Why Are There So Many Pitching Injuries?
- Updated: March 2, 2010
(Excerpt from book CHARACTER IS NOT A STATISTIC: The Legacy and Wisdom of Baseball’s Godfather Scout Bill Lajoie)
This is a topic that fascinates me and one I was sure to discuss with Bill Lajoie before writing our book. For those who don’t know Mr. Lajoie, he is considered by many to be the greatest baseball mind of our era. Among other things, he was the architect of the 1984 World Champion Detroit Tigers as well as an important right-hand man for the powerhouse Atlanta Braves of the 1990s and the curse-breaking Boston Red Sox of the 2000s.
To follow up Pete Schiller’s article “Will Nolan Ryan Change How Pitchers are Treated”, I’ve excerpted the relevant Appendix F, pages 257-261 from our book.
Why Are There So Many Pitching Injuries?
One would think that with today’s medical knowledge and technology, pitchers would be stronger and more durable than ever.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
While the reduction in complete games and innings pitched was slow and steady from the turn of the century into the 1970s, the decline has been dramatic since the 1980s.
For most of the preceding 80 years, major league teams worked with four-man rotations. As recently as the 1970s, the ace typically threw over 270 innings a year while the other three starters were over 200. Today, major league teams invariably use five-man rotations where the ace might go 200 innings and the others 150-170.
So in essence, today’s starting pitchers throw less often and fewer innings but still get hurt more than they used to. There was no surgery for damaged rotator cuffs, torn labrums, or ulnar collateral ligaments for the first 70 years of the 20th century, but pitchers still went back to the hill and piled up innings.
It’s a major league issue that also extends into player development.
Injury is the #1 obstacle to developing pitchers. It is as simple as that. There have been a number of franchises who’ve focused extensively on drafting amateur pitchers to no avail because their pitchers couldn’t stay healthy long enough to get to the big leagues and make an impact.
One can look into recent drafts and see a recurring pattern of failure with several clubs. A relevant example is the Kansas City Royals.
The Royals emphasized pitching in every draft between 1997 and 2001. Thanks to free agent compensation that awarded the Royals extra draft picks, they had 10 first-round choices during those five years. Remarkably (for the purposes of this appendix), they selected pitchers with every single one of those first-round picks.
The Royals thought they’d corner the market on good young pitching and build an arm factory like the Atlanta Braves had in the 1980s and 1990s. It made sense, but somehow it failed.
The Royals have had only one winning season since 1993 (through 2009) and their recent failures are due in no small part to a lack of pitching.
In order, the Royals used their 1997-2001 first-round picks on pitchers Dan Reichert, Chris George, Matt Burch, Jeff Austin, Jimmy Gobble, Jay Gehrke, Mike MacDougal, Kyle Snyder, Mike Stodolka, and Colt Griffin. Of the ten, four would fail to pitch even a day in the big leagues. Two more would amount to cup of coffee guys (George and Austin). Of the remaining four, MacDougal would have impact as a closer for two years while the other three were mostly spot starters and back-end middle relievers. None of the ten were impact pitchers aside from MacDougal, who shined briefly and made it to one All-Star Game.
Was it simply bad drafting? Maybe in retrospect, but these were pitchers who were coveted by the other teams as well. Someone else would have drafted these pitchers soon after had the Royals passed. The real culprit is injury. Almost all of these pitchers had major arm problems in the minors that curtailed their development.
When you have that many pitchers go down, you have to start looking at player development and how they handled their young arms.
The Royals are just one example, they are not alone. During that era, the Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Cardinals, Florida Marlins, Baltimore Orioles, Texas Rangers, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Detroit Tigers were plagued with so many pitching injuries that they might as well have drafted all hitters instead.
With the technology and knowledge we have today, why were Bill Lajoie’s Tigers in the 1970s so much more successful in keeping their pitching prospects healthy?
The Detroit Tigers of the 1970s had the best farm system in baseball, thanks in part to Lajoie’s exceptional drafting. But you can draft all the great pitchers you want and if your minor league coaches misuse them, they’ll never stay healthy long enough to get to the big leagues.
