MLB Teams Continue To Cope With Serious Pitcher Injuries

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An incredible number of high quality pitchers are watching the MLB season from the sidelines, victims of serious injuries that have stalled their careers.

The number of pitchers sidelined with serious, career altering injuries continues to grow.

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Perhaps the human body is not constructed to throw a baseball at 95 miles per hour, hundreds of times every week.

That’s exactly what pitchers do. Most of them throw a countless number of baseballs while getting into condition, while pitching in spring training and regular season games, and while pitching between their game appearances.

Consider the physical mechanics that are in play when a human being throws a baseball.

All parts of the body must work in sync for a pitcher to release a pitch. Highly aggressive deliveries increase the chances of injury.

One of the serious ramifications of pitcher injuries is the need for clubs to dip into their farm systems to fill pitching needs. Often, promoted prospects are not ready for graduation to the big leagues.

Tommy John Surgery:

A very common injury to pitchers is a tear or partial tear of the Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) of the elbow. According to Johns Hopkins University, the injury occurs from repeated stress from overhead movement. 

The University also indicates the UCL tear is usually gradual, but it could happen in a single incident. Inner-elbow pain is the most common symptom of a UCL injury. At times, the individual may actually hear a “popping” sound, followed by intense pain.

Tommy John surgery, named for the left-handed pitcher who experienced elbow ligament replacement /repair surgery on September 25, 1974, has saved the careers of a number of pitchers.

John’s surgery was performed by the late Dr. Frank Jobe, who became famous for the procedure. During Tommy John surgery, a ligament is harvested from a healthy tendon in the patient’s body and attached to serve as a “new” UCL. In John’s surgery, his ligament was harvested from the tendon of his right wrist.

In Michael Fallon’s account of Tommy John for the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), John is quoted as saying he felt his body was ahead of his arm at the critical moment when the ball is released. John’s arm went suddenly “dead.” He said, “It felt as if I had left my arm someplace else. It was as if my body continued to go forward and my left arm had just flown out to right field, independent of the rest of me.”

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The recovery and rehabilitation time can last a year or more, depending upon the patient.

It is not unusual for a pitcher to be off a major league roster for 16 months following the operation.

Pitching injuries are often progressive. What may begin with forearm tightness may advance to a torn elbow ligament. What may begin as shoulder stiffness, may advance to forearm or elbow issues. 

An old song called “Dem Bones” was often heard on the radio years ago. It illustrated how one bone is connected to the other. “The hip bone’s connected to the back bone. The back bone’s connected to the neck bone. The neck bone’s connected to the head bone”…and on it went.

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Reasons For More Pitcher Injuries:

Today’s game is seeing more injuries for a host of reasons.

We can’t dismiss that 2020 spring training was held in two parts. In February 2020, pitchers and positions players were preparing for the coming season. In mid-March, due to the pandemic, MLB shut down spring training. Training facilities were closed and locked.

As a second spring training began anew in summer, a rushed and condensed approach to prepare for an abbreviated 60-game season began.

Clearly, pitchers returned to the new season without the full, intense, consistent preparation they required.

Some positions players and pitchers chose not to participate in the shortened season, removing them from game experience until this year’s opening of training camps.

When players and pitchers did return to a more normal baseball routine, many rushed to achieve maximum conditioning. Many accelerated their workouts and exceeded their norm for pre-season preparation.

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While rushing to prepare for a 162 game season, some pitchers worked on adding a new pitch. Some may have worked to refine a troubling pitch. Those efforts may have placed even more stress on their shoulders, elbows and forearms.

In addition to rushed preparation for a new season, we have seen bigger, stronger and more athletic pitchers with almost unheard of capabilities take the mound. It is not unusual for a pitcher to stand 6-foot-5 or 6-foot-7 and weigh 270 pounds. Imagine the stress such a frame has on the moving parts in a pitcher’s delivery. Then consider that a starting pitcher is likely to throw 70 to 100 pitches or more each appearance. That doesn’t count the times he has warmed up prior to entering a game. It doesn’t count the times he has thrown on the side or in a bullpen during the week.

