I saw Mark Prior pitch last weekend. Prior, a decade removed from being the best prospect and maybe the best pitcher in baseball, is pitching for the Triple-A Louisville Bats, the top affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds are pretty deep in pitching, so Prior, former Royals closer Mike MacDougal and near-no-hitter Armando Galarraga are just insurance policies.
Prior was picked second overall by the Cubs in 2002, just behind Joe Mauer. Mauer's not in Triple-A. Prior? He's not bitter about being there. He's not bitter about the scar on his shoulder (not his elbow, which is still pristine, Dr. Marshall). He's not bitter about Dusty Baker's usage or Marcus Giles running into him. He just seems happy, for once, to be out on a baseball field.
Stephen Strasburg is the new Mark Prior. He's everybody's All-American and from a nearby San Diego neighborhood to where Prior grew up and lives now. Strasburg was the first overall pick, a no-brainer selection by the Nationals who blew through the minors and then blew through his UCL. Strasburg was touted, just as Prior was, as an easy thrower. He had no history of injury, until he did.
Coming back, Strasburg is a poster boy for the Tommy John process. He was back in a year, throwing just as he did (which is part of the problem). The Nationals famously limited his innings in his first full season back last year, an unscientific hope that may have cost them in the playoffs. Strasburg has been solid through his first few starts, but aside from the known "Tommy John honeymoon" period, the five years where the ligamentization process seems to protect the reconstructed elbow, he's just as risky as before.
Strasburg went to school at San Diego State, the location of one of the top biomechanics labs in the country. He's never been in it, or any other. The Nats were made aware of a major mechanical flaw in 2012, but visually, there is no change in his mechanics, and Strasburg was never given any sort of scientific test to measure the forces in his delivery.
In fact, the first instinct of then-Nats manager Jim Riggleman (who is now the manager for Prior's Louisville Bats) was to speak to Tommy John himself. While John certainly knows baseball, Riggleman was more interested in descended folklore than the type of scientific work that John is doing now. If his first instinct had been to speak to Dr. Frank Jobe, the surgeon that created Tommy John surgery, I would have felt a little better. If he'd said he wanted to speak with Dr. James Andrews, Dr. Glenn Fleisig or even his own team doctor, I'd have felt a lot better.
Dylan Bundy is the latest. His uncommon long toss routines drew attention while his riding fastball drew scouts. Like Strasburg, he burned through the minors with ridiculous numbers, only to come up with a sore elbow and a visit to Dr. James Andrews in his file (per Dan Connolly of The Baltimore Sun). While Bundy does not need elbow surgery now, we know less about his future. The Orioles are at least exploring possibilities and letting Rick Peterson help along Bundy, the way he did with Barry Zito and Tim Hudson.
Bundy also has the benefit of being monitored closely. The Orioles are one of few teams that makes extensive use of biomechanical analysis. Bundy has been checked at least twice, and it would not surprise me to find out that he was back at the Tampa-area facility where he was previously checked before he's too deep into a rehab throwing program.
I could name more can't-miss prospects felled by injury—Colt Griffin, Ryan Anderson, Andrew Brackman, Matt Purke, Casey Kelly. The list goes on and on, mostly because baseball hasn't changed. Scouts find talent, coaches develop it, but in between there's a massive detachment that costs millions, not to mention the opportunity cost of a busted pick.
The inability of baseball to change has led to a lack of tools used in the fight against pitcher injuries. Less than half the teams make any use of biomechanical data. Less than 10 have a coaching policy that allows for long toss over 180 feet, but none have done any research on why that arbitrary number is good or bad.
There's the trite expression that insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. If true, baseball pitching coaches are among the most insane people in the world. Not only do they do the same things that have been done in baseball for the last 100 years, with poor results, they ignore and even ridicule the positive results and deride experimentation.
If you're tired of seeing busted picks and broken arms like I am, it's time to start asking why this is and continues to be. When I wrote Saving The Pitcher a decade ago, I hoped it would change how baseball looked at pitching injuries. I hoped that we could save a few kids from adding their names to the rolls of Tommy John pitchers.
It's only gotten worse.
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