Rational behavior: Why system is rigged against young pitchers
Usually when it seems like there’s a rash of something, it just seems like it.
All these elbow injuries lately, though? It’s an actual rash. In recent seasons, top high school pitching prospects have essentially been walking around with time bombs inside their tender young elbows. And as Tom Verducci points out, what’s striking is how much the US system is rigged against teenaged pitchers staying healthy for more than a few years:
"Latin American pitchers are allowed to grow into their velocity," said one international scouting director. "It’s a common story to sign a guy throwing 84, 85 (mph) who eventually winds up throwing in the 90s. Michael Pineda is one. You’re looking for someone with a good, athletic body who can throw the ball around the plate and has a feel for spinning the ball. The velocity comes in time, with training and better nutrition and physical growth. Here? The statistics don’t lie. We need to look elsewhere around the world to learn a better way. It’s time."
Beginning in July 2008, when he was 16 years old, (Jameson)Taillon threw at six events sponsored by Perfect Game, one of the country’s top youth baseball services, in a 13-month period. Those events occurred in the summer, fall and winter. (In the spring, he was busy pitching for his high school team in The Woodlands, Texas.) His top velocities were meticulously recorded: 92, 93, 95, 96, 96 and 97. Every high school pitcher is known by the top velocity he "hits," even if he gets there once, as much as his very name.
As a high school senior, Taillon hit 99. In June of that year, 2010, the Pirates selected him with the second pick of the draft, in between Washington selecting Bryce Harper and Baltimore taking Manny Machado. He was labeled as another "can’t miss" in the long line of Texas schoolboy power pitchers, including Josh Beckett and Roger Clemens.
It’s all so anecdotal!
Except for this: "(I)n a sport in which 24.2 percent of players on Opening Day rosters grew up in Latin America, only one of the 20 Tommy John patients came from there."
That’s not precisely the data we want. I believe that the percentage of pitchers on Opening Day rosters who grew up in Latin America is probably lower than 24.2 percent. Still, 1 in 20 is a dramatic ratio.
When you read Verducci’s exposé — and this is one of those times when I urge you to read the whole thing – you might actually get angry. Alas, nobody really cares much if you get angry. Because you have very little skin in this game. You do have a little skin, and I’ll get to that in a moment. Here are the stakeholders:
Those are in some approximate order, except for the last one, which is the exact right order. Which is to say that nobody gives a damn about you and your feelings. But let’s run through the others on that list and see if we can find anybody who might be interested in changing the system …
Young Pitchers: Nope. Teenagers think they’re going to live forever and their frontal lobes are the size of malnourished pistachio nuts. Also, they love going fast. They love driving fast, moving fast with their girlfriends, and pitching fast. Trying to convince a teenager to pitch slower is like trying to convince him to wait for Internet porn until he’s married.
Oh, and there’s also this: What young pitchers have been doing is perfectly rational. Jameson Taillon signed with the Pirates for $6.5 million. I’m going to guess that if he’d thrown 89 as a high-school senior instead of 99, his bonus would have been … oh, maybe $6.4 million less? What would you do?
Young Pitchers’ Parents: Basically everything I just wrote, except for the frontal lobes part. Yes, you might think that parents would be frightened by the prospect of their babies going under the knife. And maybe they would be, if they were more aware of the risks, and/or the surgery seemed a bit less routine. I do wonder how many parents would allow their sons to abuse their arms if the surgery came with, say, a 0.4-percent fatality rate.
I know that sounds awful, but it’s meant to suggest the opposite; parents are cavalier about these things because they know their children will almost certainly recover fully from the surgery, at least to the point where they can live a perfectly normal life, even if they can’t still throw 95 afterward (but many of them will be able to do exactly that).
Young Pitchers’ Coaches: Ahem. It’s easy to demonize the coaches, but they’re much like the parents; while they do have their own interests (winning) in mind, I’m sure the great majority of them also care about their young charges.
Agents Advisors: You’re probably aware of this, but nearly all talented amateur pitchers have agents. Oh, except that’s against the rules. So instead they’re called advisors. And yes, it really is (almost) that simple. And since agents are in business for just one reason, they’ve got essentially zero reason to advise teenagers to show their best stuff when there is a scout within shouting distance.
Major-League Teams: They don’t seem to care a whole lot, do they? If they really cared — or rather, if they were really worried — they wouldn’t keep spending high draft picks on these guys. But they do, because a) $6.5 million doesn’t mean much any more, and b) even if a pitcher’s elbow explodes, there’s still a pretty decent chance he’ll be OK in a year or two. More to the point, a young pitcher who throws 95 is simply a better bet than a young pitcher who throws 90. Yes, I know: Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. But baseball teams don’t care about the Hall of Fame. They care about six seasons, maybe seven or eight if there’s a team-friendly contract. And even if a pitcher misses one or two of those six seasons … well, haven’t the Rays already received a fair amount of value from their investment in Matt Moore?
You: Yeah. Not so much. Maybe I missed it, but I’m not sure there’s been a groundswell of concern for limiting injuries … ever, anywhere. We didn’t mind so much when gladiators bashed each others’ skulls, and we don’t mind so much when our modern heroes are carried off on their shields. Oh, we might turn away from the screen if the injury is particularly gruesome. But we turn right back when the action gets going again.
You see all those interest groups above? Everyone’s acting rationally. Granted, I haven’t mentioned those legendary parents who are asking doctors to perform Tommy John surgeries before their sons get injured. But those parents are truly misguided, and I’m guessing/hoping there aren’t many of them. Most parents just want their kids to have fun, and it’s fun to throw real hard and get a big check from a baseball team.
I can become emotional about injuries, especially to pitchers. I imagine being 21 or 22 and having this incredible talent suddenly taken away, for at least a year, and not knowing if I’ll ever be the same again. I won’t say it breaks my heart, because of course I turn right back to the screen and watch the next young pitcher try to beat the odds.
So I’m afraid that nobody’s going to do a damn thing about this. There are just too many rational actors with rational reasons to keep doing exactly what they’ve been doing. It might seem a shame, but a routine surgery must seem a small price to pay for the prospect of untold millions.
When Rob Neyer turns away from the screen, he’s probably just on Twitter again.