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Surgically Impaired Farm System – Part 2

Posted by Jason A. Churchill on August 16, 2005

For the better part of the past 10 years the Mariners have drafted and developed some talented arms to slide into their starting rotation. It just hasn’t always worked out that way, and usually the reason has been due to injury.

From high draft picks Ryan Anderson, Gil Meche, Jeff Heaverlo and Matt Thornton to converted outfielder Rafael Soriano and non-drafted free agents such as Travis Blackley and Cha Seung Baek, the M’s have come up nearly 100 percent empty.

We all know the stories by now; Ryan Anderson endured three shoulder surgeries, Gil Meche had two; Matt Thornton had Tommy John Surgery, as did Rafael Soriano. Travis Blackley underwent labrum surgery of his own last February.

Cha Seung Baek had Tommy John Surgery in 2002, Ken Cloude in 2000. Jorge Campillo will undergo his own elbow reconstructive surgery on August 23.

While Meche has returned to the mound physically from his shoulder surgery, his command has not improved, and contrary to the common belief, his velocity is not back to where it was pre-surgery.

Thornton has regained his velocity, and his command is no worse than previously displayed, but the left-hander has been unable to build the endurance to return to a starting role and has pitched out of the Mariners bullpen since last summer.

Soriano is currently on his way back to the M’s pen, but is not out of the woods – just yet.

Why are all these big-name Mariner arms spending so much time on the operating table, and why aren’t other clubs experiencing the same troubles?

The facts are available, but unknown to the common fan.

The Mariners do NOT suffer more serious arm injuries then the vast majority of the other 30 clubs in baseball – unless you ignore the factors that pertain to the issue.

The pure numbers would leave the Mariners with a marginal lead in the race to ruin every arm the system ever attempts to develop. But they aren’t alone, and there is an explanation as to why Seattle sees more surgically repaired arms than most teams in the league.

The three clubs that the cynic will point to when claiming that certain organizations are doing something right that the M’s are not are Oakland, Atlanta and the New York Yankees.

The Yankees belong nowhere near this discussion, since they haven’t developed a pitching regular from their own farm system since Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera broke through more than a decade ago. They purchase their pitching, just like everything else.

The A’s and Braves are legit, however.

Atlanta’s Leo Mazzone believes in being aggressive in the development of young arms. Instead of laying back and taking it easy, his philosophy is to throw as much as your body will allow you to do, building up arm strength along the way.

So this is why the Braves don’t blow out arms at an alarming rate? Not so fast.

Think of the names that have had major surgeries in baseball over the past decade or so. Kerry Wood, Mariano Rivera, Eric Gagne, Matt Morris, A.J. Burnett and Atlanta’s own John Smoltz, who wasn’t developed by the Braves – he spent his developmental time with the Detroit Tigers.

What’s the common denominator with those pitchers above? That’s right, they are all right-handed. Ok, I’m kidding. The factor involved is that they are all power pitchers. All of them. And with the exception of Rivera, they all throw power breaking balls.

Wood’s hammer curve, Gagne’s nasty 12-6 curveball, Smoltz’s sick slider – they were all throwing power breaking balls to go along with their 91-98 mph fastballs.

Now, think of the all the successful arms that Mazzone and Bobby Cox have used over the past 15 years. How many of them are power pitchers? Right again, just one of the above group– Smoltz, who had elbow surgery after the 1999 season. The Braves also brought Kevin Millwood through their farm system.

Millwood has had some solid years for the Braves, Phillies and now the Celeveland Indians, but he, too, has continually had elbow injuries that have sidelined the right-hander numerous times, landing him on the disabled list six times in four years.

The Braves don’t develop big time power arms, the most common style pitcher to go down with major injury. Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Steve Avery, Horacio Ramirez, and many others, fail to qualify as power pitchers.

Right-hander Adam Wainwright has avoided surgery thus far, but was brought through the Braves system and has been limited over the past two years with elbow and shoulder soreness in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. Dan Meyer, traded to the Athletics last winter for Hudson, has been shut down for the season with a sore shoulder.

Maybe the solution is to curb the number of power arms one club tries to develop, but the Braves aren’t doing anything that seems to save the arms that are most likely to suffer major injuries to begin with. They just draft, sign and develop a different kind of pitcher.

What about the A’s? Same thing. Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Tim Hudson – not exactly what you’d call power pitchers, though Hudson, at times, was hitting the mid-90s with his fastball and the high-80s with his splitter.

Eric Hiljus was an Oakland farmhand in the late 90s that had shoulder surgery, though he wasn’t considered a power pitcher, either. The A’s have ducked the issue with right-handers Rich Harden and Joe Blanton to this point, but Harden is just 22 and Blanton 24 – give them time before drawing any conclusions.

