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The Long Sad History of Injured Pitchers

Aug 28, 2013, 12:48 PM EDT

Matt Harvey AP

There seems to be an impression out there that pitchers get hurt today more than they ever did before. It seems that every time a high profile pitcher gets hurt — the latest of these being Mets phenom Matt Harvey — that we get a rash of stories like this one from my friend Terry Moore, recommending some solution for this “epidemic of starters and relievers” who pitch well, then feel pain, then go the DL, then go under the knife. Terry’s recommendation is pitchers throw more, something I’ve heard from a lot of veteran baseball people (“Operation Long Toss”) and it’s a perfectly reasonable concept. I’m personally all for it.

But let’s be clear about something: I don’t believe for one minute that there’s some new epidemic of starters and relievers getting hurt. I think this is a story as old as baseball. I think that as long as pitchers throw baseballs as hard as they can, often mixing in various twists and turns and grips, elbow ligaments will burst and shoulders will pop and rotator cuffs will tear. And while there might be ways to protect pitcher’s arms, to limit the damage, to give pitchers their best chance to survive — long toss, limited innings, ice treatments, heat treatments, five man rotations, progressive inning increases, occasional skipped starts — the worldwide reality will not go away. Pitchers get hurt. A lot.

I think maybe we think of the old days different because when pitchers got hurt then, they were simply discarded and never heard from again. The code phrase for this was “He had arm fatigue” or “”he stopped being effective.” It’s actually pretty comical, if you think about it. You see those phrases, or something similar, scattered throughout baseball history.

Take Russ Ford. Have you ever heard of Russ Ford? In 1910, Ford at age 27 came to play for the New York Yankees and he went 26-6 with a 1.65 ERA and 209 strikeouts in 299 2/3 innings. He gave up just 194 hits, meaning the league hit roughly .188 against him, and he gave up four home runs all year. Yes, it was the Deadball Era, but this was a spectacular debut. Truth is, Russ Ford had invented something new — a pitch that would be called the “Emery Ball.” He had learned that if you scuff up a baseball you could make it move in unpredictable ways. Others would take the trick all the way to the Hall of Fame.

But the point is — Russ Ford soon suffered from, yep, “arm fatigue.” What’s that? His arm hurt. He had a good second year, but by his third he led the league in losses. They Yankees dumped him after the next year. He picked up with Buffalo in the Frontier League and had a good year, then a lousy one, then was out of baseball where he nursed a sore arm for pretty much the rest of his life.

You know the story of Mark Fidrych. Amazing in 1976 at age 21. The talk of baseball. One of the biggest sports personalities of my entire childhood. He went 19-9 with a 2.34 ERA and a ridiculous 24 complete games. The next year he blew out his rotator cuff. He pitched in the Majors again, but he never made it back. Arm fatigue. And he stopped being effective.

Tommy Thomas at age 27 won 19 games with a 2.98 ERA for the Chicago White Sox. He led all pitchers in WAR. Three years later, he blew out his elbow, suffered from ptomaine poisoning (pitchers had it seriously rough in those days) and spent the next eight years just struggling to hang on in the big leagues as the pain shot up and down his arm.

How about Bill James — the pitcher. In 1914 he went 26-7 with a 1.90 ERA. He was called Seattle Bill and he completely turned around the fortune of the Boston Braves, who went from 69-82 to World Series champions. The Miracle Braves, they were called, and Bill James was that miracle. The next year he came to camp with that dreaded “arm fatigue.” He won five games. He tried shoulder surgery after shoulder surgery. He never pitched another Major League game.

Remember Justin Thompson? He was 6-foot-4, left-handed, an exciting young pitcher. In 1997, age 24, he went 15-11 with a 152 ERA+ and a 151-66 strikeout-to-walk. He made the All-Star Team. Injuries ended his effectiveness.

Do we need to talk about Mark Prior? As a 22-year-old — 18-6, 2.43 ERA, 245 strikeouts in 211 innings. Injuries. Never made it all the way back.

