Over the Tommy John Bridge
Imagine you wake up tomorrow and you get a news alert on your phone that says modern bridges, some that have been built as recently as 2 or 3 years ago, are suffering catastrophic structural failures that require major repairs and that these bridges need to be shut down for at least a year.
These bridges are not relics from the past century or two that have seen stresses and strains of growing populations and increased traffic loads, but new bridges designed and built with what is supposed to be the most advanced technology and methods that have ever been available to man.
And not only are these bridges failing, but the bridge experts have no valid explanations for why these brand-new bridges are breaking down. More frightening is that many of these bridges are failing without any warning signs. Rush hour Monday morning and everything is fine, rush hour that night and the bridge fails. A bridge that never had a day of trouble for 15 years, one day experiences the catastrophe.
When you hear analysis from the bridge experts, nobody can give you a straight answer for the failures. When asked why new bridges that have operated with a total vehicle/tonnage limit below their capacity from Day One have continued to suffer major structural failures, the experts have no answer.
When asked how these bridges, built with stronger materials than any bridges ever, could still suffer structural malfunctions, the experts have no answers.
Tommy John Surgery is on the rise in all levels of baseball.
Imagine in this Twilight Zone kind of story if the bridge builders ignored how the older bridges were built, the ones that are standing and in use every day, bridges that never had a structural issue.
It’s as if bridge builders forgot how to build bridges, ignored the Golden Gate and Brooklyn Bridges, and forgot the lessons learned and implemented by their forebearers. Didn’t bother to research how those bridges were built, as if they didn’t care.
Now substitute athletes who are Major League Baseball pitchers – actually pitchers at all levels of baseball – for bridges in the above hypothetical, and that’s where we are today.
For more than a decade, pitchers have been suffering catastrophic breakdowns at an unprecedented rate and yet none of the experts can explain why. Pitch counts, innings limits, extra rest, have all failed. After generations of workhorse pitchers and pitching staffs, we’ve seen a recent generation of porcelain doll arms.
“If your first thought is, ‘But you gotta be strong bro!’ – please stop thinking.”
From the best pitchers on the planet, to kids not done going through puberty, elbows are snapping. And they are snapping from performing one of the basic physical actions required to play the game. Something is really wrong.
According to a spreadsheet available in Google Docs that’s been compiled and maintained by @MLBPlayerAnalys from Twitter, there were 29 Major League pitchers and 13 Minor League pitchers who had Tommy John Surgery in 2020. The 29 MLBers represent about 10% of MLB pitching staffs, and when you take in to account the abbreviated season, that number could have been higher.
Look at the list; pitchers young and old have had TJS, from Luis Severino to Justin Verlander, the scion of MLB pitchers who is supposed to have the ideal delivery. Pitch counts, inning restrictions, easier loads during Spring Training, extra rest, better playing conditions; nothing has helped.
Forearm strains, lat strains, tired arms, etc. All precursors to the blow out.
But rather than recount the instances of TJS, let’s get to some likely causes and possible solutions.
In my opinion there are two main reasons for pitching arms failing at all levels of baseball: the ‘weight room’ and year-round baseball.
ANAHEIM, CA - APRIL 24, 2015: Tyler Skaggs #45, C.J. Wilson #33, Vinnie Pestano #63, and Cam Bedrosian #68 of the Los Angeles of Anaheim pose for a portrait displaying scars from Tommy John surgery at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on April 24, 2015 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Matt Brown/Angels Baseball LP/Getty Images)
The weight room has been sold as a vital component of success, for way too many athletes in way too many sports, yet it is the cause of problems that manifest themselves during practice and play. For baseball players at all levels, the weight room has been an unmitigated disaster.
So let’s get baseball players out of the weight room. A book could/should be written as to why this is a good idea. I’ll give you some general reasons to support my position and try to keep it brief.
Nothing an athlete does in the weight room is specific to baseball. The case can be made that what goes on in the weight room – and the vast majority of baseball training, in general – is actually diametrically opposed to what baseball players need to do.
The most basic training principle is that the more specific training is to the endeavor or sport, the more carryover there is from training to the endeavor or sport. Think of what is done in the weight room and in most training programs; do those movements or exercises ‘look like baseball?’
Does the bench press look like baseball? How about dead lifts or squats? Pull downs? Bicep curls and tricep push downs? Does any movement performed in or on a machine look like baseball, or any sport?
After a while, even Tommy John needed Tommy John Surgery.
In the throwing motion – or any athletic movement – when is the athlete laying down and using the chest and tricep muscles? When do the biceps ever work alone, except during curls? When do the ‘quads’ or ‘hamstrings’ ever work alone to perform ANY movement?
And how about the speeds of these exercises, how fast are they performed? Close to ‘baseball speed?’ The abrupt, explosive and sometimes violent action that is throwing a baseball – where is that happening in the weight room or other training?
And where does the ‘rotation’ occur in the weight room? And even if it does happen, does it happen at the proper speed? Close is not good enough. As a matter of fact, there is such a narrow range where this rotational speed needs to be, any speed too slow can be counterproductive and potentially injurious.
Muscles are just the messengers. The nervous system runs the show and sends the messages. The speed and – for lack of a better term right now – ‘look’ of the movements is an indication that the nervous system is being trained. The nervous system and musculature need to work together, and this work needs to be specific.
Training muscles is like training a messenger to deliver messages verbally without them understanding the language. Traditional weightlifting trains the muscles.
I’ve seen hundreds of baseball programs from all levels from high school to the Majors, and they are just cookie cutter nonsense that has roots in body building and football training. Garbage in, garbage out.
If your first thought is, ‘But you gotta be strong bro!’ – please stop thinking.
You know a baseball strength and conditioning coach is a hack if he uses the term strength and conditioning. Other telltale signs; heavy lifting of any kind, using chains or heavy elastic bands, programming ‘arm work,’ spending more than 40 minutes a week in the weight room.
The case can be made to eliminate the weight room totally – easier than the case for lifting weights, by expanding on the points sketched out above. But let’s move on…
Baseball players shouldn’t play baseball all year round. Kids shouldn’t be pitching in the fall, winter, spring, all summer and back into the next fall.
It’s as simple as that.
The seeds of the damage we are seeing manifest in MLB arms were planted during the developmental years of these pitchers. College, high school, club and even youth ball – in and out of season.
And it wouldn’t hurt to teach these kids how to pitch instead of simply equating high velocity with good pitching. It’s like equating how much weight someone can lift or how much time they spend ‘working out’ to their specific ability to play a sport.
Combined with horrible off the field, non-baseball training, this over work has produced this epidemic.
The fix is so simple. Look back at the great pitching staffs and durable and robust pitchers of other generations and they provide the solutions. The organizations that produced pitchers that win or lose, were dependable and durable. The Mets, the Baltimore Orioles, the Dodgers.
Those organizations were the Brooklyn and Golden Gate bridges. The methods are there, but rather than learn from the past, this new generation of baseball man has no need for those primitive tools when they have computers and algorithms and analytics. They are ignoring the past at their own peril, and at the cost of the health of some of their most valuable assets.
So until the powers that be decide that their new, modern ways are failing, we will continue to watch this parade of blown out arms, at all levels of baseball.