There is nothing more important than the health of a team. In Major League Baseball, it is extremely challenging to build depth. This is especially true with slotted spending in the draft and in Latin America. Thus, it is hard to find anything more than a replacement-level player or worse to fill in for an injured player, the 2016 Los Angeles Dodgers notwithstanding.
Last year, according to Jeff Zimmerman of The Hardball Times more days were lost to the Disabled List (DL) than at any other time since he began collecting data in 2002. Last year, pitchers lost more days to the DL than all Major Leaguers lost in 2006. On the bright side, Zimmerman’s research indicated that Tommy John surgeries were actually down last year. His research has also shown that the cause for the rise in Tommy John surgeries is likely not velocity increase. Zimmerman has found that elbow injuries have actually replaced shoulder injuries as the main reason for DL trips for pitchers. The good news is that elbow injuries are easier to treat than shoulder injuries because the shoulder area is so much more complex. The bad news is that teams are still seeing way too many injuries. Not to mention the Tommy John surgery is not 100 percent successful.
So, if it’s not velocity, why are pitchers getting hurt so often? In his book The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity, Jeff Passan posits that overuse on the amateur circuit combined with bad mechanics has led to baseball’s epidemic of pitcher injuries. Amateur pitchers are throwing too many pitches too many times per year without enough rest. This overuse is leading to a rash of Tommy John surgeries at the youth level. Many of the young pitchers getting hurt at the minor league or big league level may have been broken by their college, high school, or youth coaches.
Prevention before intervention
It is very difficult to fix broken mechanics or even to spot them in the first place. Passan’s book highlights Luke Hudson’s attempts to fix his mechanics after he underwent a second Tommy John operation. It was basically impossible for Hudson to change the way he had been throwing the ball his whole life. Thus, if there’s going to be a fix, it’s going to have to happen by teaching better mechanics earlier. This can start with youth baseball players throwing less frequently and resting their arms more before cranking it back up. Until then, we are going to continue to see more days lost to the DL every year.