Herb Score? The common perception is that Score’s brilliant young career — as I’ve written before, he was Koufax before Koufax — was detailed by a line drive off the bat of Gil McDougald. That was the lead sentence of his obituary in the New York Times (which you might not be able to read right now because of the cyber attack), and it is partially true, though the full truth from many people around him seems to be that it was actually ARM troubles in his comeback that cost him what seemed sure to be a Hall of Fame career.

Ernie Broglio? Remembered for being on the wrong side of the Lou Brock trade, but Broglio at 24 went 21-9 with a 2.74 ERA, 188 strikeouts, and he led the league in WAR. What happened? “(The Cardinals) got a heckuva player; they gave up damaged goods,” Broglio told ESPN in 2011. “I think that they knew I had a bad arm.”

Cy Blanton led the National League in ERA in 1935 as a 26-year-old. He pitched reasonably well for pretty good Pirates teams the next three years before basically disappearing. Blanton was an alcoholic, and he died at age 37, and many blamed his ineffectiveness on alcohol. But, his fall as a pitcher traces directly to a serious arm injury he suffered in spring training 1939.

Gary Nolan was a phenom, only the second pitcher in baseball history to strike out 200 batters in a season before he turned 20 (the first was Bob Feller — Dwight Gooden became the third in 1984). He had so many arm issues that, at some point, the Reds sent him to a DENTIST and told him they had solved the problem (they thought it was all in his head).

Sparky Anderson predicted Don Gullett would be in the Hall of Fame the year Gullett turned 22 years old. Everybody thought so. He had 100 wins before his 27th birthday. He finished with 109 after blowing out his rotator cuff at 27.

How about Brandon Webb? Cy Young winner at 27, a 22-game winner at age 29, out of baseball at 30 after shoulder surgery.

Jon Matlack. Rookie of the Year. Three-time All-Star. Elbow Surgery at 29. One full season after that.

Dizzy Dean. Led league in strikeouts four straight seasons, won 30 and 28 games back to back. At age 27 he was hit in the toe with a line drive. This, legend has it, caused him to change his pitching motion, which led to him badly hurting his arm. It also could have been the 1,531 innings he had thrown the five previous years. It also could have been that pitching hurts arms. He tried to hang around on his name with junk pitches, but he did not win a game after age 30.

Schoolboy Rowe won 24 games as a 24-year-old and charmed everyone with his superstitions — they say he would carry around luck charms galore and would always wear his lucky tie. In 1937 and 1938 he suffered that all-encompassing arm fatigue and disappeared. He spent the next 10 years bouncing up and down, pitching well for stretches and then having completely lost seasons. He won 158 career games, so this made him one of the lucky ones with arm fatigue.

The late Dick Radatz was such an overpowering reliever from 1962-1964 that Mickey Mantle was known to call him “The Monster” which led to him being known as, yes, the Monster. Through his first four seasons, he went 49-32 with a 2.57 ERA and 608 strikeouts in 538 innings pitched. Then he had what was called a “puzzling drop in velocity.” That’s another code phrase. “Puzzling drop in velocity.” LIke it’s really puzzling. He was traded to Cleveland and won three games the rest of his career.

Craig McMurtry finished second to Darryl Strawberry in the Rookie of the Year balloting in 1983 and was seventh in the Cy Young voting. Then: Elbow problems.

You can go like for much, much longer — though I sense we’ve gone on too long already. If you go down the list of pitchers who had early success in the big leagues, you come upon injury after injury after injury. And for many — Wilcy Moore, Buck O’Brien, Herman Pillette, Whitey Glazner, on and on — there’s no clear injury to talk about because pitchers just ascended and descended so quickly that nobody really bothered to keep track. And don’t even get started on the hundred, no, thousands of promising minor league pitchers through the years who have had their dreams crushed by injuries.

This, of course, is not to say that teams should stop trying to prevent injuries. They should absolutely keep trying, keep studying the arm, keep studying the mechanics of the windup, maybe get pitchers to throw more like Terry suggests. It’s more important now than ever with all the money and interest in the game.

