Scott Miller's Starting 9: Can Anything Stop MLB's Arm Injury Epidemic?

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Scott Miller's Starting 9: Can Anything Stop MLB's Arm Injury Epidemic?
Steve Mitchell/USA Today

1. Marlins reeling while awaiting Jose Fernandez test results

Now Jose Fernandez is down.

It’s as if lightning struck right on Main Street. The lights are out, the town is dark and the smell of smoke is sickening. Damn. The last few months already have been hell on pitchers. Does the disabled list have to take every last blasted one of our young phenoms?

We don’t even know yet the extent of Fernandez’s injury, yet Marlins manager Mike Redmond was on the bench in Dodger Stadium on Monday afternoon explaining that "you’re always concerned when you’re talking about elbows," and noting that "it’s a big blow." You could feel his depression all the way to Birmingham, Alabama, home of noted orthopedist Dr. James Andrews.

One after another they’re falling, the young guns, like eggs rolling off of a refrigerator shelf. Tampa Bay’s Matt Moore. Arizona’s Patrick Corbin. Oakland’s Jarrod Parker. Pittsburgh’s Jameson Taillon. The Yankees’ Ivan Nova. Detroit’s Bruce Rondon. On and on. Tommy John surgery, all of ‘em.

Matt Harvey rocketed to stardom for the Mets last summer, started the All-Star Game, and POOF! Gone.

Blown young arms have sped past the epidemic stage and moved right on to plague. That’s what this has become. A plague on the game. It is costing teams wins and money. It is costing baseball buzz and youth.

Somehow, some way, baseball must find doctors smart enough not just to fix these elbows, but to diagnose the root of the problem so that kids who are throwing harder than ever at a younger age than ever can change their training.

There has been no formal panel established by commissioner Bud Selig to study these arm injuries, but there will be soon. Count on it. Baseball has crossed the point of no return. It cannot sit idly by any longer wondering if this is sheer coincidence—the way some years produce a rash of hamstring injuries and other summers produce a rash of oblique injuries.

Clubs are obsessing over young pitchers and Tommy John surgeries internally day and night the way they once discussed favorite restaurants and dinner plans.

General managers, managers, pitching coaches—everyone has thoughts. Nobody has the answer. Best theory I’ve heard—at least, the one that makes most sense to a non-doctor—is that this is the first generation of players who played year-round baseball, travel ball and skipped the other sports in high school to concentrate on one, and it’s just too much. Too much throwing. The arm needs a break.

Never before in the history of the game have young pitchers been this watched over, this protected, by their organizations. Remember the Stephen Strasburg Rules his rookie season in Washington? Pitch counts, innings limits...and little of it matters. Strasburg, Harvey, Taillon, Moore, now Fernandez...they all are blowing out.

Teams do everything but place bubble wrap around their prized young arms, and those arms still break.

A total of 24 big league pitchers already have undergone Tommy John surgery this year, from the Padres’ Cory Luebke (mid-February) to Oakland’s A.J. Griffin (April 25). As Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci pointed out in a recent column, of the 24.2 percent of players on Opening Day rosters who grew up in Latin America, only one of them (Detroit's Rondon, of Venezuela) is a Tommy John patient.

Now the Marlins hold their breath as MRIs come back, and Fernandez is under the microscope as he threatens to become the second Latin American pitcher to undergo Tommy John surgery. But though he was born in Cuba, he went to high school in Tampa, which is from where the Marlins drafted him.

One reason pitching has overtaken hitting and is dominating today’s game is because velocity is up across the board. The average major league fastball is 92 mph, higher than it’s ever been. Pitchers are bigger and stronger today, yes. But they also start throwing harder younger thanks to, among other things, private coaching, travel ball, year-round training, better equipment and specialization. The obsession with velocity starts younger and younger.

What we’re seeing at the big league level is diminishing returns.

And it is not right. Somewhere, the system is breaking before these elbows do.

