What happens when a pitcher, coach, or parent takes bad advice from someone who doesn’t really know what they’re talking about on the topic of pitching injuries? Generally, nothing good.
Normally I don’t like to draw attention, and give relevance, to sources of misinformation. But in this case, it’s an article in USA Today, which has millions of readers, so I feel it my duty to respond. As my grandfather used to tell me, just because it’s written in a newspaper, doesn’t mean it’s true.
The story in question is “Don’t Blame the Mets for their Pitcher’s Injuries” by Bob Klapisch. I won’t necessarily pick on Klapisch for the headline, because that’s usually written by an editor. But the headline does fit the gist of the article, which attempts to quell the theory that Mets management is somehow responsible for the injuries to Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz, and Noah Syndergaard, as well as Zack Wheeler‘s inability to successfully recover from Tommy John surgery.
First off, I agree with Klapisch’s argument that this year’s injuries can’t be the result of last year’s workload. But he goes further, deeper, and darker in his defense of the Mets organization. It’s so off the wall, misleading, and reprehensible that I wonder if he was paid by Mets ownership to write it.
What you should know about Klapisch is that he’s not a doctor, not a physician, not a scientist, not a strength coach, nor even a gym teacher. He’s a newspaper columnist who used to play amateur and semipro baseball a few decades ago (he may still play in an over-40 or over-50 league). He was a pitcher, in fact, which makes this all the more alarming. Or perhaps, all the more understandable, because when you read the piece, it sounds like the same kind of prehistoric, ignorant, “tough guy” talk that ended the careers of hundreds of pitchers before modern medicine created ways to return from UCL tears and shoulder injuries. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Klapisch himself pitched through pain during his amateur pitching career.
But this isn’t about piling on Klapisch — it’s about learning. We can point out some references in the story that are misleading and dangerous, and guide you toward a better understanding of pitching injury prevention.
Klapisch opens with:
In an age fueled by finger-pointing and blame-assignment, we all want to know who’s responsible for the Mets’ staggering run of injuries, particularly to their pitchers. Someone has to take the fall, right?
Well, maybe the MEDIA wants “someone to take the fall.” What people SHOULD be doing isn’t so much as pointing a finger as much as analyzing each pitcher’s situation individually and connecting the dots to figure out what went wrong, so that it doesn’t happen again.
Klapisch continues with:
How is possible that Matt Harvey (thoracic outlet syndrome), Steven Matz (shoulder, elbow bone spur), Jacob deGrom (forearm), Noah Syndergaard (elbow bone spur) and Zack Wheeler (delayed recovery from Tommy John surgery) all have been victimized?
Depending on which theory you believe, the cause is either A) the lingering effect of 2015’s high-stress workload; B) bad mechanics; C) questionable medical care or D) bad luck.
Those of us who know better, know that it’s not (A) nor (D), though (B) is definitely part of the story, and (C) could also be included, depending on how you interpret “questionable medical care.” If that term refers to ignoring warning signs like forearm tightness, or suggesting that a pitcher won’t do any further damage to his arm beyond a bone spur in the elbow, then (C) is also part of the story.
Of course, as we’ve discussed here in the past, there’s rarely one explanation that covers a slew of injuries — which is why there’s no one magic bean to cure all that ails today’s pitcher.
Klapisch’s next statement may explain why the Mets have had so much difficulty managing injuries this year, and why they’ll continue to mismanage their pitchers going forward:
Not surprisingly, Mets people I spoke to subscribe to option ‘D’ – pure coincidence, which, depressing as it is, overlaps with the game’s trend line. It seems everyone’s been hurt or getting hurt.
Depressing indeed. I sincerely hope the people Klapisch spoke to do not represent the general consensus of the Mets organization. If so, then the Mets believe injuries are inevitable, there’s no stopping them, and thus, no point in trying to find reasons why they occur. Do people in the 21st century truly believe that things happen out of the blue, for no rhyme or reason? Aren’t we thousands of years beyond blaming negative events on the gods? What if the medical world threw their hands up and proclaimed, “cancer is inevitable”? What if Jonas Salk came to the conclusion that polio was sheer bad luck?
That’s Stone Age thinking. We are intelligent human beings with modern technology, science, and medicine at our disposal. We don’t accept the idea that things result due to bad luck or happenstance.
Why do many people in MLB feel this way, that pitching injuries are simply bad luck? Because they keep trying the same old things (i.e. limitations on volume), listening to the same old people (each other, and a small circle of surgeons), and won’t step far enough outside their own bubble to find answers. Dipping your toe into the world of biomechanics is a start, not a final answer.
And in fact, if you’ve been reading this blog and listening to the podcast Baseball Pitching: The Fix, then you are well aware that every single one of the Mets’ pitching injuries had a root cause that could have been fixed — because baseball pitching motion troubleshooter analyzed each pitcher’s injuries individually, connected the dots, and found solutions that could have prevented further damage and likely would have resulted in better performance.
Let’s move on to Klapisch’s next statement:
Which means what’s happening to the Mets is hardly unique, and why I refuse to go along with the conspiracy theorists who second-guess manager Terry Collins, want to fire pitching coach Dan Warthen, or revoke the medical licenses of the team’s orthopedists. Injuries happen.
