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Are pitch counts and early shutdowns actually helping pitchers?

Sep 14, 2013, 9:00 PM EDT

strasburg getty Getty Images

The Nationals’ decision to shut down starter Stephen Strasburg after his September 7 start last year was controversial, starting a debate that wasn’t even close to settled as the 2013 regular season was under way. The Nationals won the NL East title last season and went into the NLDS against the Cardinals without Strasburg. The Nats were dispatched in five games, leading many to speculate that the organization was being too careful with their 23-year-old phenom, needlessly weakening the team in the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 1981.

This year, the Mets and Marlins took similar precautions with their young aces. The Mets vowed to shut down Matt Harvey early before he ended up suffering an injury, and Jose Fernandez recently made his final start of the year for the Marlins with a few weeks to spare.

As’s Anthony Castrovince points out, pitchers are still getting injured quite often despite these preventative measures. Castrovince spoke to a number of people about the issue of pitcher health, including Dr. Marcus Elliott, a physician who trained at Harvard. Elliott said, “I’m certain we’re going to look back on what we did here in 2012, 2013 and not too far into the future and think that it was really primitive.”

Elliott continued, saying, “There are reasons guys end up tearing their ulnar collateral ligament or end up with repetitive trauma to a rotator cuff. There are mechanical explanations for all these things. And we haven’t spent a whole lot of time trying to understand what those reasons are.”

Castrovince also highlighted Arizona State University associate head coach and recruiting coordinator Ken Knutson, citing Knutson’s rather impressive track record of producing pitchers who don’t get injured. According to Knutson, he hadn’t had a pitcher need Tommy John surgery since the beginning of the millennium, and only because the pitcher didn’t follow Knutson’s warmup program. Knutson described that program as a “dynamic body warmup”. “Movements and runs and agility things. We do a lot with body blades or shoulder tubes. We do some strength training with a two-pound medicine ball, then we go through some body movement and throwing heavy balls.”

The entire article is enlightening and worth a dedicated reading. Castrovince raises a very good point, which is that for all of the progress baseball has made over the years in terms of technology and analytics, injury prevention — specifically for pitchers — is an area that has really yet to be broached, let alone conquered.

  1. jdillydawg - Sep 14, 2013 at 11:29 PM

    No. They aren’t. I find the whole thing silly, to be honest. Players need to play, not get shut down. And pitchers should be trained to believe that every game will be a complete game unless they just get shelled.

    Just my opinion.

  2. db105 - Sep 15, 2013 at 4:37 AM

    Shutting down young pitchers when healthy is counterproductive. The pitchers never fully develop.

  3. brazcubas - Sep 15, 2013 at 8:43 AM

    There’s two issues here, though. Limiting the workload for a player returning from surgery is probably a good idea. Maybe not the rigid “We’ll give him x innings” of the Strasburg shutdown, but one combining close monitoring of the repaired injury.

    On the other hand, simply shutting down otherwise healthy players is more about seeming to be doing something about injuries than actually preventing them. I would agree that teams need to take a more comprehensive approach.

  4. Todd Boss - Sep 15, 2013 at 9:43 AM

    What I want to know is this: where are all the critics of the Strasburg shutdown (who actually had an injury that he was rehabbing from) who havn’t said a word about the litany of “healthy shutdowns” we’re already seeing this year? Planned for Harvey before he got hurt, plus Jose Fernandez, Taijuan Walker and Jared Cosart all have been shutdown without any prior injury history. Hell, the Nationals shut down Taylor Jordan this year without any fan fare (though he is also coming back from TJ surgery, much as Strasburg was).

    You can’t be pro-shutdowns of these players but be a critic of the Strasburg shutdown unless you also admit that you’re willing to put the short term exploits of one team’s 1-in-8 post season chances in one season over the long-term/15-year pitching career of your young superstar. The position of the team in the standings shouldn’t matter.

  5. yahmule - Sep 15, 2013 at 10:30 AM

    Cleveland is treating Danny Salazar like he’s made out of fine porcelain. I don’t see what good it does to yank a kid after 78 pitches when he’s dominating.

  6. Glenn - Sep 15, 2013 at 1:10 PM

    I think we would all agree that pitching too many pitches in a game, pitching too many innings in a season, or making a big leap in innings pitched in one year for a young pitcher would be detrimental to the pitcher’s arm health. It just bothers me that all pitchers are treated in a lock-step way without reason. Castrovince’s article does a great job of looking at what other things should be done that would actually help keep pitchers healthy. We just shouldn’t throw caution out completely and return to an era when pitchers arms were destroyed and guys like Koufax retire at 30 from arm damage.

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