Have you ever stood in the batter’s box on the receiving end of a 100 mile-per-hour fastball? Pfffhhh… Pop! That’s not a crack of the bat but the defeating sound of a baseball settling into the pocket of the catcher’s mitt. It is the snapping of leather as the little, white blur witnessed for mere milliseconds reappears stationary in the glove, a seemingly innocent object when compared to the weaponized role it had just played. In major league baseball today, the chances are that Aroldis Chapman, relief pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds, was the one to deliver such a fiery pitch. Of the 494 fastballs thrown at 100 miles per hour or greater last year in the MLB, Chapman’s left arm produced 358 of them (Berg). The reliever throws so hard, in fact, that he holds the current record for fastest pitch ever recorded in a major league baseball game, clocked at 105.1 mph (Verducci). And while Chapman’s records most definitely solidify his title as a modern day “flamethrower,” he certainly isn’t the only one walking onto major league mounds this season. Over the last fifteen years, the number of pitchers who have pitched 100 mph or more at least 25 times in a season has jumped from just one (Billy Wagner) in 2003 to nine in 2010 and eight in 2013. The average speed of a fastball delivered by a major league pitcher has risen from 90.9 mph in 2008 to 92 mph in 2014 – an enormous increase in just 6 years. Another indication of just how hot the heat wave in major
league baseball has become is the frequency that even starting pitchers are consistently pitching at triple digit speeds. Detroit’s ace, Justin Verlander, held the title of hardest throwing starting pitcher for five years straight with his ability to reach 100 mph until 2013 when two additional starting pitchers arrived on the scene, outdoing Verlander with a plethora of 101 and 102 mph fastballs (Sawchik). With all this heat, it has undoubtedly become the era of the flamethrower in major league baseball—but at what cost?
In 2012, a record 36 major league pitchers underwent season-ending, ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) reconstruction surgery (i.e. Tommy John surgery) at some point during the season (Ortiz). In 2014, this number hit 19 professional pitchers before the MLB season even began (Bordow). These were pitchers who had already established themselves at the professional level and were guaranteed a slot on their respective rosters for opening day. Many of them were the aces of their rotations, relied on to deliver a winning performance each and every week. Yet, as opening day came and went these 19 ballplayers remained in the clubhouse, sentenced to more than a year of rehab, tending to elbows that couldn’t even make it through spring training. Adding insult to injury, this list of pitchers didn’t even include high-profile minor leaguers such as Dylan Bundy and Jameson Taillon, two flamethrowers who had already touched 100 miles per hour in their young careers and who both also had Tommy John surgery before the start of the 2014 season (Sheinin). The dramatic rise of velocity in major league baseball over the past decade is a trend enabled through modern day advancements in a pitcher’s approach to the game. Contemporary developments in the sport, including the extension of the youth baseball season, a fascination with radar gun figures at the adolescent level, and an increased attentiveness to professionals’ pitch counts, all combine to normalize the occurrence of the triple-digit fastball. However, such advancements have also produced a significant spike in elbow surgeries and rehab stints both in major league and youth baseball. The era of the flamethrower is now ironically coinciding with the era of the obliterated elbow.
As baseball has slid into the 21st century, the state of the game has adjusted drastically. First, there was the enhanced role of drug testing among professional ballplayers. The system rallied to put an end to the steroid era that persisted throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s. More recently, there was the installation of instant replay in ballparks, a move that served as a testament to the league’s desire for more accurate gameplay. Finally, with this season came the introduction of the pace-of-play rules, a set of time requirements aimed at increasing the efficiency of gameplay in order to establish a more pleasurable viewing experience for fans. Professional baseball has very much proved itself to be a sport open to development. It is a sport in which each decade sees new techniques and advances as to how to approach the game most productively—maximizing the level of gameplay in a manner conducive to viewer enjoyment. Additionally, it is a sport in which the administration, as well as individual teams and players, refuse to adhere to traditional approaches if those strategies impede performance. With that, there is the advanced, almost industrialized, development of the modern day pitcher.
