Nothing The Mets Could Do

Mets pitcher Matt Harvey may need Tommy John surgery after partially tearing his UCL. (USA TODAY Sports)

Mets pitcher Matt Harvey may need Tommy John surgery after partially tearing his UCL. (USA TODAY Sports)

New York Mets manager Terry Collins, who will be without his best pitcher, Matt Harvey, for what is expected to be a long time thanks to an elbow injury, knows a thing or two about the enormous limits baseball teams face in preventing pitcher injuries.

“When I ran the minor leagues for the Dodgers, we actually brought the Dr. [Frank] Jobe, Dr. [Robert] Kerlan group in, fellows, Dr. Jobe himself,” a subdued Collins said from a podium at Citi Field Monday afternoon. “And tried to plan out a regimen to take care of our pitchers, young pitchers in the Dodger organization. You know, pitch counts, innings limits, weight programs, strengthening programs.

“And at the end of the four-day conference we had, Dr. Jobe stood up, and he said, ‘Understand something. No matter how hard you try, if they’re gonna break, they’re gonna break.’ And there’s not pitch count, or innings limit you can designate to ever save ‘em. When it’s time, it’s time.”

Monday, Matt Harvey’s time came. He’d been complaining of forearm discomfort for much of the season — perhaps this should have been more of a red flag — and the Mets had been treating him for it. But Saturday afternoon against the Tigers, he said the feeling worsened, and the Mets took him to Dr. David Altchek on Monday. Dr. Altchek suggested an MRI that revealed the awful news: a torn ulnar collateral ligament.

In rare instances, that injury can be rehabilitated, and managed. But generally, the remedy is the well-known Tommy John surgery, and roughly a year recovery window before returning to the mound.

The effect on the Mets is likely to be extraordinary. Their path to contention next season called for several of their young pitchers to join up with Harvey and a hopefully healthy Jon Niese to form a good young rotation. To make up for the number of massive holes in the everyday lineup, they’d either need to spend money it doesn’t appear ownership has, or trade some of those young pitchers, further reducing the odds of a 2014 success story.

Exactly why the latter idea would have been such a prohibitive mistake was clear enough when, in the span of a week, oft-injured Jenrry Mejia was shut down for the season due to bone chips in his elbow, and Jeremy Hefner underwent Tommy John surgery of his own, thinning the team’s pitching ranks.

Now the Mets don’t simply need to deal with less depth, they need to plan for 2014, barring a miracle recovery, without their best pitcher by far, and one of the best in the game.

But unlike so many other decisions throughout the years, this one can’t be chalked up to something the Mets could have done differently. Sure, maybe Harvey could have been pulled an inning sooner here, or skipped there, but this organization was acutely aware of just how disastrous this day would be, and tried everything in its power to avoid it. Harvey was usually on pitch counts, faced an innings limit, was watched ultra-carefully. If the Mets sent him out, they did so within the framework of what they thought was safe, not by throwing caution to the wind.

“There is always a risk associated with major league pitching,” said Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, who delivered the news to reporters on Monday. “These innings limits, they’re not a guarantee of anything. And they’re certainly not based on any science, that will tell you, if you don’t do this, that you’re safe. There’s no safe harbor here. But we’re doing what seems to be prudent, in light of history.”

And that is the sobering reality, as it applies to pitchers. No one knows yet how to keep pitchers healthy, not a general manager for a major league team whose most valuable asset is a pitcher, not a doctor who’s given his professional life over to studying the issue. It’s why teams need to stockpile many more pitchers than the phrase “five-man rotation” would seem to indicate they need, and why projecting any pitcher more than a few minutes into the future so often ends up looking like a foolish exercise.

What the injury will mean for Harvey is actually the least variable dynamic here, though anytime someone has surgery, recovery and what comes after is unstable to a certain extent. The number of success stories — Stephen Strasburg simply one among many — who manage the 12-month recovery period and return to previous levels of excellence increases each year.

But what of the Mets, who were reliant on Harvey, from an on-field and marketing standpoint, to an astonishing extent? To understand how large a component of the “Mets’ exciting young pitching” Matt Harvey was, consider that his 2013 season was worth 5.6 wins above replacement, per Baseball-Reference.com. Next up was Dillon Gee, at just 1.9. And no one else topped even one win above replacement, though Zack Wheeler, at 0.8, stands a good chance of eclipsing that modest number before he’s shut down by a largely arbitrary innings limit, too.

And why not? The only thing teams seem to know right now is that pitchers are far less likely to get hurt when they’re not pitching. In the meantime, let’s assume the Mets won’t seriously consider letting Harvey try to rehabilitate and pitch with a partially torn UCL, at least without some kind of non-existent guarantee from Dr. James Andrews that they’re making the right call. Harvey did speak bravely of potentially pitching through the pain, and Alderson said the decision would be Harvey’s to make.

“I’m never gonna go out there and think in the back of my mind, certain throw and I can completely tear it, because at any time, that can happen,” Harvey said “Throwing a baseball’s kind of an unnatural movement as it is.”

