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Recent arm injuries lead to finger pointing across baseball


Shane Bieber was the ace of the Cleveland Guardians. Eury Perez was the ace of the Miami Marlins. Spencer Strider was the ace of the Atlanta Braves. Gerrit Cole was the ace of the Yankees.

I’m using the past tense because all of those pitchers are injured and currently unable to perform. Bieber and Perez are headed for Tommy John surgery, while Strider and Cole are waiting to see what the final diagnosis is for their arms. It doesn’t look good. 

Starting pitchers seem to be falling like flies across baseball.

Even the Blue Jays’ Kevin Gausman doesn’t seem like himself. He had shoulder issues in spring training and his velocity was down in his last start. Astros All-Star Framber Valdez was scratched from his start Tuesday with elbow soreness. Former Washington Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg just officially retired at the beginning of a seven-year $245 million contract. He threw just over 30 innings after signing the mega-deal and he is done. 

The recent rash of injuries has led MLBPA president Tony Clark to lash out at commissioner Rob Manfred, effectively blaming the pitch timer as the cause for the uptick in injuries. Clark believes the reduced time between pitches has allowed less time for recovery, exposing pitchers to greater risk of injury.  

Pace of play has been a big focus for the commissioner. The pathway to improving it was the implementation of a pitch timer in 2023, where pitchers had to deliver a pitch within 15 seconds with no one on base and 20 seconds with a runner on base. This season, the time has been reduced to 18 seconds with runners on base. 

Manfred quickly responded to the finger pointing by issuing his own statement, saying that a research study with prominent medical experts on the issue was consistent with an independent analysis by Johns Hopkins University that found “no evidence to support that introduction of the pitch clock has increased injuries.” 

Remember, the pitch timer rules were vetted in the minor leagues before their introduction at the major-league level. They were tested for multiple years. In fact, the injuries for pitchers went down in the minor leagues with the timer. So, the claim from Clark seems to be without obvious merit.

Why do pitchers get hurt? I studied this with the New York Mets team doctors when I was general manager more than two decades ago and we had a rash of arm injures with our pitchers. We decided these injuries almost always happen because of wear and tear (throwing too many pitches) on an arm.

Ultimately, the human arm is not built to throw baseballs and only has so many throws in it before breaking down. Bad mechanics can also lead to increased forces working against the shoulders and elbows of pitchers, leading to injuries. 

Wear and tear does not just start when pitchers play professional baseball. In fact, professional pitchers are often more protected than amateur pitchers. So many major leaguers were overworked in youth baseball. They played for their local teams as well as travel teams. Then they would go to showcase events and throw there as well.

I know stories of young amateur pitchers who would make three starts a week and were allowed to throw 70-100 pitches in each one. Coaches in different programs don’t compare notes and each one wants the star player to be their ace, exposing kids to being overworked.

Then there are colleges that allow young pitchers to throw 130 or more pitches in games. In some cases, pitchers are used as relievers during the same weekend they started a game. The young men don’t break down in that moment, but the wear and tear is taking a toll and making the pitcher more vulnerable at a later date.

In the past 20 years, the average fastball has gone from 90 to 94 miles per hour. Pitchers no longer manage their way through a game; they pitch at 100 per cent effort all the time. In the past, pitchers would pitch at 90-95 per cent of their velocity, saving something for the bigger moments. Now, pitchers max out the velocity and spin on every pitch.

The never-ending desire for spin rate is also a big part of the problem. Spin rate makes pitches move more and adds to the deception, but the extra manipulation of the baseball also puts undo pressure on the joints in the arm. 

The other thing to keep in mind is that as much as players want to stay on the field and pitch, and as much as the union and agents want pitchers to stay on field, general managers also want their best arms healthy and on the mound. You don’t hear any GMs complaining that the pitch timer is the reason that pitchers are being injured. If they did believe that was the case they would be speaking up about it. General managers are more concerned with making sure they have pitching depth to deal with the inevitable injuries.

Moving forward, I believe we’re going to see a shift in the way that the market handles free-agent starting pitchers. I say that even with the fact that Yoshinobu Yamamoto got a 12-year deal for $325 million with the Dodgers and Aaron Nola got a seven-year, $172 million contract from the Philadelphia Phillies last off-season.

I believe you’re going to see owners unwilling to give six-, seven- and eight-year contracts to starting pitchers. There will be more deals like what Blake Snell got from the San Francisco Giants (two years/$62 million), and Jordan Montgomery with the Arizona Diamondbacks (one year/$25 million with a vesting option). These shorter-term deals with a higher AAV protect against a catastrophic injury, which could cause a pitcher to lose multiple seasons and then be less effective after a surgical procedure.

General managers can’t roster a second No. 1 starter to protect the loss of an ace, so teams need to build in margins for error in every aspect of their team. If a club loses its ace, they need more than enough offence to score runs to cover the loss. They also need depth of starting pitching to adequately cover the innings and enough bullpen arms to protect the lesser starting pitching.

When a team starts with just enough of everything, they don’t really have enough of anything.