Agreed, 100%. The Mets woes are not unique — as far as we can tell, most MLB teams are guilty of the same ignorance and mismanagement. Terry Collins shouldn’t be the one deciding whether a pitcher is healthy enough to go on a mound, and Dan Warthen, like all MLB pitching coaches, is in the difficult position of being asked to do something that he is unqualified to do: analyze and correct pitching mechanics. Former pitchers shouldn’t be troubleshooting pitching motions any more than former NASCAR drivers should be troubleshooting race car engines. The baseball pitching motion is an incredibly precise series of movements that require specific timing, and any inefficiencies can result in poor performance and/or injury. To understand the safest and most efficient way a pitcher moves through each sequence in his delivery, a person needs formal, extensive, advanced training in anatomy, physiology, motor control, structural kinesiology, biomechanics, and the nervous system. How many former pitchers do you know have that kind of background? Sure, some have dabbled in a few of those disciplines, but I don’t know of one with an advanced degree (Dr. Tom House, who is cited in Klapisch’s article, has a Ph.D. in sports psychology, and a Master’s in marketing — not nearly the kind of education required to understand how the body moves, yet House markets himself as a “motion performance expert.”)
Here’s another passage that provides hope, rather than gloom:
… it shouldn’t go unnoticed that the only starter who’s remained injury-free is the oldest, most poorly conditioned and the one who throws the least. Bartolo Colon breaks every rule of the new millennium instruction manual: He’s plump and doesn’t bother with between-starts bullpen sessions. At age 43, Big Sexy has wisely decided to save his bullets. Remember what Syndergaard said after his dead-arm episode in July, that he’d clone Colon’s regimen for the rest of the season? Smart man.
Here’s what I don’t understand — on the one hand, Klapisch forwards the Mets’ thought that injuries are inevitable, then a few sentences later, provides a real-life example of what Bartolo Colon is doing to avoid injury!
Colon is wise to avoid bullpens between starts, but it’s not because he needs to “save his bullets.” It’s unnerving that so many baseball people have this whacky idea that there are “only so many bullets” in a pitcher’s arm. That’s like saying a sprinter has only so many races in him before his legs go bad. Not throwing in between starts isn’t about saving, it’s about RESTING and RECOVERY. There are well-researched, specific rest and recovery guidelines that very few MLB pitchers follow. For example, when a pitcher throws more than 79 pitches in a game, he needs to rest for four days. “Rest” means NOT THROWING OFF A MOUND. Yet nearly every pro pitcher “throws a bullpen” or a “side session” within 48 hours after a 100-pitch start, thus interfering with the body’s healing process. Colon is doing what every single pro pitcher should do after a start — stay off the mound.
Klapisch was getting close to providing answers, but then went down a dark hole in closing his narrative:
But before you shake your fists at the heavens, remember one other thing about the state of the Mets’ rotation. It’s not just doctors and advanced MRIs that are sidelining their pitchers. It’s the definition of pain and discomfort itself, which has changed radically in the last 20 years.
I specifically described deGrom’s forearm “tightness” and Matz’s shoulder “impingement” to a hurler I respect but has long since retired. He first said, “Obviously I have no idea how serious it is for either guy.”
He paused, and then unloaded.
“We would’ve laughed a [pitcher] out of the clubhouse if he said his forearm was tight or he was having trouble getting his shoulder loose,” the ex-pitcher said. “In my day, you were expected to take the ball, period. All the other stuff, nagging aches and pains, you dealt with it. You didn’t say a word.”
I asked the pitcher when he remembered his last pain-free day.
“High school,” he said without hesitating.
Let’s begin with the unnamed, retired hurler who Klapisch respects. Why is he “respected” by Klapisch? Is it because this hurler pitched at the Major League level and was successful? If so, does this qualify the retiree to speak on behalf of all pitchers on the subject of pain? Does this former pitcher have an advanced degree in anatomy or medicine?
What’s stunning is that Klapisch seems to indirectly “call out” the injured Mets pitchers as having no legitimate reason to be complaining about pain — and yet in every case, a significant injury was identified via MRI. Or maybe I’m misconstruing the purpose of the former pitcher’s quote.
The idea that a baseball pitcher — at any age, at any level — has to pitch with pain is idiotic. If there’s pain, something is wrong. “No pain, no gain” is a mantra for pushing oneself through discomfort such as what’s needed to increase lung capacity or to build strength. For example, a runner trying to get into shape may run an extra few sprints or miles so that the next time, he/she can run a little faster or a bit farther. But a person doesn’t push through pain to be worse the next time out — and that’s exactly what pitchers do when they pitch through pain. Maybe at the beginning of spring training a pitcher may pitch through some muscle soreness, but once in shape, there’s absolutely no reason to feel nor pitch through actual, real pain in a nerve, joint, or muscle.
I have to wonder — if Bob Klapisch sat at his keyboard and felt sharp, writhing pain in his wrists, or numbness in his fingers, would he “shake it off” and keep on typing? Or would he stop and see a doctor? And if the diagnosis was carpal tunnel syndrome, would he keep on typing until it became so crippling that he’d have to go for surgery? I guess, being the tough, “old school” guy that he is, he’d spit on his hands, take a few aspirin, and continuing pecking away at the keys, because as a journalist, you’re expected to keep on filing stories.
Hey, maybe you subscribe to that kind of masochistic thinking, and that’s OK. But regardless of the type of physical activity, you cannot expect the body to get better when you ignore the warning signs it gives you. Most kinds of pain signals are communicating to you that you need to stop whatever it is you are doing and figure out a better way of doing it, before you completely break down the abused body part. Pitchers who understand, respect, and act on this simple fact have a great chance of staying off a surgeon’s table.