The image of the everlasting ace, strong and sturdy, firing fastballs and churning through innings while never giving into pain, is the exception in baseball history. The elbow injury to New York Mets pitcher Matt Harvey, who has a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament that may require reconstructive surgery, is really nothing new.
“Back then, you did what you could to be out on the field,” said Jim Palmer, who pitched for the Baltimore Orioles from 1965 to 1984. “It didn’t make us any better than these guys. They’re terrific players who play their hearts out. It’s just a different era.”
No pitcher who made his debut in the last 25 seasons ranks among the top 65 on the career list for innings pitched. Yet, despite smaller workloads, more pitchers are breaking down. About one of every three major-league pitchers has had Tommy John surgery, in which the ulnar collateral ligament is replaced by a tendon from another part of the body, compared with roughly one of every nine pitchers a decade ago.
Throwing a baseball at high speeds, as more and more pitchers seem to be doing, is inherently unnatural. With the rise of amateur travel leagues, many young pitchers log more innings than they probably should. Those factors, combined with tests that detect the slightest signs of physical damage, have made the surgery popular despite requiring about a year of recovery.
“The technology is such that we know more, and in the case of an elbow, we also know, ‘Gee, if it’s fixed, there’s a 90-per-cent chance that it’s really fixed,’ ” Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said. “In fact, I’ve heard of situations where high-school pitchers have come and said they wanted Tommy John surgery. They didn’t even have an elbow problem, but they figured they would throw harder after the surgery than they did before.”
Harvey, who led the National League in strikeouts before his injury, was placed on the disabled list last Tuesday, and will miss the rest of the season. He tweeted he would be back April 1, but Alderson said that was news to him. Surgery remains a strong possibility, which would put Harvey in good company.
Adam Wainwright, A.J. Burnett, Matt Thornton, Scott Downs, Jonny Venters, Jordan Zimmermann, Ryan Vogelsong, Jason Grilli, Ryan Dempster, Scott Feldman, Eric O’Flaherty … Imagine, said Will Carroll, a leading authority on sports injuries who writes for BleacherReport.com, a day when Washington Nationals star Stephen Strasburg simply vanishes. All the hype, all the early success, and then suddenly, he stops pitching well, complains of a sore arm, and never pitches again.
“Take four pitchers off every roster,” Carroll said. “What would that look like?”
Years ago, it happened all the time. Fans remember outliers like Nolan Ryan (fifth on the career innings list), Steve Carlton (ninth), Tom Seaver (19th) and Palmer (43rd). But for each of those Hall of Famers, there were many other pitchers who could have lasted much longer had they pitched today.
When Palmer signed with the Orioles, in 1963, the team was stocked with young pitching talent. Wally Bunker, who tossed a shutout at 21 in the 1966 World Series, threw his final major-league pitch at 26. Chuck Estrada, who led the American League in wins as a rookie in 1960, was effectively finished three years later.
“He probably tore his ulnar collateral ligament, but nobody knew,” Palmer said. “It was just, ‘He has a bad elbow.’ Was it treatable? Nobody ever knew. You just tried to pitch through it and when you couldn’t get anybody out, your career was over.”
Palmer, like Bunker, threw his own shutout in the 1966 World Series, at 20. Hampered by problems with his biceps and then his rotator cuff, Palmer managed only nine starts the next two seasons.
He recovered to have a long career, helped by exceptional athleticism and the lessons he learned by pitching without his best stuff while injured. Palmer fared better than his opponent in that World Series game, Sandy Koufax, who was 30 and never pitched again.
Koufax’s arm gave out eight years early. Frank Jobe performed the first reconstructive-elbow operation on John, a different Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander, in 1974.
Tim Hudson, Joe Nathan, Joel Hanrahan, Bruce Chen, Neftali Feliz, Jaime Garcia, Kris Medlen, Jarrod Parker, Mark Melancon, Jorge De La Rosa, Joba Chamberlain … The last pitcher to work 300 innings in a season was Carlton, for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1980. His manager at the time was Dallas Green, who managed the New York Yankees nine years later, and allowed a young left-hander, Al Leiter, to throw 163 pitches in his second start of the season.
