If there’s one positive to come out of the deluge of pitching injuries, it’s the dialogue on how injuries could be curtailed or prevented.
The culprit seems to be increased velocity, which puts more stress on the elbow and shoulder. Short of a speed limit, what could be done to reduce dangerous velocity, and therefore some injuries?
“I’m almost afraid to pick up the paper because of the bad news,’’ commissioner Bud Selig said at the owners’ meetings last week. “I’m very worried over the fact that it’s happening with so much regularity, over and over. We have some great young arms, and it’s very sad. Let’s see if we can find out some answers. Nobody has them, I’ll tell you that, including the doctors and trainers. Everybody you talk to has a different opinion.’’
Red Sox manager John Farrell said the other day that there’s been discussion about lowering the mound, which would reduce stress on the shoulder and elbow by reducing some of the downward force.
It also would likely produce more offense, as pitches would come in “flatter” because the starting trajectory wouldn’t be able to create the movement pitchers now have on cutters, sliders, and changeups.
Red Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves feels you’d be robbing Peter to pay Paul and is opposed to lowering the mound.
“Of course there’s more torque on the back and therefore the shoulder has more stress on it with the higher mound,” he said, “but I think if you lowered it you’d have guys trying to throw even harder and therefore hurting themselves even more.”
Nieves’s recommendation for reducing pitching injuries?
“You have to stop shrinking the strike zone,” he said. “It has to be expanded. It’s incredible what you’re asking of pitchers nowadays. You expect them to throw the baseball into this tiny box. Do you know how much stress that puts on a pitcher’s arm? Just remembering when I pitched, the strike zone is so tiny compared to back then. It’s impossible to think that you make a pitcher hit that tiny box and not have it affect the health of a pitcher over time.”
Because of the small strike zone, Nieves feels pitchers have to employ a “crisscrossing” approach for acquiring strikes, which he said means more backdoor sliders and curveballs, more cutters that use a different path into the zone.
“There wasn’t a lot of crisscrossing before,” Nieves said. “You have to throw a little bit harder because the angles will be reduced. Flat pitches will be even flatter. You’ll have to pitch up more than down.”
Pitching guru Rick Peterson, who works closely with renowned orthopedist Dr. James Andrews to promote proper pitching mechanics, doesn’t discount that a lower mound may help, but he believes the biggest culprit is the stress amateurs put on their shoulders.
Peterson, the minor league pitching coordinator for the Orioles, believes the thinking has to change at the amateur level.
“In my discussions with Dr. Andrews and Dr. [Glenn] Fleisig, what they’re telling me is guys in their teens or early 20s are coming in with 35- or 40-year-old elbows. There’s so much wear and tear on these guys before they even get to the big leagues. And this is due to all of the pitching these kids are doing for over a decade before they even get drafted.
“We had a pitcher, a No. 1 pick, and I won’t mention names, Dr. Andrews told me, ‘I just operated on a 40-year-old elbow!’ These kids are wearing out the tread on the tires,” Peterson said.
Peterson said research shows that a young amateur needs to rest his arm for three months after a season, but now you have all of these showcases and youngsters throwing year-round. And you’re talking about kids who are bigger and stronger and throwing in the mid-90s or better.
“In 2003, there was one pitcher throwing 100 miles per hour — Billy Wagner. Now there’s eight,” Peterson said.
So, what’s the solution?
“There has to be a change in mind-set at the amateur level,” Peterson said. “That has to come through education. It has to come from the parents who need to protect their kids and from the coaches who need to look out for the kids’ well-being.”
Peterson’s program involves getting to kids as early as Little League and performing a biomechanical study on their deliveries, which will determine areas of weakness, coming up with a delivery that would help avoid future injuries.
Selig wants Major League Baseball to study this further, and he’ll likely put together a panel of experts to figure out what teams can do to reduce the need for Tommy John surgeries.
It does seem that teams are being very cautious with their young pitchers. The Marlins did not overuse Jose Fernandez, and in fact did what they could to give him extra days off between starts. The Nationals more than babied Stephen Strasburg when he came up, and he also needed Tommy John surgery.
It’s interesting to look at Japanese pitchers, who for the most part have avoided major injuries. They often aren’t hard throwers, but Masahiro Tanaka gets it up to 95 m.p.h. but spots it. Japanese pitchers also don’t lift weights like American pitchers. Their regimen is about long-tossing and stretching, which seems to work.