While nobody knows the exact reasons why these types of injuries happen, there is no formula for avoiding them, especially with power arms. Neither Atlanta nor Oakland is immune to the injury bug with young pitching. They simply have each found ways to avoid dealing with the issue to a large extent. But at what cost?

Both clubs are notorious for making the postseason and falling short when it counts most. Void of a power arm to win a big game are they? The champions believe so.

What the Players ThinkMost players, aging from 22 to 33 in this case, cited that there is no way to avoid the bug – they all believe arms have only so many pitches in them and will eventually snap no matter what precautions are taken. Sure, the proper delivery and overall mechanics may prolong a career before the elbow goes or the shoulder gives out, but the condition of an arm that has made its way to pro ball is probably either damaged beforehand, or is a healthy rubber arm ready to be used at high levels of stress.

“Every arm is different,” said Tacoma Rainiers right-hander Chris Buglovsky, who came up through the Colorado Rockies organization. “I haven’t been taught anything different here than I was being taught with the Rockies. At this level (Triple-A), it’s more up to the player to get his arm in the best shape it can be. At 18 or 20 years old, the organization is much more detailed in making sure the pitcher does what he needs to do. It’s that way with both places I have been.”

Buglovsky has never experienced a serious arm injury in his six season in professional baseball and attributes it to nature, more than anything.

“Genetics,” said Buglovksy, a student of the physical sciences. “I think the genetics factor comes into play. Sometimes it’s just not happening for certain pitchers and his arm is going to blow out no matter how much attention is paid to keeping it safe. Unless he just doesn’t pitch, which isn’t the goal.”

Left-hander Andrew Lorraine, a veteran of 13 years in pro ball and 10 different teams, the M’s twice, has another view on the way arms are treated in the game today.

“I don’t think pitchers are given a chance to develop properly sometimes,” said Lorraine. “If you baby a young pitcher for a few years, limiting him to 80 or 85 pitches, you can’t turn around and ask him to throw 115 or 120 in the big leagues if he hasn’t done that before.”

Lorraine, a Stanford graduate, believes that the best way to strengthen a throwing arm and best prepare a pitcher for a long, injury-free career is to let him throw.

“I don’t feel good after throwing a lower pitch count than I am used to,” said Lorraine. “My arm has always felt better after reaching it’s limit. It’s a good tired, but it doesn’t feel right if there are too many pitches left in it. I’ve been pitching for a long time now but I felt that way in college, too.

“I just feel that pitchers should throw unless they are injured – the more the better,” Lorraine added. The southpaw’s days on the mound have never sent the 33-year-old to the surgeon’s office, but he’s pitched through pain.

“There were times when I thought something was really wrong, and maybe there was,” said Lorraine. “At Stanford, at the end of the season I was about to be drafted and my arm was hurting me pretty bad. But I went out and pitched anyways and here I am today without ever having surgery or anything.”

What Outsiders SayBaseball minds outside the M’s organization believe the M’s are gun shy these days. Maybe the early injuries to Cloude, Anderson, Meche and Thornton have forced the hand of a business trying to protect its product.

“I don’t think [they] let their guys throw enough,” said an American League scout and former big-league pitcher. “And when they do, they don’t allow them to let it rip. Sometimes low pitch counts and light workloads aren’t the answer. But a lot of teams are like that these days. When money is involved, they are going to be more careful.”

The answer, according to another AL scout and a Triple-A coach is to find a way to properly identify which pitchers need to be treated with kid gloves and which can handle an aggressive approach.

“I’ve seen 20-year-olds on a pitch count of 80 for no reason at all,” said the scout. “They were on the same count the previous year and for them to not be challenged with a higher number is just going to lead to one of two things – either he blows his arm out when he is abruptly allowed to get to the 100-pitch level, or he turns into a six-inning starter for his entire career because he never built up the endurance and durability. He’ll never be able to go eight [innings] like that.”

“We look at each guy and make the choice accordingly,” said Roger McDowell, the Los Angeles Dodgers Triple-A pitching coach. “Every guy can’t be treated the same, but we do like to monitor each pitcher on how many innings he throws.”

McDowell pitched for 15 seasons in pro ball and 12 in the big leagues, winning the World Series with the New York Mets in 1986. The former reliever believes in being safe, and points out that things have not changed all that much since the early 1980s when he came up through the Mets system.

“We aren’t going to take guys past their limits,” said McDowell. “If we did we’d be asking for problems. Each pitcher and each level and season is different and I think you have to analyze each situation separately.

“When I came up, I remember having a pitch count. I don’t recall exactly what it was, but arms were being monitored closely 25 years ago, too. This isn’t as new as everyone says.”

