Passan: Focus on speed over command is breaking pitchers

“The Arm” by Jeff Passan, a lead writer for Yahoo Sports, is a must read for baseball fans, those interested in learning about pitchers, the Tommy John injury and surgery, as well as youth baseball coaches and parents. He explains how a tiny ligament in the elbow, the UCL, can snap, sending Little Leaguers and Major Leaguers to undergo surgery.

In traveling the world he was able to interview with Sandy Koufax, Japanese pitchers, and Tommy John, the All-Star pitcher who underwent the surgery 40 years ago to save his career.

But the true heart of the book resides in the interwoven stories of Major Leaguers Daniel Hudson and Todd Coffey, both of whom Passan follows through UCL surgery and rehab.

Military Press: You have a very powerful quote in the book, “The current generation of pitchers is lost, the product of a broken system, their arms ticking time bombs. If that doesn’t change, today’s kids will be the next causalities.” Please explain.

Jeff Passan: There is the stress of competition and winning over development. This is probably the biggest evil out there today. Kids in baseball are trying to throw harder at younger and younger ages. The arm is simply not ready for that. I write in the book how 4-year-olds are being ranked, which is both morally and ethically wrong.

MP: There are a number of factors that contribute to a pitcher’s injury: unorthodox delivery, velocity, types of pitches, number of pitches and years pitched. Which is the biggest factor?

JP: Throwing too many pitches in too many consecutive days. Not giving the arm the type of rest it needs. An increase in both the velocity of pitches and the frequency with which children pitch correlate very strongly with the spike in UCL injuries. Yet, until we have more data it is difficult to say emphatically what is causing these injuries. I do think there will be a break through, hopefully sooner than later.

MP: Teams strive to get pitchers who throw with a lot of speed. What is your opinion?

JP: Teams are so obsessed with velocity today. Pitchers throw harder and faster than any other position because teams want more strikeouts and fewer home runs. The harder you throw the more likely to an elbow injury. It will take a team taking risks to see if pitchers with lower velocities will be effective.

Some creative team is going to focus on drafting and developing pitchers with superlative command and control, the ability to place the ball wherever they want. Will the junk ball pitcher, change up artist, or for a pitcher to pound the weakness of the hitter, have a place in the game?

MP: Which type of pitcher would you choose?

jeff-passan

Jeff Passan

JP: Given a choice between someone who throws 95 to 98 with OK command and those who throw 90 to 94 with great command, I will pick the latter every single time. Ideally the goal for a pitcher should be someone who can put their pitches any where, any time. Unfortunately, velocity is a lot easier to command than placement.

MP: How would you compare baseball roles with these injuries to football’s role with concussions?

JP: Baseball doesn’t have the risks inherent in, say, football. Nobody is dying on the diamond, and kids aren’t getting their brains scrambled from overthrowing. Ultimately football concussions changed lives while baseball arm injuries changed livelihoods, although they are coming away damaged. I do not think baseball has ignored the issue while football never admitted until recently the sport can cause concussions. Baseball’s greatest sin could be blamed for sleeping at the wheel.

MP: Has baseball stepped up to the plate?

JP: Within the past few years, they’ve really taken the right steps between establishing the Pitch Smart program, which encourages pitch limits for certain ages. And beyond that for the major leaguers, they’ve been collecting injury data for about half a decade now. I do think as technology progresses we will learn more about the arms and the proper way to approach this.

MP: Can you talk a little about Todd Coffey?

JP: While a relief pitcher for the Dodgers, Coffey in 2012 had a recurring elbow injury and underwent his second Tommy John surgery. He threw with a velocity about 95 to 96 mph. In 2015 he tried to play for the Mexican League and is currently in the Atlantic League.

Because he was a reliever and does not throw now at 95 it became difficult to latch on with a team. They are afraid he would get hurt again and they would then be stuck with the medical expenses. Plus, they think it makes sense to go with a guy who has been in their own organization.

MP: What about Daniel Hudson that plays for the Arizona Diamondbacks?

JP: He had Tommy John surgery in 2012 and another surgery in 2013. He is still pitching for the Diamondbacks and so far is having a great year. If he stays healthy he is setting himself up for a big payday. He looks good and says his arm feels great. I think Daniel is an inspirational story. I hope with him and Coffey readers will see what it is really like, that it is not easy and not fun with a lot of trials and tribulations.

MP: What about Nolan Ryan, where does he fit in?

JP: Ryan is just a total freak. He was able to pitch a lot with damage to his elbow. I don’t know if it was pain tolerance, mechanics, or the muscles in his forearm that helped stabilize the elbow.

MP: Do you think Tommy John should make it into the Hall Of Fame?

JP: No. He should be honored with a display explaining the Tommy John surgery. I have a vote, and for me someone must be a great performer to get in. Tommy John is in the realm of very good, but he is not a Hall of Famer.

MP: Do you think parents need to take more responsibility where their child’s health is concerned?

JP: I hope this book makes parents look into the mirror and ask if they are doing right by their children. Unfortunately, too many parents and coaches have their own blatant dreams in mind versus the welfare of the kids. Parents push kids into year round baseball programs.

We need to be more diligent and make sure our kids are not falling prey to the desire to have them perform at such young ages. I speak in the book of travel baseball becoming at least a nine-figure industry, preying on parents’ insatiable desire to secure college scholarship money and a high-paying major league future for their children.

MP: I know there is such a thing as “Hollywood” parents. Are there now “Baseball” parents?the-arm

JP: It is frightening how many parents push their children. I hope there is enough people out there that can shame these other parents and coaches. A parent’s job is to be realistic.

A Japanese study that came out after the book was published said that 43 percent of 9- to 12-year-olds had damage to their UCL and of those more than 60 percent were pitchers. There are 13- and 14- and 15- and 16-year-old kids who are having this surgery that for a long time was just limited to major leaguers and minor leaguers.

But the number of kids who have had surgery has spiked significantly in recent years to the point where more than half of Tommy John surgeries now happen with teenagers.

Remember when Dr. Frank Jobe did the surgery it was on a 30-year-old pitcher to save his career. I cannot imagine he thought it would become the domain of children instead of adults.

MP: What do you want readers to get out of the book?

JP: To learn about pitchers, but more importantly to have conscientious parents and educated coaches. I’m hoping that this book is a warning for parents and coaches out there who don’t quite understand that the amount of pitching you do as a child could significantly damage you for years to come. We should be stressing how to throw the ball properly, know how to place it, and to learn the mental side of pitching.

Growth plates in children’s elbows don’t close until they are 15- 16-years-old. When they do reach this age they can take on more wear and tear. Dr. Jobe said not to throw a curve ball until you can shave.

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About the Author

Elise Cooper

Elise writes book reviews that always include a short author interview.