The Yankees traded Leiter to the Toronto Blue Jays a few weeks later, and from that point through 1992, Leiter threw only 15 2/3 innings in the majors. Leiter needed two elbow operations – although not reconstruction – and rebuilt his delivery with a pitching coach, Gil Patterson.
Leiter also took an interest in biomechanics, becoming more aware of what worked for him physically, and why. He retired in the spring of 2006, at 40, and said teams would someday embrace advanced science to keep their pitchers healthier. But some are skeptical.
“This is what scares people about getting involved in this: It’s not the end-all,” said Leiter, who now works for MLB Network and YES. “Even if you create the perfect mechanics, that’s still not going to stop, for some, the inevitable.”
The Mets, like most teams, do not submit their pitchers to individual biomechanical evaluations. But Alderson said the team was using TrackMan, a 3D radar system that measures, among other things, release point and arm extension. The Mets also use biomechanical video evaluations on draft prospects, and are developing a proprietary system that would identify possible risks for their pitchers.
The rest is guesswork.
“We’ve said, ‘Look, we’re not going to increase our guys by more than 30 or 40 innings per season,’ and that’s where we get our innings limit,” Alderson said.
“Now, is there any science behind that? There’s no real science behind it. It’s really about historical reference, what you see that some young pitchers have done from one year to the next, and whether they’ve gotten hurt or not gotten hurt. It’s not scientific, but you’re trying to learn from history.”
Plenty of young, hard throwers, such as Detroit Tigers star Justin Verlander, have avoided injury while working more innings at a younger age than Harvey. The Mets do not know why that is, and they may never know.
“It could be physiology, it could be the DNA and the molecular structure of his ligament as opposed to somebody else’s,” Alderson said. “Somebody has 10,000 innings in their elbow or shoulder and somebody else has 1,000. If you treat everybody like he’s only got 1,000, you don’t have a baseball team. On the other hand, if you treat everybody like they’ve got 10,000, you don’t have a baseball team, either.”
Stephen Strasburg, Chad Billingsley, Grant Balfour, Fernando Rodney, Francisco Liriano, Gavin Floyd, John Lackey, Jake Westbrook, Darren Oliver, Mike Pelfrey, Jason Motte … Carroll, the injury expert, said pitch counts and innings limits made sense as a primitive protective measure for amateurs. But in the majors, he said, with coaches, trainers and video technology, it is ridiculous. Because each pitcher is different, Carroll said, teams should invest more in uncovering each pitcher’s physical limitations.
Yet, even a detailed report on a pitcher’s danger points might not make a difference. Pitchers tend to fall back on comfortable mechanics, even if they might be the wrong ones.
“The occasional thing we see is that we can’t make changes,” Carroll said. “Let’s say we knew that [Seattle Mariners ace] Felix Hernandez’s weird head movement was bad, and there was a 50-per-cent chance that he would blow out or go on the shelf, would you change it? He’s really effective now. Would you want to be the guy who messed him up?”
Harvey’s simple, smooth mechanics gave the Mets no cause for alarm, and his forearm issues were never serious enough to require an MRI exam before last Monday.
The important thing, Alderson said, is Harvey did not try to compensate for his forearm discomfort by putting added strain on his shoulder. Pitchers with serious shoulder injuries rarely come back the same. Pitchers with UCL tears usually do.
“If we did an MRI on all of our pitchers every year, how many of those guys do you think would have a partial tear? A lot more than we know have it now,” Alderson said. “Then the question is, ‘Okay, now that we know that, what do we do?’”
Decades ago, the Mets would have never known the specific injury and Harvey might have fizzled out. Whatever course they choose now, they know, almost certainly, he will come back as dominant as ever.
It just might take awhile.