Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

Matt Harvey; just unlucky


Harvey gets a really unfortunate diagnosis.  Photo: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Harvey gets a really unfortunate diagnosis. Photo: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

What happened to Matt Harvey?
One of my friends speculated that his overuse at UNC may have contributed to his very unfortunate torn UCL/possible need for Tommy John surgery and drew a parallel to our own Stephen Strasburg in terms of young phenoms going down.  I don’t recall any accusations of overuse of Strasburg at SD State; in fact Tony Gwynn seemed to be hyper aware of the media outcry if there would have been overuse and handled him very carefully.   His workload in college was carefully monitored, the Nats brought him along very carefully and were hyper sensitive to any slight issues in his first pro years.  And Strasburg got hurt anyway.
UNC has a somewhat dim reputation among scouts for destroying pitcher arms (as does Texas, Rice, and a couple other programs), and you saw some evidence of that in this past CWS (where UNC’s “closer” suddenly was starting games and throwing 100s of pitches during the tournament after being a one-inning guy most of the year).  But Harvey left UNC in 2010.  A long time ago.
UCL tears are often point-source injuries; think about Strasburg’s torn UCL: he did it on one pitch.  Yes he probably “strained” the UCL before then (strain is medical term for “small tear” apparently, as we learned during the Lucas Giolito drafting), but it was very clear the exact moment Strasburg blew it out.  Meanwhile, shoulders seem to be more degenerative over time from overuse.  There doesn’t seem to be any video of a single pitch that blew out Harvey’s UCL, and I’m sure there’s arguments and counter-examples against this, but my observations seem to support this.  One day pitchers are healthy, the next day they have a blown elbow ligament.
What else could have caused Harvey’s injury?
Pitch counts?  Harvey’s game logs this year aren’t egregious: a couple of 120 pitch games (studies have shown that 120 pitches is about the threshold for pitches in the majors before workload effects are demonstratble in subsequent starts).  Lots of games in the 100-110 range.  But that’s to be expected; he’s a big guy, a workhorse, always has been.
Innings thrown?  Here’s a concern area.  96 college innings in 2010, 135.2 in 2011, 169.1 in 2012 and 178.1 in 2013 before this injury.  You generally don’t want guys to increase workloads more than 20% per year (the “Verducci effect,” so to speak)  He increased his workload 28% from college to his first pro year and another 20% from his first pro year to his second.  He was well on his way this year to another 20% increase and was set to be shut down before this injury.  He was definitely a risk for ramping up his innings too fast.
Mechanics: no evidence of any trouble spots; his mechanics have always been clean.  He threw hard but he wasn’t considered a “max effort” guy.  Too bad for the “inverted W” conspiracy crowd; they can’t have another poster child for their internet meme which is usually ignored by scouts and baseball professionals.  (as you can tell, I don’t believe in the inverted W b.s. as being anything other than coincidental.  For every pitcher with an arm injury and inverted W mechanics you can 1) find a pitcher with inverted-W who has NO injury history or 2) find a pitcher with impeccable mechanics who suffers the same type of injuries that the inverted W supposedly caused).
Is it the  Travel-league/year round baseball that prospects these days have grown up in?   If anything, you’d think that year-round baseball would help these kids, not hurt them, by building up arm strength and building up the muscles surrounding the critical points in a throwing arm (ucl, rotator cuff, labrum, etc).  This goes counter to recent advice from Dr. James Andrews, who advised that kids need an off-season from baseball to allow their arm muscles to rest and regenerate from the abuse that pitching causes.  Of course, you could also counter argue it and say that “the arm only has so many bullets in it” and each pitch is one pitch closer to an injury.
The “right” answer is probably some combination of all of the above, as well as genetic bad luck.  Some guys have absolutely perfect mechanics and get injured (Harvey), some guys have perfect mechanics and throw 10,000 innings (say, Nolan Ryan), some guys have crummy mechanics and get away with it for a long time (think Don Sutton or someone like that).
On the bright side; Tommy John surgery is now somewhere between 85-90% success rate.  And these TJ surgeries actually improve the arm action.  An amazing stat was tweeted by Rob Neyer in the wake of the Harvey injury; of the 360 pitchers who have started games this year, 124 have had Tommy John surgery.  124 of 360!  That’s one out of every three major league starters in the game.  Our own Nats experience exactly matches this: of the 9 guys we’ve had start a game this year 3 have TJ surgeries in their history (Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Taylor Jordan).  The surgery doesn’t just repair, it improves the arm stability and strength.  TJ pitchers often come back with more break on their curve because the elbow has been improved.  They don’t just staple the tendon in place; they drill holes in the bones to attach the tendon so its got a stronger bond than what was naturally there.
In any case, it really is unfortunate to see such a great young guy suffer an arm injury so soon.  Hopeful for a full recovery.  The baseball world is a better, more fun place with young aces like Harvey out there every 5 days.

