Stephen Strasburg of the Nationals is going to be shut down this season. Before the end of the regular season, and well before the playoffs begin. After having Tommy John surgery in 2010, he pitched 24 innings at the tail-end of last season. Soon, he is to be exiled to the dugout, with somewhere between 160 and 180 innings pitched.
Nolan Ryan and the Texas Rangers give their starters the ball and expect them to go deep into games, only giving it up when it’s ripped from their hands. That’s old school. New school is all about pitch count, and now about innings pitched.
In actuality, there is no true study out there regarding major leaguers and pitch counts and innings pitched that is definitive regarding injury. At youth league levels, there are studies that appear conclusive: over-use leads to injury. But not so with the big boys.
Arm injuries can be hard to predict — unless you just want to throw out the blanket statement that at some time during one’s career, a pitcher will probably at least end up on the disabled list.
And there’s a pretty good chance of some sort of surgery. As of today’s updates, there are 56 pitchers on the DL in the American League and 60 disabled in the National League. The only injury that I know for certain isn’t pitching related is Mariano Rivera, who underwent knee surgery for a misstep in the outfield during batting practice. Matt Harrison of the Rangers has been out with a virus. The other pitchers had a variety of problems, ranging from backs, hips, elbows and shoulders to the forearm.
Organizations are always concerned with the health of their pitchers. But with no true baseline to make decisions on, they rely on their medical staffs and the general knowledge of their coaching staffs and management.
With Strasburg, the emphasis is on innings pitched. Others will put their faith into pitch counts.
- Ultimately, common sense might be the best rule of thumb until science can get a hold on arm injuries. Aside from innings and pitches, how about the “rough” innings that a pitcher works? You know, the innings where he can’t finish things off, and ends up with 29 pitches to secure three outs?
- How many “rough” innings does a pitcher throw per game? Does he look tired? When a pitcher is missing high and on his arm side, he’s probably past his daily expiration date.
- Mechanics in general: when the motion falls apart, trouble is on the way. Control disappears and the pitcher tries to compensate unnaturally, and then there’s stiffness, soreness, or injury.
- A severe drop in velocity indicates something is wrong, and it might simply be that he’s tired and needs a day off or to skip a turn in the rotation.
In the end, the best thing a club can do is take the health of its staff seriously, and all of them do. Maybe the next best thing is to play it safe when there is no sure solution out there.
All I know is, the Nationals are stuck between a rock and a hard place. There is no guarantee Strasburg will be re-injured by throwing more than 180 innings. There is also no guarantee that he won’t blow his elbow out or injure his shoulder if he does go more than 180 innings.
Will Washington throw away an opportunity to win the World Series? Or are they making the best decision possible about a young arm with Hall of Fame talent? I can’t sit here and judge them for their decision. But it sure is making for good baseball talk, both on the radio and the television.
Have a baseball question you would like a coach’s opinion on? Leave it in the comments or send it via Twitter to @Aerys_MLB or @WayneTyson11.
Our coach is Wayne Tyson, who was a high school and community college baseball coach for 26 years including six years at Florida Air Academy. His FAA team won the Florida Class 3A State Championship in 1998 and was runner-up in 1999, when the team included freshman Prince Fielder. Wayne currently writes for Cowbell Clankers, the Aerys Sports home of the Tampa Bay Rays.