Pitchers often challenge themselves to increase their velocity or the spin rate on their pitches to better navigate an opposing lineup.

To this writer, what is asked of pitchers is well beyond what one could, or should expect from a normal human frame.

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As the All Star Game approaches, some of the finest pitchers in recent MLB history will be in rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery, unable to take the ball in the mid-season Classic.

Among the finest pitchers in the game prior to his operation, 32-year-old Chris Sale underwent Tommy John surgery in late March 2020. Now, 15 months later, Sale is still working to get back on the mound later this summer. Sale signed a five-year, $145M contract with Boston in 2020. He will make $30M this year. Some of it will likely be paid by an insurance policy the Red Sox probably bought when he signed his contract.

In 2019, before his surgery, Sale was throwing his fastball at 93.5 MPH. That velocity was down from 95.4 MPH in 2018. The velocity loss was one possible sign of Sale’s elbow issues.

It will be interesting to monitor Sale’s velocity in his return. Maybe he will rely more on finesse than velocity.

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Astros starter Justin Verlander is working on a two-year, $66.5M contract he signed in 2020. He is set to make $33M this year. 

Verlander had Tommy John surgery at the end of September 2020. In parts of 16 big league seasons, Verlander has appeared on eight all Star teams. Not this year. 

Verlander has been consistently throwing his fastball between 94 and 95 MPH since 2017. Now, at the age of 38, how much velocity will Verlander be able to count upon when he returns?

In May 2019, Chicago White Sox left-handed starter Carlos Rodon underwent Tommy John surgery.

Rodon was a 2014 1st round draft pick. In 2015, he threw his fastball at 93.9 MPH. Now, after his surgery and rehabilitation, Rodon is throwing that pitch at 95.9 MPH. Surgery has not decreased his velocity. In fact, Rodon threw a no-hitter this year, and has thrown other outstanding games, helping the White Sox battle for a division championship.

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Rodon has gone from Tommy John surgery to a likely spot on the 2021 American League All Star Team. He might even be the starting pitcher.

So many teams and pitchers have been impacted by elbow related injuries, it becomes almost commonplace to speak of ligament injuries. For example, the Yankees are hoping promising righty Luis Severino returns this summer. And the Rays are just hoping that a partial tear in the right elbow of Tyler Glasnow doesn’t result in surgery.

The Mariners signed oft-injured lefty James Paxton to anchor a young pitching staff. However, Paxton had Tommy John this past April.

The Mets are hoping they can regain the services of Noah Syndergaard, who had Tommy John surgery in March 2020. He isn’t yet back on the mound.

There are more. Dustin May, an exciting young Dodgers pitcher had his elbow surgery in May. Mike Fiers of the Athletics has a “strained” elbow. What happens to him is yet to be determined. The Mets Carlos Carrasco hasn’t pitched for his new team, as he recovers from a sore elbow. On it goes.

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There are a number of quality pitchers with barking shoulders. Among them are last year’s American League Cy Young Award winner, Shane Bieber of the Indians. The Diamondbacks Madison Bumgarner is out with a shoulder strain as well. So is promising young Mariners starter Justin Dunn.

According to Spotrac, as of June 30, 2021, major league pitchers have missed a staggering 9,093 days of service time while on the MLB injured list. That translates to a financial loss of income totaling $132,353,228.

Spotrac lists a total of 179 major league pitchers who have appeared on the injured list and have lost time.

Spotrac lists an additional 88 position players have spent time on the IL, costing 3,080 hours of service time and $71,220,673 in salaries.

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The total for all positions? 268 players have appeared on the injured lists of major league clubs. They have missed 12,253 days of service time, resulting in $203,820,301 paid to players on the injured lists. 

Conclusions:

Baseball fans have become almost numb to the number of their favorite players that have gone on their team’s injured list. 

While the number of position player injuries is consequential, the loss of pitchers to injuries has been staggering. That has left some teams dipping into their farm system to fill pitching needs with pitchers that haven’t completed their development and aren’t ready for their graduation to a big league pitching staff.

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