Matt Harvey. Jose Fernandez. Stephen Strasburg. Jameson Taillon. Lucas Giolito.
Those are just a few of the young fireballers in recent history who have had serious elbow issues. Pundits are quick to blame a whole rash of things – showcases, travel ball, an emphasis on velocity, pitching mechanics, and so many other topics. Teams come out of the woodwork and say how responsible they were in handling a young prospect, limiting his pitch counts and innings pitched in a season as if those are heavily predictive of a pitcher’s propensity for injury (they aren’t) and to shout to everyone: “We’re doing our job to keep them healthy – it’s really just a mix of bad luck and abuse as a youth pitcher that are causing the problems!”
I’m not buying it. With a growing list of professional pitchers that we work with (as well as organizations we’ve done consulting work for), we know for a fact that the vast majority of modalities that can help keep a pitcher healthy are underexplored or totally ignored in professional baseball.
For example, a baseball team could collect tons of proprietary data on pitchers by installing a four-to-six camera system using off-the-shelf high-speed cameras and custom software to study the pitching mechanics of their guys as well as all of their opponents. From the qualitative data (discounting the real possibility of true on-the-fly markerless biomechanical analysis), studies could be performed to test the predictive power of certain angles and kinematics expressed in the delivery. If nothing else, this treasure trove of data would prove to be useful for the organization’s pitching coaches.
Additionally, studying recovery ability of pitchers is not something that is well-accepted at the professional level. There is a significant amount of training done to help strengthen the shoulder and rotator cuff, and as a result professional baseball is seeing fewer and fewer debilitating injuries to the scapular-shoulder complex. However, there has been a rash of elbow injuries that have been skyrocketing in recent years, and much of this has to do with the fact that little public research has been done on protecting the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL). There exist strong markers for elbow fitness that can be done both in-game and between games to judge the fitness level of the pitcher’s lower arm to see what the propensity for injury may be. Additionally, few (if any) teams have a good elbow strengthening program that helps to ingrain less stressful pitching mechanics without overt focus on changing the pitcher’s mechanical pattern – the ability to increase the fitness of the muscles that help dynamically stabilize the elbow while simultaneously tweaking a pitcher’s mechanics to reduce valgus stress would be a very useful tool indeed.
By handing professional baseball a bunch of very hard-throwing young pitchers, we are giving them the ability to get more guys out and to produce massive surplus value in pre-arbitration years. However, it’s like handling a loaded gun without knowledge of how to safely use it and how to care for the maintenance of the weapon. Is it any surprise that we see more and more injuries as a result?