My baseball career was nothing special. The occasional flash of brilliance offset by a lot of over-thinking and a front shoulder that flew open like Seinfeld's door when Kramer entered his apartment.
The summer before my junior year of high school I played on four different club teams -- a testament to Southern California weather and over-zealous fathers who'd gladly wake up at 6 a.m. to drive little Sammy, Ricky, or Timmy anywhere within 200 miles for a decent field and the chance to live vicariously through their sons.
Most of these games were long ago replaced in my brain by more important things like girls, booze, and random tidbits from Wikipedia, but one game at UCLA's Jackie Robinson Field stands out . I don't remember the opponent, the score, even the inning, but I remember I had come in to pitch, thrown the ball well, and frozen the last hitter on an outside fastball.
My friend Cody Decker, currently playing Triple-A ball for the Padres, was catching that day. He was like Benny Rodriguez from The Sandlot, except big and burly with more chest hair at 15 years old than the rest of the team combined. Cody was smiling greedily from ear to ear when I returned to the dugout.
"Dude," Cody said. "You're throwing hard."
"Really?" I said, genuinely surprised.
"Like hard, dude," Cody said. "You're chucking. That last fastball was close to 90."
There's no way Cody knows this, but to this day, that ranks as one of the best moments of my life.
Two days later I went to my pitching coach and he pulled out the radar gun. I Lincecumed every ball I threw -- rearing back and hurling with every ounce of strength and torque I could muster. The gun had me consistently around 85-87 mph, but one pitch touched 89 mph.
Just like that all the squats, leg presses, sprints, shoulder workouts, core workouts, long tossing, poles, poles, and more poles, meant something.
From that moment on, all I wanted to do was throw hard.
In the next two months I morphed from a control pitcher with a great slider to a pretend power pitcher who thought a mid-80's four-seam fastball could blow people away. I kept throwing, and throwing, and throwing, and a couple months of overuse later, the tendonitis set in.
The pain snaked its way up my arm -- starting at my wrist, it slithered up my forearm to my elbow, through my biceps, before finally trekking over my shoulder blade to cozy up in my rotator cuff -- the muscles tired and tight like the twine of a crowded hammock.
This is what it feels like when a pitcher's arm is "hanging."
I was hardly the only one, but what's the solution? Renowned pitching guru Tom House has radical thoughts, such as an entirely new way to construct a starting rotation, on how to save pitching arms from premature ruin.
I never hit 90 mph and as the pain in my elbow became more and more debilitating, I'd be surprised if I broke 85 mph in college (I mostly played in the outfield, anyway).
The byproduct of this flirtation with velocity became a fascination with the fragility of the human arm. With all the guys throwing close to 100 mph, is it possible to throw that hard and not damage your UCL? If teams divvied up innings differently would more pitchers be able to avoid Tommy John surgery? Should teams reevaluate how they allocate innings and think about pitch counts?
I tried to interview Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd for this piece but got shut down. Considering how badly he got lambasted in the media for initiating a 75-pitch maximum for his pitchers last year, I thought suggesting his concept had validity would pique his interest. It's not like I was asking to talk about Denny Neagle.
House has been on the cutting edge of everything pitching since working with Nolan Ryan as the Texas Rangers pitching coach in the mid-1980's. House, along with current Blue Jays reliever Steve Delabar, who gruesomely blew his arm out in Single-A, were featured on HBO's "Real Sports" for a story about the resurrection of Delabar's arm through House's cutting-edge training methods.
The HBO piece suggested that House was on the verge of the magic formula -- a workout regimen that would allow pitchers to not only throw harder but also maintain arm health. While House has made some breakthroughs training-wise, he says that "big data" is the real answer for the long-term health of a pitcher's arm.
"What organizations are doing now that they have data and now that the medical community is actually participating in the decision-making process, they assess how efficient the kids mechanics are, what his functional strength is, what kind of recovery capabilities he has—is this the kind of guy that can bounce back real quick, is his nutrition good, is his metabolic management good, is this a guy who has a huge price to pay [due to his throwing motion], and those are the things that start entering into the equation," House says.
"The medical community is extremely conservative and they don't just look at pitch totals, they look at pitch ratios. They look at how many fastballs, breaking balls, change-ups [a player throws], and as we get further and further into this, some pitches are harder on the arm than others. The evolution of that is coming out and proving that curve balls are actually easier on the arm if you don't throw too many of them. So you kind of see the variables that are involved."
In the past 10 years we've totally reevaluated how we look at hitters. Math gurus have created stats with 35-letter acronyms that take into account shoe size, eye color, and horoscopes in attempt to paint a full picture about what makes a superlative slugger.
