'There's a common theme with all these guys that are going down': Pitchers weigh in on MLB’s injury epidemic

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The rate of pitcher injuries in baseball has been a topic of conversation across the sport in recent years, but debate reached a boiling point when aces Shane Bieber and Spencer Strider and budding star Eury Perez all suffered season-ending elbow injuries just weeks into the 2024 MLB season. The wave of injuries led to dueling statements from the MLBPA and MLB about the potential root cause of the injuries.

We asked our MLB experts to talk to a handful of pitchers about what they believe is behind the rise — and what steps they would take to solve the growing problem.

How bad is MLB’s pitcher injury problem right now?

Trevor Rogers, starter, Miami Marlins: It’s definitely something that’s alarming. A fan that wants to see a game, it’s different when [Jacob] deGrom is on the mound or Gerrit Cole or Sandy [Alcantara]. Guys consistently going down is alarming.

Caleb Ferguson, reliever, New York Yankees: I definitely think it’s more now. And, to your point, it’s definitely the faces of the league.

Kirby Yates, reliever, Texas Rangers: I don’t know where the numbers are, but I think over the last two or three years, pitchers have been getting hurt at a very, very high rate [34.4% of MLB pitchers in 2022 and 35.3% in 2023 had undergone Tommy John surgery, according to baseball injury researcher Jon Roegele]. It’s getting magnified now because some of our best have been getting hurt. It’s definitely a concern. But with the way the game is going, and the way velocities are, how good hitters are, how small the strike zone has gotten, I don’t know how you change it.

Max Fried, starter, Atlanta Braves: There are injuries every year. There are definitely more high-profile injuries this year, but it’s definitely a tough subject just because there are so many different variables for why players get injuries.

Clarke Schmidt, starter, Yankees: It’s definitely scary and it’s something you definitely have to be cognizant of. But, obviously, you can’t just sit there and worry about it all day long. But I think it’s in the back of guys’ minds. But it’s just part of the game. Definitely a factor — and a little scary that they’re picking up a lot.

Velocity has been cited as one of the factors in rising injuries. How much do you believe that plays into the problem?

Ferguson: There’s a common theme with all these guys that are going down: They all throw 100. We’ve pushed velo so hard in the game that this is where we’re at and we have to try to figure out how to fix it.

Fried: There’s a correlation to it: The more velocity you have, the more stress it puts on joints, ligaments, etc. It’s obviously something that’s part of the equation.

Rogers: The past two years I was hunting velo and I got hurt. Thankfully it wasn’t season-ending. It was something I had to learn — that velo helps, it always plays. But there is more than one way to get a guy out. That’s by pitching and having velo. If you just focus on velo, it’s only a matter of time.

Drew Smyly, reliever, Chicago Cubs: Players know that “the harder I throw, the nastier my pitches are, the more money teams will throw at me.” That’s a real thing, too, and something every team promotes. The time of commanding pitches down and away and mixing speeds, that’s just not how the game is. Players know how to make money. That’s another element. There is so much information now. It goes all the way down to the high school kids. They know what spin rate is, what vertical movement is and what velocity they need to get to.

Steven Wilson, reliever, Chicago White Sox: There is a strong correlation between velocity and arm injuries. But there is also a strong correlation between velocity and people not hitting the ball. Guys want to get paid so they’re chasing velocity, which I don’t think is wrong. And I don’t think it’s going to change because if it is harder to hit, that’s what we’re trying to do.

Will Smith, reliever, Kansas City Royals: Velo is king right now, that’s for sure. Guys are chasing the high velo, and it makes sense. It’s harder to hit. I mean, if you give a guy less time to make a decision, they already don’t have much time to make a decision with the 90 [mph] now, and 100, 101 just cuts it in half almost. … When you see results like you do, you can’t help but to chase it down.

What about the pitch clock?

Mark Leiter Jr., reliever, Chicago Cubs: It’s probably the main factor. You have less time to recover. It’s really like we’re a big experiment and they’re seeing what they can do.

