The death of Dr. Frank Jobe brought to light a problem in Major League Baseball that hasn't been discussed enough. After Jobe's death, it was reported that a 2013 study showed that nearly one-third of all MLB pitchers had undergone Tommy John Surgery at some point in their careers.
Does anyone else think that's insane? Can you imagine telling a Little League pitcher that if he wants to be in the big leagues, there's one-in-three chance he'll tear a ligament in his elbow, have it replaced by a tendon from another part of his body, and then undergo a grueling 18-month rehabilitation that players have called one of the most painful in all of sports? I know that parents of young football players are concerned about their kids suffering head injuries, but this isn't much better.
But Tommy John Surgery isn't the only major procedure that numerous pitchers have undergone. Every year, dozens of pitchers suffer debilitating injuries to their rotator cuffs, labrums, and pretty much every other part of the arm. MLB pitchers break down so regularly that teams rarely want them to sign a contract lasting more than three years. For the past two seasons, the Dodgers have entered spring training with seven legitimate starting pitchers because they assume a few of them will get hurt. Last year, they wound up needing even more arms.
One of MLB's biggest problems is its lack of marketable superstars. An ace pitcher has the ability to sell tickets and drive ratings. But the shelf life of starting pitchers has gotten so short, that few stars are able to develop.
A few years ago, Stephen Strasburg took baseball by storm, only to see his career set back by Tommy John Surgery. He made a full recovery, but the Nationals' concern for his long-term health forced him to miss the franchise's first-ever playoff appearance. This past season, the emergence of Matt Harvey was the first good thing to happen to the Mets in years. But he broke down late in the year, and will now miss all of 2014 after having Tommy John Surgery.
Detroit's Justin Verlander was one of the game's few legitimate star pitchers and the Tigers signed him to a 7-year $180 million contract. In the first year of his deal, he suffered an alarming drop in his velocity and had a disappointing 2013 season. Roy Halladay was considered the game's best pitcher three years ago, but he suddenly had to retire last year after shoulder and back problems. Other high profile pitcher breakdowns include Johan Santana, Roy Oswalt, and Brandon Webb. Dodger fans have seen pitchers like Chad Billingsley, Josh Beckett, Jason Schmidt, Brad Penny, Darren Dreifort, Ted Lily, and others become big money DL occupants.
If I were Bud Selig (or his likely successor Rob Manfred), then I would commission an advanced study to determine why so many pitchers suffer debilitating injuries. Dr. Frank Jobe's work was revolutionary and it has saved the careers of many pitchers. But MLB can't think it's OK that 124 of its current starting pitchers have had Tommy John Surgery. Pitching should be safer.
I'm not quite sure what the answer is, but evidently the way that pitchers currently train and throw is not sustainable. Perhaps more teams should look at the weighted ball exercises developed by USC's Tom House, which led to the surprising MLB career of all-star reliever Steve Delabar. Former Dodger pitcher Mike Marshall has been preaching an unorthodox delivery for years that he claims will prevent UCL tears, but no team or active MLB pitcher has ever sought his services.
Perhaps MLB should be asking if it makes sense for a starting pitcher to throw once every five days? Maybe they should enforce pitch counts in the minor leagues? Would it make sense to expand rosters so that teams can carry even more pitchers? We know that throwing a curveball in your early teens is dangerous, but what else do we know about developing young arms? Baseball needs to start thinking outside of the box to address this.
We now have computer technology that allows for the study of biomechanics and other things that weren't imaginable even a decade ago. I know that many teams have prioritized injury prevention, and some have their own unique tools for helping pitchers develop. But this is a sport-wide problem, and it's time for the league to take action.
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This is a slightly awkward transition, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention the upcoming Wrestling World Cup coming to the Forum on March 15-16. At a time with great international tensions, sports is one of the few things that can bring countries together.
A year ago, the IOC Executive Board voted to drop wrestling from the core Olympic program. Sports officials from the US, Iran, and Russia all worked together, and thanks in part to their efforts, wrestling was reinstated as an Olympic sport. The fruits of their labor have led to this unique event coming to Los Angeles next weekend.
The Men's Freestyle World Cup of Wrestling will feature matchups between Ukraine and Russia, the US and Iran, and teams from Armenia, Georgia, India, Japan, Mongolia, and Turkey will be competing too. It will also be a chance to see the newly renovated Forum. It's definitely an event worth attending.
For more information on tickets, go to www.wrestlingworldcup.com.