This led to innovations and advanced metrics for fielding. How much ground does a player cover and how many runs does he save per season? Is a guy who makes only a handful of errors but doesn't get to as many balls more or less valuable than a guy who might make an additional error or two but gloves more grounders? And so on…
So why hasn't the math led us to more innovations in pitching statistics? An ESPN article by Mike Petriello last month attempted to bring the concept of "Shutdowns" to the forefront -- a FanGraphs stat that attempts to measure the most basic question of "did a relief pitcher help or hinder his team's chances of winning a game?"
BABIP, or Batting Average on Balls In Play, is an interesting one. FIP, or Fielding Independent Pitching, is as well. Here's the formula, if you're interested:
FIP = ((13*HR)+(3*(BB+HBP))-(2*K))/IP + constant
But at the end of the day, with pitchers, it's all about how many runs the other team scores. Either you can get guys out, or you can't.
With pitchers, it's about getting the most out of an arm without destroying the arm. As House notes, there's no magic formula, but with data and breakthroughs in training, we can limit the number of lost seasons to Tommy John and shoulder surgeries.
So let's toss advanced statistics aside for a moment and think about pitching like this: What is the best way to maximize the number of effective innings and maximize the health of a pitcher's arm?
"I think eventually there's going to be 10, 11, 12-man pitching staffs and nobody will throw more than three innings or 45-50 pitches," House says.
"It may not happen in my time, but before you're done, you're going to see an equal distribution of workloads spread amongst however many pitchers are on the staff. With this in your head, you prepare, you compete, you recover, and there's enough information out there right now that you can identify, that you can actually tailor a workload to fit a kid. Right now most organizations don't even know what their guys are doing in the offseason."
Let's use the Washington Nationals pitching staff as an example. What if the Nationals allocated their innings in a three-game series like this:
Stephen Strasburg: 3 innings
Gio Gonzalez: 4 innings
Tyler Clippard: 2 innings
Jordan Zimmerman: 3 innings
Dan Haren: 3 innings
Craig Stammen: 2 innings
Rafael Soriano: 1 inning
Ross Detwiler: 3 innings
Drew Storen: 2 innings
Ross Ohlendorf: 2 innings
Henry Rodriguez: 2 innings
This is just an example, but the advantages are many. First, you get to throw Strasburg and Gonzalez in every series -- no rival gets to play the Nats without facing both of those guys (and Zimmerman). Second, you save guys' strength for the postseason. They still throw 6-8 innings a week, but they do it with more recovery time and less strain on their arms. Third, you get to give your bullpen consistent innings. As a reliever you're no longer sitting in the 'pen the entire game speculating about whether or not you'll throw. Reliever's workloads become more consistent and their arms would benefit as well.
Note that this model doesn't include the 1-2 lefty specialists in each bullpen. A manager could pick and choose where those guys enter the equation and obviously adjust for extra inning games.
A disadvantage to this approach might be that horses like Strasburg or Gonzalez get stronger as the game goes on They're so good that their second time through the lineup might be smoother than their first. Obviously this isn't the case with a majority of pitchers, the average pitcher's ERA typically rises half a point every time he cycles through an opponent's lineup, but it's a valid argument.
But the real issue is that when it comes to pitching, teams are still looking at the wrong statistics: Wins and saves. The real reason Strasburg or any other ace would despise this proposed rotation is because he wouldn't win nearly as many games. Same with the closer, in this case, Rafael Soriano, who wouldn't be privy to nearly as many save chances.
In baseball, wins and saves = $
Having a dominant pitcher who can go deep into games is an incredible luxury, as is a closer who consistently gets those last three outs, but what about the teams who don't have Stephen Strasburg or Clayton Kershaw? Mariano Rivera or Craig Kimbrel?
What if, and this is where things get really crazy, the idea of a "starting pitcher" ceased to exist? What if a team compiled 12 really solid bullpen arms and allocated innings similarly to the Washington Nationals hypothetical above? Something similar to House's 3-3-3 idea?
"It's a distribution curve," House says. "Spread your workloads amongst your talent base so that nobody ever goes deep into deficit -- it's too logical. So that's the model for me. Look at the number of innings you have to throw in a year, look at your pitching staffs, and make sure nobody goes too deep in the tank."
Dr. Frank Jobe, the man who performed the first baseball-related elbow reconstruction surgery, which was later named after his guinea pig, a guy named Tommy John, has seen an uptick in elbow surgeries over the last several years. Throwing a baseball is the most unnatural motion in sports and because more pitchers are throwing closer to 100 mph, falling in love with the feeling of throwing real hard, ulnar collateral ligaments, or UCLs, are snapping at an alarming rate.
