Pitching keeps science at arm’s length - The Buffalo News

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Pitching keeps science at arm’s length

The Washington Nationals created a national debate among baseball fans last summer when they announced they would limit the innings pitched by hard-throwing right-hander Stephen Strasburg. They looked at the big picture and decided his future, and their future, was more important than one season.

It made sense, but were they right?

Strasburg, the first pick overall in 2009, had already endured enough problems in his young career. He ran into shoulder problems during his rookie year, which eventually turned into elbow problems, which led him to Tommy John surgery, which ended his 2010 season en route to nearly a year of rehabilitation and uncertainty.

Complicating matters last summer was the Nationals charging into a pennant race largely because of the success of their ace. Most teams get one chance at a World Series, and many get none. There you have the conflict. If they rode him to a title, they made the right decision. If they pushed him too hard too soon, they risked his career.

Strasburg was placed on the shelf with a 15-6 record and a 3.16 ERA in 159∑ innings, falling two outs shy of the presumed 160-inning limit imposed by management. Washington lost to St. Louis in the National League division series after building a six-run lead in deciding Game Five and with Strasburg long gone for the season.

A look at his 6-9 record this season suggests a sharp decline from a year ago. Strasburg has had control problems at times, an argument the 10 batters he hit would support. Former pitchers such as Curt Schilling have questioned his mechanics. The Nationals remained 13 games behind the Braves after Tuesday night.

In fact, Strasburg has suffered only a slight drop-off. He had a 3.00 ERA through 156 innings before Tuesday. This season, compared to last year, he allowed one fewer run, four fewer earned runs, the same number of homers and one fewer walk. He allowed 18 fewer hits but struck out 35 fewer batters in roughly the same number of innings.

Did they make the right call?

Nobody knows for sure.

And that’s the strange thing about pitchers. Their arms are like the brain. They have been studied for decades, but it seems we’re no closer to predicting the length of their efficiency than we were 100 years ago. Some kids are smarter than others, and some pitchers last longer than others without any clear explanation of either.

Of all the records in baseball, none is more remarkable than Cy Young finishing his career with 827 pitching decisions. It will never, ever, ever be broken along with the 511 victories that helped him get there. He had 749 complete games and 7,356 innings pitched before he walked off the mound in 1911 at age 44.

“Science is banging heads with intuition and gut instinct,” American Sports Medicine Institute research director Glenn Fleisig told the New York Times last year. “For years, we told people that curveballs were bad. Then we set out to prove it. We did not prove curveballs are safe, but we could not prove they were dangerous.”

Fathers for generations have told their sons that their arms would be ruined by throwing too many curveballs during their youth. While it may have been true, it was most likely coincidence. They usually pointed to anecdotal evidence, as if Little Joey from down the street ruined his career because he threw too many deuces.

The mother of all examples in the 1970s was none other than Tommy John, whose elbow problems and subsequent surgery helped redefine many careers, including his own. His operation made such an impact on baseball that his surgeon, Dr. Frank Jobe, was honored last month during Hall of Fame ceremonies in Cooperstown.

Science has discovered a solution to fixing the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow, but it has not found the exact cause of its failure.

Studies in recent years suggested too many breaking balls are not to blame, or are only partially to blame, for pitchers falling apart. Arm problems can arise from a variety of reasons such as throwing too many of the same pitches, too many pitches overall and poor mechanics that put too much stress on their arms.

Another problem is coaches who send pitchers to the mound without enough recovery time between games. Their inability to understand pitchers, or in many cases placing winning ahead of health, prompted Little League Baseball and other organizations to implement guidelines that were designed to protect pitchers from their coaches.

Overuse injuries have been found in relievers who are thrown into games on consecutive days, or a short time between appearances, because coaches counting innings or tracking pitches failed to account for warmup tosses. It caused more strain, which led to poor mechanics, which led to injuries.

And sometimes it comes down to simple luck. Certain pitchers can keep throwing for years without any problems. Some relievers can throw several consecutive days without rest, which is how they become relievers.

For every Mariano Rivera, still chugging along at age 42, there are numerous others like Matt Harvey, whose careers were threatened by age 24. Unfortunately, there’s no way of forecasting which will be which.