Still, let’s assume this is just brave talk, and Harvey, who is no dummy, will make the best long-term choice for his career, which is also best for a Mets team that has him under team control through 2018.

My suspicion is that the next big Moneyball-style idea won’t be some new stat, but an organization that figures out how to limit pitching injuries to some extent. Perhaps some already have, though if you can figure out which one has from this list, please tell me.

In the meantime, Harvey has gone, in the time it took to read an MRI, from the part of 2014 Mets fans were most anticipating to an absence that will be felt all season long. #HarveyDay is gone, at least for now, and nobody saw it coming, because nobody can. When it’s time, it’s time.

29 thoughts on “Nothing The Mets Could Do

  1. “No one knows yet how to keep pitchers healthy, not a general manager for a major league team whose most valuable asset is a pitcher, not a doctor who’s given his professional life over to studying the issue. ”

    Have you talked to Dr. Mike Marshall?

  2. Nice post, but kind of sad and hopeless in tone.

    Fortunately baseball has a long history against which to compare the fairly recent attrition of young starting pitchers to arm damage. When studying post-war baseball history, one notes the long and mostly injury-free pitching careers of Hall of Famers such as Warren Spahn, Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Ferguson Jenkins, Don Sutton, and Early Wynn, just to name a few. But one also notes the long, successful, and mostly injury-free careers of such fine pitchers as Doyle Alexander, Larry Jackson, Billy Pierce, Milt Pappas, and Luis Tiant — again, only to name a few.

    We have to wonder: What is the difference between today’s starting pitchers and those of one, two, three or more generations ago? And then, we have to ask: Is there anything we can borrow from the handling of pitchers back then to help today’s starting pitchers be more durable?

    Here are two things that clearly are not working: pitch counts and innings limits. These concepts were unheard of in the days when starting pitchers pitched 200-300 innings and 15-25 complete games per season, for 10-15 seasons.

    I propose the following three differences in the way starting pitchers pitch today as opposed to 25 years ago and earlier:

    1) The mound is a full 5 inches shorter than it was before 1969. Consider the difference in the torque and arm angle coming toward the plate at a higher plane, as opposed to the more level plane pitchers must use today. Gravity did much more of the work for pitchers using a 15-inch mound. Today’s pitchers must generate much more of the momentum and velocity behind their pitches themselves, at greater arm wear.

    2) Brittle pitchers never made it to the majors in the old days. For those pitchers whose elbows or shoulders were inclined to “break,” it happened in the deep minors, before ever being surrounded by any prospect hype. It was Darwinian: Only the strong pitchers who made it through the minors without destroying their arms made it to the majors.

    Early Wynn pitched 1,058 innings in the minors before making it to the Big Leagues, and then pitched 250 or more innings in 9 of his 23 seasons. Stephen Strasburg pitched 55-1/3 minor-league innings before making to The Show and tearing his elbow.

    Expansion, to be sure, has changed the amount of time a pitcher can be allowed to mature in the minors. But so has fan hype to bring a Matt Harvey up to the majors before he is ready — hype that general managers are now falling victim to, too, to help gate receipts and promotion.

    3) In Allie Reynolds’ day, and Al Downing’s day, and Nolan Ryan’s day, it was your own set of eyes, the reaction of the batter, and the sound of the ball popping in the catcher’s mitt that told you how hard a pitcher was throwing. One did not need a stadium speed gun displaying (accurately or not) on the scoreboard behind the pitcher to see how many miles per hour he was throwing.

    How we as fans love the speed gun. One seated at the ballpark cannot help but look up at it after every pitch. There it is on TV, too, displayed right together with the game score, as if it was just as important. I was listening to the broadcast of a Class A game the other day, and after every pitch the announcer exclaimed how many mph it was.

    It would be the natural reaction of every pitcher to try to keep an elevated figure on that scoreboard, and therefore to throw harder, harder, and harder — not only from a sense of pride, but also to keep a competitive psychological edge against the hitter. I am surprised at how little attention the speed gun gets in any discussion of what’s causing the scandalous rise in serious pitcher injuries.

    In short, I would raise the mound back to 15 inches and eliminate the speed gun from the stadium scoreboard. If we did those two things, I think all talk of pitch counts and innings limits would naturally go away. God is making pitchers just the same as He did in Red Ruffing’s day, only bigger and stronger and with supposedly better conditioning. It seems to me we are ignoring the fact that we are killing pitchers ourselves.

    • Another thing that I haven’t seen mentioned here is the fact that many of today’s pitchers use the “tall and fall” approach. While this approach helps them get some more movement on the ball and changes the angle at which it arrives at the hitter, it also means that pitchers are using their arms more to generate power. If you watch video of Nolan Ryan (who pitched from the shorter mound) pitching, it is obvious that most of his power came from his legs. I think if today’s pitchers could figure out a way to generate power with their legs while still keeping movement on the ball, they could be as effective with less injury.

      • That’s interesting especially given the fact that Nolan Ryan is a proponent of the “Tall and Fall” approach to hitting. Read through his Pitching Bible and he speaks repeatedly about the benefits of “tall and fall” over “dip and drive.”