But let’s not kid anybody. Pitchers get hurt, and there’s no solution for that. The Matt Harvey story is a tale as old as time. The thing that has changed, the miracle here, is that, with treatment and possibly surgery, Harvey will have the opportunity to come back and, we all hope, be as good or better than ever. That’s new. If he pitched 50 or 70 or 90 years ago, Matt Harvey might have a two paragraph Wikipedia item talking about how he was an exciting young pitcher until, inexplicably, arm fatigue caused him to have a puzzling drop in velocity. And he stopped being effective.

  1. chacochicken - Aug 28, 2013 at 12:53 PM

    What did they all forget they had another arm? Weaklings.

    • chill1184 - Aug 28, 2013 at 12:55 PM

      In all seriousness is there actual pitchers who attempted to pitch with the opposite arm with success?

      • Jonny 5 - Aug 28, 2013 at 1:01 PM

        Pat Venditte. He’s recovering right now from a shoulder issue, but is pretty good.

      • kcroyal - Aug 28, 2013 at 1:04 PM

        Jim Abbott tried with very little success.

      • scoutsaysweitersisabust - Aug 28, 2013 at 1:06 PM

        I remember not too long ago there was a pitcher who had a special glove and he would switch arms depending on the way the batter was facing. I don’t know what ever happened to him, but it was a pretty cool experiment.

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Aug 28, 2013 at 1:13 PM

        Pat Venditte, in the Yanks system, is an ambidextrous pitcher.

        Also, Billy Wagner grew up throwing right handed. However, he broke his arm a few times so he started throwing with his left. Absolutely insane, pitching 100mph with the off-hand.

      • Jonny 5 - Aug 28, 2013 at 1:14 PM

        That was Pat Venditte. The minors needed to make a special rule for him. Because facing a switch hitter, he would switch hands turning the AB into a Benny Hill parody.

      • Jonny 5 - Aug 28, 2013 at 1:20 PM

        Cue up the Benny Hill sound track boys and girls!

      • dondada10 - Aug 28, 2013 at 1:44 PM

        I believe Alex Fernandez used to be left-handed and switched to righty.

  2. raysfan1 - Aug 28, 2013 at 1:09 PM

    As I stated on the earlier Harvey post, remembering the seemingly indestructible guys like Nolan Ryan or Walter Johnson is a form of selection bias.

    40 years ago Harvey and Strasburg would be sad “what if” stories because their careers would already essentially be over.

  3. scoutsaysweitersisabust - Aug 28, 2013 at 1:11 PM

    This is a fantastic article, one I hope you keep bookmarked and reference as much as possible.

    People seem to forget that the act of throwing a baseball, let alone one without any spin on it at all, is a very unnatural act in of it’s self. It’s really a wonder that pitching injuries aren’t even more common than they are already.

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Aug 28, 2013 at 1:16 PM

      Here’s three great comments, buried in a great Lincecum article from a few years back:

      Throwing a baseball is an act of violence that has been graphically defined by Dr. James Andrews, Dr. Glenn Fleisig and the other doctors and clinicians at the American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI) in Birmingham. From the loaded position, the shoulder, at its peak speed, rotates forward at 7,000 degrees per second. “That,” Fleisig says, “is the fastest measured human motion of any human activity.”

      While in the loaded position, the shoulder and elbow bear the equivalent of about 40 pounds of force pushing down. When the ASMI biomechanists wanted to know how much more force an arm could take, they brought cadavers into the lab and pulled and pushed upon the elbow joint to find the breaking point. The cadavers’s ligaments blew apart just after 40 pounds of force. “So a pitcher is just about at the maximum,” Fleisig says.

      From the loaded position, when the ball has come to a stop, it is accelerated from zero mph to 90 mph in 3/10 of a second. Rick Peterson, the former New York Mets pitching coach who has worked with ASMI since 1993 and is the acknowledged expert on pitching biomechanics among his peers, once referred to that measurement in a speech he gave to college coaches. A doctor of physics who was in the audience approached him after the talk.

      “Rick, do you know what that means in g-forces?” the doctor asked.

      “I have no idea.”