"How much he means to our team, to our rotation and, really, to all of baseball," Redmond said of Fernandez on Monday. "This guy’s a dynamic player. He’s been a huge lift and a huge spark to our team, and we just hope everything goes well and he just has to take a little bit of a break."

Here’s to hoping.

 

Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

2. Don Mattingly has Yasiel Puig’s (Targeted) Back

Yes, there is much Yasiel Puig still needs to do to grow up. But if everyone is going to obsess over his baserunning behavior like Russian judges grading Olympic figure skating, then this is going to get real silly, real fast.

So good for Dodgers manager Don Mattingly after Giants starter Madison Bumgarner went down the Adam Wainwright path, blowing a gasket when Puig flipped his bat, or didn’t run fast enough from third to home, or whatever.

Mattingly said it always "surprises" him when rivals react the way Bumgarner did after Puig crushed a home run to dead center, because it’s not like the Dodgers are the only club showing emotion.

"It’s always the double standard," Mattingly told Los Angeles reporters. "One team’s mad because one team does it, and it’s OK for them to do different things."

Bumgarner approached Puig on the third-base line as the Dodgers slugger was headed home, and the two exchanged angry words. Bumgarner would not be specific afterward regarding which part of Puig’s preening was offensive.

Last fall during the National League Championship Series, it was Adam Wainwright accusing the Dodgers of doing "Mickey Mouse stuff" when Adrian Gonzalez was emotive following an extra-base hit.

Double standard? Several Cardinals pumped fists and dared to show joy themselves following extra-base hits.

These are not emotionless robots playing this game, and here’s the thing: As the majors become more cross-cultural than ever, and as more young players do things their own way, we’re not in 1950 anymore. Anybody who watched the Dominican Republic team play with incredible, joyful emotion in the 2013 World Baseball Classic can attest that sometimes it isn’t all about showing up the other guys.

Where Mattingly is concerned, he has credibility in sticking up for Puig because he’s also publicly admonished Puig for past transgressions, like showing up late to the clubhouse and for "grabbing" some part of his body as if he’s hurt whenever he strikes out.

In Australia to open the season, Mattingly’s thin patience with Puig was revealed when the slugger complained of a sore back.

"Shoulder yesterday, back today, so I’m not sure if they’re going to get him tests or get him to the MRI Monday or a bone scan on Tuesday, maybe," Mattingly said then, sarcasm dripping like maple syrup from a waffle. "I’m not quite sure what we’ll do. We may not do anything."

Mattingly was right to tweak Puig then...just as he’s right to back him now.

Bumgarner would not reveal what he said Friday night, instead telling San Francisco reporters: "It was a good swing. I don’t know why it escalated. I think he said, 'Thank you,' but I’m not sure. I don’t speak Spanish much."

Mattingly said, "Obviously, Yasiel is a little bit of a lightning rod for a lot of different things. But he plays hard. And when you really look at that, he hit it, he flipped it and he ran. I mean, I didn’t think he did anything wrong."

Nevertheless, where Puig is concerned, there is a segment of folks out there who think he does everything wrong, from the way he pumps his fist after a double to the way he pours milk over his oatmeal.

"I do think we have to loosen up a bit or there will be more and more times that guys take offense," Mattingly said. "I’m not talking about the Giants. It’s all around baseball."

 

3. Joe Girardi: Earl Weaver would be proud

Here’s a raised glass of Powerade in toast to Yankees manager Joe Girardi, whose ejection by plate ump Laz Diaz last Monday in Anaheim was a beautiful throwback to the days when pure anger roamed the baseball earth at will.

Days we miss, badly.

Watching Girardi go nuts on that goof of an umpire Diaz was a stark reminder of the need to tweak instant replay to re-inject some of this natural emotion back into the game. The current managerial challenge system too often makes managers look like they’re out for a casual noontime walk at the Shady Acres Retirement Home, and it sends the wrong message.

This is not a calm, casual, polite game. And it shouldn’t look as such.