Fried: I don’t think [the pitch clock] is the sole reason, but it’s one of the variables. I think there’s a certain way to pace yourself, but any time you have to speed up and you’re tired and out of sync, you’re more susceptible to get out of rhythm.

Smyly: There are times throughout the game you definitely feel rushed or tired and not able to catch your breath, which could promote an injury. Our trainers say there have been studies that the oxygen in your [shoulder] muscles — when you’re doing something quick without a chance to recover — that could increase your chance for injury. With the pitch clock, sometimes you don’t have that time to take a deep breath.

Adam Ottavino, reliever, New York Mets: I don’t buy it as, like, the reason. But we don’t know the effects of the pitch clock. I mean I personally haven’t felt like it’s putting that type of stress on me, like, acute fatigue or whatever, something that would lend itself to me getting really hurt. But at the same time, if you have a really long inning out there and you have a hard time stopping yourself — you can get pretty gassed. Maybe that has some effect.

Ferguson: I think they made it too quick [by taking two more seconds off]. I’m telling you right now, my pitches in between innings have never felt more rushed. And like when I run out from the bullpen, I’ve never felt like I’ve been as rushed as what I have these past couple years — this year especially. … It’s just like, at what point are we just doing too much harm to put more butts in the seats?

Wilson: For lack of a better term, we s— the bed with that. We reduced the game by 37 minutes last year and they wanted more? How about a 20-second pitch clock all the time? There is a reason powerlifters don’t go rapidly. There needs to be a certain amount of recovery time in between max effort. Being fatigued can put you in a bad spot mechanically, and you can do it on one pitch.

Gerrit Cole, starter, Yankees: It is something that we have to adapt to. And every time you adapt to something there is a cost. I can’t sit here and show you exactly what the data is that says what exactly the cost is. … Everybody’s talking about the effect of the pitch clock just in one year. But what are MRIs going to look like 10 years from now? Five years from now? What are guys’ elbows going to look like pitching under the pitch clock for a prolonged period of time?

Is the baseball itself part of the problem?

Yates: I didn’t pitch for 2½ years [due to a 2021 Tommy John surgery], and when I started pitching again, there was a noticeable difference. Sometimes you get seams that are super high that kind of hurt your finger, and other times, you don’t have any seams. Sometimes the cover is really slick, and sometimes they are rubbed up well. There are inconsistencies all across the board. We deal with it every day and so we’re kind of used to it, but you know, it’s definitely frustrating.

Wilson: Yes. The clubbies are rubbing these balls up at noon. We’re getting the ball at 8:30 at night. When we get it, it’s basically covered in loose dirt. The mud has since dried. I’ll throw a ball out because there are no seams. The next one could be a high school ball with the seams. It’s very inconsistent.

Fried: To be completely honest, that’s not necessarily something that I notice. Do I think that sometimes the balls on some days, am I sweating a little bit more and I have a little less grip on the ball? Absolutely. Other days, are there days when I feel great and the ball feels great? Yes. I think this is in the category of “these are the conditions you have to play in today and you have to make the most of it.” The conditions are never going to be the same. … For me, there has always been a varied state of baseballs, and I just have to try to make the most of it.

Chris Flexen, starter, Chicago White Sox: It’s impossible to make zero imperfections, but the differences this year are not different than in the past. There are irregularities with the ball. Sometimes you get a ball that feels larger in the hand. Sometimes the laces feel higher. Sometimes there are no laces. Sometimes it feels like a cue ball.

Jordan Wicks, starter, Chicago Cubs: I think the ball is fine. Balls are going to be different. You can’t make every ball the same. They tried last year at Double-A, that was terrible. Balls in April, in Boston, are going to feel different than balls in Miami in July. That’s just a part of the game.

What are some other factors contributing to the rise?

Ferguson: Analytics. Not to beat a dead horse — but I think Verlander’s interview was spot on with it. I think it’s a combination of everything that you put into the game now. The pitch clock. The sticky [stuff]. The analytics. The baseball. Everything is different. … Now it’s not about pitching. It’s just about the stuff.