      “If your entire body was accelerated at that rate of speed for over 60 seconds you would die.”

      • scoutsaysweitersisabust - Aug 28, 2013 at 1:57 PM

        There has also been some discussion as to the validity of pitchers who throw side-armed and submariners having healthier, longer, and more sustainable careers due to a great reduction of your mentioned torque. You can’t get up to 99 mph, but you can throw repeatedly with lower risk of injury. Personally I believe over the next decade or so, we’ll begin to see more people taught to throw “unconventionally”.

      • jwbiii - Aug 28, 2013 at 4:26 PM

        This guy had a reputation for throwing pretty hard.

  4. Jonny 5 - Aug 28, 2013 at 1:16 PM

    J.P. A thousand thanks. You just helped cement something I believed, but was far to lazy to investigate myself. You da man!

  5. frank433 - Aug 28, 2013 at 1:24 PM

    Some folks call it a sling training, I call it a Kaiser training.

  6. sabatimus - Aug 28, 2013 at 1:26 PM

    I was under the impression that, in the 70s and 80s, your average starting pitcher pitched perhaps 50 more innings per season than the average starter now. Is that not true? If it is true, does that mean that today’s pitchers are blowing out their arms more quickly?

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Aug 28, 2013 at 1:28 PM

      From a long ago JoePos article:

      In one of Joe Posnanski’s most recent blogs, he talked about the average length of starts over the last 50 years, and how it really hasn’t gone down that much. Here’s his table:

      1956: 6.41 innings per start.
      1963: 6.50 innings per start.
      1968: 6.66 innings per start.
      1971: 6.60 innings per start.
      1977: 6.30 innings per start.
      1980: 6.33 innings per start.
      1985: 6.22 innings per start.
      1990: 6.06 innings per start.
      1995: 5.90 innings per start.
      1998: 6.06 innings per start.
      2001: 5.92 innings per start.
      2004: 5.86 innings per start.
      2008: 5.85 innings per start.

      50 years, two fewer outs a game.

      • sabatimus - Aug 28, 2013 at 1:38 PM

        Nice, thank you. I think maybe the 50 innings thing came from me remembering Nolan Ryan…who was an aberration with an ironclad arm.

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Aug 28, 2013 at 2:25 PM

        Yeah, there are certain pitchers who threw a ton, but overall starting pitching hasn’t really changed that much. Everyone likes to remember the Ryans, Seavers, Carltons, et al, but what about the other 3-4 guys who pitched on those teams? They weren’t all throwing 350+ innings.

      • Glenn - Aug 28, 2013 at 4:07 PM

        There is very limited data, but where pitch count numbers exist, it seems that historically (at least live ball era) pitchers averaged a little over 100 pitches per game. In the “old” days, a guy might throw over 150, but he would also be taken out early if he didn’t ahve his stuff – much Quicker hook in the old days – we forget that in the current Tony LaRussa “save yor bullpen arms” days. Of course ridiculous one game totals were allowed then where such outliers would never happen now.

  7. galtur - Aug 28, 2013 at 1:35 PM

    The article by Terry Moore mentions the durability of Maddox, Glavine and Smoltz – three guys that didn’t exactly try to overpower hitters. Obviously I’m speculating but could it be that the UCL tears when guys are over-throwing rather than letting their natural arm strength and location get guys out?
    I don’t buy the notion that more wear and tear creates less wear and tear. I think the UCL blows out when a guy has thrown a lot of pitches and then tries to throw one or several through the catcher.

    I also think there are some arms that are just freakish (fewer today in baseball because fewer talented youths are pursuing baseball). There was a guy on my college team that could go out in early spring in upstate NY and more or less air it out on the first toss of warm-ups (annoying when you’re standing 30 feet away). The kid threw every-day; never iced and never complained about a sore muscle.

  8. earpaniac - Aug 28, 2013 at 1:36 PM

    As math is admittedly not my strong suit, if you wanted to see if more pitchers were hurt in the old 300+ inning days, wouldn’t you have to go through every pitcher and then find the examples of “arm fatigue”? Otherwise, to me at least, aren’t you doing the same thing as the people who point out Walter Johnson by bringing up Ernie Broglio? I’m not trying to start an argument, just curious. I myself fall into more of the “pitchers are doing something the body wasn’t designed for and so injuries will happen” camp.

