April 13, 2013


The Glass Arm : Inside the art and science (but mostly still art) of keeping pitchers from getting hurt. (Will Leitch, Mar 17, 2013, New York)

There's something strange about almost every snapshot ever taken of a professional baseball pitcher while he's in his windup or his release: They look grotesque. A pitcher throwing, when you freeze the action mid-­movement, does not look dramatically different from a basketball player spraining his ankle or a football player twisting his knee. His arm is almost hideously contorted.

"It is an unnatural motion," says former Mets pitcher and current MLB Network analyst Al Leiter, who missed roughly three years of his career with arm injuries. "If it were natural, we would all be walking around with our hands above our heads. It's not normal to throw a ball above your head."

Ever since Moneyball, baseball has had just about everything figured it out. General managers know that on-base percentage is more important than batting average, that college players are more reliable draft targets than high-school players, that the sacrifice bunt is typically a waste of an out. The game has never been more closely studied or better understood. And yet, even now, no one seems to have a clue about how to keep pitchers from getting hurt.

Pitchers' health has always been a vital part of the game, but it's arguably never been more important than it is today. In the post-Bonds-McGwire-Sosa era (if not necessarily the post-PED era), pitching is dominant to a degree it hasn't been in years. In the past three seasons, MLB teams scored an average of roughly 4.3 runs per game. The last time the average was anywhere near as low was 1992, at 4.12. In 2000, the heyday of Bonds & Co., it was 5.14. A team with great pitching is, in essence, a great team. Pitchers themselves have never stood to gain, or lose, as much as they do now. The last time scoring was this low, the average baseball salary had reached $1 million for the first time and the minimum salary was $109,000. Now that average salary is $3.2 million. Stay healthy, and you're crazy-rich. Blow out your elbow, and it's back to hoping your high-school team needs a coach.

And yet, for all the increased importance of pitching, pitchers are getting hurt more often than they used to. In 2011, according to research by FanGraphs.com, pitchers spent a total of 14,926 days on the disabled list. In 1999, that number was 13,129. No one is sure why this is happening, or what to do about it, but what is certain is that teams are trying desperately to divine answers to those questions. Figuring out which pitchers are least likely to get hurt and helping pitchers keep from getting hurt is the game's next big mystery to solve, the next market inefficiency to be exploited. The modern baseball industry is brilliant at projecting what players will do on the field. The next task is solving the riddle of how to keep them on it.

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Posted by at April 13, 2013 8:13 AM

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