7 Responses to 'Matt Harvey; just unlucky'

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  1. “Is it the Travel-league/year round baseball that prospects these days have grown up in?

    I actually think the fact that kids who show any promise whatsoever are swept up by these travel leagues and babied from a very young age is a negative for a different reason. In earlier (some would say simpler times) kids grew up playing sandlot ball all summer long usually unsupervised by any adults. The pitchers likely logged thousands of innings before they entered high school. The weaker arms no doubt blew out from the strain, but the ones who survived that crucible went on to be able to pitch 250+ innings a year for 15 or 20 years with few significant injuries. It was survival of the fittest, but the fittest were absolute beasts.

    Look at Tom Seaver, for example–dude pitched 251 innings as a rookie at age 22 and did not pitch fewer than 236 innings for his first 12 seasons. Even as a 21-year-old minor leaguer he pitched 210 innings right out of the gate (and no doubt would have had more if the minor league season was longer). No wussie 20% workload increase per year nonsense for him. Even after his arm started wearing down, he successfully converted from power pitcher to more of a finesse guy and logged 238 innings for the ChiSox at age 40.

    I understand that money is the reason they baby youang pitchers these days, but personally I think the game was a lot more fun in the days before pitch counts, five man rotations and seven man bullpens when dinosuars like Seaver, Carlton, Ryan, Sutton, Palmer, Kaat, Perry, Neikro and even Wilbur Wood (376 IP in 1972!) roamed the Earth starting games every four days (or three in Wood’s case) and expecting a complete game every time out.


    29 Aug 13 at 11:05 am

  2. Your explanation makes a ton of sense and is generally in line with my own opinion. Why do so many world-class soccer players come from impoverished countries? Because kids literally had nothing else to do growing up besides kick around a ball and become great with their feet. I have no doubt the same thing exists in the DR, Cuba and other poor latin american countries that produce such a massive number of major leaguers compared to their population.

    I’m concerned about travel leagues for another reason. Lets say my 10month old eventually plays baseball and is recruited to join a travel league; i’ve heard absolute horror stories about parents driving their kids to daily practices and weekly tournaments out of the area. Do I want my life dictated this way for years on end? And what about variety in the child’s sporting experience? How do you learn/play other sports (golf, tennis, basketball, soccer, whatever) if you’re playing baseball for 30 weeks a year?

    Todd Boss

    29 Aug 13 at 12:11 pm

  3. I disagree with you guys, but kind of from a process perspective. I just don’t think that you can pick out a guy from the past who ‘made’ it through with the ability to pitch high inning totals, like Seaver, and say that is how it was back then for everyone. There is no way to credibly know all the guys that flamed out due to injury from overwork. It wasn’t documented like it is now, and you would have to figure out how to access the minor leagues too, to see who got hurt before even getting a cup of coffee. There is just no statistical way to make an overall statement, it is just a feel kind of thing, which is distorted by our ages and what the media covered from that time.

    And don’t even get me going on today’s travel sports. It has become a perverse set of incentives. I have a 12 yr old girl playing travel soccer, and you do alter your life significantly for this stuff. Most tournaments are holiday weekends, like Labor Day, so good luck planning short getaways. I actually hope my 6 yr old son doesn’t have any interest. Most statistics say somethng like of all the kids 8-12 playing recreational sports, only 1% will play high school varsity. And of that second group, about 1% will play beyond HS. Yet, no one thinks those stats apply to their kid, and parents want to cram down a highly competitive atmosphere at ages 7, 8 and 9. Plus, travel kids jump teams constantly, looking for the ‘better’ spot, so they learn early it is more important to do well individually than whether the team wins. It is really a bad mix right now.