But whereas Tommy John surgery was a death sentence 20 years ago, the procedure has advanced to the point where guys almost always come back stronger, which begs the question: where is the future of arm surgery headed?
If you can replace the delicate UCL with something stronger, are we coming to a point where it's in a pitcher's best interest to have the surgery sooner rather than later? As soon as his elbow hurts and his velocity drops?
"I don't think it's because of the surgery [that pitchers come back stronger]," Jobe says.
"I don't think you can do the surgery and make it [the throwing arm] better than what you were born with, but what happens is when you come back from the surgery, you have a rehab program that makes not just the elbow as strong as possible, but the rest of the body too. You come back thinking about your mechanics and you can rehab the whole body into a more efficient throwing mechanism."
House had a similar answer when I asked him about the concept of preemptive Tommy John -- unless it's totally necessary, avoid it at all costs.
But what about a guy like Tim Lincecum?
Curt Schilling talks a lot about the difference between a 90 mph fastball and a 94 mph fastball. A major league hitter respects a 90 mph fastball, but he's not fearful of getting blown away with two strikes like he is with a guy who throws in the mid-90's.
In Lincecum's first five years in the league he was a dominant pitcher who threw 94-98 mph, but after throwing 1,028 innings in those first five seasons (not including the playoffs) he's worn down into a below average major league arm -- his average fastball has dropped from 95 mph in 2008 to less than 91 mph today.
Lincecum is 29, so it's natural that some of his fastball zip has disappeared. Verlander, Sabathia, Felix Hernandez, and numerous other pitchers around that age are experiencing a similar drop in velocity. Although not as steep as Lincecum's, all of these guys are dealing with the slow and inevitable demise of their $100 million appendages. But with Lincecum, it seems like he'll need to do something drastic for his career to rebound. His gangly right arm is like a sports car that Bruce Bochy drove too fast for too long and now needs a new transmission.
Lincecum is the epitome of a pitcher whose career could have benefited from less innings and more rest early on. The knock on "The Freak" was always that he didn't have the prototypical size of a starting pitcher. What if the Giants used him to close games in three-inning spurts twice a week? Wouldn't he be just as valuable to the team? He probably wouldn't have won two Cy Young awards, but he'd be far more effective and throwing harder at 29.
"Everyone has pitching coaches, everyone has conditioning coaches," House says. "But one of these days there will be an exact application for every team, but there will be a unique application for every pitcher on the staff, from rookie ball to the big leagues."
In other words, with the next Lincecum, we'll have the data to map out his entire career from the day he gets drafted. Every throw he makes will be part of a master plan.
So while I still wonder if the diminutive Giants hurler would benefit from a year off and another part of his body replacing his UCL, in the mean time, I'll hope that the Indians don't make the same mistake with Trevor Bauer (below).
Because while purists love to talk about the old days when pitchers threw 250 pitches and would laugh at the notion of coming out for a reliever, those dudes didn't throw anywhere close to 100 mph.
It doesn't need to be as structured as what O'Dowd did in Colorado last year, but lessening pitch counts and extending rest periods is going to benefit prized arms in the long run.
Casual fans don't realize the bodily strain of throwing 95 mph. Throwing that hard for 120 pitches per game -- including all the uncounted pitches before the game and in between innings -- yields irreversible stress on the arm, every time. Same with relievers who have to warm up three times in a game, don't end up going in, and then have to pitch the next day. That's an exhausting endeavor and there's no measurement for the burden those types of situations put on a guy's arm.
Advanced pitching statistics are nice, but superfluous. The important data is going to modernize how we view a pitcher's workload -- once we that figure out, we won't have prodigies burning out in their late 20's or tearing their UCL's while transitioning to pro ball.
There's no creativity in how teams structure pitching staffs. Teams without a top tier closer don't need to have the same guy close every game. There's no rule against Joaquin Benoit throwing two innings to finish a one out or having Matt Harvey throw 3-4 innings twice a week. There's a lot of ways to slice up 27 outs.
In the meantime, bullpens will be misused and underutilized, starting pitchers and relievers alike will be overworked, and closers will continue making $10 million more a year than setup men. Teams will pay pitchers hundreds of millions while draining the fuel from their arms and forcing them onto the disabled list.
"We have found that every starter who has pitched here for 185 to 200 innings for three consecutive years over the lifetime of this franchise has broken down with a significant injury," O'Dowd said last year.
Ol' Dan O'Dowd was on to something last year. It's time to end the madness. It's time for a pitching change.
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