Miraculously, Tiger pitchers didn’t get hurt coming up in the 1970s. Dave Rozema, Jack Morris, Dan Petry, Dave Tobik, Jerry Ujdur, and on and on were able to get to the big leagues without injuring their arm en route. Not every prospect turned into a successful major leaguer, but it wasn’t because their arms blew out.
There was really only one Tiger pitching prospect who went down with an arm injury before he could prove himself in the majors. Flamethrowing Dave Steffen pulled up lame in spring training of 1980 and he was never the same again. But even that arm injury wasn’t the fault of the minor league coaches. It was while he was in big league camp that Steffen was over-used and mishandled.
Lajoie and Hoot Evers (the preceding farm director) were blessed with outstanding pitching coaches in their system. Evers had hired Johnny Grodzicki and Billy Muffett and the two of them ran the pitching program in the minors. When Lajoie assumed farm director duties from Evers in 1979, Grodzicki was promoted to the big league staff but Lajoie was smart enough to keep Muffett around.
Back in those days, they didn’t have pitching coaches for every minor league team. So Grodzicki and Muffett had to rove to all of the affiliates.
First and foremost, they were teachers. They were knowledgeable coaches who knew how to get their points across to young pitchers.
It sounds simple enough, but in today’s game you see minor league coaches hired for much different reasons. Often you’ll see relatives or friends of management get the jobs, or ex-major leaguers who have big names but little interest or talent in coaching. Hoot Evers and Bill Lajoie despised that sort of nepotism, their prospects were too precious to be turned over to the wrong hands. They would occasionally have to work with coaches the GM forced them to hire, but for the important things they were going to rely on the Grodzickis and the Muffetts.
Bill Lajoie was an outfielder when he played, but he soaked up everything he could on pitching from the real experts. Evers and Lajoie were two of the first farm directors to use pitch counts on their minor leaguers. Today it’s used and perhaps over-used by all thirty teams, but for most of baseball history nobody kept track of pitch counts.
At AA and below, the highest pitch count allowed in Lajoie’s and Evers’ system was 109. It was individual and there were pitchers who were put lower. Lajoie picked 109 instead of 110 for psychological reasons.
But it wasn’t simply go out, throw 109 pitches, then hit the showers. That’s the way teams do it now. Lajoie had a number of parameters involved. He would let them go farther if they threw strikes. And he would allow them to work their way out of trouble twice. If they got into trouble a third time, they were yanked regardless of pitch count. Before that, they had no reason to look into the dugout for help.
Lajoie still wanted his starting pitchers to get into the late innings. He wanted them to smell the win and find a way to get it. That’s where his philosophy differs greatly from the piggyback rotation that came to be some 25 years later.
The piggyback rotation usually involves getting eight different pitchers to start. But instead of waiting eight days, they would use two of the pitchers each game who would take turns after a certain pitch count (usually 60-70). It would end up a four-game rotation. The idea was that it would save injuries and give more pitchers a chance to start.
The piggyback rotation was introduced by the Cincinnati Reds and Texas Rangers earlier in the decade (2000s) but both have since disbanded it. The St. Louis Cardinals instituted the plan in 2007.
Though it restricts pitch counts, Lajoie is completely against it because it doesn’t develop pitchers mentally to work their way out of trouble, to be efficient, and to nail down a win. The piggyback rotation is developing a throwing machine, not a pitcher.
The piggyback hasn’t protected from injuries, either.
In 2008, the Cardinals were forced to terminate their piggyback rotation in mid-season for their Florida State League affiliate because, ironically, several of their eight starters had gone down with arm injuries. They didn’t have enough men for an eight-man rotation, so they went back to the standard five. Incredibly, the next year, the Cardinals went right back to the piggyback with eight pitchers taking turns. And once again, it was curtailed because too many pitchers got hurt by a system that was designed to prevent injuries.
Both the Reds and Rangers realized a similar fate earlier in the decade and decided to cut the experiment short.
Lajoie learned from his coaches that not every pitcher should have the same pitch count; so he let the coaches decide in many instances. Some pitchers simply have more durability than others and can handle the higher load. Someone who knows pitching, like Grodzicki and Muffett, can understand that concept in a way an accountant can’t. It’s dangerous to give the exact same pitch count or inning-count to every single prospect.