Look, this isn’t to advocate irresponsible fight-starting and grudge-holding. But when Earl Weaver, Billy Martin or Lou Piniella went out to stick up for their team, blood boiled beyond the field and dugout. Fans loved it—and identified with it. And appreciated it.

Bobby Cox holds the major league record with 158 ejections (plus three more in the postseason). His players loved him for it. I once asked Greg Maddux, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame with Cox in July, what he thought an appropriate gift was when Cox set the all-time record. It took Maddux a split second to break into a mischievous grin and answer: "A bronzed thumb."

Rookie Cubs manager Rick Renteria leads big league skippers with three ejections this season. Twins skipper Ron Gardenhire, always entertaining during an argument, was tossed once over the weekend.

But you can go days now before seeing a manager and an umpire conduct a lively, public debate. Baseball officials have noticed this and have conflicting emotions about it. Nobody likes to see an ugly incident between an umpire and a manager. But nobody likes to see the game become a benign taste of vanilla, either.

When he spoke with Red Sox manager John Farrell last month—after Farrell went nuts after a call was overturned via instant replay and then, postgame, ripped the replay system—Tony La Russa, who works on special assignments for the commissioner’s office, privately told him that Farrell shouldn’t be so critical of the new instant replay system, but that La Russa liked his emotion and did not want to see that diminished.

As for Girardi, who lost it when a 1-0 pitch to Brett Gardner was called a strike, he was in midseason form. Old midseason form, from seasons before replay.

"I mentioned to Laz in a respectful way that I thought the pitch was up to Kelly Johnson earlier in the game, and he gave me the Mutombo," Girardi told reporters, referring to the way NBA star Dikembe Mutombo used to wave his index finger back and forth following blocks. "I don’t appreciate that. I’m not a little kid. I don’t need to be scolded."

Girardi ripped off his cap and fired it into the ground, but the best part of the entire argument? Girardi leaned over and picked up the baseball, and took it with him when he left.

 

4. Can’t anybody around here get an E?

The most heated call of the weekend had nothing to do with an umpire, and everything to do with an official scorer.

As Texas’ Yu Darvish took his no-hitter against the Red Sox into the ninth inning Friday night, Rangers official scorer Steve Weller already had become a household name. In the seventh inning, with the Texas infield employing the shift, Weller called an error on right fielder Alex Rios when a David Ortiz pop fly dropped between him and second baseman Rougned Odor in shallow right field.

Immediately, all hell broke loose. Especially on MLB Network, where Harold Reynolds called it "the worst ruling in Major League Baseball history."

Two things here:

In that situation, when a ball drops without anyone touching it, for some reason over the years scorers have evolved to calling it a hit every time.

Weller, the athletic director at Parkland University in Dallas, was within his rights to call this play an error based on Rule 10.12(a)(1): "If a ground ball goes through a fielder’s legs or a fly ball falls untouched and, in the scorer’s judgment, the fielder could have handled the ball with ordinary effort, the official scorer shall charge such fielder with an error."

For this reason, good for Weller. And now there needs to be a movement to push other scorers to follow his lead, and not just on plays like this.

It has become darned difficult to get an error anymore. Too many home official scorers reflexively award a hit to the home players on questionable calls...and a hit to visiting players, because they don’t want to stick the home players with an E.

These are supposed to be the major leagues. Far too many plays that do not require extraordinary effort are being scored hits. It is wrong, and it is embarrassing to the game.

 

5. The Subway Series without George

Talking with Joe Torre the other day on the subject of this week’s Yankees-Mets series, the former Yankees manager told this story as yet another reminder of late owner George Steinbrenner’s passion and competitiveness:

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

"I’d downplay Mets games because of George. I’d tell George it was just another game," Torre said, even though both of the men knew it wasn’t true. "When we played the Mets in exhibition games before interleague play, George would come around and say, 'We’ve gotta beat the Mets! It’s really important.'

"So I said, 'George, if you had a choice between beating Cleveland two of three to open the season, or beating the Mets [in exhibition games], which would you choose?' He said, 'Don’t do that to me.' It was bragging rights. George put so much stress on everything."

