What’s Behind Baseball’s Injury Problem? Ask John Smoltz

Here’s a number: 699.

It’s not the total plate appearances by Jose Altuve last year (599). It’s not the total home runs by the National League West (916). Nor is it the average number of fans at a Marlins game (17… kidding! It’s 18!)

It’s the number of Major League Baseball players who were on the disabled list last year. And the waiting room to see the doctor seems to be getting more and more crowded. So far in 2019, 255 players have been shelved for a total of 6,984 games, according to spotrac.com, which tracks these things so you don’t have to.

Starters and relievers combined account for 152 –59 percent–of the injuries, while arm injuries make up 48 percent of the total.

Hall-of-famer John Smoltz thinks too many pitchers throwing as hard as they can on every pitch is to blame and the results are leading players to the Injury List and the hospital.

“Tommy John (surgery) is a band-aid. It’s scary we’ve gotten to this point,” said Smoltz this week on “MLB Tonight.”

The numbers from sportrac.com say he might have a point.

In 2015, there were 79 shoulder injuries, 36 arm injuries and 31 elbow-requiring-Tommy-John surgeries. In 2019 so far: 40 shoulders, 38 arms and 26 Tommy Johns already. (It’s been a trend for some time as shown in a study from Researchgate.net in the American Journal of Orthopedics looks at 18 years worth of injuries from 1998-2015.)

Smoltz says emphasis on spin rates and the use of relief pitchers puts them in danger of getting hurt.

“The body cannot sustain that velocity and max training over time with the exception of guys who are flexible (like Pedro Martinez)… and who have good mechanics,” Smoltz said, referring to Justin Verlander who Smoltz equated to a “10-speed bike” because he doesn’t always throw the same speed.

“A quarter of (every team’s) staff(s) will have Tommy John. Think about that,” Smoltz said. He also bemoaned the lack of teams’ willingness to mix in more off-speed pitches to make fastballs more effectiveness…what you and I would call, “pitching.”

Michael Salfino with fivethirtyeight.com looked at the new phenomenon of spin rates and effectiveness last year and, with the help of ESPN, found that, once again, Smoltz is right.

“According to ESPN Stats & Information Group, hitters faced 110,529 fastballs traveling 95 mph or faster. That’s an increase of 124 percent from 2011, when hitters saw the fewest such fastballs in the period (starting in 2009) for which this data is tracked, and a spike of 32.6 percent from 2016,” Salfino wrote.

But how effective are they?

Salfino wrote, “In 2017, 28,749 plate appearances were decided2 on a 95-plus mph fastball, and batters’ on-base plus slugging percentage against them was .734. That’s 80 points higher than in 2014, when OPS against these pitches hit a low of .654,” 

It’s one of the basics of pitching: Regardless of what’s being thrown, if it’s the same speed and the same look every time, the human batter can adapt. But, human pitchers cannot continue to throw that same pitch over and over again at maximum effort.

The irony is they’re still being asked to do so and they’re getting hurt as a result.

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