Shanks: Can pitchers stay healthy?

sports@macon.comMarch 15, 2014 

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- First, it was Kris Medlen. Now the Braves are sending one of Medlen’s teammates, Brandon Beachy, to see Dr. James Andrews on Monday.

Any time a pitcher has to see Dr. Andrews it’s like sending an unruly child to the pediatrician to get his annual shots. This is not someone a patient wants to see, and if pitchers already have seen him once and he has cut on their elbow, they don’t even want to utter the words of his name.

To think Medlen and Beachy could both be facing a second Tommy John elbow surgery is unfathomable. It doesn’t happen often, and for two members of the same rotation to have it for the second time might be a record.

The Braves’ season will depend on how they overcome the injuries, but the signing of Ervin Santana and the potential return of Gavin Floyd in May from the same elbow operation should help ease the pain.

This story does bring up a bigger question: Why are so many pitchers getting hurt?

Don’t look for me to blame the Braves or the pitchers themselves. Sure, something might have gone wrong in the recovery, since it is peculiar for this to happen. But how do we know? At the least, questions need to be asked about what is being done to get pitchers back from elbow injuries.

And that’s a system-wide question, not one just for the Braves. Despite all the cautiousness and coddling that is used by college and professional teams, pitchers are still getting hurt.

It’s so bad you almost have to come to the conclusion that if a pitcher throws hard, he’s going to get hurt at some point. Think about it -- how many pitchers can you think of who never had serious arm injuries?

Well, Phil Niekro stayed pretty healthy. He threw a knuckleball so that was probably the reason. Greg Maddux never had an issue, but velocity was never important in his game. And Tom Glavine didn’t have an issue until the very end of his career.

But it’s hard to find others who have avoided at least some time off due to a bad arm. And the elbow injuries continue to be the main problem. The Braves have two pitchers (Gavin Floyd and Jonny Venters) coming back from it, two others headed to have it again (Medlen and Beachy) and at least one on the roster (Alex Wood) who already has had it.

So why is this happening? These pros have the best doctors, the best trainers. Well, I think it starts at a young age. Kids are throwing curve balls too early and throwing in general too much.

I was a pitcher as a kid and in high school, and that’s where my career ended. But I’ve studied pitching and talked with many pitching coaches. And if you talk to 10 people, you might get 10 different opinions.

But for me, it starts when these kids first pick up a ball and get on the mound. They want to throw hard. Then the parents want them to throw harder to get on the radar gun. Sure, velocity is important if a player wants to get noticed by a scout or a college. But kids who throw hard usually deal with pain, particularly if they are not handled carefully by parents.

And let’s be honest, many parents don’t know what they’re doing. I was at a junior high school game just last week, and the pitcher’s father was saying things that didn’t make any sense. If I didn’t know what he was talking about, I doubt the 14-year-old did.

Pitching is all about command -- being able to command pitches, particularly a fastball. When I ask a prospect who makes it to the big leagues what has been the difference in making him a pitcher, as opposed to a thrower, the word “command” is always used.

Do you think that is stressed to young kids? No, it’s all about velocity, which is wrong. Most kids don’t even know what it means to command their pitches. They might think it means pitchers shouldn’t walk batters, but it’s totally different. It is about placing your pitches exactly where you want to. That’s how pitchers get batters out.

Three decades ago we barely heard about elbow injuries. Instead of “Tommy John” being the four-letter word that represented a major arm issue, it was “Rotator Cuff.” That was a shoulder injury, and it usually spelled the end of a pitcher’s career.

But when you wonder why things have changed, you have to also look at the number of games young players play now. Some teenagers might play close to 100 games in a calendar year. Are the innings they pitch, or the amount of times they throw, being closely monitored?

Is that where the issues start, only to have those who make it up the pro ladder have it come back and bite them later on when older?

There is not one perfect answer, but eventually someone needs to figure out how pitchers can stay healthy, or we’re going to sit around and wait for every one of them to get hurt at some point in their career.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and e-mail him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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