It's not easy to solve an injury crisis, but baseball's leaders had better get to work on it

I had a conversation Saturday at Wrigley Field with one of my media colleagues about pitching injuries. His summary of the problem was spot on, but it made me want to scream.

He said that excessive emphasis on speed and rotation achieves the desired results. Pitchers weren't as bad as they are today, and teams win by pushing them to their physical limits.

So, what is your definition of success?

Shooters may experience spikes in performance. Their clubs may receive the accompanying benefits. But no one can say that the current trend is good for the game.

It's also not good for shooters or clubs, not when you look at it with even minimal separation.

Ask the Atlanta Braves about their World Series aspirations without Spencer Strider, whom they signed to a six-year, $75 million deal in October 2022.

Ask the Cleveland Guardians about their postseason chances without Shane Bieber, whose $13.125 million salary represents roughly 15 percent of their payroll.

Yuri Perez is the Marlins' second baseman who will miss significant time following Tommy John surgery. (Sam Navarro/USA Today)

Ask the Miami Marlins about their attempt to be respectable without phenom Yuri Pérez, who is also on the cusp of joining their superstar and biggest long-term investment, Sandy Alcantara, on the seemingly endless list of pitchers undergoing surgery to repair elbow ligaments.

New York Yankees outfielder Jonathan Loisiga also joined the Exploding Elbow Club over the weekend, while rival executives across the sport held their breath, knowing it was almost inevitable that they would eventually be hit with bad news as well.

I don't know the answer to the problem. I don't know if there is a solution to the problem, knowing that it goes back decades. But the whole sport has to hit the pause button.

Pause to bow before the Gods of Driveline and all the technology and data that makes shooters better but not necessarily healthier.

See also  Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid wins first MVP

Pause on rewarding 120 rounds of maximum effort from novice shooters when 180 from command control specialists is more valuable.

He stopped at the latest tiring bickering between the Federation and the League, this time about the impact of the stadium clock on stadium injuries.

League President Tony Clark seized on the latest wave of injuries on Saturday to issue a statement decrying the league's decision — over what he called “unanimous player opposition” — to shave two seconds off the clock with runners on base. Naturally, the league responded, citing an analysis by Johns Hopkins University, which found no evidence that introducing the clock last season led to a higher number of injuries.

By using the clock as a bogeyman, Clarke comes across as a bit opportunistic and harsh. The shooters didn't start to hurt at the start of the clock. They get hurt even when their teams try to protect them. They get hurt even if they're not the type to put in the most effort. They get hurt under the sun, moon, stars and solar eclipse, and the sport has yet to figure out a way to slow down the rate of injuries, let alone stop them.

However, Clark had a point. The league, before continuing with “let's cut an extra five minutes off game time,” could have spent several seasons studying the clock's impact. But instead of continuing to collect data and anecdotal information, it waited just one year after making what Clark accurately called “the most significant rule change in decades” to press on the accelerator.

Hopkins' analysis has not been made public. It is currently in the peer review stage. However, the league is already treating it as gospel — a somewhat strange stance when there's a definite possibility that the faster pace creates greater fatigue for pitchers, leaving them more vulnerable. The clock is the only variable in this crazy equation that the league has control over. If a two-second reduction increases the risk of injury by even one percent, that's too much.

See also  NL East Race: The power of the brave to beat Max Scherzer and the Mets, take the lead

However, the league's search for answers extends beyond Hopkins' analysis. According to a company spokesperson, it has interviewed more than 100 people at all stages of the game, including medical officials, for the comprehensive research study it is conducting on pitcher injuries. Once this study is completed, the Association expects to form a working group. The league must involve the union in this process. The Union must provide solutions instead of just criticizing.

At this point, due diligence in any form is welcome. But the cause of the problem, at least, is not as complicated as it may seem. Dr. Keith Meister, the Texas Rangers' team physician and one of the game's leading orthopedic surgeons, set the right target in an interview last month.

“Unfortunately, these front offices live more in the moment than taking a longer, broader view,” Meister said. “There's a way to manage this. What if a guy doesn't have a WHIP (walks and strikeouts per inning) of 0.8? What if he has a WHIP of 1.1 but is able to pitch 162?”

Front offices don't ask these questions. By focusing more on performance than availability, they move between pitchers as if they were old pairs of spikes, having been used and discarded. Club officials will be the first to tell you they don't want their pitchers hurt. Of course they don't. But injuries are the unintended consequence of its focus on short-term results.

So, the league must step in, just as it did when front offices — again, in pursuit of optimal performance — implemented defensive turnovers that sucked the life out of the sport. Where this gets difficult is trying to determine how to solve the problem.

Commissioner Rob Manfred said during last year's World Series that the league would consider reducing the maximum number of pitchers on the 26-man roster from 13 to 12 after the 2024 season. The idea, Manfred said, is to restore the importance of starting pitchers. By working with fewer relievers, managers will be forced to stick with starters longer. Beginners, in turn, will need to take a more hands-on approach to delving deeper into the games, rather than trying their best for as long as possible.

See also  Wilde adds Florey, Kahkonen, Rask deals in NHL trade deadline

However, such a change might actually have the opposite effect, as front offices try to retain pitchers by limiting them to three- and four-inning bursts. Teams may also try to relentlessly move pitchers back and forth between seniors and juniors, necessitating greater restrictions on the number of times players can be optioned.

More problematically, the number of injuries may not decrease if the rule has the desired effect and pitchers are stretched beyond where they are accustomed to. Similar restrictions on roster size should also be enacted in the minor leagues. There also may be an unintended consequence of the higher injury rate for pitchers.

Again, there are no simple answers, not even when teen shooters strive to improve speed and the things that are rewarded at the professional level, and fall apart in the process. But this is a full-blown crisis, and has been for some time.

Fundamental changes must occur – changes in mindsets, changes in training methods, and rule-driven changes, if necessary. I'm not sure baseball can wait for the recommendations of a task force that has not yet been formed. The best and brightest in the sport need to get busy, and fast.

“This is the kind of promotion that wins” is not an acceptable answer. Ask the Braves, Guardians and Marlins. Ask the next club to fall victim to the scourge of stadium injuries. Teams don't “win”. Sports are not about “winning”. Not even close.

(Top photo of Shane Bieber: Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *