The baseball world has been dealt a truly unfortunate blow. Rookie sensation Stephen Strasburg has been diagnosed with a significant tear in the ulnar collateral ligament of his elbow and will likely undergo Tommy John surgery.
Strasburg’s injury is not only a blow to the Nationals, but a major loss to the entire game. Considered to be a once-in-a-generation talent, Strasburg was not only seen as a savior for the Washington Nationals, but an enduring marketing centerpiece for a sport seeking new faces unstained by recent steroids scandals. Although Tommy John surgery is far from a death knell to Strasburg’s career, it does substantially push back his development and place his future at risk. In addition to simply recovering from the surgery, Strasburg will likely also have to rework his mechanics, and there are no guarantees that such alterations will continue to produce the same blistering fastball and devastating curve. Just ask Kerry Wood.
Another lesson from the Strasburg injury is just how fragile a pitcher’s arm can be. If you’ve ever seen a slow motion replay of a pitcher’s follow through, the strain and contortion placed on the arm is painfully evident. That’s why “there [really] is no such thing as a pitching prospect”. Also know as TINSTAAPP, this theory, which was first advanced by Baseball Prospectus co-founder Gary Huckabay, simply states that because of the inherent risks associated with repeatedly throwing a baseball, pitchers are a very unpredictable commodity…something the Nationals have been forced to learn the hard way.
Along with the realization that pitching is a fragile commodity have come the much maligned notions of innings limits and pitch counts. The Yankees have been scrutinized for their careful monitoring of Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes, for example, but although there have been bumps along the way, neither has sustained a serious arm injury during their time in the big leagues.
With all that we now know about pitching injuries, it’s a shame that so many still maintain the reckless macho attitude about “taking the ball” at all costs. Just last week, Nationals’ television broadcaster and former hard throwing reliever Rob Dibble implored Strasburg to “suck it up”. I wonder how Dibble feels about his advice now? Sadly, I am sure he was not alone in that sentiment. In fact, by having Strasburg “take the ball” after spending 15-days on the disabled list with a sore shoulder, the Nationals’ organization was pretty much taking Dibble’s advice. It’s hard to imagine why the organization would not have been more cautious with Strasburg’s valuable right arm, but now they will be forced to pay the price.
So for me, a little bit has to be put back on Strasburg here. OK, you throw a pitch, it bothers your arm, and you immediately call out the manager and the trainer? Suck it up, kid. This is your profession. You chose to be a baseball player. You can’t have the cavalry come in and save your butt every time you feel a little stiff shoulder, sore elbow. … Stop crying, go out there and pitch. Period.” – Rob Dibble talking on his August 23 radio show, as quoted by the D.C. Sports Blog
Neanderthal thinking like Dibble’s aside, a lot of good work has been done on trying to understand the nature of pitching injures, but so much more can be accomplished. Instead of chasing holy grails like blood tests for HGH, major league baseball should be pouring its resources into studying pitchers’ mechanics in an attempt to determine how they relate to arm injuries. Advances in treatment might make a pitcher’s career salvageable, but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Considering the going rate for starting pitchers, a more aggressive approach to preventing injuries seems like a worthwhile investment.