Matt Harvey, Jose Fernandez, TNSTAAPP, And The Volatile Nature Of Starting Pitchers
Originally posted to isportstimes.com on August 30, 2013
Nobody ever wants to see a pitcher get injured, and the latest injury to Mets ace Matt Harvey puts an unfortunate end to the season for one of the most exciting pitchers in the game. This unfortunate injury comes a season after the controversial early shutdown of another phenom pitcher, Washington Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg. Both instances have stirred up debate on how to best handle young starting pitchers. There’s the old school of thinking that says pitchers should constantly be throwing to build arm strength for a long season. There’s also the new school of thinking that says pitchers need to be brought along slowly, building their innings count season by season, and never throwing to many pitches in a start. There are many examples of both methods working, and there are also tons of examples of both methods failing miserably. So the question remains: what is the best way to handle young pitchers?
The truth is, there is no “best way” to handle young pitchers. The process of throwing thirty starts of over one hundred pitches per start simply does not lend itself to keeping pitchers healthy; it’s just the nature of pitching. The arm action involved in pitching is a high-stress activity that is repeated again and again. It’s a degenerative process. With each pitch, elbow ligaments slowly strain, rotator cuffs slowly fray, and any single pitch could be the one that ends a pitcher’s season. At this point, there doesn’t seem to be a way to avoid this degenerative process.
So what are the takeaways? In baseball circles, a common saying is There’s No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect (TNSTAAPP). The basic idea is that pitching prospects are unpredictable. There is no way to know which young pitchers will get hurt, which ones will flame out, and which ones will turn into stars. This concept can also be applied to veteran pitchers. Nobody predicted before the season that Justin Verlander (who is also facing questions of whether he’s thrown too many pitches) would have a 1.36 WHIP and be the fourth best starter on his own team. The volatile nature of starting pitchers has ramifications for teams and fans alike.
We’re already seeing teams adjust their approach when it comes to pitchers. Teams like the Tampa Bay Rays, St. Louis Cardinals, and Atlanta Braves have taken TNSTAAPP to heart. These teams have done a fantastic job of filling their farm systems with many hard-throwing pitching prospects. These teams are realizing the folly in relying on just five or six starters to get through a season. When a pitcher goes down for one of these teams, there always seems to be someone waiting down on the farm to come up and take his place, like workers on an assembly line. These teams know that injuries to their young starters are inevitable, and the best way to combat that is to have as many arms as possible.
Another lesson teams are beginning to learn is that it’s imperative that starting pitchers are brought to the majors as soon as possible so as to not waste precious pre-injury innings in the minor leagues. Back in March, the Marlins were flayed (sorry, I couldn’t help it) for promoting their own phenom starter Jose Fernandez to the big leagues at the tender age of 20, before he had pitched above A ball. Say what you will about the Marlins’ management (there is certainly a lot to say), but they know a thing or two about young pitchers. A.J. Burnett, Dontrelle Willis, Anibal Sanchez, and Josh Johnson were all promising young Marlins pitchers once upon a time, and they all dealt with major injury issues while with the team. Some went on to have solid careers (Burnett, Sanchez), some flamed or are flaming out (Willis, Johnson), but the point is the Marlins understand better than anyone the value of getting as many innings from a starter as possible while he’s still healthy. Many people were critical of the Marlins promoting Fernandez because of service time concerns. But what’s the point of worrying about paying Fernandez four years down the road when there’s an increasing chance that his next pitch could be the one that puts him on the shelf? Better to get the innings now, when the pitcher is making the minimum, than worry about paying the guy four years down the road.
For fans, the implications of the proliferation of pitcher injuries can only be described as grim. Surely Mets fans, in a season where their typical lineup looked like this, were harboring dreams of making a championship run in 2014 on the backs of Matt Harvey and fellow fireballer Zack Wheeler. Now they’re stuck watching Dice-K starts wondering what they did to deserve such a cruel fate. It’s unfortunate that fans can’t count on their favorite young flamethrowers to be available year after year, but both fans and teams have to accept the reality that pitchers are going to get injured, and there’s not much that can be done about it.