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Early Specialization in Sports & the Origin of the Pitch Count

Early Specialization in Sports & the Origin of the Pitch Count

Early Specialization in Sports & the Origin of the Pitch Count

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I am a very passionate sports fan.  Probably more passionate than most people who consider themselves passionate sports fans.  Every wall of my home is covered with memorabilia ranging from the seat cover I took home from the Winter Classic in 2014, to a signed picture of Mariano Rivera throwing out his final pitch at the old Yankees Stadium (no, I’m not a Yankees fan; just a sports fan…), to an autographed Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! photo from the old Nintendo game.  I listen to multiple sports podcasts, I read sports articles online daily, I love to dig into the advanced metrics of each individual sport, I follow the plights of all kinds of different athletes with a creepy and stalker-like intensity, and I have spent many a night in an overcrowded sports bar yelling and cursing at people who are far more experienced, talented, and athletic than I am for missing a tackle, hitting the ball into the water twice on the 12th hole of the Masters, or not knowing how to beat that damn zone that Syracuse ALWAYS FREAKING PLAYS!!!

One of the sports I am very passionate about is baseball, particularly Major League Baseball.  And I am joined by a crap ton of people across America who are passionate about the MLB as well.  And for a passionate baseball fan, there is very little that is as exciting as the prospect of a pitcher throwing a no-hitter.  Last Friday night, Ross Stripling of the LA Dodgers was well on his way to doing just that.  7 and 1/3 innings in, Stripling was 5 outs away from being the second MLB pitcher in history to pitch a no-hitter in his debut as a starter in The Show (for all you non baseball fans, that’s code for the Major League…  Feel free to use the terminology.  It’s pretty awesome).  This would have been made even more incredible because it hasn’t been done since 1892 when a guy named Bumpus Jones did it.  PS If you are pregnant and trying to figure out what to name your future son, look no further…  Bumpus might be the greatest name ever.  I digress…

Here’s the thing: we never got to see if he could do it or not because the Dodgers’ manager, Dave Roberts, pulled him after his 100th pitch.

Wow.  I am certainly glad I’m not a Dodgers fan because I think if I would have seen that happen live, I might have thrown something straight through my tv screen.  And a ton of baseball fans, both Dodgers and non-Dodgers fans alike, had a similar knee-jerk reaction.  First off, I want to say that I totally understand the knee-jerk reaction.  I had it, too.  Why didn’t he leave him in to see if he could do it?  Make history!!!  But, this reaction is exactly why I am not (and you are not) the manager of a Major League Baseball team.

Ross Stripling underwent Tommy John surgery (ironically named after a former LA Dodger) in 2014.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the process of Tommy John, in very simple terms it is where doctors drill holes in the bones around your elbow and attach a piece of a tendon taken from another part of your body to the outsides of those bones.  This tendon helps serve as kind of a replacement for a damaged Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) that runs along the outside of the elbow.  First performed in 1974, this procedure is becoming more and more common.  More on that later.  But, pitchers do make it back to form after receiving the operation.  That should be the whole point, right?  Kerry Wood, Josh Johnson, and Billy Wagner all made All-Star Teams and Chris Carpenter was a Cy Young Award runner-up after Tommy John surgery.

So, we’ve seen throughout history that the surgery does work and pitchers do make fantastic comebacks after having it.  But, what are the parameters of those comebacks?  For Stripling, it was a hard number: 100 pitches.  He wouldn’t go over 100 pitches in a game.  For a reference point: in spring training this year, the highest pitch count he tallied was 78, so throwing 100 pitches was roughly 20% more than he had thrown consecutively since receiving the surgery.  Regardless of how much more it was for him to throw (100 pitches > 78 pitches, duh), there is still the elephant in the room to address, especially for all you angry Dodgers fans: the pitch count limit of 100 is pretty much an arbitrary number!  Consider this: it’s the bottom of the 9th and Ross Stripling is still pitching a no-hitter, has one out left to get and has just hit 100 on his pitch count.  Does Dave Roberts still take him out?

No. Freaking. Way.

BUT!!!  BUT BUT BUT!!!  It wasn’t the bottom of the 9th, Stripling had started to lose a little bit of command over the ball (he was pulled after he walked his 4th batter; it happened to coincide with his 100th pitch), and the Dodgers were in their 5th game in a 162 game season.  As fans, it is so easy to romanticize about our favorite athletes and teams, expecting that they play until they completely break down, trying to smash records and do the freakishly athletic things that we as fans love to see them do.  And I’ve even heard many fans argue that athletes get paid enough money that it is enough to compensate them for sacrificing their bodies.  Fair enough.  They make more money than you and you don’t care about their health.  You’re still an asshole.  Furthermore, it’s almost NEVER the athlete’s decision!  I don’t know much about this Ross Stripling fella, but I would be willing to bet a thousand bucks that no matter how bad his arm hurt or how vivid his memories are of the hours and hours of rehab he went through after Tommy John surgery, if given the decision in that moment of whether he would continue to play in that game, there is a 100% chance he would try to finish that game with a no-hitter.

