Avoiding the Injury Nexus

Kenny Baugh. Matt Wheatland. Justin Thompson. The list goes on forever in the minds of Tiger fans. There are many out there that believe the Tigers have been cursed over the last 15 years in terms of pitcher development. Have they really? Or is it simply the same uncertainty every team in the league encounters when trying to develop top flight pitchers.

Looking through the various minor league systems, it is difficult to find a team that exhibits any significant deviation from the mean with respect to injuries per pitching prospect. All of the teams seem to cluster in the same general range, leaving organizations clamoring for pitchers who can contribute at the Major League level.

Over the last several years, more organizations, media members, and researchers have been trying to develop injury related trends, advanced rehabilitation techniques, and most recently, advanced injury prevention methods. Some of the first concepts to help curb injuries in young pitchers involved monitoring innings pitched and pitch counts, in an attempt to depress injury rates by reducing workloads.

While the magic number for pitch counts is often thought to be 100, this number is quite arbitrary, with workload tolerances varying wildly from one pitcher to the next. Organizations often limit a minor league pitcher's innings to some seemingly random number in the hope that slightly reducing their season's work will help preserve their talented, young arms. While some research has been conducted in attempts to base these inning and pitch limits on some substantiated evidence, most researches and analysts will admit that little definitively conclusive information has been found to date.

The inability to slow the injury rates of pitchers, has only led to an intensified search for more radical and innovative solutions to the problem. Several teams in recent seasons have attempted to implement a system termed the "tandem-starter" plan. The tandem-starter idea centers on the concept of dividing innings evenly among pitchers.

By pairing starters together, consistently rotating them as a pair on a typical rotation schedule, and splitting the innings to roughly 3 to 4 per game, teams were afforded two methods by which to further control pitching development. First, teams can easily control the number of innings pitched, while also being able to find room for more pitching prospects in their system; increasing their odds of having a few of these players pan out in the long run.

Injury rates in pitching prospects continue to present the most troubling problem faced throughout baseball. As much progress as we have seen to date, the most significant advancements have simply come in the form of advanced rehabilitation techniques. Teams have learned more and more as a result of injuries. In turn, trainers, physicians, and physical therapists have refined their rehab methods to get players back on the field in record time. Recovery from injury is slowly becoming a more predictable process, providing teams a more reliable sense for how their injured prospects will continue to develop.

Many of the items discussed above are popular throughout the game, and common knowledge among fans. But what about something new? Is there anything else out there to be intrigued by? Thinking outside the box for a minute, I'd like to present a more radical theory involving the development of pitching prospects by our own Dave Dombrowski.

After reviewing many of Dombrowski's draft choices and amateur free agents, a trend began to reveal itself. Those pitching prospects that were both highly regarded and had showed impressive performance track records in the minors were often promoted quickly, reaching the Major Leagues in very short order.

With numerous examples supporting such a concept, it is prudent to highlight a few more prominent cases here. Chris Haney was drafted in the second round of the 1990 draft by the Expos. As an experienced collegiate starter, Haney could be expected to move quickly, but few starting pitchers could ascend the ranks quickly enough to reach the Majors in time to log 16 starts before the end of the 1991 season.

A 1996 wunderkind, Livan Hernandez made his Major League debut only months after being signed out of Cuba, and was pitching in Florida for good, midway through the 1997 season.

1999 first-round choice, Josh Beckett, flew through the Marlins system, debuting with four dominating starts in 2001, only one year after his professional debut.

Two more recent examples include the handling of the Tigers Jeremy Bonderman and Justin Verlander. Bonderman spent the entire 2003 season with the Tigers after never having pitched above A-ball, while Verlander has already made his Major League debut, just months after starting his career with High-A Lakeland.

With the rapid advancement of these pitchers in mind, consider the following as a possible rationale for Dombrowski's apparent pattern. If a general manager has accepted the inherent risk involved with pitching prospects, it is possible they have determined it wise to maximize any possible production before injury occurs.

If a pitcher has demonstrated the aptitude that may allow them to arrive in the big leagues quickly, why not get productive innings out of them before something goes wrong? If a team is able to squeeze a couple seasons of league average innings (something that is becoming increasingly scarce) from a pitcher before losing them to injury, the organization is better off as a result. With some luck, a few of the pitchers may not experience injury, continuing their development and becoming important members of the organization at a young age.

However off the wall this theory may seem, it is plausible, and could be just the type of radical idea that is needed to work around the problem of injuries until some better preventative measures are developed. Further developments in preventative programs (often called pre-hab) are likely the next important step in the protection of young prospects.

Despite the efforts of many brilliant medical minds, it is unlikely injuries will ever become an insignificant concern. The action of repeatedly throwing a baseball with extreme force is one of the most unnatural motions we can routinely ask our body to complete. As a result, injuries will likely pose a problem for the foreseeable future, while continuing to be a topic for passionate debate.

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