    • sabatimus - Aug 28, 2013 at 1:42 PM

      I’m not sure about the rest of it, but I’m in the same camp. Isn’t natural arm motion, when moving forward, a side-arm instead of an over-the-top? Most pitchers are not side-armers. That, and I wonder how fast, say, Cy Young’s or Sandy Koufax’s fastballs were compared to those of today’s pitchers…the idea being that less velocity equals less violence on the arm.

      (on the other hand, I think today’s radar guns are intentionally calibrated to read too high)

      • raysfan1 - Aug 28, 2013 at 4:09 PM

        Supposedly Bob Feller could throw 100MPH. Pre-radar, Walter ajohnson’s fastball was estimated around 97MPH. (Imagine playing in the dead ball era and trying to even see a dirty, scuffed 97MPH heater coming at your head with you wearing no helmet.)

        Jim Bouton put every ounce of his strength into every fastball he threw too, often losing his hat while throwing the ball, so I can’t really say the violence of the throw is different. Mechanics might be different though.

  9. missingdiz - Aug 28, 2013 at 1:45 PM

    Greg Harris pitched for several clubs–I remember him with the Red Sox in the early nineties. He pitched right-handed. He claimed he could also pitch left-handed at the major league level, but the Sox wouldn’t let him. I don’t think anybody let him try until near the end of his career when he did turn around and pitch to a couple of guys left-handed.

  10. dondada10 - Aug 28, 2013 at 1:49 PM

    Just wanna point out something about two guys who logged a hell of a lot of innings: Satchel Paige and Walter Johnson. Look at their deliveries:

    Neither one brought his wrist above his shoulder. Rather, they would corkscrew their lower bodies.

    Maybe modern day mechanics, in general, are faulty.

  11. rbj1 - Aug 28, 2013 at 1:55 PM

    And back in the day, how many pitchers pitcher while hurting? Because if you complained too much about being hurt, ownership would discard you and get someone else. Then it’s back to digging ditches.

  12. yankeepunk3000 - Aug 28, 2013 at 3:10 PM

    great article. very detailed and I do agree that we lost a lot of good pitchers back in the day due to lack of technology and surgery. we plain just didn’t understand. and yes there will always be injuries because the over hand throw is actually unnatural for the body and throwing that hard for years will eventually tear the muscle.

  13. jm91rs - Aug 28, 2013 at 4:26 PM

    You left out the sad tale of Henry Rowengartner. The kid had an amazing rookie year, winning the ROY award in 1993. He landed hard on his shoulder and never was the same. He couldn’t throw the high stinky cheddar anymore and after using his bag of tricks for one last inning, never pitched again in the majors. Sometimes those are the breaks I guess.

  14. mscxvd - Aug 28, 2013 at 8:12 PM

    this might explain what happened to bud smith. his rookie year he throws a no hitter and a yr later hes out of baseball

  15. kdlvr - Aug 29, 2013 at 7:18 AM

    As someone who umpired baseball for over 20 years from kids to college and some pro ball it seems to me there’s more to the problem than your excellent story covered. While the injuries may hit once they get to “The Show,” the actual “ground work” begins for many youngsters in kids baseball where they are allowed to throw curve balls long before their arms are ready for the strain. Then there are those all–to-many high school and college coaches who overuse their best pitchers. While there are rules about the number of innings young players can throw, far too many coaches make sure their top pitchers throw the maximum innings even though many young players haven’t reached the arm strength needed to pitch the maximum. While the story covers the major leagues, I’d like to see how many minor league pitchers with the potential to be outstanding major league pitchers throw their arms out because of over use before they got to that point.

  16. gavinwittman - Aug 29, 2013 at 11:11 AM


    Can’t believe you didn’t mention the shooting star that was Steve Busby with his back to back years of no hitters before his rotator blew…

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