KEEPING EYES OPEN FOR ARMS
Someone to pitch in would help Yankees
Owner Hal Steinbrenner said last week that the Yankees could buy pitching before the trade deadline, given they’ve already lost three starters to injuries. Michael Pineda (lat) and CC Sabathia (knee) are expected back, but for the Yankees to compete over the long haul they must add a significant arm.
Baseball executives think they’ll have their eyes on Cliff Lee if the Phillies fall out of the race. Of course, that’s a big if.
The Yankees would have plenty of competition for Lee, perhaps even from the Red Sox, who have long coveted him, especially given his past relationship with John Farrell in the Cleveland organization. The Red Sox also have more to give than the Yankees in terms of prospects.
Lee, 35, will earn $25 million this season and next, and has a $27.5 million option for 2016, which vests with 200 innings in 2015 or 400 innings in 2014-15.
This is no problem for the Red Sox or Yankees. The Red Sox wouldn’t mind it because they’d only be locked in over a short term.
Why do the Sox need to even look into it? Mostly because there’s some concern the pitching prospects they have might not be able to do the job in a pennant race if one of the starters should get hurt.
There are certainly other candidates for the Yankees. Realistically, they would not seem to be a match with Tampa Bay for David Price, but could be in on the Cubs’ Jeff Samardzija if they have enough to give.
There’s also the possibility that the Diamondbacks would sell off Bronson Arroyo, but there’s doubt as to how he would play at Yankee Stadium.
There’s no question teams are focusing their scouting efforts on the June draft, but there’s a lot of pinpointed scouting concerning possible deals. Once the draft ends, trade focus will become more intensified.
Apropos of nothing
1. Victor Martinez had more home runs (9) than strikeouts (8) before evening it up by whiffing in his first at-bat Friday. The last player to have more homers than Ks over a full season was Barry Bonds, who hit 45 homers and struck out only 41 times in 2004.
2. Interesting that the Padres own the distinction of being the only major league team that has both never pitched a no-hitter and never had a batter hit for the cycle. They have been close, as 353 batters have fallen just one hit shy of the cycle, and 10 times needed only a single.
3. Entering Friday, the Rockies were hitting .353 at home (226 for 640) and Troy Tulowitzki was at .608 (31 for 51).
4. MLB formed a panel of seven owners to find Bud Selig’s replacement as commissioner. Interesting that none of them came from the Red Sox, Yankees, Dodgers, or Tigers. Could it be that owners/executives of those teams could be considered? In the past, the Red Sox’ Larry Lucchino and Tom Werner have been mentioned. Tigers president Dave Dombrowski and Dodgers CEO Stan Kasten are often considered candidates. One would think Rob Manfred, Selig’s righthand man, would have the inside edge.
5. Just a few weeks back we mentioned that Dan Uggla had turned the corner. Now, he’s back on the Braves’ bench.
6. Blue Jays starter Mark Buehrle leads the majors in shortest time between pitches at 16.2 seconds. Buehrle’s teammate R.A. Dickey and Wade Miley of the Diamondbacks are tied for second at 18.3 seconds.
7. Rajai Davis, who played for John Farrell in Toronto, would have been a nice fit for the Red Sox in terms of replacing the speed void left by Jacoby Ellsbury.
8. The Red Sox are quickly gaining the reputation of having one of the best medical/training staffs in baseball. The White Sox have generally been regarded for years as having the best.
9. The Yankees will try to rebuild their farm system in the international draft next offseason and are willing to be penalized for going too far over their allotment.
Updates on nine
1. Kenta Maeda, RHP, Hiroshima Toyo Carp — When I described Maeda as a Tim Lincecum type, I got a “good comparison” from a scout who had seen Maeda. Maeda has started 4-1 with a 2.06 ERA and has gone 75-51 in parts of seven seasons. He was 15-7 with a 2.10 ERA last season. It’s expected suitors who missed on Masahiro Tanaka will bid for Maeda. The Red Sox have scouted him quite a bit. Scouts say he has three good major league pitches, but is not as accomplished as Tanaka. Maeda will get plenty of bids if he’s posted this offseason.
2. Yovani Gallardo, RHP, Brewers — With an option year pending, the Brewers will not entertain extension talks on Gallardo until the end of the season. The Brewers will gladly pick up the $13 million option, but Gallardo’s agents, Alan Nero and Bobby Witt, will certainly be willing to discuss a longer term this offseason.
