Wednesday, FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine gave us a wonderful primer on the epidemic of elbow injuries, and the inability of sabermetrics to prevent them. Paine’s piece is headlined "The Mystery Sabermetrics Still Can’t Solve" and here’s one of the nut grafs:
Well, OK, but there’s a lot missing here (so far, anyway). As I said, it’s a fine primer. Paine points out that despite the popularity of pitch limits — for young pitchers, most notably, but really for all pitchers — they’re getting hurt as often as ever. Maybe not more than ever, by the way. It’s possible that this season’s Tommy John surgery epidemic is just a one-year fluke. But when Paine writes that sabermetrics "can’t quite crack the pitcher injury question" … that seems right, doesn’t it? Feels right?
I’m not convinced, though, that sabermetrics (in all its many guises) hasn’t helped. Maybe because it’s impossible to convince me, even if we might agree on the definition of "crack."
Here’s what we know: We know that pitch limits are a huge part of the game. We know that pitchers still get hurt about as often as they always have.
You know what we don’t know, though? How many pitchers would get hurt without pitch limits. And we don’t know because the past is not necessarily a wonderful guide.
Pitchers today are bigger and throw harder than ever before. Isn’t it at least conceivable that these guys are less able to throw 130 pitches than their forebears?
Another thing: We know elbow ligaments seem to be shearing off like never before. But as I (and others) have mentioned, we’re seeing fewer serious shoulder injuries (or at least we seem to be). Would we see more shoulder injuries with higher pitch limits? Maybe. We might also see more shoulder injuries with old-school strength-and-conditioning methods, which falls (granted, loosely) under the heading of sabermetrics (the search for objective knowledge about baseball, including knowledge about strengthening shoulders with exercise).
Again, we know that sabermetrics hasn’t (significantly) lowered the absolute number of injuries to pitchers. But might we presume that fewer pitcher years are lost to injuries? From 1990 through ‘97, Kevin Appier pitched like a Hall of Famer. In 1998, he hurt his shoulder and was just decent for the rest of his abbreviated career.
There are a lot of stories like that. Pedro Martinez tore his rotator cuff and won 10 more games in his career. Kris Benson tore his rotator cuff and won two more games. Mark Mulder tore his rotator cuff and won zero more games. Same for Matt Clement. Those guys were hurt nearly a decade ago, so it’s not like rotator-cuff injuries are a distantly recalled relic of ancient baseball history, first identified and named by His Excellency Abner Doubleday.
You can still hurt your shoulder. But there have already been more than 30 TJS’s this season, which is a lot. You heard the news. When’s the last time you heard about a major leaguer going down with a torn rotator cuff? Jaimie Garcia’s missed almost exactly a year with a shoulder injury, but he’s coming back this weekend, his injury apparently not a career-killer.
What’s important isn’t the raw number of injuries, but the number of seasons, and especially the number of good seasons, lost to injuries.
Cracked? Nope. Not even close. Helped, though? Maybe. Maybe "sabermetrics" has saved a whole bunch of careers, if not original elbow ligaments.