As baseball officials at all levels react to the sad drumbeat of Tommy John surgery news, they also should take time to learn from the success stories.
Like LaTroy Hawkins.
At 41, Hawkins is closing for the Colorado Rockies. He’s pitched in nearly 1,000 major-league games (961 through Thursday to be exact). And he’s never had Tommy John surgery.
Hawkins has had several stints on the disabled list since breaking into the majors as a 22-year-old in 1995. He even has had shoulder surgery. But he’s never torn an elbow ligament — the injury that precipitates Tommy John surgery.
When I asked Hawkins this week to explain how he’s been able to remain healthy, he cited genetics and a clean delivery. He also mentioned another factor that should catch the attention of the baseball and medical communities: Growing up in Gary, Ind., he was limited in the number of innings he threw by playing two other sports (basketball and track) and living in a northern climate.
Hawkins figures that he never threw more than 25 innings in a high school season — or 50 innings in an entire calendar year.
“I didn’t play nearly as much baseball as players from warmer parts of the country,” he told me. “I think that’s why I’ve gotten more mileage out of my arm … I didn’t use a lot of bullets growing up.”
Perhaps that cold-weather benefit is something team scouting directors should keep in mind ahead of next month’s amateur draft. After all, only three starting pitchers started at least 30 games per season every year from 2006-13 without landing on the disabled list: Justin Verlander, Mark Buehrle and Bronson Arroyo. Two of them — Verlander (Virginia) and Buehrle (Missouri) — grew up in states where they didn’t necessarily pitch year-round.
• A true baseball oddity occurred Thursday night: Milwaukee reliever Will Smith allowed an inherited runner to score — two, in fact.
The runs accounted for the Brewers’ margin of defeat in a 5-4 loss to the Braves. If anything, the game underscored how brilliant Smith has been this season. Prior to Thursday, he inherited 12 baserunners from previous Milwaukee pitchers. One scored. For the season, Smith has a 0.42 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 21 2/3 innings — the sort of numbers that have helped non-closers make All-Star teams in the past.
Smith, 24, has been a key part of the Brewers’ surprising season to date, and the team’s pro scouting staff deserves credit for his presence on the roster — most notably pro scouting director Zack Minasian, director of video scouting and baseball research Karl Mueller, senior pro scouting adviser Dick Groch, and pro scout Brad Del Barba.
Smith began his major-league career as a starter in Kansas City, but he pitched mostly in relief last year. Minasian said Del Barba had rated Smith highly for years, and then Groch turned in a favorable report on Smith last year after a particularly “eye-opening” multi-inning performance against the Twins. Mueller added insight from video and analytical perspectives, hinting at Smith’s upside as a reliever.
So when Brewers general manager Doug Melvin had the opportunity to acquire Smith for outfielder Nori Aoki in December, Melvin took it. The Brewers landed a pitcher with a powerful repertoire who had been underutilized in the Royals’ deep bullpen last year. For a team that doesn’t have a large-market payroll, that sort of scouting and deal-making is essential.
• How eager are the Red Sox to welcome back Stephen Drew’s left-handed bat? Their 10 wins against right-handed starters are the fewest in baseball this year.
• Jason Marquis, who underwent Tommy John surgery last July, is expected to throw for scouts on Friday. He wants to pitch again, and, for someone who never relied on power stuff, 35 isn’t all that old. Don’t be surprised to see him in the majors again this year.
• Two power-hitting third basemen off to poor starts in contract years: San Diego’s Chase Headley (.664 OPS, four home runs) and San Francisco’s Pablo Sandoval (.641 OPS, four home runs).
• The Blue Jays enter the weekend atop the American League East. Their offense has been excellent. Their rotation has been average. Their bullpen is vastly improved, now that closer Casey Janssen is back and pitching well. The rest of the division is unspectacular. The Jays’ first postseason berth in more than two decades is not out of the realm of possibility.
• Since it’s never too early: If the playoffs began today, the AL wild-card game would feature the Twins at the Angels. Bet you didn’t expect that … even on May 23.