As we ponder TJS epidemic, basic guidelines can’t hurt

The Dodgers found out last week that Chris Withrow, 25, would need Tommy John surgery.

G Fiume/Getty Images

Last week, the folks at the American Sports Medicine Institute came out with a “position statement” about the Tommy John-surgery epidemic, which I wrote about here. Granted, ASMI’s James Andrews and Glenn Fleisig have as much authority on this issue as anyone … but as I mentioned in my piece, that doesn’t mean they’re the ultimate authorities or know anything like everything worth knowing.

Earlier this week, Driveline Mechanics’ Kyle Boddy published his own position statement, in which he generally agreed with ASMI’s recommendations but does question the notion that throwing curveballs and sliders is not dangerous. More substantively, there’s this:

We feel it is irresponsible to tell coaches and pitchers to not pitch at maximum effort or to vary their ball velocities to maximize success and to reduce injury, as these recommendations lack rigorous study by the sabermetric community with regard to their effectiveness. No data exists that suggests that there is a significant correlation between pitchers who pitch at submaximal intensities and/or vary their ball velocities with increased success at any level of baseball. In fact, there exists significant data that links increased fastball velocity with both decreased runs allowed average and increased strikeout rate.

Stop the presses! Throwing faster means pitching better!

I’m assuming this is in response to ASMI’s second (among nine) recommendation for professional pitchers hoping to avoid elbow injuries: “Do not always pitch with 100 percent effort. The best professional pitchers pitch with a range of ball velocity, good ball movement, good control, and consistent mechanics among their pitches. The professional pitcher’s objectives are to prevent baserunners and runs, not to light up the radar gun.”

This seems so wonderfully old-fashioned, doesn’t it? Alas, Boddy is correct: There is no data suggesting that professional pitchers should pitch with less physical effort. While it might keep them healthier — and we don’t have the evidence for that — it might also keep them in the minor leagues, or even out of the minor leagues. It’s wonderful to talk about how pitchers in the old days paced themselves, but hitters in the old days weren’t nearly as strong as they are now.

Granted, it’s quite possible that there’s a Mark Buehrle inside every young power pitcher, just crying to get loose. But we probably can’t find out until a bunch of young power pitchers try it, and if I were a young power pitcher I’d say, “You first.”

Driveline has been endorsed by Trevor Bauer, the Indians’ young power pitcher. Bauer, I’m sure you’ll recall, first became famous a couple of years ago in spring training for his heretofore never-seen habit of ultra-long-tossing. Later in 2012, the Diamondbacks traded Bauer because, by most accounts, he wasn’t willing to do things their way.

It’s hard to keep doing things your own way when you’re 21 and struggling, and Bauer struggled in the majors that season, and again in 2013 while pitching for the Indians (mostly in the minors). He’s been good in 2014, though, and suddenly doing things his own way is looking a lot better. Pitching well also gives him more credibility when he does things like post a video with his thoughts about the Tommy John surgery epidemic.

Bauer spoke off the cuff, and rambled some. Still, it’s clear that he’s thought about these things and we’re lucky that he’s willing to share those thoughts with us. I do want to argue with something that Bauer said, which echoes some other sentiments that seem to be cropping up in these discussions. Bauer:

If we’re really serious about limiting the amount of Tommy John surgeries that we have, the amount of injuries in general – shoulder, elbow, backs, groins, et cetera – that’s the kind of information we need to get. We need to get … a large picture view of everything.

I do it myself. I get as much information on myself as possible. I monitor my workloads, I monitor my strength, I have everything custom-tailored to me. I don’t do anything unless I know that the person who recommends it is very familiar with my specific situation: my anatomy, my flexibility, mobility, my strength, my mechanical pattern, et cetera. And I choose everything to add in, stuff like that. And that should be done for every player: at the high-school level, at the college level, at the professional level, at the youth levels, et cetera.

If you’re going to be starting strength-and-conditioning programs, which I know a lot of young travel teams are these days — six-year-olds have strength-and-conditioning coaches — that program should be tailor-fit to each individual. It shouldn’t be a blanket program. And I realize that’s hard to do at certain levels, because of funding, and time, and a bunch of different variables. But if you’re going to mandate that players do something, then it should be tailor-fit to each player.

Seriously? If we’re not willing to conduct full work-ups on every six-year-old pitcher, we can’t give any of them some basic guidelines? Sorry. Not buying it. We might use exactly the same logic and declare that without a rigorous physical, none of us should not consume three (Party Size!) bags of Cool Ranch Doritos for breakfast every day.

I know, I know … that’s probably not what Bauer meant. I hope not, anyway. Because if he means it about 6-year-olds, you know he means it about 10-year-olds and 18-year-olds and everybody in between. How many hundreds of thousands of kids pitched in the Americas this spring? We have a choice between spending hundreds of millions on evaluations or giving them no advice at all?

Again, I’m not buying it. Instead of shooting for the moon with a brilliant scheme that will somehow keep each of our kid pitchers healthy, why not come up with some basic guidelines for all of them? It’s often said that parents and coaches have to educate themselves, be more responsible for their kids’ health. True! But there are so many different sources out there, so many obscure studies and contradictory opinions, that you can’t really blame the adults for just throwing their hands up and doing whatever feels good. Or seems most likely to get their kid a scholarship or a signing bonus.

Somebody wants to do some real good? Don’t worry so much about the kids at the big schools and the professionals with the fancy cars. Instead, come up with a program that coaches and parents can understand and afford; a program that will allow the kids to enjoy pitching and avoid an early trip to the surgical table.

Doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

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