Skip to content

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.

Latest Posts
  1. Mets promote prospect Kevin Plawecki to replace Travis d’Arnaud

    Apr 19, 2015, 7:45 PM EDT

    Kevin Plawecki Kevin Plawecki

    Travis d’Arnaud suffered a fractured hand in Sunday’s game against the Marlins, so the Mets promoted prospect Kevin Plawecki.

  2. White Sox will promote Carlos Rodon on Monday

    Apr 19, 2015, 6:05 PM EDT

    Carlos Rodon Carlos Rodon

    White Sox pitching prospect Carlos Rodon is expected to be promoted on Monday.

  3. Jesse Hahn might miss next start due to blister

    Apr 19, 2015, 5:30 PM EDT

    jesse hahn getty Getty Images

    A’s right-hander Jesse Hahn made an early exit from his start Saturday against the Royals with a blister on his pitching hand and it sounds like he may miss a turn in Oakland’s rotation.

  4. Reds manager Bryan Price on Busch Stadium: “I don’t think we anticipate success here”

    Apr 19, 2015, 4:53 PM EDT

    busch stadium getty Getty Images

    “Counting games in St. Louis since the start of the 2003 season, the Reds are 3-29-2 in series against the Cardinals.”

  5. Another one bites the dust: Mets lose young catcher Travis d’Arnaud to fractured right hand

    Apr 19, 2015, 4:17 PM EDT

    travis d'arnaud getty Getty Images

    The 26-year-old d’Arnaud had a terrific second half last season for New York and he was off to a very promising start in 2015, hitting .317/.356/.537 with two home runs and 10 RBI in 11 games played.

  6. Mets reliever Jerry Blevins has a fractured left forearm

    Apr 19, 2015, 4:01 PM EDT

    blevins getty Getty Images

    Brutal news here for the NL East-leading Mets.

  7. Video: Jon Lester throws entire glove to first base for out

    Apr 19, 2015, 3:34 PM EDT

    jon lester getty Getty Images

    Jon Lester appears to have found a solution for his problems making throws to first base …

  8. Video: Down on the Farm with Kris Bryant

    Apr 19, 2015, 2:05 PM EDT

    kris bryant

    There’s so much gold in this new Red Bull spot for Cubs rookie third baseman Kris Bryant …

  9. Yasiel Puig out Sunday with lingering hamstring injury

    Apr 19, 2015, 1:30 PM EDT

    yasiel puig getty Getty Images

    Puig, who boasts an .886 through 34 plate appearances, is considered day-to-day.

  10. Carlos Carrasco to return to Indians’ rotation Tuesday

    Apr 19, 2015, 12:41 PM EDT

    carlos carrasco getty Getty Images

    Carrasco was lucky to avoid a serious injury. These reschedulings seem to be completely precautionary.

  11. Nationals activate Denard Span, option Michael Taylor

    Apr 19, 2015, 11:57 AM EDT

    span getty Getty Images

    Span underwent surgery for a sports hernia in December and then needed a followup procedure for a core muscle injury in early March.

  12. Giants receive their 2014 World Series championship rings

    Apr 19, 2015, 11:04 AM EDT

    giants ring

    It’s been a rough first couple of weeks for the 2015 Giants, who sit in last place in the National League West with a record of 4-9 and a -21 run differential. But they got to do some celebrating Saturday night …

  13. Angels activate Garrett Richards for Sunday debut

    Apr 19, 2015, 10:18 AM EDT

    garrett richards getty Getty Images

    This will be the first start for Richards since he tore the patellar tendon in his left knee last August in Boston.

  14. Video: Jason Heyward’s first Cardinals homer

    Apr 19, 2015, 9:25 AM EDT

    heyward getty Getty Images

    Jason Heyward hit his first home run as a member of the Cardinals on Saturday in St. Louis …

  15. Settling the Score: Saturday’s results

    Apr 19, 2015, 8:33 AM EDT

    degrom getty Getty Images

    Mark down seven straight wins for the Mets, who will try for a four-game Citi Field sweep of the Marlins on Sunday afternoon behind staff ace Matt Harvey.

  16. Rays designate Grant Balfour for assignment

    Apr 18, 2015, 11:26 PM EDT

    Grant Balfour Grant Balfour

    Grant Balfour was designated for assignment following a disastrous Saturday night against the Yankees.

  17. Joe Nathan throws off a mound for the first time since suffering an elbow injury

    Apr 18, 2015, 11:01 PM EDT

    Joe Nathan Joe Nathan

    Joe Nathan could be activated from the disabled list as soon as Wednesday.

  18. A fun story involving Terry Francona and his dad Tito

    Apr 18, 2015, 10:00 PM EDT

    Terry Francona Terry Francona

    If you’re in the mood for a laugh, you’ll want to read this story involving Indians manager Terry Francona and his dad Tito.

Top 10 MLB Player Searches
  1. K. Bryant (4690)
  2. D. Span (4201)
  3. D. Salazar (3992)
  4. A. Rodriguez (3704)
  5. Y. Puig (3680)