What causes Tommmy John

  • Wednesday, March 26, 2014

There is a pandemic that has overtaken baseball.

Pitchers are dropping like flies lately, and it’s not just the pro guys. College kids, and even high school kids are going under the knife for ulnar collateral ligament replacement.

In terms of numbers Tommy John surgery could qualify as the Black Plague of baseball.

Why?

What’s killing pitchers’ arms?

Is it pitch counts? Or maybe the types of pitches they throw?

Is it because of too much pitching growing up because of travel ball? Or maybe it’s because of too much physical training.

Maybe the human elbow isn’t equipped to throw a 97-mph fastball and a 90-mph slider. You don’t see a rash of shoulder reconstructions. These catastrophic breakdowns are limited to the elbow where ligaments and tendons can only withstand so much torque for so long, and then like a rubber band, they snap.

Did you know that according to Major League Baseball statistics, one-third of all major league pitchers have had Tommy John surgery?

I watched a telecast on MLB.com of a 1965 baseball game on WGN of Jim Maloney’s 1-0 no-hitter against the Chicago Cubs. Maloney threw almost 300 pitches that day. He walked as many hitters (10) as he struck out. He was all over the strike zone and the game, the first of a double-header that Saturday afternoon, took almost three hours to complete.

What was Maloney doing that today’s pitchers were not?

What was he not throwing?

First, Maloney threw almost 70 percent fastballs. He didn’t throw an overwhelming number of off-speed pitches such as the curve, split finger or the change up.

Back in 1965, the split-finger fastball didn’t even exist.

And, in fact, neither did the change up.

Pitchers stayed away from off-speed pitches and didn’t resort to throwing them until they had lost their fastball for good.

Gary Nolan, pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds, was a classic example. Nolan came up in 1968 with Johnny Bench and had a blistering fastball. He developed arm trouble and missed a year – no Tommy John surgery – and when he came back in 1972, he had lost his fastball and had to resort to placing his pitches with an assortment of off-speed pitches – junk.

Pitchers like Nolan back then were called “Junkballers” and were looked upon with sneers of derision because they threw garbage.

Guys like Nolan, Bruce Sutter and even Tommy John, abandoned the old country fastball for a cute trick pitch like the curve.

When catchers gave their signals, they gave the fastball the number one, the index finger, for a reason.

It was a pitcher’s best pitch.

The curve was number two, slider three, and the change up, if you ever threw more than once or twice a game, was filed under the wiggling fingers category with the knuckleball, forkball and the infamous eephus pitch at number four.

It’s the change up that’s killing pitchers like ducks on a hunt.

Imagine flooring the gas pedal while driving, but then suddenly throwing the stick into first gear. Think of all that torque producing all those RPMs and then puttering to the plate at a paltry 15 mph.

You weren’t surprised when you burned out the clutch or threw a rod.

Think of your teenager’s arm as the clutch.

And remember, no pitcher ever got drafted because he threw a great change up.

Funny, not once did I decry the evils of overwork from travel ball.

Remember Jim Maloney, 300 pitches in a game throwing nothing but what they called “Country Hardball” back then.

It might cut down on baseball’s medical expenses.

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