The times they are a-changing.
With all due respect for Bob Dylan (actually, I don’t like his music at all, but that’s a topic for another post), the times changed long ago.
Yet, these compact, often-used data gathering machines can probably take the blame for the rise of an issue that is plaguing baseball programs all across this land – pitching arm injuries.
This season alone has witnessed 17 MLB pitchers experience the now famous Tommy John surgery, named for its first patient. And, Dr. James Andrews, the pioneering orthopedist who performed that first surgery, is an arm repair guru.
The Good Ol’ Days
I often tell my two boys how good they have it. In my day, we played on diamonds converted from corn fields, owned one glove, had one uniform (the first ones were wool; later, they were double knit), played maybe 20-25 games, and took our hacks with the teams wood bats.
Drag a field before the game? Never. But, we did pick up rocks after every practice.
Carpet-like bermuda striped with the mower? Not even close. I think they just clipped he tops of the clover to get that uniform green color.
Hitting lessons? Ours consisted of throwing up rocks and hitting them into the woods at the back of our sandlot.
And, we never, ever knew anyone who blew out their elbow from pitching too hard or too much.
My First Radar Gun
I never saw a radar gun until my high school days, somewhere around 1979. It was at Redbird Field and the Cincinnati Reds scout had advertised a tryout. There were about 75 young men out there that day, hoping to realize their childhood dream of playing in the Bigs.
As the tryout progressed, we realized that the scout had his radar gun out and was charting the velocity of each pitcher. After every pitch, someone would ask, “How hard’s he throwin’?” (Nowadays, the correct verbiage is “What’s his velo?”) So, when my time came to pitch, pitching was the last thing on my mind. I rared back and let fly with all the strength I could muster. I had no idea where the pitch was going. And, my arm tingled after every pitch.
The same is true today. I’ve witnessed pitcher after pitcher stand on the mound and “throw to the gun.” Velocity is what gets drafted these days, not pitching. And, it’s the norm from the pro ranks all the way down to summer travel ball. Velo sells, and scouts will come like flies to honey when there’s a high-velo guy throwing.
The problem is, we’re not made to throw as hard as some of these guys are throwing. Dr. Andrews, when asked by Anthony Castrovince of MLB.com about the problem, says
These kids are trying to throw 90-plus miles per hour. We found out from our lab that the red line for a Tommy John ligament in high school is — guess what? — about 80 to 85 mph. The ones who throw beyond that are going beyond the developmental properties of their normal ligament, and they’re getting hurt. The radar gun is a problem.
Here’s a solution: Learn to Pitch
There is an epidemic in baseball. Guys are throwing harder and harder, and the emphasis is less on pitching than velocity. In my baseball days growing up, I batted against 2 guys who threw 90+. They were an oddity. Now, high school kids who throw 90+ are common. In one region semi-final game last Monday, two teams squared off that had pitchers throwing 90+. One of them topped out at 96.
I still like a guy like Greg Maddux. He could reach a velo of 90+, but found out he was much more successful in the upper 80’s while hitting his spots – exactly. He was the epitome of a pitcher. Batters just couldn’t square it up. It was because he could throw, with pinpoint accuracy, what many of us consider the best pitch in baseball – the change up.
The change up is a pitch that’s thrown so that it’s intentionally slower. If you throw it well, it looks like you’re throwing your fast ball. But, just about the time the batter begins to pull the trigger, it looks like the pitcher pulls the string and moves it back away from you. Good pitchers can throw good change ups. Other guys are just rock chunkers.
Baseball has to make a change somehow. At this point, though, I’m not sure anything can be done. The radar gun, which once was a helpful tool, has become a demi-god for pitchers, and this at the expense of the game…and their arm.