    • Hey you do know that pitchers were NOT throwing near as hard as they are nowadays , I HOPE you realize this

    • They were basically lobbing the ball over the plate back then with NO breaking pitches like sliders , slurves etc Ill argue with you all day long on how the game is at its highest level today

      • Actually, breaking pitches go back a little further than you might think. What we call the slider (which, by the way, does not strain your arm, contrary to another post), pitchers 80 years ago called an “outshoot.”

        There is no new way to grip a baseball and make break this way or that that pitchers haven’t been doing for more than a century. I read just this week that Daisuke Matsuzaka’s famous “gyroball” was, in fact, a myth.

        As for how much harder pitchers pitch today, we lack empirical evidence on how hard Walter Johnson or Bob Feller threw, but I feel all right letting their pitching records speak for themselves. Or are you going to suggest, too, that old-time batters took only check swings?

        • have you thrown a ball with gyro spin? something happens with that spin, you’re a sheep

    • Reading your post was like drinking a glass of ice water on a hot, humid day. So coherent, so lucid, so fact-based; and so very correct. ‘Hope you don’t mind, but I’m copying it and passing it around.

  3. One thing that apparently hasn’t been mentioned is Nutrition. And yes, there is a field known as Sports Nutrition. But our food chain in general has been depleted of nutrients, and the rise in genetically modified products is staggering. Virtually all corn and soy grown in this country is GMO. So is much of the wheat. Factory farming has also caused depletion and corruption of the nutritional values to the extent our bodies don’t recognize what we eat as food.
    We are what we eat, and also what our food ‘ate’ before it got to our plate.

  4. Rick Reuschel took it easy, and I don’t think he sustained this kind of injury. On the other hand, the Rockies’ de la Rosa has a jerky delivery which looks like it would cause injury. Sandy Koufax quit to avoid dealing with adversity, but he had more than one year like Harvey’s. Seems like the majority of current pitchers have had TJ surgery. What a shame for Matt!

  5. Sutcliff made an interesting point yesterday concerning Harvey and how the Dodgers managed him and continue to do so. Don’t let young pitchers throw sliders early in their career. Harvey has a 98+ fastball and two complimentary pitches. The slider is the most punishing of all pitches, and he used it often this year.

  6. Another thing that has changed for pitchers- weight lifting. I believe this is a major reason for the increase in torn tendons and muscles. Thirty years ago pitchers would stay out of the weight room and concentrate on stretching exercises. Weights build up muscle and does little for connective tissues. Stretching does both and increases flexability.

    • BINGO! And it’s not just in baseball – we are seeing connective tissue injuries all over pro sports. I agree that the training that focuses on increasing muscle through weight training may be putting too much stress on the tendons and ligaments – the increase in muscle strength may be overwhelming the connective tissue – which being the weak link, breaks down under extreme conditions.

  7. Harvey’s injury along with most others pitchers suffer from are all overuse injuries. There is no need for pitchers to throw between starts and that just adds to the wear and tear on the joints. Whereas muscles can recover relatively quickly, tendons, ligaments, and cartilage all have poor blood supplies (unlike muscle) and take much longer to recover. When a pitcher throws between starts, the non-muscle soft tissues never get a chance to recover, and then the micro traumas slowly build up over time until the damage is done and surgery is needed. And it’s true that weightlifting is adding to this issue. Today’s players spend way to much time doing ‘functional training’ (there really is no such thing) and other ill advised weight training techniques that add to the problem – they are grossly overtraining. During the season players should only be doing weight training once every 1-2 weeks.

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  9. I have yet to hear a comment from the Wilpons. As well as being a devastating injury to Harvey, it must be equally devastating to Met ownership. They have had 2014 in mind for a few years now as the beginning of a new era for the Mets. Now…going into this offseason, there is not much to look forward to. And to top it off, amidst the Harvey injury, they are starting to trade whatever hope there was to still watch this team.

  10. Maybe if UNC took better care of Matt Harvey while he was pitching for them he wouldn’t have this injury now. Why did he throw over 150 pitches in a game?

    • I follow UNC baseball, it’s insane the way they ABUSE their pitching staff. Just look at the way Kent Emanuel was used this past season, especially at the end.

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  12. What about how well the Tampa Bay pitcher fare over their careers?

    They have some kind of program as I have understood it. A secret regimen.

  13. There are pitchers like Yu Darvish, Clayton Kershaw etc, who have been pitching 120 pitches every time and no injury. So those who are injury prone without overuse are just the kind of pitcher who he could be. Everybody’s physical condition is different. Guys like Matt Harvey and Strasburg are probably more well suited for pitching later in a game.

  14. Today’s pitchers throw with their arms. Years ago, great power pitchers such as Seaver, Gibson, Ryan, etc. relied on their legs to generate more power. Those pitchers never broke down. Even Roger Clemens threw with his legs. Get today’s pitchers to use their legs amd imjuries will diminish. Pitch counts really do not solve the problem either.