Dave Roberts is the one who had to make the call.  And given his night in and night out job of studying the command a pitcher has throughout a game, Stripling’s injury history, and the manager’s necessity to view the big picture aka a VERY long season, a limited Dodgers pitching staff, and the health and future of a 26 year old pitcher, Roberts made the right call.  And it wasn’t the right call simply because Stripling reached 100 pitches.  That is a completely strawman argument made by emotional sports fans.  There is never only one thing influencing a decision like that.  However, the pitch count did play a big role in that decision and even though the number 100 is pretty damn arbitrary, it is a commonly used number in baseball nonetheless.  And it never used to be!  So how did we get here???  Back in the days before Tommy John and Vicodin, baseball players were real men who finished what they started, smoked unfiltered Reds, and were tough enough to pitch over 100 times, that’s for damn sure!!!  *author spits tobacco onto the ground, revs his Harley Davidson, and drives to the tattoo parlor to get an anchor etched onto his forearm*

Can this possibly be right?  That baseball players just used to be tougher than they are today?  That their toughness prevented them from wanting or even requiring surgery?  They just gritted their teeth as their UCLs stretched and tore a bit more with each pitch and kept throwing unaffected fastballs at batters?  No.  Simple logic tells us this cannot be.    Yet, this seems to be the primary argument made by people who think pitch counts are bogus: people aren’t as tough as they used to be.  We’re babying pitchers.  I (and many other people who are more intelligent than I am) have a different theory.  Simply put, pitch counts in the MLB are necessary now because they weren’t enforced on pitchers when they were younger.

“But, Rich!  That doesn’t make sense!  There’s no way Nolan Ryan was held to a pitch count when he was a kid!”  Well, first of all, you’re right.  But Nolan Ryan is a freak of nature, has a pitching arm that was kissed by the blessed lips of Thor as a baby, and he is a complete and total outlier in the realm of baseball.  And more importantly, he wasn’t subject to the phenomenon of early specialization that we began to see in the 1990s and are still seeing in youth athletes today.

To me, early specialization is the heart of the problem that is plaguing big league baseball today.  From 1988 to 1994, there were seven total Tommy John surgeries performed on people under 20.  Compare that to the year 2011, where 110 Tommy John Surgeries were performed within the same age category.  Those stats are real.  SEVEN surgeries within 6 years in the late 80s-early 90s compared to 110 surgeries in just one calendar year of 2011.  Kids are playing baseball year round and their arms are being abused from an extremely young age.  Instead of taking a few months off to play a different sport and stop the repetitive whips and forces around the shoulder and elbow joints, teenagers are playing school AND club ball, competing all year with no significant breaks.

TommyJohnIncidenceRateChart

So, can we just get the elbow and shoulder joints stronger in order to prolong play?  Yes, that certainly helps.  But, just like any type of overload training, you need rest from the overload in order to allow your body to rebuild itself and become stronger.  Unlike their historic counterparts, today’s youth athletes are not being afforded the opportunity to do so and they are paying the price later in their careers.  UCL injuries are not normally acute, meaning it’s usually not just one big pitch that does the trick and snaps the ligament.  It is almost always wear and tear over time.  And because of the early specialization we see today with youth athletes, the wear and tear is starting earlier and earlier in these baseball players’ lives.  Combine this with the fact that hitters are bigger, stronger, faster, more selective (making pitchers throw more strikes to get outs), many umpires are calling smaller strike zones, and teams are intelligently adopting strategies to force pitchers into throwing more in order to tire them out, you can see why the pitch count, while somewhat arbitrary, is a common sense lens to evaluate the single-game health and potential ball command of a pitcher.

Unfortunately, the burden of protecting young pitchers has been shirked upwards instead of downwards and MLB managers are left trying to manage the health of their pitchers in a way that has not previously been seen.  So, the answer is clear: parents and coaches of youth athletes NEED to be responsible with their kids.  The long term health of the athlete MUST be the most important thing.  Performance is secondary.  Mind you, those two things are not mutually exclusive; the statistics back me up that multi-sport youth athletes are often more successful than single sport youth athletes.  So as parents, coaches, and diehards, let’s protect our kids as well as the sports we love.  Fix the problem at the youth level so it is not exacerbated at the professional level.  It’s up to you, sports fans.

baseball_pitcher_youth1

SOURCES

Anderson, RJ.  Dodgers’ Ross Stripling pulled from debut with no-hitter on the line.  CBS Sports.  Accessed from: http://www.cbssports.com/mlb/eye-on-baseball/25547888/the-dodgers-ross-stripling-makes-a-run-at-history-in-his-big-league-debut; 09 Apr 16.

Berkon, Ben.  Biomechanics and the Youth Pitching Injury Epidemic.  Vice Sports.  Accessed from https://sports.vice.com/en_us/article/biomechanics-and-the-youth-pitching-injury-epidemic; 07 Apr 16.

Erickson, BJ.  Trends in Medial Ulnar Collateral Ligament Reconstruction in the United States: A Retrospective Review of a Large Private-Payer Database from 2007 to 2011.  Am J Sports Med.  2015.

Padilla, Doug.  Dodgers’ Ross Stripling pulled with no-hitter in 8th in debut; Giants win in 10.  ESPN & The Associated Press.  Accessed from http://espn.go.com/mlb/recap?gameId=360408126; 09 Apr 16.

 

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