    29 Aug 13 at 3:15 pm

  4. Wally – fair enough, but how do you explain that these days even the best pitchers start sucking wind at around 120 pitches in a game and if they go longer than that they usally then stink for their next outing or two. Ryan once pitched 13 innings in a game, struck out 19 guys, walked 10 and faced 58 batters. Regrettably, his pitch count for that game is not available, but it HAD to be well over 200. He then pitched complete games in three of his next four starts. Any modern pitcher who was allowed to do that would see his arm immediatly fall right off.

    There is no question that babying pitchers from the time they are young boys has contributed to so many fragile arms making it up to the pros.


    29 Aug 13 at 3:46 pm

  5. Bdrube – I can’t explain it. I don’t think anyone can (but I am pretty certain that no one can explain Nolan Ryan at all. He was truly one of a kind). I could give you theories, along the lines of Dr Andrews’ comment that kids need time off when they are young.

    Kids actually train extremely hard these days at much younger ages. I played baseball into college, and it wasn’t until late in HS that I did the kind of training that my daughter is required to do now at 12. I see kids these days with ailments that weren’t there when I was a kid: walking boots because the growth plates in their feet are developing poorly. I don’t know where that comes from, but it might be all this training. maybe young arms are getting overly taxed too young. I don’t know what the answer is, I just think that baseball is such big business now, with so much medical attention, and so much economics in support of keeping these guys on the field, that it is in everyone’s interest to make the best decisions. So why would they do this if there weren’t compelling reasons behind it? Like I said, I don’t know and I don’t think anyone does, because pitchers keep getting hurt so frequently.

    It does bring me back to a PED question. If HGH doesn’t improve performance but helps heal injuries more quickly (and is safe), why isn’t it allowed?


    29 Aug 13 at 6:24 pm

  6. All you guys have made valid points, from travel league impacts to mechanics. For me, it comes down to a few points. First, modern pitchers throw much harder than ever before, by a significant margin over the past few decades. While some past greats threw hard–Ryan for example–most were high 80’s guys, including guys known as hard throwers. The ones that were flame throwers probably had excellent mechanics with less stress, especially on their elbows. Also, many past greats had arm issues early in their career, thus avoiding career ending problems associated with overuse during their growth plate years (Ryan another case in point). The second big issue is the shrinking strike zone over the past 3 decades. A smaller zone means fewer curve balls called for strikes by modern umps, which in turn leads to GMs recruiting harder throwers more and more, since curve ballers have largely vanished from the bigs (some still exist, but perform poorly against most umps). Gone are the control artists who go high and tight on sluggers for strikes. They will not even get drafted, and many aren’t even recruited by colleges. Gone are guys like Jim Palmer and Nolan Ryan who consistently got batters out by having them chase pitches at the letters. Those pitches are way out of the strike zone. The result of all this is that today’s pitch counts are dramatically higher than several decades ago. And this is why games are so much longer.
    Go back to 1950 or 60 and tell a GM that in 2013, that every starter on every team will throw in the low nineties, and he’ll laugh at you. Then tell him every team has at least one reliever/closer who hits the upper nineties, and he’ll tell you you’re an idiot. Finally tell him that in 2013, the zone is top of the knees to the belt, he’ll say that doesn’t make sense.
    Finally, guys in the past who threw in the low nineties with decent control are now in the HOF. Modern guys with the same stuff are average.

    The Old Boss

    29 Aug 13 at 8:21 pm

  7. Great points all. Here’s what I think:

    – Despite what Andrews says, I think there was clear advantage in the old school way of kids playing baseball from “sun up til sun down” and building up arm strength over the years. The kids got their rest in the winter months when there was snow on the ground, presumably.

    – Because medicine was so primitive, many many pitchers suffered injuries that ended their careers that we now easily treat. Rotator cuffs, torn labrums, and especially tommy john surgeries. 30 years ago all these guys would have suffered these injuries in HS or the low minors, and been forced into retirement. Think of it this way; 30 years ago we’d be missing exactly 1/3rd of our current starters, who would be out of baseball with blown elbow ligaments. Who would be replacing them? 150 guys currently not good enough to be starters so they’re long-men, or guys who are playing AAA right now. Imagine that; imagine how poor starting pitching would be.

    – Modern bullpen construction has led to specialized one inning relievers like never before, and guys realize that they can throw at or near max capacity for 15-20 pitches instead of throwing at 85% capacity for 7 innings like a starter wo uld. This leads to significantly more velocity in relievers. And the risk is lessened of blowing out an arm because of the medicine point above.

    Todd Boss

    30 Aug 13 at 10:55 am

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