Sunday, August 29, 2010

Chapman, Strasburg and Arms

David Brown posted an interesting observation on his blog today at Yahoo Sports. His post was about Aroldis Chapman, the Reds' phenom from Cuba hitting 105 on the radar gun at a recent Triple A outing. That alone is interesting, but that wasn't the interesting part. The interesting part was Brown's concern that in the aftermath of Stephen Strasburg's unfortunate injury, perhaps Chapman shouldn't be throwing so hard. That is a natural fear that Strasburg's injury has clouded over the entire sport.

The Fan has read a lot of articles about Strasburg's injury and a common theme is that the human arm isn't supposed to throw a little round object that fast without serious injury. And the more that the Fan read on the subject, the more the Fan realized that nobody really knows the secrets of protecting golden arms. After all the science and all the pitch counts and all the protections put on pitchers today, just as many elbows and shoulders are blowing out as there ever has been.

Consider how for every story about Dusty Baker blowing out Mark Prior's arm due to overuse there is another one about a Stephen Strasburg getting more protection than all due diligence could offer and still ending up in the same place as Prior. It seems the more we know, the more we don't know.

You hear all kinds of theories. For example, one theory suggests that young kids don't throw as much like we did as kids (us older folks anyway). And while it's true that baseball doesn't hold the same place in American society as it did when the Fan was growing up, the Fan really doesn't think pitchers today blow their arms out any more than they did years ago. The landscape of all eras is full of dead arms. The Fan's first wife had a cousin in the Yankees organization who once was a stud pitcher until his arm blew up. That was 30 years ago.

We hear about it more now because there are wire services telling us instantly who is going on the disabled list and why. Years ago, we had to wait for the once a week Sporting News to give us the transaction news and the team news to find out who go hurt and even then there was no mention of minor league players that got hurt. Now we have published scouting combines that give us ratings for all players in all organizations that keep us up to date on such things. Without knowing the numbers, the Fan would guess the casualty rates really haven't changed all the much since the turn of the century.

We hear a lot these days about pitch counts. 100 per game seems to be the willy-nilly of this era. But is that an accurate number? Does it change for different pitchers? Does it matter for preventing injuries? Nolan Ryan was quoted last week with what sounded like a really intelligent organizational plan for building pitchers through the system with a graduated innings pitched per year system. But will that work any better at preventing injuries than any other plan?

There are cases where abuse seems to happen. One well-known case involved Gil Meche of the Royals. In Meche's case, he was a really effective pitcher until his manager left him in a game to throw 130 pitches. According to that story, Meche has never been the same since. But the nagging question is if we really know that's what toasted Meche? Years ago, the case was made that Ralph Houk ruined a young Jim Bouton because Bouton was thrown out there for 525 innings combined in 1963 and 1964. Bouton wrecked his arm in 1965 and Houk was forever blamed. But how does that explain the arm injuries sustained by Phill Hughes and Ian Kennedy a few years ago for those same Yankees when both of those young pitchers were on pitch counts and innings limits?

We just don't know. Research seems to suggest that a pitcher's efficiency decreases after 120 pitches. That makes sense. But little else does. The Fan's theory is that it simply doesn't matter all that much in the grand scheme of things. Those pitchers that escape serious injuries to their arms are simply pitchers that are freaks of nature or simply beat the odds. Nolan Ryan certainly threw his share of pitches. Satchel Paige threw his share of pitches. They were the freaks, not the other way around. Seattle's great, Felix Hernandez, has been throwing 190+ pitches since he first came into the league. He doesn't appear to show any effects and is getting better all the time. C. C. Sabathia has been making 33 starts since his rookie season and he doesn't seem to have a problem. Those guys are simply freaks or lucky freaks, one or the other.

Imagine the head scratching going on around baseball concerning Strasburg. Ever since he started playing college ball, he's been watched and coddled and babied and brought along slowly. Despite all that, to all of our sadness, he's done until at least 2012 and there is no guarantee he'll ever make it back to this year's magic. Baseball wags everywhere must be wondering what to do now. The Fan doesn't know if there is an answer. All you can really do is keep throwing talent at the wall. Like spaghetti, a few will stick and a whole lot will hit the floor.

1 comment:

Josh Borenstein said...

From what I understand, Strasburg's mechanics aren't so great; he's got the same "inverted W" delivery that Mark Prior had.