3. Jonathan Papelbon, RHP, Phillies — Papelbon was never a problem in Boston. He pitched well and was always available. But that’s changed in Philadelphia, where patience is wearing thin. Papelbon isn’t what he used to be but he’s still a serviceable closer. Manager Ryan Sandberg clashed with Papelbon once again last week when he wanted him to close three straight days and Papelbon said he was too sore. “We need a closer that can go three games in a row and close three games, no question about that,” Sandberg said. “He was up and down a couple times on Friday and that’s just normal baseball stuff. Then he had seven pitches and 14 pitches. So I need him to go out that third day and be our closer in a series like that, in any scenario like that.” Papelbon said he didn’t regret saying he was unavailable. The Phillies didn’t have any suitors for him this offseason, but now that he’s pitched through some difficulty he may have a market, though the Phillies may not get a bounty for him.
4. John Lackey, RHP, Red Sox — I asked four GMs if they would rework Lackey’s 2015 salary at the major league minimum if they were running the Red Sox. Three said no, that Lackey had agreed to the terms of the contract (he would play for the minimum in a sixth year if he lost a year to Tommy John surgery). The consensus was Lackey would be even more motivated to have a big year if he was playing for another big contract. The fourth GM said given how Lackey has come back strong and is Boston’s No. 2 pitcher, tying him up on a two-year deal where the $500,000 was upgraded would be a good-faith gesture.
5. Mookie Betts, 2B, Red Sox — It’s looking more like Betts will be moving to center field when he gets to Triple A. It will be interesting to monitor when it occurs. Some of the scouts who have watched him wonder if he wouldn’t be a third base candidate if Will Middlebrooks continues to struggle. As we’ve pointed out before, Betts might be suited for the super-utility role, a la Ben Zobrist.
6. Daric Barton, 1B, Athletics — Barton was designated for assignment last week. He’s been a longtime favorite of GM Billy Beane, who keeps bringing him back to the majors, sending him down to the minors, then bringing him back, etc. Barton is a good defender but has never been able to put it together. He became redundant with Brandon Moss. The Athletics then made a deal with the Padres for righthanded-hitting Kyle Blanks, who has an impressive .733 OPS against lefthanders.
7. Andre Ethier, RF, Dodgers — Is he the Dodgers’ most expendable outfielder? GM Ned Colletti has remained steadfast that he won’t trade any of his four solid outfielders because he’s only an injury away from having three. Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp are the fixtures. Carl Crawford and Ethier can sit based on which pitcher might be throwing. There’s a lot of money tied up in all four, and Crawford is untradeable because there’s no clamoring for his services. Ethier, in spite of his troublesome history vs. lefthanded pitching, could remain a solution for teams such as the Red Sox who may need an offensive threat. Ethier is owed $71 million over the next four years, but that’s better than Crawford’s $82.5 million over the next four or Kemp’s $128 million for the next six. Don’t even ask Colletti about Puig’s availability.
8. Tommy Hunter, RHP, Orioles — His recent rough patch has GM Dan Duquette likely on the lookout for possible relief reinforcements or contemplating keeping lefty Zach Britton in the closer role. The Orioles are simply too good to have their closer coughing up games. Entering Saturday, Hunter hadn’t had a 1-2-3 inning in 17 games. Yet he was a respectable 11 for 14 in save situations.
9. Matt Harrison, LHP, Rangers — Harrison may never pitch again because of back issues, but he had the wisdom to sign a five-year, $55 million deal in 2013. And while Harrison isn’t the type of person who wants something for nothing, he’s entitled to the money. It may also be a lesson for pitchers to sign on the dotted line.
From the Bill Chuck files — “The Nationals have successfully bunted for 14 hits this season; Toronto none.” . . . Also, “In Matt Kemp’s first 137 plate appearances he hadn’t popped out.” . . . And, “The Royals have only hit six homers off fastballs, the fewest in baseball, followed by the Cardinals, who have only hit seven.” . . . Finally, “Only 29.2 percent of the Diamondbacks’ pitches are fastballs, the fewest in the bigs, while 63.4 percent of the Braves’ pitches are heat, the most in the majors.” . . . Happy birthday, Rich Garces (43), Erik Hanson (49), and Carroll Hardy (81).Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.