The Big Shutdown: Strasburg will pitch no more in 2012 but there's more behind arm injuries than innings pitched
When you look at the numbers, they aren’t bad for a pitcher in his first full season: 15-6 record, 3.16 ERA, 197 total strikeouts, 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings, fewer than a hit per inning, a WHIP of 1.16, a 4/1 strikeout to walk ratio.
But for Stephen Strasburg, those aren’t the numbers he or the Washington Nationals fans wanted to finish with. As most of the world knows by now, the Nationals decided to follow through on a decision they made at the beginning of the season to shut down Strasburg at around 160 innings (he finished with 159.1). It robs him of a possible chance at 20 victories and about 250 strikeouts and, more importantly, of a chance to pitch in the post-season.
No guarantees that injuries won't happen
The reason for the shutdown is that Strasburg is coming off Tommy John surgery and hasn’t pitched many innings in the previous two seasons (92 at the Major League level). The theory is that throwing too much too soon will damage the arm. Therefore, in order to have him healthy and throwing well for years to come they decided to have him not throw anymore.
Of course, this is all just guesswork. This might make him the best righthander since Walter Johnson. He might also blow out his arm next spring training. Or pitch awful. As far as I can tell, there is no evidence that throwing too much after Tommy John surgery increases the risk of arm damage. Or that limiting the innings of young pitchers reduces the chance of injury. In fact, the opposite might be true.
The most famous case of limiting innings was Joba Chamberlain in the 2007 and 2008 seasons. He could never regain his form and wound up with an injured arm that needed Tommy John surgery. Obviously, limiting his innings early did nothing to prevent his arm injury.
The case of Mark Prior
Some of this panic about young pitchers derives from the case of Mark Prior. In 2002 as a 21-year-old rookie he pitched 116.2 innings. In 2003 he increased that by almost 100 to 211.1 innings. And then he came apart at the seams like a $1.50 baseball.
Many people blamed then-manager Dusty Baker for overusing Prior (as well as teammate Kerry Wood) during their pennant drive in 2003 when he averaged 126 pitches per start in September. However, some of Prior’s injuries the next two years didn’t involve his throwing. He missed the first two months of 2004 with an Achilles tendon injury, a fractured elbow when a line drive hit him in 2005 and a strained oblique while taking batting practice in 2006.
He did miss 15 days of spring training in 2005 with a strained elbow and the first two months of 2006 with a strained shoulder. Then in August 2006 he suffered tendonitis in his shoulder and was shut down the rest of the season. And that was the end of his Major League career. A series of injuries (not all related to his throwing arm) derailed every comeback attempt after that and he seems done for good. (A sidenote: The fact that Prior’s been out of baseball for six years, that his best year was nearly a decade ago and that he keeps failing at comeback attempts makes him somehow seem like an old man. But he’s 48 days younger than C.C. Sabathia.)
So did throwing too many innings and/or pitches ruin Prior’s career? Is this the cautionary tale that will lead to saving Strasburg? Perhaps, but probably not.
Decisions made by staff and owners can hurt pitchers
I believe that some of the decisions owners, GMs and managers make regarding their pitching staffs and the techniques they teach have far more impact on the wear and tear on a pitcher’s arm than the amount of pitches he throws.
Some people believe a large part of Prior’s arm problems stemmed from a new pitching technique taught by then-pitching coach Larry Rothschild. The technique is called the Inverted W (although as my brother pointed out, an inverted W is an M, right?). In this technique after the pitcher breaks his hands and makes his move to the plate, his arms are outstretched but with the forearm and wrists dangling, forming the descenders of the inverted W. The shoulder blades are pinched and the elbow is well behind the pitcher’s shoulder. Supposedly this increases velocity.
Some people have pointed out, though, it puts increased pressure on the arm and shoulder and leads to injuries. If so, it may not be a coincidence that the Yankees have had an unusually high number of pitchers on the disabled list since Rothschild took over as pitching coach (although the relievers have been injuring their legs in freak accidents, so it’s a little hard to blame the pitching coach for their clumsiness).
Obsession with velocity can injure arms
Velocity is a huge part of pitching these days and many of the techniques taught to increase this velocity also place high stress on the arm, especially the elbow. It’s no wonder so many power pitchers today – like Strasburg – wind up having their elbow ligament replaced so early in their careers.
And, ironically, some of these techniques lead to more pitches being thrown. Because the techniques place such a high value on the arm action, they’re harder to duplicate pitch after pitch, which makes pitchers more erratic, meaning they’ll throw fewer strikes and more pitches.
Pitchers who relied more on their legs to provide the impetus for their velocity, like Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver and Roger Clemens, enjoyed long careers with minimal arm problems. Their technique allowed more universal dispersal of the stress of throwing, especially to the bigger, stronger muscles of the legs and back.
Pitch more often to build arm strength
I also believe the use of five-man rotations, which are meant to give pitchers more rest and reduce arm injuries, actually lead to more strain on the arm. I used to do a lot of weight training and I knew that to develop strength, I couldn’t let too much time pass between sessions. I rarely let more than two days go by. If I waited four days between workouts it was like starting over again. In fact, most people know that any exercise done once every five days will have little benefit.
I realize that Major Leaguers throw their side sessions and bullpen sessions between starts, so they aren’t really going four days without throwing. But throwing on the sidelines is never the same as going from the mound in a real game. The length of time between starts, I believe, never allows pitchers to develop the stamina and strength they need to go deep into games and late into the season. It also affects consistency.
My son pitched in high school and a few years in college. He would have pitched every day had they let him, and in high school he was used as a reliever as well as a starter. He said the more often he pitched, the stronger he felt and the more consistency he developed. The more days between being on the mound, the longer it took him to find his consistency and velocity.
Training techniques can make a difference
Even training techniques have changed. It used to be common for pitchers to engage in long-toss exercises during warmups, throwing the ball 150, 200, 250 feet across the outfield. This helped stretch out the muscles and developed strength. Some teams felt, though, that this hurt the pitchers and many teams stopped this practice.
Allegedly, this led to Barry Zito’s famous decline. According to a story I read, Zito had always practiced long toss. But after his 23-5 season with Oakland in 2002 they nixed the long throwing and he began his steady decline. Reportedly, Nolan Ryan reinstituted the long-throwing regime with his pitchers in Texas. I don’t know what the Angels do with their pitchers, but it would be interesting to see if there is a correlation to C.J. Wilson’s success with the Rangers and his so-so season with Los Angeles.
Nationals hope to roll a lucky 7
Of course, like most of life, there are no easy answers. There is no guarantee that a pitcher who uses Nolan Ryan’s technique, throws long toss and pitches every four days will not hurt his arm. Nor is a pitcher who throws like Prior on long rest without long toss a sure candidate for an injury. A lot depends on a player’s physical attributes. Some people are built to better withstand those rigors than others. And some people just seem to be injury prone, no matter how careful they are.
Which brings us back to Strasburg. I suspect that the bottom line for the Nationals’ decision on Strasburg has far more to do with the amount of money they’ve invested in him than anything else. If he was a 17th-round draft choice earning the league minimum $480,000 this season instead of the top draft pick in 2009 and earning $3 million this year, I think he’d still be pitching.
I hope the Nationals are right and shutting him down now leads to a long and productive career. He’s an exciting player and baseball needs players like him at the forefront. But it’s a crapshoot at best. Maybe Washington will come up with a 7 on this roll but they could also come up snake eyes.