I’m one of the last people to suggest applying an old school style to anything. I advocate numbers and I like advancing techniques, especially in sports. You have to constantly adapt to make strides in any sport, and I agree that what worked in the past often doesn’t correlate to the now.
Yet it only seems sensible to go old school when it comes to pitching speed and effort. Young starting pitchers should look to older pitchers’ control success instead of focusing so much on speed and putting 100 percent effort into every pitch.
Wednesday, the American Sports Medicine Institute—whose board president is the king of medical sports opinion, Dr. James Andrews—released a position statement on Tommy John surgery. There were multiple key points to take away from their position, but the main one barks directly at young flamethrowers:
“Do not always pitch with 100 [percent] effort,” one part read. “The best professional pitchers pitch with a range of ball velocity, good ball movement, good control, and consistent mechanics among their pitches. The professional pitcher's objectives are to prevent baserunners and runs, not to light up the radar gun.”
And the final recommendation said, “Pitchers with high ball velocity are at increased risk of injury. The higher the ball velocity, the more important to follow the guidelines.”
You are completely warranted to wring your hands and say that’s common sense, but the important thing is that it was medical experts who have done research on the 2014 Tommy John surgery epidemic that made the statement. It is not a bad idea to listen to players whose arms are scarred, or analysts who have a more removed examination of baseball. But our best determination should come from the analysis and research of medical experts. You know, it only makes sense to listen to a player or an analyst if they actually have science and medicine to back up their claims. You know, a doctor with decades of experience studying and treating sports-related injuries might know a thing or two more about what snaps a pitcher’s arm. Just might.
The ASMI statement makes a lot of sense, even to someone like me with a plebian understanding of the medical field. A mountain would be the wrong way to describe it, but there is a good spraying of data and examples that suggest why full speed/full effort is harmful to a starting pitcher and is more likely to lead to a detrimental arm injury like an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) or ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) tear. Nate Eovaldi, for example, breaks radar guns as often anyone in Major League Baseball, and said he throws every pitch as hard as he can.
He had Tommy John surgery when he was 17.
His case is not universal, of course. In an article for Yahoo! Sports, Tim Brown notes that Clayton Kershaw is 26, throws full effort on every pitch, and has never had Tommy John surgery, while Randy Wolf (37-years-old) rarely ever threw any pitches at full effort but still required two Tommy John surgeries.
But those are only two pitchers. The majority of the hurlers in the past year who needed Tommy John surgery were the full effort/95+ mph heaters. The Jose Fernandez, Matt Harvey, Patrick Corbin, Matt Moore types are much more common than the Wolf and Kershaw samples. According to Harry Pavlidis of Pitch info, Fernandez, Harvey, Moore, and Corbin averaged at least 93 mph on every fastball they threw in the 2013 season, and all four of them had to get Tommy John surgeries less than three full seasons into their big league careers.
As with any medical issue, there are multiple contributing factors to the recent rash of Tommy John surgeries. Super-speed pitches aren’t an arm’s sole enemies, as the report suggests that poor pitching mechanics and a lack of rest are some contributing factors as well.
But the amount of effort remains a large, looming point to the ASMI medical officials and baseball eyes everywhere. The pitching motion is already unnatural, so how would it make sense to throw with one’s all in every pitch? How would it make sense to have a small limb throw faster than most cars move, one hundred times a game, 30 times a season?
That’s why the best pitchers are the smartest ones, and the smartest ones are the ones who, like ASMI reported, mix pitches and have better control. Speed and effort are not essential methods for pitching triumph. 95+ mph heat is useful for striking hitters out and limiting damage, and it might result in a starter throwing fewer pitches, but the long-term results don’t accommodate a pitching arm.
Control starters—yeah, them old timers—have generally always avoided the Tommy John scalpel until much later in their careers, if at all. There’s hardly any control pitchers who save their best pitches and still go under the knife at 17- or 20- or 23-years-of-age. Harvey, Fernandez, and these other flamethrowers are keen pitchers too, but the best route to an out is keeping a hitter off balance. Sure, hundreds of 95 mph fastballs and dozens of 90 mph sliders can do that too, but that effort doesn’t open a path to pitching longevity.
