When evaluating pitchers in the Statcast era, spin rate has become an en-vogue metric. But as hard as teams are working deciphering how well young pitchers can spin a baseball, another, far more basic metric has also stamped its mark on the game over the last half-decade: velocity.
Young pitchers are coming into the major leagues these days throwing fire. A 95mph fastball was considered top-end stuff even a decade ago and limited to the repertoire of elite closers. Now, hitters are liable to see one multiple times in an at-bat from the first inning onwards.
Starters like Noah Syndergaard, Luis Severino, Jacob deGrom, Stephen Strasburg and many more have been carving their way through major league lineups, racking up strikeouts at a record pace. Their success has been largely based on velocity that borders on gigantism. For example, Syndergaard's average fastball velocity over his four-year career, as measured by FanGraphs, is 98.4 MPH. His slider goes 93.3 MPH. His changeup averages 90 MPH.
Aces are becoming synonymous with velocity—so much so that the likes of Aaron Nola, who tops out in the low 90s, was regarded as more of a No. 2 starter coming out of college than as the ace he is rapidly becoming. At the end of May, Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels threw the fastest pitch of the year by a starter: 101.1 MPH.
A week later, he was shut down indefinitely with a Grade 2 sprain of the ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow. The Angels are trying to rehab the injury, but the general consensus amongst analysts like ESPN's Pedro Gomez is that the chances of him avoiding Tommy John surgery aren't good.
That's another exciting young pitcher struck down by the injury bug. Increasingly more young starters are being sidelined in their prime, and it's worth asking why. Bad mechanics and overuse are obvious culprits, but there is one other factor that isn't getting as much attention but that deserves far more focus.
Are pitchers throwing too hard?
Ohtani is just another bullet point on the list of promising young starters that have been forced to endure extended stints on the disabled list.
In fact, of the five players listed in the introduction to this piece, all but one has seen extended time on the disabled list in the last few years. Syndergaard lost almost all of last season to a torn lat, while Strasbourg was forced to have Tommy John shortly after his major league debut in 2010. Both are currently on the DL, Strasburg with shoulder inflammation and Syndergaard due to a strained finger ligament (one he's getting a second opinion on). deGrom had to have surgery to free a nerve in his elbow in 2016. Only Severino has thus far evaded major arm problems.
But they are far from the only ones. Arguably the biggest name—with the biggest fall—due to injury in the last few years is Matt Harvey, whose flame-throwing dominance made him a fan favorite in New York and a Cy Young candidate. But he ended up being a flash in the pan. Tommy John came knocking in 2013, then Thoracic Outlet Syndrome in 2016. A shell of his former self, he's now trying to reclaim his career with the Cincinnati Reds.
What's going on?
It's worth wondering just what is happening here. Starting pitchers are the most expensive assets in the game. If it weren't for baseball's archaic salary arbitration system—the remnant of the old reserve clause that allowed owners to dictate player salaries and movement—pitchers like Syndergaard and deGrom would cost their teams massive amounts of money. Given the time they've spent on the DL in recent years, that's a lot of money sunk into guys sitting in the training room.
The idea that throwing breaking balls causes undue strain on a pitcher's arm has been mostly debunked as a myth. Overuse, especially in youth baseball, is now one of the most cited reasons why young pitchers break down, hence the limits on how many pitches a child can pitch at a time in Little League and other youth baseball and the strict innings limits some teams put on their prospects.
But as velocity continues to rise, and pitchers who throw hard continue to fall victim to injuries, it's becoming valid to question whether this trend has a role in the problem.
Throwing a baseball overhand is an unnatural motion. At the highest levels of the game, it's also extraordinarily violent. Take this quote from this article, "How Tiny Tim Became a Pitching Giant" by Tom Verducci in the July 7, 2008 issue of Sports Illustrated:
Throwing a baseball is an act of violence that has been graphically defined by Dr. James Andrews, Dr. Glenn Fleisig, and the other doctors and clinicians at the American Sports Medicine institute (ASMI) in Birmingham [Alabama]. From the loaded position, the shoulder, at its peak speed, rotates forward at 7,000 degrees per second. "That," Fleisig says, "is the fastest measured human motion of any human activity."
While in the loaded position, the shoulder and elbow bear the equivalent of about 40 pounds of force pushing down. When the ASMI biomechanists wanted to know how much more force an arm could take, they brought cadavers into the lab and and pulled and pushed upon the elbow joint to find the breaking point. The cadavers' ligaments blew apart just after 40 pounds of force. "So a pitcher is just about at the maximum," Fleisig says...
...No wonder pitchers break down. Pitching, unlike most athletic activities, has reached the limit of what is humanly possible...the arm and shoulder are maxed out.
That's as clear as it is mind-blowing. Pitchers who throw at the top end of the velocity scale do so while pushing their arms to the absolute limit. Frankly, it seems like a minor medical miracle that most pitchers aren't going through Tommy John every couple of years.
This calls to mind what Hall of Famer and MLB Network analyst John Smoltz called "red line factor" a year ago after Syndergaard tore his lat. Comparing a pitcher like Syndergaard, who goes full-bore on every pitch, to a car consistently driven over the red line on the RPM meter, the eventual result will be obvious: it will blow out.
It's telling that one of the best pitchers of this generation, Justin Verlander, who learned over the course of his career to moderate his velocity in the early stages of the game and saved his biggest velocity for key situations, has, while taking the odd trip to the DL, has never lost extended time to a serious arm injury.
Throwing hard isn't the only reason a pitcher will end up breaking down. Other guys, like Severino's Yankees teammate Jordan Montgomery, whose sits in the low 90s, end up needing Tommy John for other reasons—bad mechanics, overuse, the list goes on.
But science has made a definitive statement: the human body wasn't made to do this. If pitchers keep pushing the limits, the limits will come to bite them in the rear end—or the elbow.
At the moment, losing a young starter to an injury is a competitive setback that doesn't cost teams a whole lot of money (in the grand scheme of things, anyway) thanks to the arbitration system. But that might not be the case in the future. Competitive teams now emphasize young cores, and players who hit free agency in their thirties aren't seeing the market they did a decade ago. Over the last few months the MLB Players Association has slowly realized that it has been badly outflanked in recent collective bargaining agreements, and when the next set of negotiations come up, they are bound to insist that younger players are better compensated.
If that happens, owners may have to rein in their hardest throwers. If they continue to fly too close to the sun, owners could end up paying a lot of money to pitchers whose careers would end up tragically short.