AAA ball, registering an electric 13.3 strikeouts per nine innings. And despite averaging under 81 pitches an outing, and under five innings an appearance, Perez’ elbow ripped apart under the pressure.

Baseball has a habit of leaping from crisis to crisis, but this pitching cataclysm is threatening the sport as never before. Not only do we have a generation of pitchers who can’t stay healthy, but the ones we’re left with averaged 5.1 innings per start in 2023, an all-time low. Not only have we lost talent, we’ve lost the ability and desire to allow pitchers to perform deep into games, a star creating attribute that has been slipping away for years.

Currently, there are seven Cy Young Award winners injured, representing 13 of the last 26 plaques handed out. Blake Snell is one of the last standing, a pitcher who represents pitching’s current lack of draw to a tee. Snell is one of just seven players to have won the Cy Young in both leagues. But despite his achievement, Snell doesn’t come close to moving the needle like others who have done it: Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez. Snell isn’t box office. He’s a five-inning pitcher. That’s it. That’s all you get. Maybe that’s why Snell didn’t get the long-term deal that his agent wanted. Maybe owners have figured out that five inning, max effort, injury prone pitchers aren’t worth it no matter how many strikeouts they record. If so, the sport is lost. If so, half of the game will become even more anonymous than it’s becoming with each passing day. If so, baseball must act, and not be afraid to install rules that incentivize both longer outings and player health, restoring half the game, and its lost art before, it’s too late.

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