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Baseball’s obsession with velocity to blame for rash of injuries

“They’re droppin’ like flies.”

It seems every week another top shelf major league starting pitcher is going down with an elbow injury, most of them requiring season-ending Tommy John surgery. Last week it was the Marlins’ Eury Perez and the Guardians’ Shane Bieber both going down with torn ulnar collateral ligaments in their elbows, with the Braves’ Spencer Strider (who’s already had one Tommy John surgery) likely to join them and the Astros’ Framber Valdez, the Red Sox’s Nick Pivetta and the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole all down with inflammation in their elbows being closely monitored. Already on the injured list recovering from Tommy John surgery are the Rangers’ would-be ace Jacob deGrom, Marlins ace Sandy Alcantera, Rays ace Shane McClanahan and the Dodgers’ Walker Buehler.

Surprisingly, it has taken this long for the alarm bells to sound all over major league baseball as they did last week when, I’m told, MLB has begun reaching out to former pitchers for their thoughts of what’s behind all these blown out elbows. They’re going to get the same answers and it’s not the pitch clock, as players union chief Tony Clark put out there to much agreement from a lot of the pitchers who all hate the clock.

There is absolutely no documented proof that an 18-20 second limit of recovery time between pitches is putting additional strain on the UCLs. What is well documented as the primary culprit is baseball’s analytics brigade’s obsession with velocity. All of the above mentioned pitchers have ranked among the hardest throwers in baseball with averages of 96 mph or higher with their four-seam fastballs. According to MLB’s Statcast, the average four-seamer fastballs and sinkers mph has risen from 92.8 in 2015 to 93.9 in 2023 and is presently sitting at 93.7 this season. In addition, the total number of pitches in the majors of over 100 mph has risen from 1,057 in 2014, to 1,829 in 2021, to 3,880 in 2023.

In his first spring training start, in late February, the Pirates’ Paul Skenes, the overall No. 1 draft pick last year, struck out the Orioles’ fellow phenom Jackson Holliday on a 102 mph fastball. His first outing of the spring! It wowed all the fans, but should have sent tremors through the Pirates hierarchy, although all the new analytically inclined GMs today love seeing those high digit velos and spin rates.

All the teams have created these pitching labs where the analytics geeks sit around measuring velocity, spin rates, pitch shape, landing spots, horizontal breaks, vertical breaks, release points, etc., but nothing to do with actual feel for pitching. Tom Seaver said so often that the three basic elements of pitching were command, movement and velocity and by far the least important of the three was velocity. And yet, going all the way back to even the high schools and these data-driven performance programs like Driveline, the coaches’ emphasis with pitchers is building velocity because of its monetary rewards. The higher velocity the bigger the bonuses.

And as it’s been proven now, the greater risk of blowing out their elbows.

Last week, Dr. James Andrews, the foremost practitioner of Tommy John surgeries, said: “In many cases the injury leading to Tommy John surgery in today’s young pitchers actually began when they were adolescent amateurs,” adding that pitching year-round on multiple teams in youth travel leagues is also a major factor, especially when you’re talking pitching year round with maximum effort.

Here’s what Hall of Fame GM Pat Gillick told me — which pretty much sums up the problem: “They’re not teaching these kids how to pitch anymore. They’re just teaching them to throw hard…for velocity and spin rates but not how to pitch in games. I worry that we have so many of these pitching coaches today who never pitched in the majors and can’t relate that experience to these pitchers.”

Gillick added the analytics credo of not facing the lineup a third time around, pitch count limits…all of that “is contradictory to learning how to pitch. By that I mean learning to take something off their pitches and concentrating on command and movement instead of throwing as hard as they can for as long as they can.”

When I asked a former player from the ’70s why was it that all the hardest throwing pitchers of the ’60s and ’70s — Hall of Famers Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Jim Palmer, Ferguson Jenkins — all had multiple seasons of 300 innings or more yet none of them ever had a blown out UCL, his answer was: Running. There was a time when pitchers ran foul pole to foul pole laps before every game and especially in spring training, the purpose of which was to build up leg strength, which in turn contributed to putting less stress on their arms in their deliveries.

In regard to conditioning, last week Pedro Martinez said: “In the minors I focused on working on my ligaments. I never lifted weights. Time has changed and so has training, but if you want to become a pitcher, you should strive to learn the feel for pitching and the knowledge of what to do with the ball rather than throwing it hard. The analytics department has forced the young kids by pressuring them to have revolution, velocity and spin rate…that’s too much for baby ligaments.”

When asked what baseball needs to do to remedy this growing epidemic of blown out elbows, he said a good start might be to stop flashing the pitch velo on the scoreboards after every pitch.

One pitcher to keep a close eye on this year is the White Sox’s Garrett Crochet. A No. 1 draft choice out of Tennessee in 2020, Crochet was called up to the majors as a reliever Sept. 18 that year and from there to the end of the season he threw the second most 100 mph pitches (45 out of a total of 85 or 52.9%) in the majors. A year later, in April 2022, he underwent Tommy John surgery. This season the White Sox made him a starter where he’s so far been close to unhittable — but he hasn’t thrown a single 100 mph pitch and his average four-seam fastball has been 94 mph. It would seem he’s learned from the Tommy John surgery the necessity of being a pitcher and not just a thrower.

IT’S A MADD, MADD WORLD

Meanwhile, as for position players, all the usual suspects — the White Sox trio of Luis Robert Jr. (hip flexor), Eloy Jimenez (left abductor strain) and Yoan Moncada (left abductor strain) and the Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe (oblique) have all landed on the injured list again and will miss considerable time. The White Sox trio all suffered their injuries running the bases. Since the start of 2020, the White Sox played 557 games as of Friday and Robert, Jimenez and Moncada, arguably their three best players, have played together in only 161 of them — 28.9%.It’s the same thing with the Rays and Lowe, one of their most productive players whenever he’s been in the lineup — which has been seldom since 2021. In his only full season — 2021 when he played 149 games — Lowe hit 39 homers with 99 RBI. Since then, he missed over 50 games last year with back inflammation and a knee fracture and in 2022 missed nearly 100 games due to a stress reaction in his back. He’s also had periodic injured list stints over the last five years with a triceps contusion and a bone bruise in his lower leg. … The White Sox were already a bad team with Roberts, Jimenez and Moncada. Without them for considerable periods of time, they have a good chance of beating out the 120-loss ’62 Mets as the worst team in baseball history.

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