Ten teams have been effected by the recent epidemic of elbow injuries and some pretty big names have gone down. Front line starters Kris Medlen (Atlanta Braves), Jarrod Parker (Oakland Athletics), and Matt Moore (Tampa Bay Rays) are all done for the year and require Tommy John surgery. The most recent victim to the plague, Marlins ace, Jose Fernandez. Fernandez headlines the list of 14 pitchers that are out due to elbow injuries. He is currently on the 15 day DL with a sprained right elbow, met with the Marlins’ doctors today to see if surgery is necessary.
The alarming amount of pitchers going down has people wondering what is the cause? Taking a look at different pitches, could the curveball be a reason? Guys like Jose Fernandez and Ivan Nova love using their curveball, Ivan threw his curveball 31.6% of the time during his short 2014 season. Fernandez used his curveball 36.8% of the time this season and for good reasons. Last year 117 of Fernandez’s 178 strikeouts came by way of the curveball. One can argue that his curveball may be the best pitch in baseball, with a 16% swing and miss percentage and just a 66.8% contact rate. Both pitchers love their curveball and are down with elbow issues. The curveball is a pitch that little leagues frown upon, kids are taught a fastball/change-up repertoire to stretch their arms out. However, over recent years more and more kids are throwing breaking balls at a young age, it’s run rampant in the Little League World Series.
What about the guys that don’t use their breaking pitches as much? It’s only logical to assume that their arms would be fine, especially with sound mechanics. That wasn’t the case for Jarrod Parker, Matt Moore, or Kris Medlen. Parker is mostly a fastball/change-up guy who throws just 14.6% breaking balls. Moore only throws a slider and he only used it 13.3% of the time this season. Medlen, much like Parker, relies on his fastball and his change-up throwing just 16.5% of curveballs through his career. Mets closer Bobby Parnell is another example, he’s out for the year with elbow problems. He tops out at 100mph, threw his fastball 84% of the time this season. Hard to blame the curveball for elbow injuries after taking that in.
Mechanics aren’t really an issue with these guys and neither should being in shape, especially not Jose Fernandez. The Marlins raved about the shape that Fernandez came back in saying he slimmed down a bit and got stronger. Fernandez got into Cycling this off-season, riding 600 miles a week, but what about the arm of a pitcher being in shape?
Pitchers are handled a lot differently in the game today. Pitch count and innings pitched are heavily monitored. They are put on innings limits per season and are pulled from games normally around 100 pitches. Back in the days of Ryan, Seaver, Pedro, and Randy Johnson, there wasn’t really a pitch count or an innings count. Jack Morris threw a 10 inning shutout against the Braves in the 1991 World Series, Nolan Ryan threw 164 pitches in a game back in 1989. Ryan pitched for 27 seasons, pitching over 200 innings in 14 of those seasons and is fifth all time in innings pitched. Nolan Ryan as an owner today has come out and complained about babying pitchers with pitch counts and innings limits.
Tim Wakefield threw 172 pitches in a game in 1990. Sure, Wakefield is a knuckleballer and it puts far less strain on his arm than a more conventional pitcher, but I’m pretty sure that even today Wakefield is getting pulled around 110-120 pitches. He’s definitely not pitching into the 11th inning like he did in that game. These restrictions can weaken an arm, most experts and coaches will tell you that throwing is the best way to strengthen an arm. Perhaps restricting pitchers from throwing more because of an innings limit or pitch count limit can affect the kind of shape the arm is in.
The recent slew of injuries is raising a lot of eyebrows, hopefully the issue can be identified so the league will know how to better prevent injuries. My fear is that now pitch counts and innings limits will become a bigger part of the game despite the fact that this method is clearly not working.