Through the middle of May, 18 MLB pitchers have already undergone Tommy John surgery in 2014. This is the highest number of MLB pitchers who have had Tommy John surgery so early in the season. With so much emphasis in 2014 on limiting the pitch counts of young MLB pitchers, why is the number of Tommy John surgeries rising so rapidly?
Tommy John surgery
The record for the most Tommy John surgeries performed on MLB pitchers is 35 in 2012. One explanation for the increase in recent years is that teams are better able to diagnose arm problems to determine when pitchers need Tommy John surgery. However, that doesn’t explain why so many MLB pitchers are having elbow problems despite MLB’s best efforts to keep young hurlers healthy.
As I’ve been listening to the national media debate this issue, I remembered an interview I saw with former Atlanta Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone about 20 years ago. In the 1990s, Mazzone coached the most dominant pitching staff in all of baseball. Not only were Braves starting pitchers such as Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz some of the best in MLB, they also consistently threw over 200 innings per season and avoided major arm problems.
Mazzone’s philosophy was simple. MLB pitchers should throw more often between starts, with less exertion. If you think about it, Mazzone’s philosophy makes sense. How can MLB pitchers’ muscles, tendons, and ligaments get stronger through less usage? You can’t get stronger by spending less time in the gym. MLB pitchers in 2014 throw fewer innings, but the act of throwing fastballs, sliders, and curveballs is just as dangerous as ever.
I’m not saying MLB pitchers should go back to occasionally throwing over 130 pitches in one game when trying to finish off complete games, no-hitters, and perfect games. As a Chicago Cubs fan, I remember what happened to Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. Leo Mazzone’s pitching philosophy warns against more exertion. But in general, consistently throwing a lot makes MLB pitchers stronger to withstand the rigors of throwing a baseball.
For some reason, Leo Mazzone is not employed as an MLB pitching coach in 2014. Perhaps MLB teams believe his pitching philosophy is outdated in 2014. However, Mazzone’s track record speaks for itself. The alarming increase in Tommy John surgeries in 2014 should encourage MLB teams to reconsider how delicately they’re treating their pitchers today.
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