The most relevant name in baseball belongs to a 70-year-old who contemplated retirement in 1974.
Everybody’s talking about Tommy John.
A left-handed junkball thrower remembered more for the longevity of his career than the 288 games he won between 1963 and 1989, John had the distinction of becoming the first athlete to undergo ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction: Tommy John surgery.
Forty years ago, when the late Dr. Frank Jobe repaired John’s left elbow with ligaments taken from the pitcher’s right wrist, chances of a complete recovery were estimated by Jobe at one in 100. Jobe’s patient recovered well enough to earn three All-Star Game appearances after his 1976 comeback.
John was regarded as a curiosity during the late 70s — a medical-marvel beneficiary of a surgeon’s radical methods — but nowadays the procedure is commonplace. Of the 350 pitchers who started games in the majors last season, 120 were working on careers revived by Tommy John surgery.
Injured elbows requiring the replacement of ulnar collateral ligaments are all the talk this spring.
Oakland’s Jarrod Parker, who had been expected to start in the season opener, won’t pitch at all in 2014. Neither will Atlanta ace Kris Medlen, nor his Braves’ teammate, Brandon Beachy.
Arizona’s Patrick Corbin, whose breakout 2013 season — he finished 14-8, with 178 strikeouts in 208 innings — helped the Diamondbacks achieve respectability, is another victim of elbow damage.
“Epidemic” is a strong word, but it wouldn’t be an overstatement to suggest the rash of pitching injuries — specifically, injuries associated with Tommy John surgery — has reached that point. While a sore elbow might not pose the quality-of-life hazards of multiple concussions, the epidemic is as troubling as it is baffling.
Experts know quite more about this stuff than they did in say, 1966, when the Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax, during the prime of his Hall of Fame career, was forced to retire because of an arthritic elbow. He was 30.
The technology has improved, training techniques are more sophisticated, diets are supervised. I can recall walking into a typical big-league clubhouse, circa 1982, and seeing players wolf down postgame meals of fried chicken and cold cuts. A keg of beer was on tap, and a few of the guys, usually veterans, smoked a cigarette before showering, and another cigarette (or two) after returning to their locker.
While the notion of such a clubhouse scene today sounds crazy — fried chicken, beer and cigarettes, seriously? — pitchers were more durable. Sore arms have always been an occupational hazard, but few pitchers spent time on the disabled list, and fewer still were candidates for major surgery.
There are two schools of thought about sore arms, and they collide.
One school believes the worst way to maintain a starting pitcher’s health is to overuse him, a philosophy that has encouraged a vigilant watch on pitch counts while discouraging hard-throwing work between starts. According to this school, injuries can be minimized by retooling faulty mechanics in the delivery.
The other school believes this cautious cultivation of pitchers causes more injuries than it prevents. Former Braves’ pitching coach Leo Mazzone is a leading proponent of the killing-them-with-softness theory. Mechanical changes, Mazzone insists, are a waste of time. Let ’em deliver as they’ve always delivered, and concentrate on building arm endurance.
In other words, throw often but throw easy.
Mazzone equates his strategy with the challenge of running seven miles in a week: What’s more difficult? Running seven miles at once, or running one mile seven times?
Mazzone, I should point out, will be at Cooperstown, N.Y. this summer, a Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony guest of former Braves manager Bobby Cox and two Atlanta pitchers preparing induction remarks, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.
I also should point out that Mazzone was tutored by Johnny Sain, the legendary pitching coach (legendary in the pitching-coach community, anyway) who served as a mentor to a young Tommy John.
I’m not sure I buy Mazzone’s insistence that mechanical adjustments are useless, and there’s a quantifiable correlation between injuries and pitchers who have been overworked — especially kids on select traveling teams, whose young arms aren’t ready to be stressed.
But Mazzone’s essential point — throw often, throw easy, look at it as running one mile a day instead running seven miles at once — is difficult to argue.
Memo to the commissioner’s office: Some consensus is needed. There’s something absurd about the fact Tommy John has been mentioned more often this spring than Miguel Cabrera, or Andrew McCutchen, or Clayton Kershaw, or Max Scherzer.
Bring some minds together and study this curious trend of elbow injuries. Is less work the solution? More work?
Figure it out, because an arm is a terrible thing to waste.