As I was working on a follow up post on why the Mets could lose 90 games this year the news about Zack Wheeler hit the net. Wheeler, Sandy Alderson’s first big trade acquisition, was the middle cog in the Harvey-Wheeler-Syndegaard wheel of aces. Robin to Harvey’s Batman, and now like the Dark Knight, the boy pitching wonder faces the replacement of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.
If Harvey’s 2013 injury was a gut punch, Wheeler’s is more like a shot to the chops, a stunning blow snapping the neck back, but you still keep your feet. The Mets have the pitching depth to lessen the impact of Wheeler’s loss but it doesn’t change the fact that the team’s anticipated top three arms of the 2015 rotation now each will bear the same scar across their precious right elbows . Dreams of a modern day Seaver-Koosman-Matlack or Gooden-Darling-Fernandez-type top of the rotation dominance is now a pipe dream at best. The human arm is not made to throw a baseball. The violent action of an arm throwing high 90s heat puts such wear and tear on that rubber band-like appendage around the elbow that it’s no wonder how frequently it snaps in two.
Before 1974 the injury was essentially a death sentence for a pitcher. Now it’s an injury whose surgery is becoming almost commonplace-too commonplace. There’s something wrong when pitchers of previous generations tossed thousands of innings without need of Tommy John surgery. Baseball seems to reside in the dark ages when it comes to the fragile and valuable commodity of a pitcher’s arm. Science seems tossed aside in favor of pitch counts, throwing routines, inning limits, and other what can be best seen as ineffective, and outdated ways to keep a pitcher’s arm healthy. Yu Darvish, Jose Fernandez, Brandon Beachy, Harvey, and now Wheeler are just some of the top hurlers losing a season in their prime as a result of the injury.
But as Met fans, what we care about most of all is the loss of Wheeler. It seems like yesterday he was making his impressive MLB debut in Atlanta and now he’s gone till 2016. It’s easy to point fingers at how Collins and Alderson handled him, or how pitching coach Dan Warthen never worked on correcting the flaws in his delivery that put added stress on his elbow, or doctors who viewed his two offseason MRI’s and didn’t see any problems. But the fault line runs deeper than this because it’s a league-wide problem. MLB has done everything to help mitigate pitching injuries and lengthen the careers of its hurlers-except one-embrace bio-science with the same zeal it has the science of analytics. Baseball should be focusing more on this than issues like pitch clocks or improving pace of play.
The problem is that by and large MLB has convinced itself that injuries like Wheeler’s are just part of the risk of pitching and that, as Alderson is quoted as saying, something along the lines of ‘pitchers break down, it’s what happens.’ Technology has become such a part of the game except when studying the act of pitching. The most used technology for pitcher’s dates back to the 1970s, the pitching radar gun. Sure it’s nice to know how fast Harvey’s fastball is but it’s more important to know what is happening inside his arm as he throws 95+MPH heat.
They call the equipment of catcher’s the tools of ignorance but maybe the real tools of ignorance are the outmoded methods baseball uses to handle what in many ways is its most volatile and valuable commodity, its starting pitching. Wheeler’s injury is reminder of just how volatile. It’s the reason why the saying, “you can never have too much pitching” is more than a baseball cliché, it’s the cold, hard truth.