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“Health Not”? “Red Cross”? Baseball’s Pitching Crisis

Detroit Tigers v Oakland Athletics
“I’ll take ‘things elbows aren’t supposed to do’ for $500, Alex.”
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

I have studied, and pondered, baseball for most of my life yet I continue to be just utterly baffled by the difference between the health of pitchers 40 years ago and today.

“They didn’t throw as hard.” They threw plenty hard; certainly Nolan Ryan did. “They didn’t snap off sliders and splitters like today’s young ‘uns do.” Tommy John surgery, it turns out, correlates more highly with fastball velocity than it does to use of the breaking pitch, and when you look at notable pitchers of past generations you see Randy Johnson snapping off wipe out sliders to go with his high-90s fastball, while throwing one out shy of 1,030 IP over 4 consecutive seasons.

Yet 4-man rotations, 260-300 IP seasons, 140 pitch duels...they have given way to a new set of statistics, such as that 1/3 will have Tommy John surgery. I can’t, for the life of me, figure out how pitching went from “every 4 days, 260 IP, no pitch limit so long as you’re effective, healthy” to a model where you stockpile 9-10 starting pitchers hoping it’s enough to get through a season.

And if you’re a team like the A’s, it isn’t enough. Sonny Gray, Rich Hill, Sean Manaea, Chris Bassitt, Felix Doubront, and Jarrod-Parker-again, have all gone down since the start of spring training, while Henderson Alvarez had a setback in his first rehab attempt, and only Hill’s injury was not related to his pitching arm.

So what is an organization to do?

If the A’s, or any other team, are willing to be ground-breakers, trend-setters, out-of-the-box thinkers, perhaps one or more of the following ideas will appeal. After all, in a game that is becoming more and more a war of attrition it may be worth gold just to be the healthiest rotation.

“Fast track” the young pitchers you draft.

Daniel Mengen is an example of a pitcher who raced through the minor leagues on the strength of continued dominance at each level, reaching the big leagues after just 34 starts and 210 IP. What that means is that if Mengden has a certain number of bullets in his arm before his elbow or shoulder cries “uncle!” the A’s will get the most of his health at the big league level.

Perhaps teams should be nurturing their position players longer, but accelerating their pitchers faster. The sooner a pitcher reaches the big leagues, the sooner he gets the “learning this level” part out of the way. Oakland, whether by design or necessity, seems to be leaning in this direction as they called up Sean Manaea quickly as well, let him learn on the job for a few big league starts, and are now starting to reap the benefits.

With this in mind, while A.J. Puk is clearly a work-in-progress with much to iron out before he can think about facing big league hitters, in Dalton Jefferies and Logan Shore the A’s drafted fairly polished and mature starting pitchers who could move through the ranks quickly. Why not get them to the show as soon as possible, and try to get what you can out of them before they might inevitably break? Obviously you can’t rush any player too much — but “fast-track” is a bit different from “rush” and there might be value, organizationally, in taking a “fast-track” approach with your best young pitchers.

Study, teach, and develop the Greg Maddux pitching paradigm.

With a simple windup and average velocity and nothing about his delivery or arsenal that looked taxing to the arm, Greg Maddux made a Hall of Fame career into using movement as his chief weapon of dissection.

The meme was that Maddux could “make the baseball do so many different things” but of course Maddux’s gift was not one of baseball-persuasion. He simply knew how to use an arm-friendly delivery to cause the ball to dart, sink, tail, dive — and of course it helped that he could do all this while throwing the pitch through the eye of a needle.

No, the A’s probably cannot hold a weekend clinic and turn prospects into Greg Maddux. But there is a method to how Maddux coaxed unusual and deceptive movement out of a pitched ball and it did not require him to torque something fierce and unnatural. Heck, I’d hire Maddux himself as a consultant and teacher if he were interested. His model for pitching was not only successful, but perhaps as importantly it is sustainable.

Accumulate some Ziggy-O’Day types.

There is one type of pitcher who is not generally vulnerable to arm injuries, and it is the group of pitchers whose release point is below the belt. The strain on the arm is fundamentally less and if the A’s could identify some decent starting pitching prospects who throw from this arm angle, they might be able to fill the back of the rotation with anchors rather than a revolving door of injured SPs. Similarly, I would recommend that high school and college programs be more aggressive in encouraging pitchers to use deliveries less taxing on the arm. If the pool of pitchers throwing from below 3/4 were larger, the cream of the crop would undoubtedly be more talented. When are we going to see a pitching revolution that benefits someone other than the surgeon?

There’s three unusual ideas to get the conversation started. Your thoughts on each of these ideas? Your best ideas that I didn’t mention? It’s a war of attrition these days and the A’s may as well be the first organization to figure out how to win that war.