Kepner: As game changes, science can lengthen a pitcher’s career

From Tyler Kepner at the New York Times on August 28, 2013:

The image of the everlasting ace, strong and sturdy, firing fastballs and churning through innings while never giving in to pain, is the exception in baseball history. The elbow injury to the Mets’ Matt Harvey, who has a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament that may require reconstructive surgery, is really nothing new.

“Back in my era,” said Jim Palmer, who pitched for the Baltimore Orioles from 1965 to 1984, “do you think Matt Harvey would know he had a torn ligament?”

It was a rhetorical question. Throwing a baseball at high speeds is an inherently unnatural act, and pitchers have always gotten hurt. But this is an era of such heightened caution that Harvey said he was shocked to learn the severity of his problem after a magnetic resonance imaging exam Monday. He felt no pop, no shooting pain. Years ago, he probably would have just kept pitching.

On the career list for innings pitched, you have to scroll down to Mike Mussina, at 66th, to find a pitcher who made his debut in the last 25 seasons. Yet despite the smaller workloads, more pitchers are missing significant time with elbow injuries.

About one of every three major league pitchers has had Tommy John surgery, in which the ulnar collateral ligament is replaced by a tendon from another part of the body, compared to roughly one of every nine pitchers a decade ago. More pitchers seem to be throwing harder now, which could partly explain the phenomenon, and with the rise of amateur travel teams, young pitchers may be throwing more innings.

But, mostly, the surgery is overwhelmingly effective.

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Originally published: August 28, 2013. Last Updated: August 28, 2013.