Tweaking NFL rules

With another NFL season set to begin, new rules being added every year and hits to the knee next up for study, here are five regulations that the league should change:

Game-day roster limits: Teams are allowed to dress 46 players for games despite having 53 on their roster and another eight on the practice squad. If players are good enough to practice, they should be allowed to play games. Expanding the rosters on game days would make the league stronger and could reduce injuries.

Third quarterback: Under the current rules, the starter cannot return to the field once the third quarterback enters the game. It’s asinine. If a team wants to use three or more quarterbacks for any reason, it should be allowed.

Instant replay: This isn’t just for the NFL but for all sports. Dump it. The participants are human, and the officials are human. Mistakes are part of the game. Anyway, officials blow calls every week even with instant replay.

Two feet: Receivers must have possession of the ball with both feet in bounds for a legal catch. One foot in bounds should be enough. It would lead to more completions, which means more offense, which means more excitement.

Fumbles: Players should be forced to maintain possession through the play. In other words, if the ground causes a fumble, it should be a fumble. If the player’s knee is down but the ball is off the ground when it comes out, it should be a fumble.

Burke speaks out

Former Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, serving as director of player personnel for USA Hockey going into the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, is encouraging athletes to join him in taking a stand against Russia’s anti-gay laws.

Burke told the Globe and Mail that he wouldn’t support a boycott over Russia laws banning homosexuality. But he did suggest that Russia should not be allowed any future international competitions so long as the laws remained in place.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has banned demonstrations in the time period surrounding the Olympics. Burke has the courage, voice and influence to get his point across through the international media without conducting a formal demonstration.

“If you really want to make a difference, when you pack your stuff, pack a rainbow pen,” Burke said. “Give an interview over there that says you’re pro-gay and that you support the LGBT community. That’s what I’m going to do.”

Burke has been a vocal supporter of the LBGT community since his son, Brendan, was killed in a car accident in 2010, three months after revealing he was gay. His family has continued supporting his cause.

First time, big time

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been trading barbs with the Daily News this week after appearing on WFAN and ripping beat reporter Manish Mehta for his line of questioning of Jets coach Rex Ryan.

Christie apparently took exception to Mehta repeatedly questioning Ryan about inserting Mark Sanchez into their third preseason game in the fourth quarter. Sanchez suffered a shoulder injury while playing with backups. Christie, no stranger to controversy, at one point called Mehta “a complete idiot” before admitting he didn’t know him.

It didn’t stop there, of course. Christie also took a verbal poke at Yankees play-by-play man John Sterling, saying, “I don’t want to hear one more thing from John Sterling. The guy just turns my stomach.”

The Daily News came to its reporter’s defense with a grammatically inaccurate and poorly punctuated headline that blared, “Who you calling an idiot, fatso!”

And then there was this from Daily News columnist Bob Raissman on Christie: “He already knows how to shout down an adversary. Screaming over the first-time-caller, longtime-moron crowd would be second nature to him.”

Only in New York.

Stats Inc.

6, 35 – Home runs and runs batted in for Mets catcher John Buck in 78 games since April after finishing the month with nine homers and 25 RBIs in his first 23 games. Buck on Tuesday was traded to the Pirates.

2 – National ranking of Ohio State’s football team, the highest-ranked opponent for visiting University at Buffalo since second-ranked Auburn in 2006.

99 million – Dollars, in operating income, expected to be made by the lowly (and lowly paid) Astros, according to estimates by Forbes.

Quick hits

• Adam Scott validating his Masters victory with a win at The Barclays made for a good story, but arguments he should win Player of the Year are ridiculous. Tiger Woods won five times, or one fewer than Matt Kuchar, Brandt Snedeker and Phil Mickelson combined. Woods had two Top 10 finishes in majors. Let’s not take him for granted.

• If you’re looking for an easy and entertaining read, check out “Oak Hill Country Club, A Legacy of Golfing Excellence” by Buffalo native Sal Maiorana. The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle sportswriter, who has covered the Bills for years, takes an inside look at the historic course in suburban Rochester.

• Tracy McGrady announcing his retirement this week was a reminder how quickly time passes. It seemed like yesterday when McGrady was a wide-eyed 18-year-old with the Raptors. If you remember, his first NBA practice was held at Erie Community College’s city campus, where Toronto had training camp his rookie year.

email: bgleason@buffnews.com

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