Spring Training and Injuries to Pitchers

Every year it seems valuable arms, both young and old, are lost for an extended amount of time and sometimes, entire seasons. This year is no different with Jarrod Parker, Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, and Patrick Corbin out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Josh Johnson is out four to six weeks with a forearm strain, Anibal Sanchez has missed time this spring and Yu Darvish will now start the year on the DL with stiffness in his neck. All of these injuries certainly affect the short term and long term futures of their respective organizations. These injuries make you wonder why they occur and whether more could be done to prevent injuries?
The pitching motion is the fastest and most violent of all movements in sports. Preventing injuries to pitchers is impossible, but this amount of injuries at this point in the season is downright strange. Is it possible these pitchers were just doomed to be hurt? This isn’t the first TJ surgery for Medlen, Beachy, or Parker, and it seems Josh Johnson misses substantial time every season. Something is definitely not right and I have a few ideas as to what may be underlying causes of these injuries.
I’ll start with the evolution of long toss programs. I, personally, am not a fan. A recent study by Dr. Glenn Fleisig and Dr. James Andrews of the ASMI confirmed that the “greatest amount of shoulder external rotation, elbow flexion, shoulder internal rotation torque, and elbow varus torque were measured during the maximum-distance throws. Elbow extension velocity was also greatest for the maximum-distance throws. Forward trunk tilt at the instant of ball release decreased as throwing distance increased.” [Here is the link to the article: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21212502]
In plain English, maximum distance throws put a higher strain on the elbow and shoulder joints and can alter a pitcher’s mechanics. This alteration usually leaves the shoulder and elbow to pick up the slack because the body isn’t aligned the way it should be. Since the shoulder and/or elbow have to take on even more stress during this already stressful activity, disaster can strike easily. The San Diego Padres, for example, are a long toss organization. It has been a part of their pitchers’ training for a few years now. They have also had a rash of pitchers needing major shoulder or Tommy John surgery including: Tim Stauffer (shoulder), Dustin Moseley (shoulder), Clayton Richard (shoulder), Cory Luebke (TJ, twice), Casey Kelly (TJ), and Jason Marquis (TJ). The Texas Rangers (another long toss organization) under Nolan Ryan, have had several of their pitchers go down with major injuries including: Colby Lewis, Neftali Feliz, Alexi Ogando, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison. Are the two related? There is no way to be sure but the timing is rather coincidental.
Another possible hypothesis is just how much these pitchers throw. For the most part, these guys are throwing every single day from January through September and possibly late into October. That is hundreds of thousands of throws. The arm can only take so much and everyone has a breaking point. The shoulder and elbow joints can only handle so much stress before something gives out or tears. Some pitchers may not be throwing full intensity until they arrive at spring training in early March but the sudden workload can prove to be a bit excessive. Perhaps if teams proceed with a bit more caution and allow pitchers to increase their workload at their own pace, the sudden workload wouldn’t be so dramatic. Also, instituting a longer rest/recovery period after the season may help save some of young arms like Medlen or Parker. With so many young pitchers already on innings limits, it is surprising that teams haven’t taken it a step further and forced the young pitchers or even all pitchers to stop throwing until later dates.
One final idea floating around about why guys like Parker and Medlen are once again going under the knife is a lack of focus on actually pitching. Pitchers nowadays seem to be built in a gym, or baseball warehouse, lifting massive weights and throwing around medicine balls. While these can be great tools to condition the body, it’s not the same thing as actually pitching. The Principle of Specificity states simply that what you do is what you get. If you are doing something you wouldn’t do in a game, the carryover will be minimal, if at all. (Here’s a link discussing the Principle of Specificity if you want more information: How the Specificity Principle Applies to Sports Training) This generation’s pitchers are much bigger and stronger than previous generations. Adding more muscle puts a higher strain on the ligaments and tendons in the body and can restrict range of motion. With more muscle pulling on the tendons and ligaments, the stress increases. It is possible pitchers like Patrick Corbin, Brandon Beachy, and others went all out in the weight room this winter and their new bodies couldn’t handle the demands that pitching sequence has on the body. Their hips and shoulders become tighter and less limber, which hinders performance and puts a strain on the muscles to perform. This is also a likely cause for the numerous minor muscle tweaks, pulls, and inflammations that pitchers tend to experience in the spring. Pitchers show up in March in great physical shape but not in shape to pitch, and their bodies have to adjust accordingly.
Obviously, injuries are a part of the game and always will be. There are a multitude of factors in play every time a pitcher picks up a ball. Perhaps it was dumb luck that several of baseball’s best young arms will miss the season, or perhaps there’s a reason for it. Teams invest millions of dollars into pitchers and it becomes a lottery of whether they will stay healthy. It doesn’t have to be this way. There are solutions to these problems and with a little more research and open-mindedness from players, coaches, and front-office personnel, it could happen. Injuries are going to happen, but the health and safety of these young arms should be more protected than they are now. read more