Throughout the spring and into the summer — as the Blue Jays scrabbled to reach the heights of last season, with some batters regressing while others soared, every bullpen appearance making fans quake in terror — the most pressing question felt weirdly paradoxical. Was Aaron Sanchez pitching too well?
The 23-year-old pitcher had come into the season with 15 pounds of extra muscle, a sinker that made major leaguers look silly, and a tentative plan for the season. Sanchez had never thrown more than 133 professional innings. Bumping him up to the 200 or more a full-time starter would log could be taxing, and the Jays weren’t willing to risk their young right-hander.
They would try him out as a starter, then move him back to his role as a set-up man to limit his innings.
Then the season began and well-laid plans met reality. Sanchez quickly emerged as one of the league’s best starters. He made the all-star game, showed no signs of tiring, and suddenly the idea of benching such a vital player began to seem absurd.
Fans and pundits jumped into the debate. The Toronto Star’s reliably regressive Rosie DiManno railed against the “quantum analytics geeks” and the way that modern baseball teams baby their pitchers, denying them opportunities to log the long innings that might “stiffen their pitching spine.” Online, fans were outraged that a stubborn, overly cautious organization might threaten the season because of some seemingly arbitrary number.
Arguments about inning limits are a quagmire — the place where reason and logic go to die in a bog of conflicting studies and bewildering pseudoscience. The fight around Sanchez was a microcosm of the conversation happening everywhere in the league. In 2016, it’s become clear that a major league pitcher is an accident waiting to happen. And the simple truth is that no one — not Moneyball-savvy GMs, not doctors, and certainly not newspaper pundits — has any idea what to do about it.
When it works, pitching a baseball is a kind of miracle — the fastest movement the body can produce, 30 times faster than a blink. Every pitch is a kinetic explosion that begins with a simple step toward the plate and then transfers energy up through the legs, the pelvis, the trunk, through a twisting of the spine, into the arm to the hand, the ball propelled off calloused fingertips. Then you do it a hundred times a game.
Like the goalie in hockey or the quarterback in football, pitching is a strange, specialized position. It’s a role that’s at the centre of a sport while also feeling slightly apart. To watch an ace standing up on the mound throwing 96-mile-an-hour darts is to experience one of the singular sporting events — when one player, through skill and strength, is able to bring play to a halt, rendering the rest of the players on the field completely inconsequential. Watching a home run is a thrill. Watching a great pitcher work can be magic.
All that magic is dependent on a complex mass of muscle and a perilously thin band of ligament stretching across the elbow. Each year, more than half of all pitchers spend time on the disabled list. A quarter of MLB pitchers have a telltale scar across the elbow from Tommy John surgery — a procedure so common it’s easy to take for granted the insanity of a surgery that removes a tendon from somewhere else in your body and loops it through two holes drilled into bones in your arm, tying your elbow together.
In Jeff Passan’s excellent recent book, The Arm, the Yahoo baseball columnist delves into this modern-day sports epidemic. Baseball spends over $1.5 billion a year on pitchers, five times more than the NFL pays all quarterbacks. The arm, Passan writes, is the most valuable commodity in sports. So how come we don’t know how to keep it from falling apart?
In the course of his research, Passan visits self-described pitching gurus and world-class surgeons. He goes to Japan, where kids pile up the innings as part of an awe-inspiring but monstrous test of grit and stamina, and watches as GMs continue to offer enormous contracts to some of the riskiest bets in sports. The most sobering part of Passan’s reporting comes from his forays into youth baseball.
In recent years, an entire youth sports-industrial complex has built up around the performance of baseball-playing children. Even as a kid, an arm is a valuable commodity. A teenager who can throw heat will quickly get noticed, leaping to the top of prospect lists and earning invitations to year-round showcases that promise the attention of hordes of radar-gun-toting scouts. These for-profit youth leagues encourage kids to make baseball a year-round sport, putting a strain on young arms. One study found that kids who pitched competitively for more than eight months were five times as likely to undergo arm surgery. Dr. James Andrews, the sports world’s most famous orthopedic surgeon, estimates that a third of his patients are kids under 18 who dream of the big leagues. And most, it goes without saying, will never make a living playing baseball.
Passan emerges from his years of research with more questions than firm answers. When it comes to Sanchez, then, the truth is that we don’t know if limiting his innings this year will prevent Tommy John surgery next year. In 2012, Passan actually encountered Sanchez as a young prospect in the Blue Jays’ farm system. Then, as now, Sanchez was being treated with extreme caution, limited to three innings in his first five starts of the season in the minor leagues. When Passan asked then-Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos why the team was being so cautious, he got a curious response. “Overall, there’s not much science to what we do,” Anthopoulos replied. “We have no evidence that shows it’s the right way to go but we prefer to err on the side of caution.”
And that, Passan says, is where we are today — with science replaced by a shrug and a prayer. Because in all of the many studies and theories around pitching, one truth is obvious: velocity is what causes injury. Pitchers who average 93 miles an hour on their fastballs are nearly twice as likely to end up injured as pitchers who throw below 90. Each year, pitchers throw faster, the average velocity slowly ticking up as we train kids to hurl the ball with increasing power. Speed itself, the very thing that makes a pitcher great, is what also makes a pitcher vulnerable. Each arm is like some Ming vase — an object whose enormous value is dependent on its fragility.
To be a baseball fan in 2016, then, means trying to accept this reality. It means becoming an amateur expert in arm anatomy, learning about the UCL and the rotator cuff, researching bone spurs and platelet-rich plasma. It means watching ESPN scroll past with fear — wincing with the news that Noah Syndergaard might have bone spurs, that Stephen Strasburg has left a game, that Matt Harvey, once one of the most ex- citing pitchers in baseball, may have to undergo yet another surgery. It means watching your favourite pitcher like you watch your favourite NASCAR driver: the thrill of seeing an athlete at the top of his game tempered by the constant knowledge that you’re always a split second away from total disaster.