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The Sunday Read: With injuries on rise, MLB must get input from pitchers

(Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

 

HOUSTON — In the battle of hastily written press releases last weeked, Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association fought to a draw.

The slap fight started after Shane Bieber and Spencer Strider were felled by elbow injuries, following injuries that knocked out reigning American League Cy Young winner Gerrit Cole, Marlins rookie Eury Perez and others.

Rangers right-handers Jacob deGrom and Tyler Mahle needed Tommy John surgery last season, the first with the pitch clock.

The MLBPA threw the first punch, pinning blame on MLB’s insistence of a pitch clock and then shortening it for this season with runners on base.

MLB came back with a strongly worded statement citing a study by Johns Hopkins that completely exonerated the pitch clock as a reason for the blown-out elbows.

The one thing the sides got right is that baseball has an injury problem with pitchers.

Baseball, though, would be wise to listen to the real experts.

The pitchers themselves must be heard, and input is needed from the two orthopedists who are fixing all the bum elbows, Rangers team physician Dr. Keith Meister and Dodgers team physician Dr. Neal ElAttrache,

Teams aren’t sending their injured pitchers to all those elbow experts at Johns Hopkins, after all.

Cole and Astros right-hander Justin Verlander, who had Tommy John surgery a few years ago, said last week that there are multiple factors involved. They’re right.

Verlander has won three Cy Youngs and Cole one, so they just might know what they’re talking about.

The Rangers’ three-time Cy Young winner, Max Scherzer, said that he agreed with what Verlander had to say, but didn’t want to offer much else. DeGrom, the winner of two Cy Youngs, didn’t want any part of the conversation.

“I’m just trying to focus what I can focus on,” Mahle said.

Rather than focusing in curt press releases, here’s what MLB should focus on:

• The chief issue seems to be gripping the ball. It’s hard to do now after MLB cracked down on foreign substances on balls. Dodgers right-hander Tyler Glasnow is convinced that’s why his elbow blew shortly after the ban.

With pitchers forced to tighten their grips, it puts more strain on their forearms. When the forearm is taxed, it can’t protect the elbow. That might also lead to an uptick in shoulder injuries.

The sunscreen-rosin combination and the use of a little pine tar had been in the game for decades. It didn’t give pitchers a decided advantage. In fact, hitters and baseball officials wanted pitchers to have a little something extra to avoid hitters getting beaned.

I wonder how Josh Jung feels about that right about now.

No one wants to see spider tack back in the game, but the pitchers need something.

• Pitching mechanics have also suffered. As pitchers try to throw harder and harder, because that’s what teams want, they are using more effort and twisting and torquing various body parts in ways that leave them susceptible to injury. Scherzer has held to this theory for years.

Pitchers have been coddled in the minor leagues for years now, with their innings limited and with pitching on back-to-back days frowned upon. The first time Rangers reliever Marc Church, currently at Triple A Round Rock, ever threw on consecutive days was this spring.

Weighted balls have made their way into pitching development in the pursuit of more velocity. Some believe those might be creating more injuries. If players end up throwing harder, are they asking for trouble down the road?

• The changes in development are part of the evolution of the game, and change isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Verlander pointed to analytics as an issue. Pitchers are chasing more velocity and higher spin rates, and they are using different pitch grips that might tax a forearm or an elbow or a shoulder or anything else connected to the kinetic chain.

Hitters have more information, too. They can watch all kinds of videos and get detailed scouting reports on each pitcher. Every hitter is now a threat in every count. Pitchers can no longer throw a get-me-over fastball to start an at-bat or to get back in an at-bat. Any hitter is liable to swing at a 3-0 pitch, as Astros No. 9 hitter Maurico Dubon did Saturday.

The No. 9 hitter.

The result is that a pitcher is trying to throw the heck out of every pitch. By the time a pitcher approaches 100 pitches in a game — with him gripping the ball more tightly, trying to throw it with max effort every time and perhaps with faulty mechanics — his arm is taxed and open to harm.

• The pitch clock isn’t innocent here. Pitchers’ arms have less time to recover over the course of a game. They are throwing harder than ever, have less grip on the ball than ever and don’t have a couple Mario Mendozas in the lineup each game.

There might be a remedy: pitchers timeouts. Say a pitcher has to cover first on a grounder and then the next hitter doubles and the pitcher needs to back up third base. He’s expected to be on the mound throwing a pitch in 30 seconds while not as strong as he could be physically. A quick 20-second TO might help.

Hitters get to take a timeout, so why not pitchers?

The exchange of press releases made baseball and the union seem not serious about getting to the bottom of pitching injuries. They should be. Owners should be serious about it rather than flushing millions down the toilet on injured pitchers.

If everyone is serious about finding a solution, the real experts must be heard.

Jeff Wilson, jeff@rangerstoday.com

Jeff Wilson

Sports reporter for two decades. Sports fan for life. Covers the Texas Rangers. Graduate of TCU. Colorado native. Author of Purple Passion: TCU Football Legends (https://t.co/2fmXLyympx). Follow me on Twitter at @JeffWilsonTXR

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