 

6. Baltimore chops

With Matt Wieters on the disabled list and likely to spend much time at DH upon his return from a sore right elbow that still might need surgery, Steve Clevenger and Caleb Joseph are handling the backstop duties for the Orioles.

The last time Joseph, 27, was in Camden Yards before catching against the Rays over the weekend, he was sitting in the box seats watching the Orioles.

So what now for a team that believes (rightfully so) that it’s a contender?

The Orioles are looking for a catcher, according to sources, so it is worth keeping an eye on both them and the Padres. San Diego is looking to trade Nick Hundley, who is in the final season of a three-year, $9 million deal (and is owed $4 million for 2014).

Meanwhile, since April 26, the Orioles have gone 9-4, during which time their starting pitchers have produced a 3.20 ERA, lowering their ERA from 4.87 to 4.07. Orioles starters have worked at least five innings in 11 of their past 13 games.

Most striking: Free-agent acquisition Ubaldo Jimenez, after going 0-4 with a 6.59 ERA in April, is 2-0 with a 0.71 ERA in May. He’s thrown 115 or more pitches in back-to-back games for the first time since Sept. 27-Oct. 2, 2010.

"He’s such a good kid, so sensitive, and he’s trying to justify everything that’s happened to him," Orioles pitching coach Dave Wallace says.

 

7. Pomp, circumstances and skippers

You think you’ve got parties and commitments? It’s an epidemic right now in the majors.

Angels manager Mike Scioscia missed games in Toronto Friday and Saturday to watch his youngest daughter graduate from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Bench coach Dino Ebel ran the club in Scioscia’s stead.

White Sox manager Robin Ventura missed Saturday’s game with Arizona to attend his daughter’s graduation from Oklahoma State University.

And Orioles skipper Buck Showalter missed pregame Saturday while returning from his son’s graduation at Texas Christian University and will miss Saturday’s game in Kansas City to attend his daughter’s law school graduation.

 

8. Fun with pitch counts

Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

Cole Hamels, in his fourth outing since returning from the DL, threw a whopping career-high 133 pitches for a Phillies team with the worst bullpen in the NL (4.95 ERA) on Sunday.

Jeff Samardzija, after throwing 126 pitches Monday, heard that the Cubs front office was monitoring the pitch-count situation and promptly told Chicago reporters that he’s a grown man and it is "an on-field issue for uniformed personnel."

Which prompted Cubs GM Jed Hoyer to explain that nobody had a problem with Samardzija throwing 126 pitches in one game, but he shouldn’t expect it to become a habit.

 

9. Fun with Ohio closers

Tremendous moment in Cincinnati on Sunday when Aroldis Chapman returned following the line drive to his head March 19, which left him in need of 12 screws to stabilize the bone around his left eye. Chapman’s first pitch was a 100 mph heater to Troy Tulowitzki, and after walking Tulo, he struck out Carlos Gonzalez, Nolan Arenado and Justin Morneau.

Al Behrman/Associated Press

"I had a lot of emotion going," Chapman told Cincinnati reporters through his translator.

He wasn’t the only one after what he’s gone through.

Meanwhile, up north in Cleveland, John Axford is out as closer and manager Terry Francona will juggle four men in the role: Cody Allen, Scott Atchison, Marc Rzepczynski and Bryan Shaw.

Francona says Axford will return as soon as he’s as perfect closing as he was in his Oscar predictions. No, wait, that was a joke! What Francona says is that Axford will return to his old role as soon as he sorts out his inconsistent command.

 

9a. Rock ‘n’ Roll Lyric of the Day

Here’s to Michael Sam (and to the NFL draft being over!):

"So make lots of noise

"Kiss lots of boys

"Or kiss lots of girls

"If that’s something you’re into

"When the straight and narrow

"Gets a little too straight...

"Just follow your arrow

"Wherever it points"

—Kacey Musgraves, Follow Your Arrow

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