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June Book Club, The Arm: Inside the Billion Dollar Mystery

New York Yankees Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

This month’s book club reading is Jeff Passan’s 2016 book The Arm: Inside the Billion Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Thing in Sports. With the rise in Tommy John surgeries to the point of an epidemic yet a clear lack of understanding why by doctors, Major League Baseball and the players themselves—this epidemic that costs the industry hundreds of millions of dollars annually is not even close to being solved. While the players’ union has agreed to recent research studies, including the tracking of every pitcher’s data by MLB researchers, the door to progress is opening. But no one really knows the answer to the key question: How do we keep players arms healthy?

The cause is clear: A small band of fiber in the elbow, the ulnar collateral ligament, is fraying, tearing or snapping at unprecedented rates. But why? Is it a lack of muscle strength? A certain mechanic? A certain pitch? Is it velocity that puts the wear and tear on the ligament or the curve? But worse than this is the fact that over 50% of Tommy John surgeries are on youth under the age of 18, some as young as 11. It is a scary prospect. So if you’ve been out there wondering why there are so many more players falling prey to Tommy John surgery, you’ve internally tracked the data. There are more. A LOT more. And answers are slow in coming. Jeff Passan sought to answer the key question: Why is this happening and how do we prevent it in our youth and adult players?

This book does a nice job of presenting a wealth of research that took Passan nearly three years to gather and synthesize in his travels all around the globe. He does an in depth profile of the Japanese system for training pitchers, one that has pitchers pitching over 700 pitches in a 2 or 3 day tournament. He covers the research, from the creation of the current Tommy John surgery to a new, less invasive surgery that is hoping to mend frayed ligaments. He follows two pitchers, one likable and one somewhat annoying, who have not one but two TJ surgeries. Passan deftly presents the haunting effects of the nagging and immutable thoughts of “When will it snap again? Is that feeling a sign that it’s fraying and going to snap?” These pitchers are Todd Coffey and Daniel Hudson. You may know Todd Coffey from his signature sprint from the bullpen.

Daniel Hudson, despite two surgeries is still pitching—now in Pitsburg with much thanks for the Diamondbacks and their support of him through his difficult recovery. You’ll walk away liking the Dbacks organization as a result of his story.

Passan takes us deep inside the year-round baseball youth baseball system including highlighting The Perfect Game as one example of a churning mill that pushes players to produce at levels that may not be safe or effective. Detailing young prospects journeys and their parents cognitive dissonance is just one gem to pull from this enlightening look into youth baseball. The billions of dollars in youth baseball, including equipment sales, is stunning. All of this, coupled with a timeline for increasing injuries in teen and pre-teen athletes, gives not just reason to pause but reason to be appalled. The following 3 minute clip from MLB tonight highlights the cautionary notes for parents from John Smoltz, a Tommy John success story, that includes the misconceptions people have about how easy it is to get the surgery and come back. A quick mention at the end highlights Jarod Parker, recipient of THREE such surgeries. Take a look:

For fear of giving too much away, let me just urge you to read this June Book Club suggestion. Special thanks to one AN regular (Harold Howe) who urged me to consider this universally appealing book. The writing is stellar, the description engaging, the research detailed and yet not boring. Ken Burns gives this book a high mark stating, “This is a stunning exposé of the hidden story behind the most frequent operation performed on the most important players in this most important game in our country.” So, if you’re looking for a good baseball read for the month of June, consider the Athletics Nation June Book Club suggestion: Jeff Passan’s The Arm: Inside the Billion Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Thing in Sports.