Since a lot of folks reading this blog know me as “the baseball guy,” I got quite a few email questions about the elbow injury Washington Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg experienced the other day. Likewise, it was the talk of Cressey Performance last Friday - and got tremendous attention in the media. Everyone wants to know: how could this have been prevented?
On Thursday’s edition of Baseball Tonight, my buddy Curt Schilling made some excellent points about Strasburg’s delivery that likely contributed to the injury over time. Chris O’Leary has also written some great stuff about the Inverted W , which is pretty easily visualized in his delivery.
The point I want to make, though, is that an injury like this can never, ever, ever, ever be pinned on one factor. We have seen guys with “terrible mechanics” (I put that in quotes because I don’t think there is such a thing as “perfect mechanics”) pitch pain-free for their entire careers. Likewise, we’ve seen guys with perfect mechanics break down. We’ve seen guys with great bodies bite the big one while some guys with terrible bodies thrive.
The point is that while we are always going to strive to clean things up - physically, mechanically, psychologically, and in terms of managing stress throughout the competitive year - there is always going to be some happenstance in sports at a high level. As former Blue Jays general manager JP Ricciardi told me last week when we chatted at length, “you’ve only got so many bullets in your arm.”
Strasburg used up a lot of those bullets before he ever got drafted, so it’s hard to fault the Nationals at all on this front. In fact, from this ESPN article that was published when the team thought it was a strain of the common flexor tendon and not an ulnar collateral ligament injury (requiring Tommy John surgery), “Strasburg has told the team he had a similar problem in college at San Diego State and pitched through it.” It’s safe to assume that the Nationals rule out a partial UCL tear in their pre-draft MRIs, but you have to consider what a common flexor tendon injury really means.
As I wrote in in my “Understanding Elbow Pain” series (of interest: Anatomy , Pathology , Throwing Injuries , and Protecting Pitchers ) the muscles that combine to form the common flexor tendon are the primary restraints - in addition to the ulnar collateral ligament - to valgus stress. If they are weak, overused, injured, dense, fibrotic, or whatever else, more of that stress is going on that UCL - particularly if an athlete is throwing with mechanics that may increase that valgus stress (the Inverted W I noted above) - the party is going to end eventually. Is it any surprise that this acute injury occurred just a few weeks after Strasburg dealt with a shoulder issue that put him on the disabled list for two weeks? The body is a tremendously intricate system of checks and balances, and it bit him in the butt.
There are other factors, though. As a great study from Olsen et al. showed, young pitchers who require surgery “significantly more months per year, games per year, innings per game, pitches per game, pitches per year, and warm-up pitches before a game. These pitchers were more frequently starting pitchers, pitched in more showcases, pitched with higher velocity, and pitched more often with arm pain and fatigue. They also used anti-inflammatory drugs and ice more frequently to prevent an injury.” And, they were also taller and heavier.
Go back through the last 12-15 years of Stephen Strasburg’s life and consider just how many times he’s ramped up for spring ball, summer ball, fall ball, and showcases - only so that he can shut down for a week, just to ramp right back up again to try to impress someone else. Think of how many radar guns he’s had to pitch in front of constantly for the past 5-7 years - because velocity is all that matters, right?
Stephen Strasburg’s injury wasn’t caused by a single factor; it was a product of many. And, it can’t be pinned on Strasburg himself, any of his coaches or trainers, or any of the scouts that watched him. Blame it in the system that is baseball in America today.
We already knew that this system was a disaster, though. Yet, people still keep letting their kids go to showcases in December. Heck, arguably the biggest underclassmen prospect event of the year - the World Wood Bat Tournament in Jupiter, FL - takes places at the end of October. When they should be resting, playing another sport, or preparing their bodies in the weight room, the absolute best prospects in the country are pitching with dead, unprepared arms just because it’s a convenient time for scouts and coaches to recruit - because the season is over.
They’re wasting their bullets.
Now, I’m not saying that Strasburg’s injury could have been avoided in a different system - but I’d be very willing to bet that it could have been pushed much further back - potentially long enough to allow him to get through a career. An argument to my point would be that if it wasn’t for all these exposures, he wouldn’t have developed - but my contention to that fact was that it is well documented that Strasburg “blew up” from a good to an extraordinary pitcher with increased throwing velocity when he made a dedicated effort to getting fit when he arrived at college.
My hope is that young pitchers will learn from this example and appreciate that taking care of one’s body is just as important as showing off one’s talent.
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