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Mudville: May 23, 2024 9:47 pm PDT

Exploding Elbows

BY KEVIN KERNAN

Turns out, Unicorns get Tommy John surgery too. Sometimes twice.

The baseball world was shocked this week when it learned Shohei Ohtani may need his second Tommy John surgery. How could that be?

My reaction is, why are people shocked?

Max effort pitching is not working.

Pitch count baseball is not working.

Max velocity all the time is not working.

Sweeper madness is not working.

Ironic that the last two pitches Ohtani threw before coming out of the game with a torn ligament in his elbow were sweepers.

Or, as one scout calls sweepers,“elbow crushers.”

Who knows what did Ohtani in for a second time. He also had Tommy John surgery in 2018. He’s still hitting, but the free agent everybody wants will not be pitching in a major league game for quite some time.

The most interesting thing is that if TJ surgery can happen to Ohtani for a second time, it can happen to anyone. And it seems like it is happening to everyone. Don’t forget the Rays lost ace Shane McClanahan to an elbow injury and Tommy John surgery. Orioles closer Felix Bautista left Friday night’s game with some degree of UCL injury as well; more tests will reveal the severity, but that rarely has a happy ending.

Ohtani is a Unicorn and has all the bells and whistles working for him. Google Ohtani and Driveline Baseball and all those bells and whistles pop up: Plyocare balls. Pocket Radar. Vibration stick. Wrist weights. Motus baseball band. Spin rates. Crashing MPH. It’s all there. It’s all part of the tools that are so common to today’s pitchers. And yet somehow, pitchers are getting hurt at an incredible pace.

I remember being stunned a number of years ago in Port St. Lucie when after each pitch during a pre-spring training bullpen session (and I was standing right there), after each pitch, the Mets had two interns, who really needed to hit the weight room, measure out Jacob deGrom’s stride length so they could input it into the computer.

After each pitch.

I had been watching bullpen sessions for decades and had never seen anything like that. I’m also still amazed that pitchers do so much of their “work” on flat ground when they pitch off a mound when it’s for real; but that’s just me, I guess. Surprising too that they don’t run as much as they once did to keep their legs strong. When the legs go in a game, command disappears.

Like I said, this was pre-spring training for deGrom, not even spring training. Better times were not ahead with all the gizmos and gadgets that were in the bullpen that day. DeGrom, who seemed to be in search of 100 miles per hour way more often than he needed, was soon hit with injury after injury. You know the rest of the story.

When are the Nerds going to admit that their fix-all pitch count limitations are not working and that they’re creating a generation of pitchers who can’t pitch deep into games and stay healthy?

You know what would really help today’s pitchers?

More non-max effort pitching. Not less pitching. Throw more.

Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone, who somehow kept all the Braves pitchers healthy all those years, told me that pitchers need to throw more, not less. He also said no one from a current MLB front office has ever called him to pick his brain about anything. Ever. Amazing.

More throwing. Not more max effort throwing. More throwing the baseball in a manner that gets your mechanics right in the bullpen and gets you the feel for the pitches.

Read swings. One of the top evaluators in the game has told me many times: the batter will tell you what’s working and what’s not working. Read the swings and react.

Don’t just rear back and fire another pitch as hard as you can as if you are being measured in some pitching lab – learn to pitch.

Former major league pitching coach Mark Wiley noted to former pitching coach and current scout Will George on their informative and instructive “Common Sense Pitching” podcast: “It’s okay to think outside the box, but don’t forget what the box is for.”

Pitching to contact is a lost art. The Number One goal of a pitcher is to post. Get on the mound, then get outs any way you can; make your start and go as deep as you can. That is not easy today with the overuse of bullpens.

Pitchers need to worry less about all the shiny objects they are chasing like velocity and spin rate and start thinking more about competing and mechanics and command so they can get on the mound and compete. It’s really that simple.

Shohei Ohtani #17 of the Los Angeles Angels leaves the game against the Cincinnati Reds in the second inning during game one of a doubleheader at Angel Stadium on August 23, 2023 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

One top pitching evaluator, a former pitcher, noted Ohtani was into all the weighted balls, the weight room, and the other stuff he was doing and was chasing 100, telling BallNine, “That’s why he’s now going into his second Tommy John. It is what it is.”

He then pointed to how times have changed, using the 2004 Red Sox rotation as a measuring stick.

“That rotation pitched 157 of the 162 games and they averaged over six innings a game,” he said. “Common sense tells me 157 starts going as deep as they did, that’s the reason they won a ring because at the end of the season that bullpen was not abused and overused like they are now.”

Curt Schilling made 32 starts. Pedro Martinez made 33. Tim Wakefield started 30 games, Derek Lowe started 33, and Bronson Arroyo started 29. Schilling was 37 years old, Pedro was 32, Wakefield was 37. Derek Lowe was 31 and Arroyo was the kid, at 27.

It’s a much different pitching landscape now.

It was old school Dusty Baker who got his starters to produce last year as Framber Valdez, 31 starts, Justin Verlander, 28, Jose Urquidy, 28, Luis Garcia, 28, and Cristian Javier, 25, combined to make 140 starts on their way to winning a World Series.

Too many teams use too many starters who can’t produce every five days because of the way they are being developed. In the minors, starters are being taken out of games in the fifth inning with a no-hitter and no one bats an eye.

