Overwork, Infatuation With Velocity Leading To Injuries
By Ryan Lazo, sports editor
Jul 30, 2014, 10:13
Petersburg manager Daniel Wood believes overuse and AAU ball has contributed to the high number of innings.
During a first half of the Major League Baseball season which has witnessed the Oakland Athletics prove their recent success was not a flash in the pan, two Los Angeles Dodgers throw no-hitters and immediate exploits of young rookies like the powerful Houston Astros' George Springer, it has been something else which has taken the baseball world by storm.
It's not a hitter who may overtake Mike Trout as the best player in the game or the next Bryce Harper-like phenom making the jump from high school. Instead, the story which has been the focus of players and coaches from the Little League level to MLB is a 0.83 inch triangular band which connects the humerus to the ulna. Yes, a small ligament located inside of a person's elbow is the biggest story in the world of baseball.
That's what happens when big-name pitchers throughout MLB are succumbing to this injury and forced to undergo Tommy John surgery. But it hasn't just been an issue at the professional level, it has also affected those in high schools which makes it a baseball-wide issue. It's why the idea of keeping his pitchers healthy during a lengthy summer league schedule is always in the back of Petersburg manager Daniel Wood's mind.
After all, Wood is not a typical baseball manager. The first-year Generals' manager is also the pitching coach at Roanoke College and was a pitcher himself. During his time at Tennessee Wesleyan College, Wood compiled an 18-1 record with a 4.06 ERA before dealing with shoulder issues of his own. After dealing with his own issues, Wood makes sure to look after his own pitchers. He charts the days and pitches they have thrown so they are not overworked, a balancing act made even more difficult by trying to win.
"The biggest thing by far is giving guys rest," Wood said after a game earlier this season. "You can't allow them to overwork themselves because the vast majority of kids will always say yes if you ask them if they can throw today. As a coach, you have to weed through that and kind of know when they are and when they aren't."
Wood has displayed this type of mentality with his pitching staff in Petersburg this season. Wood has yet to use a reliever on back-to-back days and makes sure if they warm-up in the bullpen, they will be used in the game instead of stressing their arm for no reason.
Yet, even the concept of rest is a question which plagues the baseball community. Teams at all levels have been careful with their pitchers, limiting innings, pitches thrown and controlling workouts which have become more and more advanced. However, it has done nothing to curb the rash of injuries. The Richmond Flying Squirrels, a Double-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, has had manager Russ Mormon pull starters or relievers if their pitch-count in one-inning had reached 30 or more pitches.
The strategy has helped keep No. 1 prospect Kyle Crick healthy, but stud-reliever Derek Law underwent Tommy John surgery in June for an injury originally deemed elbow stiffness. It's why many within baseball circles, including Wood, believe injuries are happening because of what is done earlier in life.
"It starts at such a young age because AAU and travel ball have become so competitive in recent years," Wood explained. "Kids are focusing on one sport now where it used to be a bunch of sports ... throwing is an incredibly unnatural motion, so putting the stress on it at a young age without the benefit of time off — kids are playing year-round now — it's a heavy contributor to the injuries we see now."
Petersburg right-hander Colin Bigelow made his last start Tuesday afternoon due to an innings limit.
But it also comes down to coaching.
In today's game, coaches are fueled by winning more than ever as they try to attract the best players within their area — whether it be on the high school or college levels. Once within the college ranks, a coach will only remain the coach if he can produce, meaning winning becomes the most important.
It's why it is not a surprise when top-prospects, some of which compete in the Coastal Plain League, arrive to their teams after already having logged 100 innings with their college programs. Then, add in an additional 50 or 60 innings in various summer leagues and the work-load becomes an injury waiting to happen. How managers deal with that possibility varies by person and Peninsula Pilots manager Hank Morgan has a different philosophy.
Instead of having a set rotation of starters, Morgan likes to switch up his staff to help control innings more effectively. Then, on other days he uses a 'Johnny Wholestaff' strategy. The strategy entails employing more pitchers for less innings to keep an opponent off-balance, but in Morgan's mind, it also decreases stressful pitches on the elbow.
"I like to use a lot of my pitchers more frequently," Morgan explained. "By them playing more often, it gives them more repetition to perfect their mechanics, but also stops them from throwing too many innings."
The differing opinions is one reason why there is no on-size-fits-all remedy. Advances in medicine and training programs have helped strengthen players more than in the past, but it has also increased more muscle fatigue and injuries. In fact, Texas Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish believes the training programs are focusing on the wrong part of the body.
Cameron Tekker throws a pitch from a low 3/4 arm angle
"The way that we train nowadays is so that we can increase the velocity of our pitches," he said in an ESPNDallas.com article. "This is how I tell my training coach: lower body, back, lower back. If we concentrate on that area we are able to throw the ball faster, but we are not able to protect the arm and elbow. Since we are throwing the ball faster, there is more tension on the ligament; we need to protect that."
So perhaps it is that simple. Instead of being enamored by high velocity, the baseball community should protect those arms by strengthening the vital ligament which has become the game's biggest star. No one knows if it will work, but it's a path worth trying to get the focus back on the game and not on which doctor your favorite player will visit in the coming weeks.