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.