The Commercial Appeal

Pitchers hit Tommy John zone

Spring training means many opportunit­ies to do some damage

- MIKE VORKUNOV

All along the coasts of Florida and in the heart of Arizona, Major League Baseball teams are preparing for the start of spring training. And when pitchers and catchers report this month, they will begin the weeks-long shuttle to ready their arms for opening day.

It is a rite of spring and for those involved in keeping those pitchers healthy, these first few days of spring training are a cause of serious worry.

“The first week of camp, for us internally in baseball,” says Mike Reinold, a former head trainer for the Boston Red Sox, “is always the worst week of the year.”

As baseball officials put increasing­ly more scrutiny into how to protect arms and lower Tommy John elbow surgery rates, they have considered pitch counts and innings thrown and many other factors, but anecdotal and empirical data show spring training is a problem of its own. To keep pitchers off the disabled list and operating table, teams must first navigate the landmines of February and March.

Over the last five years, 27 percent of all Tommy John surgeries have occurred in March and April, according to Jon Roegele’s Tommy John database. It is a staggering amount when you put it in context with the rest of the year. Last year, 26 of 81 total surgeries were performed in those two months and 32 over the last six months of the year. In 2015, there were 38 in February and March and 43 from July 1 on. In 2014, there were seven more Tommy John surgeries in the spring than there were after the end of June.

It puts an uneasy tint to the next few weeks, a foreboding sense that more pain and surgeries are on their way.

Some of the surgeries, experts say, are unavoidabl­e. They are the result of an offseason of hoping by teams and players. Pitchers who felt the pain and discomfort in their throwing elbows at the end of the 2016 season will go under the knife because an offseason of rest and rehab did not do them enough good.

But there are plenty of new injuries, too, and as a result of the stress of spring.

“It’s a combinatio­n of the business, the business, the physiology, the biomechani­cs and just the situation of who’s making the decisions,” said Eric Cressey, a trainer who works with pitchers, including former Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, in the offseason. “That’s the challengin­g thing about baseball is there isn’t that one easy thing we can do to modify stuff.”

Still, the prescripti­on to try to curb injury the rate seems to center on two changes, one that could break through baseball dogma and the other a change in philosophy.

Alan Jaeger, a long toss guru, sees the way major league teams approach their bullpen schedule as a serious issue. The norm, he says, is for pitchers to throw a bullpen session every other day in an effort to build up their arms and endurance quickly enough to pitch in exhibition games by early March and then to be around the 90 pitch threshold in April. He believes it makes little sense.

“That could be the single biggest problem with an arm breaking down – the first 10 days,” Jaeger said. “That’s how important it is.”

Taking just one day off becomes a brutal stress on the arm, he says, especially when pitchers are exerting themselves to try to impress and make the team. Cressey and Reinold agree that having just one day off between throwing sessions, whether it’s a bullpen or live batting practice, is not in the pitcher’s best interest.

And, Reinold notes, with pitchers throwing harder all the time, it puts more force on the elbow. Pitchers who regularly throw in the mid-to-high 90s are at greater risk.

“You gotta question why tradition is taking precedent over a modern-day approach to pitching,” Reinold said. “I don’t want to come across as being a conservati­ve viewpoint. Times have changed, and we’re throwing harder.”

Without an extra day, at least, for the arm to recover, Jaeger says, the arm does not get to reconditio­n and build strength. That leaves it hampered.

“The first 10 days are not modern,” Cressey said. “It’s just different. There’s too many guys trying to make the club. There’s too many guys throwing really, really hard nowadays that it problemati­c and probably unnecessar­y, but something that I feel like is just happening because of tradition.”

Moving away from such a compact schedule, Jaeger says, would be beneficial for pitchers. It also would break from tradition, though he has noticed that some teams have already made a change. Just as vital would be putting pitchers on an individual­ized regimen instead of a cookie-cutter approach.

With knowledge that every arm is different, treating everyone the same way no longer makes sense.

“What it all comes down to: Are you going to adapt to what the players are doing to be what they are?” Jaeger said. “Or are you going to oppose it?”

Every pitcher goes through a different offseason training program and teams, they say, should respond to what that pitcher needs and what has worked for them in the past.

For instance, Cressey says he pushed Kluber’s workload back this offseason because of the long and arduous season he had with Cleveland as the Indians made a World Series run. Teams should be just as respondent in spring.

 ?? USA TODAY SPORTS ?? Indians starter Corey Kluber and pitchers around the league report for spring training soon. How much of a workout is too much for them? That’s open to debate.
USA TODAY SPORTS Indians starter Corey Kluber and pitchers around the league report for spring training soon. How much of a workout is too much for them? That’s open to debate.

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