Garrett Crochet, starter, Chicago White Sox: I think it’s a culmination of everything. When I was in youth baseball, I didn’t throw hard. And when I was in high school, I wasn’t chasing velocity or spin rate or anything. It was just, “Oh, that looked good.” The accessibility to all the technology has changed things. … Everyone wants to throw the grossest pitch possible and now you have numbers that you can literally chase.

Cole: In 2017 I finished the year with a 4.20 and led the league in games started and had over 200 innings. It would be hard for somebody in this game right now to run a 4.20 out there, and their club’s going to push them for 33 starts and over 200 innings because the standard of performance is higher. The league is demanding that you throw your best pitch every single time because the hitters are better, the strike zone is smaller, the balls are different, the bats are different. We’ve just evolved into just a higher performance product, which is good. …

When guys were more healthy, we weren’t able to go into a pitching lab and concoct a new pitch and then use that at a 35% clip for the next six months and only have practiced it two months before we roll it out. Like we have no data on that. … It’s certainly a variable that’s out there. Along with the importance of spin, the importance of velocity and the importance of location … They’re all contributing factors.

Yates: The strike zone has gotten smaller, and guys are pitching to the computer — having to spin the ball to a certain amount, to make them break a certain amount. Hitters are really good in the strike zone. So you have to be really good in the strike zone, and everything you throw has to be nasty, with high intensity. … You don’t really have a grace period off the strike zone. In the past, with some umpires, you’d get the outside corner, but they wouldn’t give you the inside corner. Stuff like that. Now, you have to get the ball over the plate, and you have to be really good over the plate. You can’t really trick anybody. It’s really hard to do.

What is the first step you would take to address MLB’s pitching injury issue?

Cole: Well, we can start by having more helpful conversations and not pointing fingers. And not saying that it’s absolutely this or it’s absolutely not that. And we can make it feel like players aren’t necessarily caught in the middle of all of it. Especially because pitchers are so different. Each guy is different. Some guys train better with high volume and low intensity. Some guys train better with low volume and high intensity. It’s just different organisms. So it’s not a blanket thing for the league. One of these rule changes — or one of these variables could’ve affected a certain group of guys more than another group of guys. And vice versa. … We need to get on the same page to at least try to fix it.

Ferguson: I think with pushing velo and pushing stuff as hard as what we have, now we have to figure out how to bring it back but keep everything else that’s been added to a pitcher’s routine before he throws a pitch. You gotta figure out how to keep all that and bring back down all the injuries.

Ottavino: Ultimately, [it’s] never going to stop until they engineer the game to take some of that out of it, whether it’s rule changes or roster limits, that kind of stuff, which is probably going to come down the pike at some point. I also think scouts just decide, “We’re not interested in high school guys that throw 95,” which will probably never happen. But if they were prioritizing a guy who can grow into his body but had the pitchability and threw like 90, 94, I feel like that type of trajectory lends itself to maybe having a little more of a chance of staying healthy. I worry about guys that throw 100 in the minor leagues. How long can you do that for?

Yates: We pitchers have complained about pitchers having a grip on a baseball for years and they’ve done absolutely nothing to help out with that, it’s actually the reverse. We could start there. If they addressed the cover of the baseball and we could hold on a little bit better, it might make us spin the ball a little bit better.

I do think there was a point where the stickiness got carried away — I do agree with that — but as pitchers, it’s a very uncomfortable feeling when you don’t have a good grip on the baseball. When you don’t have a good grip, you tend to squeeze the life out of it. I’m not an expert, but I think that just based on feel, and having to grip a baseball really tight, when you wake up the next morning, your arm does feel a little bit different. Fix the baseball, start there. And then you see what happens.

Wilson: A lot of it is individual. Each guy’s body moves differently. Each guy’s arm moves differently. I think it’s up to the individual to find a good strength and conditioning program to get their body right, to get their mechanics right. We need to be in good, healthier positions. There is enough biomechanical data to know there is less stress on the arm if it’s higher up at foot plant. Nothing will eliminate TJ [Tommy John surgery] — but things like this could help.

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