The baseball world shed a tear for the city of New York this week when Mets all-everything-All-Star pitcher Matt Harvey was found to have a tear in the dreaded ulnar collateral ligament of his right elbow. With the elbow goes the Mets hopes and dreams, not only for this season but the 2014 season as well.
You probably thought that they were doing everything right with Harvey, correct? In 2012, Harvey was shut down after reaching 169.1 innings between the minors and the majors, after having been limited to 135.2 innings in his first professional season, 2011. He was going to be shut down at 200 innings this season and he was at 178.1 innings after his start on Saturday, August 24. This was just before undergoing an MRI and ruining everyone’s lives on Monday, August 26, having averaged 103.7 pitches over his 26 starts. It certainly seems like they did everything right, or at least the Mets did better than they did with another of their former future star arms.
Pulsipher, the dynamic left-hander of the group, tossed 201 innings in Double-A in 1994 before tossing another 218.1 in 1995, at the tender age of 21. He would then have Tommy John surgery in April of 1996 and make all of 15 appearances with the Mets before being traded to Milwaukee in 1998, and he was out of MLB by the age of 31, making five appearances with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2005, before toiling within Independent and Mexican Leagues until 2011, when he was 37.
Paul Wilson tossed 186.2 innings in his second professional season, 1995, before reaching 162 innings in 1996 and needing surgery to repair his right shoulder in November of 1996, an injury that would leave him on the Mets’ disabled list for 307 days over the 1997 and 1998 seasons, before following that surgery up with his own Tommy John surgery in April of 1999. Wilson would have a few serviceable seasons with Tampa and Cincinnati, but he wouldn’t see the majors again after turning 32 in 2005.
Jason Isringhausen had the best career of “Generation K”, but, like Pulsipher and Wilson, dealt with injuries, likely thanks to reaching 193.1 innings over three levels at the age of 21 in 1994, and following that up with 221 innings between the minors and the majors in 1995. After tossing 171.2 innings in 1996, Isringhausen would have surgery on his right shoulder in September of that season, and then have Tommy John surgery in January of 1998. Izzy would go on to have a total of eight surgeries over his career: four on his elbow, two on his shoulder, and two on his left hip.
Now, it is easy to say that 21 to 23-year-old pitchers probably shouldn’t be tossing 200 innings, or close to it, in their first couple of professional seasons. Looking at the apparent abuse that “Generation K” went through has had a lasting impression on the entire league and how clubs handle their young starting pitchers. With that being said, how did Matt Harvey get hurt? Why did Dylan Bundy, the top prospect of the Baltimore Orioles, need Tommy John surgery after the team was so cautious with him last season, when he reached 105.1 innings? Why did Taylor Guerrieri, one of the top prospects in the Tampa Bay Rays system, need Tommy John surgery after all of 119 innings (over 26 career starts), even though the Rays had been extremely cautious in limiting his innings?
Why does this matter?
The Indians have Danny Salazar and Josh Tomlin coming back from Tommy John surgeries and both are being monitored closely. Salazar has tossed 120 innings this year after reaching just 87.2 innings in 2012, his first season back from the ligament replacement surgery. Josh Tomlin has reached just 22.1 innings in his rehabilitation process over nine games (seven starts). With the Cleveland Indians six games out in the AL Central and 3.5 games out of the second Wild Card spot (heading into Thursday night’s game), should they continue to be cautious with the arms that could provide assistance in reaching the playoffs for the first time since the 2007 season?
While we aren’t going to see pitchers reaching 1448.1 innings in the majors by the age of 22, like Indians’ great Bob Feller, is it wrong to assume that being cautious with an arm could lead to damage once the arm becomes stressed with innings when the baby gloves are taken off? While no one wants to see Salazar or Tomlin re-injure their elbows and need another surgery, would limiting their innings impact their arm strength later, which could lead to poor mechanics, additional elbow injuries, or new shoulder woes?
We have to understand that these players represent a huge financial commitment for the club and when you invest in anything that has risk, you need to evaluate and manage the various turmoil that it could bring. However, to make gains, you have to open yourself up to additional risks. You can’t sell a stock when it is losing money – you need to sit on it and let it rebuild its value.
The Cleveland Indians were all-in on the 2013 season when they signed Terry Francona to manage the club. The Cleveland Indians were all-in when they signed Michael Bourn to roam center field for the club. The Cleveland Indians were all-in when they signed Nick Swisher to fill out first base, right field, and “Bro-hio” leadership roles.
After looking at all of the injuries that have occurred due to overuse and babying, what about something in between? How about letting pitchers pitch until they show signs of fatigue? How about pitching coaches, catchers, and pitchers work together to better understand the limitations of an individual’s skills? How about understanding the value of pitch counts, the value of stressful innings, and the value of announcing that your stuff isn’t working, and utilizing the rosters that are full of mediocre middle relievers, especially once September roles around and rosters expand.
Let Danny Salazar give you 80 pitches over five or six innings and then bring in the troops. Why? Because you want your best pitchers on the mound during the next 29 games so that you can play a 30th, a 31st, a 32nd, and so forth. With Corey Kluber set to return early in September, would you rather have Salazar on the mound or Ubaldo Jimenez?
I rest my case.