Tommy John theories abound at Delta Dugout
Harvey, Dr. K, Girardi weigh in on rash of injuries during Fan Cave event
NEW YORK -- At this time last year, Matt Harvey was blowing away top hitters, churning out quality starts and cruising toward an eventual starting assignment for the National League in the All-Star Game on his Mets' home field. He was the next big thing in Major League Baseball.
Soon after, he was undergoing Tommy John surgery. Just like NL sensation Stephen Strasburg of the Nationals. And then amid his rehab progress this week, Harvey heard news that that Marlins ace Jose Fernandez -- with good prospects to succeed him in that next NL All-Star assignment at Target Field -- was just the latest young star pitcher to need the procedure. And Martin Perez of Texas may be next.
"It's definitely unfortunate. You don't want to see anyone getting hurt, especially someone as successful and as young as he is," Harvey said of Fernandez on Thursday. "With the amount of Tommy Johns that have happened so far this year, it is a really unfortunate thing for Major League Baseball. It's definitely not fun hearing the news that someone else is constantly going down."
What's going on and who's next? That is what people around the game are asking.
With the overall volume of injuries requiring Tommy John surgery up in 2014, MLB.com posed the question to an array of people who should know: a group of players, managers and former stars who gathered for a Delta Dugout event at MLB Fan Cave to celebrate the ongoing Subway Series between the Mets and Yankees. That included Harvey, Yankees manager Joe Girardi and closer David Robertson, former manager Bobby Valentine, and former Mets stars Dwight Gooden and Keith Hernandez.
"I think it's the amount of guys who are just continuously throwing harder and harder," said Harvey, now throwing at 120 feet and "a couple months away" from pitching on the mound in his view. "Throwing baseballs is an unnatural movement the way it is. You mix in a couple at 100 mph, and things are just not going to be able to withstand and stay strong."
Gooden bemoaned the loss this season of a young Marlins pitcher he has enjoyed watching, citing a local Florida connection. He said he would not encourage year-round pitching.
"Jose is a great kid. I saw him a little bit in high school, because he's from Tampa, my hometown," Gooden said. "The success he's had, last year I got to meet him personally, the first time at Citi Field. The dominance that he had, to me, the way he was throwing, his mechanics looked sound, seeing him on TV. When you see him go down, hopefully something can be done, because this is a lot of good, young talent that's coming in looking to have great careers and getting set back with the same injury. Something's not right, and so hopefully we can get understand it.
"You hate to say it, but it's like, 'Who's next?' Something's going on. Mechanics has a lot to do with it."
Gooden said he has two theories:
"Usually you establish your fastball in the count. Now you're seeing guys who are throwing 95 to 98, and the second pitch of the game they're throwing curveballs. The toughest pitch to hit is a well-located fastball. I think a big part of it has to do with scouting reports, where pitchers are pitching defensively instead of attacking them. Establish your fastball and then work in offspeed stuff. ... Pitchers are giving hitters way too much credit.
"Secondly, some of these pitchers, with the pitch counts and inning limits, it slows down a lot of these guys' development. Instead of shutting them down, let them just go. As far as pitch counts, if he's throwing well, and he throws 120 pitches, that's fine. It takes more out of your arm when you are throwing with men in scoring position, second and third, constantly, because you have to throw a little harder and tense up even more than a person throwing 120 who has a lot of strikeouts and foul balls."
How did Gooden avoid the need for Tommy John surgery?
"I was lucky," he said. "My mechanics were good. My dad taught me at an early age about mechanics. I stayed away from heavy weights, upper body. I did a lot of leg work, lot of sprints. Basically just listen to my body. If I felt good, I continued to throw. If I didn't feel good, I didn't."
Girardi said the issue is "hard to figure out," but he is among those who try anyway.
"We've seen a lot of young pitchers go down," he said. "You wonder if it's too much throwing at an early age and not giving the body proper rest in the offseason. It seems there are so many people who want to specialize today. 'I'm a baseball player, at 12 years old, that's all I'm going to do, and I'm going to practice 11 or 11 1/2 months out of the year.' I don't necessarily agree with that. As adults, we take four months off every year. We give our arms rest. I would give my arm a good two months' rest before I'd ever pick up a baseball after the season.
"Also, kids are throwing hard at an early age. They are getting bigger and stronger from the training, and maybe the body isn't meant to handle it."
Robertson, now the Yankees' closer, has watched peers drop around him with this surgery and does not see himself as being such a candidate.
"The only thing I can think of is, it's a very small tendon, the ligament," he said. "Guys are stronger, they're throwing the ball harder, and at some point it's too much. That's my only theory. It's not going to happen to me."
Valentine said he was first involved with pitch counts in the late 1980s while managing at Texas and monitoring Rangers pitchers Edwin Correa and Jose Guzman.
"I don't think it's such a mystery," the former manager said. "The information is such that everyone understands how to throw the ball more efficiently, so the mechanics are proper to deliver the ball at that high rate of speed. The arm coming forward to deliver a ball at that high speed is also traveling, and to stop that arm is a very violent motion, a very violent action.
"I don't think the ligament is made to do that, so it's going to break. If you want guys throwing 85 mph, you're not going to see Tommy John surgeries. But if you want them throwing 95 mph, it's probably going to break and break often."
Valentine said pitching off a mound means gravity also complicates the arm issue, but he said lowering the mounds -- as was done in the 1960s to help hitters -- "is a pretty stupid idea. I don't know if lowering the mound two or four inches is an answer, because you're still going to have the velocity of the arm and a very violent stopping action."
Hernandez, now an SNY analyst for Mets games, said he has "no theory," but he said the biggest concern should be the plight of Braves pitchers Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, who have undergone repeat Tommy John surgeries.
"Tommy John surgery has become just a household name," Hernandez said. "It's been very successful. Guys come back and are stronger. But now you've got to worry about Medlen and Beachy, the two guys who had to go down and get a second Tommy John surgery. I always felt management was a little bit too eager getting their players under the knife, get in early, get them stapled up, and have them come back stronger when they're young and they miss a year, and they've got them the rest of the way. Well, now they have to think twice about that because of what happened to Beachy and Medlen."
Hernandez said players in his generation "played three sports" and he would not encourage youngsters to play baseball year-round.
"It's overkill," he said. "It's too much."