Advancing past youth baseball, the introduction of the radar gun is another developmental advancement that has negatively impacted the arm of the modern day pitcher—most pressingly, those at the high school level. Professional sports writer and baseball broadcaster, Tom Verducci, recounts the history of the radar gun in a Sports Illustrated article entitled “Radar Love.” While a few early contraptions were created to perform the function of reading pitch speeds, it wasn’t until 1973 when head baseball coach for Michigan State, Danny Litwhiler, borrowed a campus police officer’s radar gun in order to clock his pitchers that the idea of measuring pitchers’ velocities really stuck to the game. A year later, in 1974, a radar timing device was installed in the California Angels ballpark before a series against the White Sox in order to allow fans to guess and see how fast the club’s shiny, new arm, belonging to a player named Nolan Ryan, could throw. He hit 100.9 mph. Fast-forward 40 years and the ability to measure velocity has taken over the sport of baseball. The fascination with pitch speed has stemmed from both its proven effectiveness (the 17 hardest throwing starting pitchers of 2010 had a winning percentage nearly 20% higher than the 17 softest throwing starting pitchers) as well as its ability to captivate the crowd. Verducci elaborates on this effect: “Velocity is the eye candy of pitching, especially with radar gun readings flashed in ballparks, on television and in online game accounts…Heat creates energy at the ballpark…In fact, the radar gun readings…often get a bigger reaction from the fans than the pitches themselves.” This fascination has trickled down to the high school level where coaches and scouts continuously emphasize velocity over execution—often allowing pitch speed to serve as the sole determinant of an individual’s effectiveness on the mound. Danny Knobler, a baseball columnist who’s covered the Detroit Tigers for 18 years, wrote an article regarding the radar gun’s current influence on baseball, stating: “Every team requires scouts to list velocity on every report.” He later adds, “No matter how much anyone thinks [radar] gun readings are overused, everyone still looks for them” (Knobler). Nowadays no one questions such priorities, and why should they? Speed signs for the most money. Annually, record-high signing bonuses go to the high school and college pitchers who throw the hardest—even if their mechanics flash bright warning signs of injuries or they lack the ability to throw consistent strikes.
In the United States, even as annual reports relate overthrowing at the high school level to arm problems later on in life, velocity continues to be stressed just as it is in the Dominican Republic; the youngest and fastest arms are rewarded with enormous sums of money. Journalist Benjamin Hoffman details one such story. Brady Aiken, a high school player with exceptional baseball talent who had been throwing in the mid 90mph-range since his freshman year, entered into last year’s draft with strong predictions of being drafted within the top ten. With the 1st overall selection of the 2014 MLB draft, the Houston Astros selected Aiken, offering the 17 year old a record-setting $6.5 million signing bonus. A couple days later, however, an issue arose after the Astros received the results of Aiken’s mandatory physical checkup. There was structural damage in Aiken’s elbow—an irregularity that suggested major problems in the prospect’s future, including a very high likelihood of Tommy John surgery at some point in his pitching career. So the Astros reduced their offer to $5 million. Five million dollars to an unproven high school pitcher who had structural damage to his throwing arm. Aiken didn’t sign. Five months later, he underwent Tommy John surgery and isn’t expected to be back on the mound until 2016 (Hoffman). The Houston Astros’ offer to Aiken, as well as the Dominican Republic’s obsession with the number combination of 16 and 90, provides an honest glimpse into the current philosophy of professional baseball teams. Velocity has become so coveted among organizations that practically any other issue in a player’s profile can be overlooked for the sake of the fastball—the need for speed pushing high school players past their physical peaks and jeopardizing their futures in the sport.