Lajoie’s goal, in his words, is to keep the “elasticity” of a pitcher’s arm going as long as possible. By that he means that pitching isn’t about brute strength, it’s about having a loose, quick arm, and if it’s overused, the arm loses its quickness and looseness (elasticity). Others have used the term “dead arm” to label a pitcher who has lost elasticity. Not only does velocity go down at that point, but they usually struggle to spin their breaking balls as well as they used to.
A young pitcher is more fragile and Lajoie believes that you can ruin a kid’s career by over-using him before age 25. His arm is still developing and such over-use kills it before he can turn into a big leaguer. Lajoie believes that may be what happened to Steve Avery, the Braves’ prize lefty who pitched so well in the early 1990s only to lose his stuff as he got into his late 20s.
A really good pitching coach can watch a pitcher and tell when his arm is going dead, without having any idea about what the pitch count is. Former Atlanta Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone was insistent that the number means nothing.
The Tigers of that time would rarely make mechanical changes to a pitcher’s arm-action or delivery. If the pitcher was doing something suicidal, they might tweak it. But Grodzicki and Muffett recognized that a pitcher could easily get hurt if you asked him to throw a ball 90 MPH with a motion he’s unfamiliar with. Jack Morris’s arm-action and leg swing may have looked painful to some and there are plenty of coaches who would have altered Dan Petry’s prominent head tilt, but that’s what they were comfortable with; Morris and Petry combined to throw nearly 6,000 major league innings. In today’s game it seems minor league pitching coaches are in a rush to put their stamp on their young hurlers. There are organizations that change the mechanics of virtually every pitcher who comes through and the results have invariably disappointed.
Perhaps the most important thing a pitcher can do to stay healthy and durable is to throw between starts.
Nowadays, most starting pitchers rest between starts. They put on an ice pack the first day, then on day three or four they throw a soft bullpen. The whole idea is that ice and rest will save their arm and make them stronger five days later.
Lajoie believes just the opposite, that arms get stronger simply by throwing more. And ice wasn’t used in the 1970s in the day of 300-inning aces and four-day rotations. (It is contra-indicated by the medical community, but just about every team ices their pitchers’ arms today.)
Lajoie recommends throwing more, but not pitching more. He doesn’t imply that pitchers will automatically have more durable arms if they just go out and pitch 300 innings again. He’s referring to what they do on the days between starts. Lajoie would like them to play catch on the days off, throwing batting practice, and play long toss. That’s the way arm-strength is maintained, not by icing and resting.
Leo Mazzone, his pitching coach with the Braves, had a routine for his starters to follow between starts. The Braves rotations in the 1990s were some of the best in history and it’s easy to win with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz at the top, but Mazzone deserves credit for keeping them healthy for so long, which as we’ve seen is no small feat in itself.
More recently, Texas Rangers president Nolan Ryan has taken an active role in his organization’s pitching program. The Hall of Famer, who pitched until age 46 throwing 5,386 big league innings over the course of 27 years, is alarmed at the high injury rate of pitchers in this day and age. Ryan not only pitched till he was 46, but he was still one of the game’s hardest throwers when he retired. Ryan was unquestionably blessed with great genetics, but it was his work ethic and preparation that allowed him to throw 95 MPH fastballs into his mid-40s.
One regimen he’s installed is having his starting pitchers throw live batting practice between starts with long-tossing mixed in. He’s also redefined the Quality Start statistic with his pitchers. Instead of six innings with three or less runs, Ryan requires seven innings with three or less runs.
Will the Rangers starting pitchers be able to throw more innings and have more gas in the tank for the end of the season? Will their young pitching prospects stay healthy? Other teams will follow the Rangers closely and if Ryan is successful, look out for another revolution in pitching!
CHARACTER IS NOT A STATISTIC: The Legacy and Wisdom of Baseball’s Godfather Scout Bill Lajoie is also available for purchase at BarnesandNoble.com, and from the Xlibris Corporation at https://www2.xlibris.com/bookstore/bookdisplay.aspx?bookid=70062.