Not only are there so many pitching injuries, but there’s a loss in learning how to compete, wanting to finish what you start, and figuring out a way to get through the third time in the lineup. So many starters today are going full blast from the first pitch, there is no art to pitching – and no real command – so by the time they make it to the third time around in the lineup (if they even do), they’re gassed.

Those in charge are driving the game off a cliff.

(Original Caption, 2004) The Red Sox are expected to have one of the most feared top three starting pitchers at the top of their rotation in all of baseball this season. Curt Schilling, left, and Derek Lowe, right, have been in camp for some time, but they were happy to see the third member of the troika, Pedro Martinez, center, arrive for his first workout this morning. The three right handed hurlers are shown having some fun together during a morning drill at the team's minor league complex. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

When are the Nerds going to admit that their fix-all pitch count limitations are not working and that they’re creating a generation of pitchers who can’t pitch deep into games and stay healthy?

Again, it’s okay to bring in new ideas; but don’t just shelve the old ideas automatically.

The Angels even went so far as to hire Bill Hezel as an assistant pitching coach before this season to work with Ohtani and the other pitchers. That’s fine. Ohtani had worked with Hezel in the past, another pitching coach who came to the majors after working at Driveline Baseball.

When the Yankees had hired Sam Briend away from Driveline a number of years ago to become Brian Cashman’s Director of Pitching, Hezel was promoted to Briend’s job to head Driveline’s pitching department.

All that is well and good but it can’t just be all about technology and weighted balls and such. Technology is a tool. And that’s fine but it certainly isn’t the complete fix.

It’s still about pitching.

The philosophy of limiting pitches to such a degree in the minors is not helping those pitchers develop or stay healthy or grow confidence. The number of pitchers and players out with injuries is simply mind blowing. Former pitchers tell me the mechanics are so off on these pitchers of today, especially the lower half mechanics, that it’s causing the extreme number of injuries and Tommy John surgeries.

Former Yankee Jim Curnal has done hundreds of evaluations of pitchers, pointing out what is wrong with their mechanics and has reached out to every team; but he can’t get a call back for some reason.

There seems to be an arrogance throughout baseball of not taking seriously what these former pitchers are saying.

“Rick Peterson used to tell this to the kids pitching,” one evaluator noted, “velocity will get you your first big check, command and pitching will make you rich.”

Good advice.

Felix Bautista #74 of the Baltimore Orioles walks to the clubhouse after being injured on a pitch against the Colorado Rockies during the ninth inning at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on August 25, 2023 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

Another former MLB pitching coach gave this assessment of where the game is at now, using a 10-pitch window to make his point.

“Two max effort fastballs and eight sliders is pitching now,” he noted.

Another noted, “It used to be when you went out on the mound you wanted to finish what you started.’’

That mentality has been lost because of the way pitchers are handled now.

You would think major league owners would be willing to listen to those former pitchers simply because of the epidemic of injuries in the game. As of Saturday, this season, players have missed a stunning 17,422 days because of injury and owners have had to pay out $341,295,283 while those players sat on the injured list.

Almost 18,000 days and more than $341 million. Yikes!

The specific injuries are listed and it sounds a bit like the “Expired! Expired! Expired!’’ commercial with the nosey aunts.

“Elbow, elbow, elbow, shoulder, shoulder, shoulder, bicep, Tommy John, Tommy John, Tommy John, Tommy John …’’ and on it goes.

Is anyone over at Major League Baseball, and we all know they love their numbers, is anybody over there looking at this and asking: “Is this system working? Why are so many players injured?”

Yet, there is not one owner who looks at that list or looks at his bottom line as to what he is shelling out for nothing and says, “Hey, maybe we should go back to some of the ways that worked in the past. I’m tired of paying out all this dead money.”

Maybe the owners are making so much money, they don’t care.

But I highly doubt that. The Angels’ and Blue Jays’ ownership have shown themselves to be so cheap they don’t even have their radio announcers making road trips. It’s so bad, the Angels didn’t even have their radio crew drive to nearby Petco Park or Dodger Stadium, as pointed out in a recent story in the LA Times.

Shane McClanahan #18 of the Tampa Bay Rays in action against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on August 02, 2023 in the Bronx. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Some weird things are going on in baseball as teams look to control the narrative every way they can. One team I will not name – I wanted to do a piece on the fine work of one of their broadcasters, a former player, someone I have known for 35 years; but the broadcaster embarrassingly said he could not talk to me without getting clearance from the public relations department.  With that, AMBS bowed out. No interview. And, of course there was the strange situation earlier this year with the Orioles when their TV play-by-play man Kevin Brown was suspended for telling facts.

Way to stick it to the fans once again.

The point is, MLB teams are capable of screwing up anything. And the current state of pitching in the majors is pretty messed up. And now the Unicorn is down again from pitching with impending Tommy John surgery – even though the team was trying to do everything they believed would keep him healthy. Even with the Great Ohtani, the Angels are 23rd in ERA with a 4.63 ERA. There is work to be done across the board.

Hey, at least the Angels were at home when Ohtani got injured so radio play-by-play announcer Terry Smith and color commentator Mark Langston could properly report what was happening on the field in front of them.

With that, the final word today goes to a scout who has been watching the game slowly deteriorate.

“Everything you’ve written about and all the people you speak with,” he told me, “it’s all the exact same conversations I have, all of it. The issues with baseball are as plain as day. The solutions are obvious. Yet the number of Nerds outweigh the number of baseball people, so nothing happens.”

So sad. So true.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

Comments
  • Bill

    Great article.

    August 27, 2023
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