While revealing an unhealthy obsession with velocity, the idea that a professional baseball team would be willing to offer big money in order to sign a talented baseball player with full knowledge of said player’s high probability of future surgery also speaks to baseball’s newfound confidence in medicine. Before 1974, a tear in the ulnar collateral ligament of a baseball player’s throwing elbow meant the death of that player’s career. The belief was that no possible procedure could repair the ligament to the extent in which it would hold up to the repeated and extraneous use required by a pitcher every start. All this changed, however, when a major league pitcher named Tommy John decided to challenge this common belief through an innovative surgery designed and performed by Dr. Frank Jobe in the fall of 1974. Instead of attempting to repair John’s torn elbow tendon, Dr. Jobe removed it altogether. He then chose a new tendon from the pitcher’s thigh (it can also come from the forearm, wrist, knee or hip) and wove it through holes drilled in the elbow’s humerus and ulna bones—the tendon essentially serving as a brand new ulna collateral ligament (Narins). The surgery was performed without a hitch, and Tommy John went on to rehab his new elbow for 18 months before returning to professional baseball for the 1976 season. The major league pitcher would go on to pitch with significant success for another 13 years, making four all-star teams in the time period until eventually retiring in 1989 at the age of 46 (Sheinin). The longevity of Tommy John’s career and his success in baseball after the surgery officially disproved the career death sentence that was thought to accompany a UCL tear in baseball, replacing the stigma with hope of a second life for injured pitchers and their careers. With the first attempt, Dr. Jobe gave his patient a 1 in 100 chance of ever returning to the mound (Sheinin). Through advancements in technology and perfection of both the procedure and rehabilitation routine, it is now estimated that 80-90% of pitchers who undergo Tommy John surgery fully recover (“Position Statement”). In addition, the average time required for rehabbing from the injury has been reduced from 18 to 12-15 months for many pitchers in the major league (Bordow).
Enter the modern day, velocity-driven state of the game where roughly one third of current major league pitchers have undergone Tommy John surgery. The procedure has become so common, in fact, that multiple myths surrounding the surgery have arisen that advocate for players to undergo the operation as early as possible in their careers in order to be given the opportunity to return sooner and stronger. A common misconception among young athletes is that the surgery actually increases a pitcher’s velocity—leading to some cases where high school players have sought out consultation from doctors like James Andrews, requesting to receive the surgery even when their UCLs are perfectly intact (Sheinin). Modern day baseball has reached a point where many athletes and amateurs grossly overestimate the efficacy of the surgery. While the effectiveness of Tommy John surgery has improved significantly since its introduction, it’s worth noting that the procedure is still considered major surgery by doctors. For pitchers, the most essential bodily component to their careers undergoes complete reconstruction in the removal and replacement of a critical tendon. In a study published by the American Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers examined 147 cases of major league pitchers who underwent Tommy John surgery from 1999 to 2011 and reported that approximately 80% of those players returned to pitch in at least one MLB game. Additionally, only 67% of those who returned to the game from surgery went on to pitch at “the same level of competition postoperatively” (Makhni et al. 1323). Finally, even though the percentage of players returning to the disabled list comparatively decreases with the surgery, 57% of the players who had reestablished themselves in the big leagues went on to experience further arm trouble later in their careers (Makhni et al. 1330). While these numbers have risen slightly since the study was conducted, the truth remains that UCL surgery has a very real possibility of negatively influencing a player’s career. And while there have been multiple cases in which major league baseball pitchers have returned to the game after Tommy John surgery throwing harder than they had previously, this is directly related to the extensively long and thorough rehabilitation process. As the ASMI summarized in an online statement debunking myths of the surgery, these rare cases are the direct results of professional players who, in the pursuit of returning to their careers, actually developed their arms past the point they were at before the surgery. It has no relation to the surgery itself with the replacement tendon no better than the original ligament (“Position Statement”). Tommy John surgery is no longer a death sentence for a pitching career in baseball, but the sport’s recent adoption of an absolute willingness, near encouragement, for its athletes to undergo such procedures for the sake of an enhanced future of performance is ludicrous. Such a notion is exactly what motivates young players to throw their arms to ashes in the pursuit of radar gun figures and the big signing bonus; the advocacy rooted in a newfound confidence in medicine simply isn’t supported by the facts.
