Schoenfield: Are pitchers really getting hurt more often?

From David Schoenfield at on March 11, 2015:

Jeff (Passan)’s column and Dr. (Glenn) Fleisig’s research suggest the same thing: What happens when you’re playing baseball as a kid or teenager is likely to have a major impact on your elbow when you’re in your 20s and in the majors — if you even survive to that point with your ulnar collateral ligament intact.

In Jeff’s piece, he refers to the “arm epidemic plaguing baseball.” The headline on Jonah (Keri)’s Q&A calls out the “Tommy John Epidemic.” An epidemic suggests a widespread prevalence. Jonah’s piece reports (citing a “Sport Science” feature on ESPN) that there were more Tommy John surgeries in 2014 than the entire decade of the 1990s. As Dr. Fleisig points out in the interview, some of those surgeries are the result of improved technology to detect the injuries, but the inference is that we’re seeing more injuries than before, with the accumulating evidence that too many pitches as a youth and perhaps too many max-effort 95-mph fastballs as an adult are significant factors.

But are we seeing more injuries than before? And when does “before” refer to? It’s impossible to know the answer to that, since we don’t have a database of injuries that goes back to the 1990s, let alone the ’80s and ’70s. But we can dig into the sport’s history and try to uncover some trends.

Here’s what I did, in an admittedly imperfect study. With the help of’s Play Index and search function, I went back to 1970 and counted how many pitchers made 30-plus starts each season. You can argue with this method. In the 1970s, some teams still used four-man rotations at times, so there were fewer rotation slots overall. On the other hand, starters had the chance to start more games in a season, so could miss some time and still meet the 30-start standard. In general, however, if you made 30 starts in a season, you made it through the season in one piece, and that’s what I was trying to track.

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Originally published: March 13, 2015. Last Updated: March 13, 2015.