Inside baseball's arms crisis: What can be done to curb the game's outbreak of pitching injuries?

Scott Lauber, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Baseball

Every day, it’s someone else.

“I heard two more guys today went down,” Aaron Nola said, shaking his head before pitching for the Phillies this week in St. Louis. “It [stinks], man. I don’t like seeing it. I don’t know. I don’t really have an answer.”

There aren’t answers — not uncomplicated ones, at least — for the most worrisome problem in baseball. Pitcher injuries, notably shredded elbow ligaments, skyrocketed more than a decade ago and have remained constant. By now, they’re less epidemic to the sport than a full-blown pandemic. This isn’t a new issue.

But it is leading the conversation again after a wave of pitchers landed on the injured list — or worse, the operating table — during the season’s first two weeks. A partial list: Miami’s Eury Pérez, Cleveland’s Shane Bieber, Atlanta’s Spencer Strider, Washington’s Josiah Gray, Boston’s Nick Pivetta, the Yankees’ Jonathan Loáisiga, the Mets’ Tylor Megill, and Houston’s Framber Valdez.

Add those who got injured in spring training — the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole, the Mets’ Kodai Senga, Baltimore’s Kyle Bradish, Boston’s Lucas Giolito, Taijuan Walker of the Phillies — or were already recovering from elbow surgery or other arm trouble — Houston’s Justin Verlander and Luis Garcia, Texas’ Jacob deGrom, Miami’s Sandy Alcántara, San Francisco’s Robbie Ray, Baltimore’s Félix Bautista, Tampa Bay’s Shane McClanahan, Colorado’s Germán Márquez, Phillies top prospect Andrew Painter, the Dodgers’ Walker Buehler and Shohei Ohtani — and you have an All-Star pitching staff that’s unable to pitch.

It’s a crisis that baseball hasn’t confronted. Instead, MLB and the players used the injury boom to bicker further over the pitch clock. Union chief Tony Clark issued a statement in which he blamed pitcher health on the league for shaving two seconds off the clock with runners on base; MLB cited an unpublished study that found no correlation between the clock and an injury spike.


Meanwhile, fastball velocities keep rising, spin rates continue to increase, and organizations invest more bucks in the arms that generate the most swings and misses.

And when elbows explode and shoulders snap, well, teams unearth new ones. Want to play in October? It’s about enduring pitching attrition.

“We’ve been talking about it a lot,” Phillies ace Zack Wheeler said. “I feel like [injuries] might be happening a little quicker now. I don’t know the reason why. I think a lot has to do with how guys are brought up. Maybe it’s not being totally ready in the sense of the amount of innings and pitches being thrown.

“But I know guys are throwing harder. When guys throw super, super hard, (with) more effort, you put more stress than you already do. And on top of that, you’re spinning stuff at a high effort. That doesn’t help, also. I think all of that combined, there’s a lot of stress on guys’ arms.”


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