September 17, 2010

GEORGE BAMBERGER IS SMILING SOMEWHERE:

A Not-So-Brief History of Pitching Injuries, Starring Nolan Ryan and the Texas Rangers (Jonah Keri, 9/17/10)

Ryan’s own ironman history would seem to make him the perfect spokesman for pushing pitchers to go deeper into games. His 235-pitch slog back in ’74 marked the third time in three years he’d pitched 12 innings or more in a game. These weren’t what you’d call efficient efforts either. Ryan threw 332.2 innings, struck out 367 batters, and walked 202 in ’74, the season that produced his biggest workload. He threw harder than anyone, trained harder than anyone, struck out more batters than anyone and walked more batters than anyone in the game’s history, started in the big leagues as a teenager, and finished as a 46-year-old.

But Ryan also acknowledges that he was the biggest of outliers. Though he owed much of his success to hard work, he also knows he won a genetic lottery that helped make him one of the most successful and most durable pitchers of all-time. Having Nolan Ryan preach about the value of pitching deep into games is a little like listening to Yao Ming encouraging people to get taller. Easy for you to say, buddy.

Still, there’s no denying the massive changes that have washed over the game in the past 36 years. When a pitcher closes in on 100 pitches today, an alarm goes off in the ballpark, one that alerts managers, pitching coaches, broadcasters and opposing hitters that the guy on the mound is getting tired and won’t last much longer. Pitchers who last into the 7th inning give their team a big edge, allowing their managers to keep their bullpen fresh and use higher-quality relievers to close out the game. Complete games have mostly gone the way of the bullpen cart (despite a slight rebound in the past two years). Catfish Hunter holds the mark for most complete games in a season since 1974, with 30. When CC Sabathia completed one-third that many in 2008, he was celebrated like the reincarnation of Iron Man McGinnity. This shouldn’t be too surprising: Sabathia was the only pitcher to crack double-digit complete games in a season over the last decade.

Meanwhile, the Yankees’ treatment of Sabathia’s teammate Joba Chamberlain has spawned howls of protest from New York media and fans. The Joba Rules, the Yankees’ conservative usage plan for their 24-year-old prodigy, was enacted to protect a pitcher the team views as a cornerstone of its future. The team’s pledge to cap Chamberlain’s innings total at 160 last season after limiting him to just over 100 in 2008 further fanned the flames of protest. Facing the Red Sox one night last May, Chamberlain energized Yankee Stadium by following a four-run blow-up to start the game with 5 2/3 dominant innings, including 12 strikeouts. Rather than let his pitcher keep going, though, Joe Girardi popped out of the dugout to take the ball from Chamberlain. The Yankees skipper had actually pushed Chamberlain a little longer then he’d originally intended – all the way to 108 pitches. Still, there was nothing subtle about the crowd’s reaction: a symphony of boos that rang out throughout the ballpark. The Yankees’ kid glove treatment did keep Chamberlain healthy; for their trouble, they got a mediocre pitcher with lousy command, fueling a 4.75 ERA, 76 walks in just 157.1 IP, and a league-leading 12 hit batsmen.

Ryan wants no part of any pitching program with the word “Rules” in it. Led by Maddux, bullpen coach Andy Hawkins and strength and conditioning coach Jose Vazquez at the major league level, and director of player development Scott Servais and pitching coordinator Danny Clark at the minor league level, the Rangers have implemented some system-wide programs. But, says Maddux, they’ve also remained flexible, responding to specific pitchers’ needs. That’s a big departure from the military tendencies of many teams, which treat everyone the same, regardless of ability or body type.

Starting last spring, Vazquez prescribed a rigorous running program, designed to build up pitchers’ stamina. Bucking baseball’s status quo, Vazquez pushed pitchers to run sprints lasting 30 to 200 yards, in lieu of the usual distance running-only program. Baseball is often behind the curve in skill-specific training, Vazquez said, lacking the kind of specially-tailored drills and exercise regimens that help power forwards snatch rebounds and cornerbacks defend fly patterns. By running sprints and doing heavy weightlifting with their legs, Vazquez said pitchers are getting the kind of intensive workout they need to mimic the action of pitching.

“If you break down pitching, it’s really a series of sprints,” Vazquez explained. “You take the ball, throw it as hard as you can, then take a break. Pitching is stop-and-go, not a continuous activity. You want to promote that explosiveness, where you can give your all in this one sprint, or this one pitch.”

Intensive training methods like those Vazquez now recommends can cause greater lactic acid buildup, which can cause more soreness than a pitcher might be used to handling. But pitchers experience the same physical sensations when straining through a 30-pitch inning against a tough lineup in searing August heat. By acclimating themselves to those sensations, Vazquez said, pitchers become better able to handle heavier workloads, increasing their effectiveness and lowering their chance of injury.

Now in his eighth year in the same role with the Rangers, Vazquez said he’d long wanted to implement this kind of program for the team’s pitchers. The sport is steeped in tradition and conventional thinking, he said, making the game’s decision makers reluctant to make big changes and take risks. The order to change the way a team trains usually has to come from the top. That’s what’s made Ryan’s hands-on approach as team president so helpful.

“Because Nolan did that kind of training as a player and was successful with it, he was the perfect person to sell it,” Vazquez said. “He was able to say, ‘Hey guys, I did it this way, there’s nothing to be afraid of.’ Nolan came in and said the pitchers need to be pushed more, they need to work harder and turn up their intensity – and that there’s nothing wrong with that.”

The Rangers’ biggest break from conventional wisdom may be their decision to use big league pitchers to throw batting practice between starts. While most other teams have spare coaches lob lollipop pitches in for hitters to launch into the bleachers, the Rangers use BP as a way for pitchers to test their complete repertoire between starts, facing live hitters.

“It’s important to see how hitters react to your pitches in certain locations,” said Ryan, who credited throwing BP with keeping him sharp between starts throughout his career. “By pitching off a mound to hitters, instead of throwing side sessions on a bullpen mound, you’re also put into a situation that’s a lot closer to being in a game. It’s another good way to help build your stamina.”

The pitchers have bought into the idea of throwing extra BP.

“It gives you a little bit more intensity level, more than what you would get out of a bullpen,” said Colby Lewis, a five-year major league veteran who returned to the Rangers this off-season after spending two years in Japan. “It’s new to me, but I like it.”

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Posted by Orrin Judd at September 17, 2010 8:09 PM
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