Let’s look at Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander. Hernandez once often threatened 100 mph with his fastballs and had a slider in the upper 80’s. He was a 19-year-old with filthy stuff and speed that would make Harvey nod in approval today.
10 years into his MLB career, his stuff is still nasty and he remains just as effective as he ever was—the speed simply isn’t as blazing. His mix of 90 mph fastballs inside and on the black, with a changeup barely distinguishable in the upper 80’s, a slider in the mid-to-upper 80’s, and a cutter ticking in around 80 mph, according to Fan Graphs, is deadly.
He was a starting pitcher who in a three-year span (2006-2008) had an earned run average-plus of 111; he is a starting a pitcher who in a recent three-year span (2011-2013) had an ERA-plus of 118.3. His average fastball velocity in the 2013 season was 92.5 mph, with a top speed of 96.4, and a difference of 3.9 mph on the average and fastest fastballs. Some of the recent pitchers who had Tommy John surgery had a bigger velocity difference last season, but Hernandez’s average fastball velocity was significantly lower than most of them, surely resulting in less stress on his arm and ligaments.
An even better example lies in Verlander. Verlander hasn’t experienced as sharp of a drop in his average fastball speeds, still pumping 94.2 mph on the average fireball last year, but for his entire career Verlander has been one of baseball’s best examples of saving the best for last. His 6.1 mph fastball difference in 2013 was second in MLB to only Justin Masterson’s 6.7.
The 2011 American League MVP prides himself in having higher velocities later into games. Sure, he will hit 95 mph+ on ten straight pitches in the seventh inning from time to time, but he isn’t the constant medical risk in ASMI’s and almost everyone else’s eyes, because he throws slower earlier in games. If there’s runners on first and third in a one-run game, yeah, time to throw 98. If the bases are loaded, yeah, time to throw 99. And yes, if it’s the postseason and the game is on the line, he might just hurl 100 mph.
But he doesn’t stress his ligaments on every pitch so he can blow by every hitter even in ordinary circumstances like Fernandez does. Every pitch is calculated. Location, movement, and pitch variation is the bread and butter of Verlander’s toast. Fastball, curveball, changeup—any of them can come at any time, and they don’t need to be faster than 95 mph every time the hitter sees them. A decade into the big leagues, and Verlander has been on the mound to start a game at least 32 times in the past seven seasons, and he already has 12 starts under his belt in 2014.
Pavlidis’s data shines even more light on the control vs. flamethrower debate: of the ten pitchers who had the highest velocity difference in the 2013 season—all of whom who had differences of 5.1 and above, and only four averaging 93 mph or faster on their fastballs—none of them have ever had Tommy John surgery.
Historically, pitchers have always kept some fire in the tank. John Smoltz said he never felt that he maxed out while pitching. Coincidence, then, that Smoltz avoided Tommy John surgery until more than halfway into his career?
According to ESPN’s David Schoenfield, a 1913 article in Baseball Magazine quoted pitcher Vean Gregg saying that Walter Johnson “[dug] up the red hot stuff” when he was in a hole. Pitchers in the 1960’s, ‘70s, and into the ‘80’s often preserved their best fastballs for the home run threats or with runners on base.
Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Tom Seaver—you can think of a bevy of starters who relied more on control than speed and full effort to dominate hitters. It’s fun to throw 95+ on every pitch, see the baseball jump out of a pitcher’s hand. But it simply isn’t practical. Anything more than 95 mph is like a new zone for the arm and the stress is amplified much more than when it’s below that speed.
If a pitcher’s average velocity dips too much or starts averaging under 90 mph, then that’s not the recipe for success—looking at you, Bartolo Colon—but if starters dip it down a bit, to the point where they’re throwing closer to 92 or 93 mph on average, then that should go a long way in keeping their under-30-year-old elbows alive. Call it old school, science, or common sense, max effort or hyper speed in any sport won’t do you any good, especially in one of sports’ most extreme games of attrition, a game that hardly provides any ammo for starting pitchers’ long health.