have already punched his ticket to
a few years. Not starts, not weeks, not months, years. Because in baseball, to
quote a pretty good pitcher, Joaquin Andujar, you just never know. And you
particularly never know about young pitchers."
was June 9, 2010, edition of "19 to 21," just after Stephen Strasburg struck
out 14 Pirates in his major league debut. Everybody and his brother were jumping
on the Strasburg Bandwagon. Since then, he's been on the disabled list twice,
and is now headed for Tommy John surgery and a year to 18 months on the shelf.
(And, from what you read elsewhere, you'd think there's at least the
possibility that this is also the death knell of the National Pastime.)
what happened, other than a lot on sportswriters and fans getting carried away
over just a dozen major league starts and overanalyzing the Strasburg Case ad
infinitum, ad nauseum? Did the Nationals overuse him? (Not likely, he only threw
a total of 123 innings in 2010, 55 in the minors and 68 in the majors.) Should
they have shut him down longer after the first DL stint? Should they have shut
him down for the year after the first trip to the DL? Should they have kept him
in the minors longer? Put him on a tighter pitch count? (The most pitches he
threw in any one start was only 99 and his longest outing was only seven
innings.) Etc., etc., etc. (Also known, in the words of Judge A. Leon
Higginbotham, as Endless Thoughts Continued.)
really happened? Baseball happened. Anyone who knows baseball history should be
less than shocked by Stephen Strasburg, because the number of pitching phenoms
that fail is a lot higher than those that succeed. And the injury reasons that
they fail are many and varied. In fact, one of the most famous failures was
mentioned in that same June 9 column. Picking up that thread again…
Dodgers' Karl Spooner struck out 15 members of the New York Giants on Sept.
22, 1954… The 23 year old Spooner hurt his shoulder in Spring Training
the next year, and ended up pitching just 117 major league innings, going 10-6
with 105 strikeouts and a 133 ERA+. He's one of the great `ifs' of major
league history, but, the point is, that's exactly what he became – and
`if,' not a `star.'"
apparently tried to throw too hard, too soon, in a March 1955 Spring Training
game, and suffered some kind of shoulder injury while throwing a curveball to
Jungle Jim Rivera, which he described to author Peter Golenbock as a "pull"
in his shoulder. Some pull. Although he did pitch for the Dodgers in 1955, he
wasn't the same pitcher and he was toast after the 1955 World Series. His
shoulder got worse during the off season and he couldn't throw hard enough to
have "busted your lip" afterwards. From what happened, it does not appear
that Spooner's problem was one of overuse, although he did throw a lot of
innings at the ages of 22 and 23…
first three years were in the Dodgers minor league system. He only pitched 120
innings in 1952 because he was 4-12 with a 5.42 ERA. In fact, he wasn't really
much of a prospect (partly because he didn't pitch in high school until he was
a senior) until 1954 when he went 21-9 in 238 minor league innings, and then
threw two shutouts, striking out 27, for the Dodgers.
is hardly the only young pitcher of great promise brought down (either
temporarily or permanently) by injury. The best might have been Smoky Joe Wood
(the first two years were in the minors)…
7-12 2.38 (plus 23 major league innings)
then he crashed, and eventually became an outfielder because his arm hurt so
much. Was it the big jump in innings at the ages of 21 and 22? Probably not. He
was hurt in Spring Training, too, slipping on wet grass and breaking the thumb
on his pitching hand in the spring of 1913. He tried to come back too soon, and
hurt his arm.
no less an authority than Walter Johnson said that no man threw harder than
Smoky Joe Wood, the Red Sox' ill-fated star was not the hardest thrower to
become a "what if?" That would have been Steve Dalkowski, the famous
left-handed wild man of the Orioles minor leagues in the late 50s and early 60s.
His stats were almost unbelievable… 262 walks in 170 innings in 1960; 196
walks in 103 innings in 1961, a year in which he was 22 years old and went 3-12
with an 8.39 ERA, despite also striking out batters by the carload. And then he
ran into manager Earl Weaver at
W-L BB K
23 160 7-10
good, though not great pitching line, but a
point is, you can name dozens of pitchers who flamed out, for various reasons.
Kid Nichols, Herb Score (and no, not because of the eye injury… he hurt his
arm after he came back from that), Sandy Koufax, for goodness sakes, J.R.
Richard, Von McDaniel, and Karl Spooner, Joe Wood and Steve Dalkowski. The young
fireballers who didn't flame out are the exceptions to the rule… Cy Young,
Walter Johnson, Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson – freaks of nature all. (It's hard
to say if Roger Clemens should be included in this group or not.)
unique case among this fraternity is Bob Feller, who was overwhelming major
league hitters at the age of 17, and ended up with a long career, and 266 wins.
However, recall that, because of World War II, Feller didn't pitch a single
major league inning at the ages of 23, 24, 25, and only pitched 72 innings in
1945, at the age of 26…
recall that Feller was done by the age of 36 when he threw 83 innings in 1955.
He finished up with 37 innings in 1956, and that was it. His last major league
pitch was when he was 37. Although he was clearly an unusual talent, the guess
here is that he wouldn't have lasted that long, not given his workload, if it
hadn't been for World War II. His strikeout rate dropped dramatically, from
8.4 Ks per nine innings, to 5.9 Ks per nine innings, after he threw those 371
innings in 1946. From 1947 on, he was getting by by striking out, in order, 5.9,
5.3, 4.6, 4.3, 4.0, 3.8, 3.1 and 3.8 batters per nine innings.
What's the long term prognosis for Strasburg? No one really knows. A lot of pitchers in recent years, e.g., Chris Carpenter, Tim Hudson, came back successfully from Tommy John Surgery. However, not many of them were starting pitchers who threw as hard before the surgery as did Strasburg. Maybe more importantly, the jury is still out on the future of pitchers with Tommy John Surgery who throw largely with their arm, especially who throw 100 MPH largely with their arm, something pitching guru Dick Mills refers to as the "Gullwing Syndrome." Another young, hard thrower who throws largely with his arm is the Braves Tommy Hanson, your classic "dart thrower." Look for him to go down some day, unless his mechanics change, because, in baseball, you just never know.