McDowell agrees that the power arm is far more susceptible to the major injury and takes action a little bit differently with the pitchers that spend more energy getting the ball to the plate at such high velocities.

“Yeah, a big power guy is going to throw more pitches, get deeper into counts,” said McDowell. “So, naturally, he may be on a shorter leash than a guy that tries to pitch to contact. A strikeout pitcher might go for 75 pitches in three innings, and even though his limit is 100, he might very well be done. The stress of the pitches matters just as much as the total.”

The philosophy of avoiding too many stress pitches backs the idea that pitching too often while the arm or shoulder is fatigued can be disaster for the pitcher’s career.

Mistakes Occurring Pre-Draft?For all the arms that have gone down one to five years after inking a deal with a pro club, the mistakes that put the Mariners in the dire situation they are currently in concerning pitching, it is possible many may have been injured before ever throwing a baseball as a member of the organization.

Mechanics, arm angles, poor conditioning and genetic makeup can all pre-empt the club’s efforts, even if they do everything correctly, by themselves or acting together.

The condition of the pitcher’s arm as well as the health of the rest of his body is up to the player – and only the player. During the winter months, the player is on his own – sent home with a detailed conditioning program, but not a chaperone. M’s strength and conditioning coordinator James Clifford charts out specific regimented programs for each player, pitchers or position players. The player’s responsibility is to follow the team’s advice, but the team can’t assure that it is happening.

If the pitcher has terrible mechanics, a peculiar arm angle or bad work ethic, perhaps the Mariners should pass on the upside and focus on safer health risks, if they aren’t already practicing such tactics.

But bad genetic makeup is impossible to predict, unless the athlete’s father was the recipient of Tommy John Surgery himself. Which isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

What the Mariners SayThe fact remains that there truly is no set way to avoid injury to a precious, expensive pitching arm. Doctors will tell you that the most unnatural act an athlete can do is throw a baseball. Furthermore, throwing it up to 95 miles per hour 30 to 110 times per game can do serious damage to joints like the shoulder and elbow.

The M’s have been bitten several times by the ulnar collateral ligament injury, which requires Tommy John Surgery to repair. The club has also seen shoulder surgeries to two young arms, possibly destroying the career of one, while hindering the development of another.

The organization plays it safe, understandably.

“We’re conservative, definitely on the conservative side,” said Pat Rice, the M’s minor league pitching coordinator. “There is a philosophy there and it’s always aimed toward the health of the pitcher.”

Like McDowell and the Dodgers, who have had just a few top arms go down with injury over the past decade, the Mariners monitor the workload of each young pitcher as they battle their way through the system.

“We’re not just going to let guys go,” said Rice. “There is always a limit to innings and pitches that we’ll allow for them. All the way up [to Triple-A.”]

Rice and the M’s set limits for each pitcher based on several factors. These factors include age, physical makeup, pro experience and injury history.

“We don’t want our kids to go past their set limits,” said Rice. “They all have inning limitations and that includes the innings they throw in spring training as well as between starts and on off-days. We asked Felix [Hernandez] not to pitch in Winter ball [in 2004] because he had already reached his limit and we do that with each of our guys.”

Though the general philosophy is to be conservative, Rice adds that there are pitchers who could benefit from something different.

“For some, it might be better to throw more,” said Rice. “For some it’s better for them to throw less [than the set amount.] It depends on the arm, but we’re always going to try and be safe about it.

“We have to properly assess which arms can take more and which need the lighter workload. That’s the objective and it’s not easy to do, but we’re doing a pretty good job, I think.”

Contrary to popular belief, Rice is correct; the M’s have done a good job of keeping the young arms safe from the surgical knife – at least since Rice and M’s big-league pitching coach Bryan Price have taken over the reigns.

Of the many Mariner arms that have had major elbow or shoulder surgery in the past several years, only left-hander Travis Blackley and right-hander Rafael Soriano began their careers under the watchful eye of the current pitching regime.

Since Price and Rice took over at their current positions, the M’s have developed just the two high-profile pitchers that required major surgery – and lets not forget that Soriano was a converted outfielder.

So what have we learned?

It’s clear that all Major League Baseball teams have this organizational problem. It’s also clear that the few clubs that have had some success staving off the injury bug to an extent are not attempting to develop the same type of high-risk, high-reward power arms that the Seattle Mariners were trying to do over the past 10 years.

Maybe that is the problem in itself. Maybe it’s worth the risk if even one of them makes it through (see Hernandez, Felix Abraham) to the bigs unscathed. (knock on wood – LOUDER!)

In the end, it appears that it is very possible that the Mariners’ current caretakers are as successful as any in the majors at handling the situation. Even if they do seem to play it a little bit too safe.


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