While the detrimental effects on a pitcher’s arm caused by recent developments in youth and high school baseball are clear, what do these developments look like at the professional level? While the increase in velocity takes the majority of blame for the increase of degraded major league arms and the game’s heavy reliance on Tommy John surgery, another correlating development seems to be the introduction of the pitch count. In the past couple of decades, coaches have begun to take an extreme interest in the number of pitches thrown by their starters, now moderating the length in which a pitcher proceeds through the game not solely by his performance up to that point, but also by the number of times he’s delivered the ball to home plate. To elaborate, Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson led the league with an average of 356 innings pitched per season from 1914-1916. Nowadays, the league leader in innings pitched lands in the
230-250 innings range each year, while the MLB season has actually expanded by an additional 22 games (“Yearly League Leaders”). A strong example of the monumental change in a major league pitcher’s workload and approach to the sport from the early 20th century to the early 21st can be found in Ring Lardner’s You Know Me Al, a novel depicting the everyday lifestyle of a professional pitcher back in the early 1900’s. Lardner, a longtime beat writer for the White Sox, describes the expectations that fictional flamethrower Jack Keefe had for himself in winning a series against the Cubs: “Well old pal we got them 2 games to one now and the [series] is sure to be over in three more days because I can pitch 2 games in that time” (127). This was Jack’s mentality after just having pitched that same day, and while Lardner’s character was certainly arrogant in his abilities, he was also reflecting the state of the game at that point in time, where it was not uncommon to see pitchers throw three times in a five game series or throw 150 pitches in a single game. Nowadays, pitchers average a start only once every five games their team plays. In a counterintuitive effect, professional ball is witnessing a rise in arm injuries even as pitch counts and innings pitched decrease—a trend that reveals the sport’s truly misguided understanding of the modern day arm. In an act of pure baseball breeding, pitchers have become so specialized in the art of flame-throwing that they’ve lost sight of all other components required by the profession such as endurance and self-preservation. While the science of this philosophy is inconclusive, the proven rise of Tommy John surgeries in the major leagues shows a developmental error in training pitchers to throw harder while also having them throw less.
On the topic of self-preservation and its dubious existence in Major League Baseball, New York Yankees starting pitcher, Masahiro Tanaka, must be mentioned. In early 2014, Tanaka signed a seven-year, $175 million contract with the Yankees after playing eight highly successful seasons of professional baseball in Japan. Noted as one of the best pitchers to ever come out of the Japanese leagues, Tanaka went on to dominate with the Yankees in his first season with the team, winning 13 games while pitching 133 innings of Major League baseball to the tune of a 2.77 earned run average. Worth noting is that Tanaka had earned 12 of his 13 wins before the All-Star break, the unofficial halfway point of the MLB season. A few weeks after the break, however, Tanaka began experiencing discomfort in his throwing elbow after pitching a game against the Indians. The next day, an MRI revealed that the Yankees ace had a partially torn UCL. After consulting with team doctors, the popular opinion throughout the Yankees organization was that Tanaka would immediately undergo Tommy John surgery in order to recover in time to pitch for part of the following season. Tanaka, however, decided to seek out a second opinion, eventually opting to rehab the elbow without surgery in hopes the tear would heal and he could return to the mound in a much shorter period of time (“Masahiro Tanaka”).
The pitcher made a decision that completely defies modern developments in Major League Baseball. In the same year 19 MLB pitchers underwent UCL reconstruction surgery before the season even began, here was the new Japanese player refusing to submit to baseball’s most recent dogma. Tanaka rebelled against a trust of medicine that was developed specifically for the era of flamethrowers. Ultimately, the controversy surrounding Tanaka’s decision served as a grounding testament to the current state of the game: a game where surgery is embraced as a norm, while natural, bodily healing is met with surprise, speculation, and even backlash (Kernan).
Tanaka rehabbed his elbow without surgery and pitched two more games in the 2014 season, surrendering seven runs to the Red Sox in just 1.2 innings of work in his final appearance of the year. This season, after continued arm rehabilitation over the offseason, Tanaka was named the 2015 opening day starting pitcher for the Yankees. He gave up five runs in four innings against the Blue Jays, throwing his fastball no harder than 92 mph on the day. On April 28th, 2015, Tanaka was placed on the Yankees’ disabled list with tightness in his throwing forearm and is expected to miss at least a month of playing time while recovering (“Masahiro Tanaka”). Perhaps modern day norms are norms for a reason. Perhaps, recent advancements in a pitcher’s developmental lifetime really are advancements in the sport. Baseball has undoubtedly become a pitcher’s game with the fastball idolized as the greatest, most enchanting weapon in any pitcher’s arsenal. Through recent developments across all levels of competition including the extension of the youth baseball season, the presence of radar guns among adolescent players, and the installation of pitch counts at the major league level (coupled with an established trust of modern day medicine), pitchers have been bred to specialize in the art of velocity. The flamethrower era is a remarkable accomplishment for modern day baseball—a culture that stifles the sport’s offenses while captivating crowds with frequent demonstrations of pure, projectile heat. It’s also the culture that’s destroying the very arms the game has worked to build itself around.
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