Allegany Communications Sports

Within one week’s time, Major League starting pitchers Shane Bieber and Eury Perez have been scheduled for Tommy John surgery, Spencer Strider has serious elbow concerns and Gerrit Cole and Kyle Bradish are out with elbow issues as well.

Here’s why pitchers’ elbows keep exploding: Modern training, modern theory based on analytics and maximum effort on every pitch, youth and travel baseball, chasing spin rate, chasing velocity, pitch counts, no tackified grip, fewer former MLB pitchers coaching, and training with any Tom, Dick or Harry who has a social media site.

If pitchers are going to put in maximum effort every pitch, their muscles need a certain period of time to reset before they max effort again. The time between pitches, though, has lessened while the effort has increased..

The MLB Players Association says the pitch clock is the culprit, the owners issued a statement on Saturday saying it isn’t, citing research by Johns Hopkins University. In truth, it all begins with analytics, with maximum effort on every throw being the gospel of the analytics.

Pitchers used to throw 85% of their maximum effort for most of the game. Now they are all encouraged to “sit” at 95% of whatever their maximum is.

Sure, we’re seeing better short-term results, but check the MLB injured list – it is producing horrific long-term results.

Don’t believe me because I’m not a doctor or even play one on television? Fair enough.

Dr. James Andrews, of course, is a doctor and is the father of Tommy John surgery, and he told MLB.com the rash of elbow injuries can be traced back to amateur baseball.

“I started following the injury patterns and injury rates in the year 2000,” Andrews said. “Back in those days, I did about eight or nine Tommy Johns per year in high school aged and younger. The large majority of Tommy Johns were at the Major League level, then the Minor League level, then the college level and then just a handful of high school kids.

“In today’s situation, the whole thing is flip-flopped. The largest number is youth baseball. They’ve surpassed what’s being done in the Major Leagues. That’s a terrible situation.”

Andrews believes the obsession with velocity and spin at the youth level is the biggest culprit.

“These kids are throwing 90 mph their junior year of high school,” he says. “The ligament itself can’t withstand that kind of force. We’ve learned in our research lab that baseball is a developmental sport. The Tommy John ligament matures at about age 26. In high school, the red line where the forces go beyond the tensile properties of the ligament is about 80 mph.”

Our old friend Leo Mazzone, of course, authored many historic baseball accomplishments as pitching coach of the Atlanta Braves and the Baltimore Orioles. Leo is a disciple of the great Johnny Sain, former MLB pitcher and pitching coach, who believed pitchers should throw more often (between starts, etc.) and use less exertion. The arm, Leo has said a million times over, is a muscle, and a muscle needs to be strengthened by using it.

In February of 2018, I interviewed Leo concerning a number of issues that remain issues for pitchers six years later, beginning with why starting pitchers, particularly the best starting pitchers, are no longer guaranteed the multi-year contracts they once were after big years in their free-agent seasons. And remember, this was in 2018:

“It’s the analytics like every (bleep) thing else in the game now,” Leo said. “The owners are certainly being cautious.

“It’s really based on the number of years now, rather than just large gobs of money per season, because the back ends of those deals, the last three, four years, players tend not to be very productive. And no way are pitchers getting those deals now. Nobody wants to give pitchers more than three or four years because pitchers are breaking down today at a record pace.”

Now, just six years later, you can forget even the best pitchers in the game receiving a fourth year. Look what happened this year in free agency with the likes of Blake Snell, Jordan Montgomery and Sonny Gray – front-loaded three-year deals with player and club options on the second and third.

Mazzone also said in this 2018 interview that he believes pitchers breaking down the way they have been has much to do with baseball’s velocity obsession, and he was adamant about what he’d like to see done about it.

“I do a lot of pitching seminars and John Smoltz and I both believe they ought to get rid of the (bleeping) radar gun in high school,” he said. “Get rid of the (bleepin’) gun. They’re ruining arms with that thing. They’re looking for nothing but velocity.

“And let me tell you something about that gun — just subtract five miles per hour from any number that comes up because those things have been jacked up so much. And now it registers the ball coming out of the hand, not across the plate … “

Mazzone said he has seen all kinds of voodoo being practiced in the developmental stages of aspiring millionaire baseball players’ lives that make him want to scream.

“I had a parent ask me if he should have his son get Tommy John surgery that he didn’t need so he could make his elbow stronger down the road,” he said. “And I said, ‘Are you out of your (bleepin’) mind? You’re (bleeping) kidding me, right?’ “

Tommy John surgery, of course, named for the former pitcher, is a surgical procedure in which a healthy tendon extracted from an arm (or sometimes a leg) is used to replace an arm’s torn ligament. The healthy tendon is threaded through holes drilled into the bone above and below the elbow.

It has extended many pitching careers, but is now sometimes used early in a young player’s career as a preventive measure, even when the measure is not needed.

“We all hear about the successful Tommy Johns,” Mazzone said, “not so much about the ones that are not. All those years in Atlanta, we had just two pitchers who had Tommy John and we set records for the least number of injuries.”

From 1991 through 1993, in fact, through 537 starts, Braves pitchers on Mazzone’s watch missed a grand total of one start.

“I never did care about velocity,” Leo said. “So what? It’s about throwing more often with less exertion. It’s the complete opposite now. It’s an embarrassment. It’s a joke.”

And this was said six years ago.

Leo has long championed the four-man starting rotation over the five-man rotation that every MLB club has used for years, and said the possibility of four 20-game winners in the same season the way the 1971 Baltimore Orioles did it, much less career 300-game winners are a thing so far in the past that the current generation of pitchers don’t believe it ever happened.

“And now we’re worried about innings pitched?” Mazzone asked sarcastically. “Are you kidding me? Innings pitched is the greatest teacher a pitcher can have because it’s experience. It lets a pitcher find himself, to understand what he is and isn’t capable of doing, what his comfort level is …

“It’s a problem. Nobody pitches any innings.”

Which took us back to that gun.

“The way they use that gun at young ages …” Leo said. “If a little league coach tells a kid ‘You’ve got to hit this number on the gun or you don’t make the team,’ what do you think that kid’s going to try to do? He’s going to bust his (tail) to hit that number, he’ll overthrow and, in turn, he’ll bust his arm.


If only that were so.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT