Baseball has an injury problem with plenty of questions and no real answers

The sport of baseball — and this includes not just Major League Baseball but all levels of the sport — is in a serious pickle at the moment. After seeing the likes of Shane Bieber, Spencer Strider, Jonathan Loáisiga and Eury Pérez all recently go down due to injuries to their throwing arms (and even Shohei Ohtani won’t be pitching until 2025 after he had surgery on his throwing elbow during this past offseason), the questions are coming and they’re obvious questions.

“Why is this happening right now?” “Have we reached the human limit for what’s possible for pitchers?” “Is the pitch clock to blame for all of this?” These are all fair questions to ask and the unfortunate part is that there’s not really an easy answer for any of those questions. If there was an easy answer then things would’ve been figured out a long time ago, we wouldn’t see multiple superstar pitchers on the shelf for an extended period of time and maybe we’d actually see some sort of agreement between MLB and the MLBPA on what to do instead of the stark disagreement that’s currently going on.

When it comes to the pitch clock, it doesn’t really seem fruitful to talk about what to do with that since the only solution really seems to be pushing it back to where it was last season since getting rid of it doesn’t seem like a feasible option at this point. The average length of a game in 2023 went down to levels that hadn’t been seen since the early 1980s and so far in 2024, the results appear to be very similar. The pitch clock has accomplished exactly what MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred wanted in terms of speeding up the pace of a game and according to The Seton Hall Sports Poll, fans are in favor of the shorter games. Barring an investigation or study directly linking the rise of injuries to the pitch clock, the pitch clock is here to stay in some form.

As far as the actual physical limits of pitchers go, it’s probably best to go with what the pitchers themselves have to say on the matter. Los Angeles Dodgers hurler Clayton Kershaw had his fair share of thoughts to share with Fabian Ardaya of The Athletic and warned against listening to anybody who says that they have this “figured out” and also added this:

“Everybody has theories,” Kershaw said. “It’s probably a combination of what everybody’s talking about, whether it be added velocity, weighted ball programs too young, all this stuff that people talk about. But at the end of the day, nobody knows. Nobody knows the perfect formula, and if they did, they’d be doing it. So I think the question we need to ask is, how do we fix it? And then somebody has to be brave enough to put their neck out and try something different.”

Kershaw’s thoughts on the matter were actually quite similar to how Astros pitcher Justin Verlander felt about the whole situation. He talked with Ari Alexander of KPRC2 in Houston and weighed in with his concerns as well:

Again, there’s no easy answer to what’s going on here but the point that Verlander made about the balls is a fascinating one to me, personally. Verlander has been one of the loudest voices in baseball when it comes to calling out MLB for messing with the baseballs over the year — whether they’re “juicing” the balls or “deadening” them in response to the “juicing” over the past. There’s also the fact that putting “sticky stuff” on the balls has been outlawed and we’re still seeing pitchers adjust to it. Granted, they’ve had years to adjust now and it’s hard to compare this to when MLB awkwardly outlawed the stuff mid-season and forced pitchers to make an extremely difficult midseason adjustment and this isn’t to say that they should bring that stuff back either. It is to say that it could potentially be another factor in this awful mix.

With all of this in mind, it’s easy to just go back to the fact that it could very well be that humans just aren’t made for this next frontier of pitching. I’m not saying that pitchers throwing in the high-90s and even topping out at or around 100 miles-per-hour with their velocity is bad — you go watch Spencer Strider strike out 16 Rockies hitters back in 2022 and tell me that that’s bad for the game.

What’s probably bad for the game is seeing pitchers pitch for nearly the entire calendar year. Coming into this season, Strider had spent plenty of time during the Winter figuring out how to add a curveball to his repertoire for the upcoming season. Instead of spending the offseason resting and taking this a bit easier after throwing over 180 big league innings, he was right back in the lab trying to get ready for next season. This isn’t picking on Spencer Strider, either, since he’s not the only one doing that — far from it, in fact. If you’re a pitcher and you aren’t working on gaining velocity and getting nastier stuff during the offseason, you risk falling behind from a competitive standpoint. Hitters aren’t taking the offseason off, that’s for sure.

The problem is that not only are most of the pitchers in the big leagues going year-round, most pitchers going all the way down to youth levels are doing that now as well. You’ve probably heard people say something along the lines of “The human body is simply not meant to repeatedly throw a baseball 95 miles per hour.” While I’d argue against that since we’ve been seeing pitchers throw that hard for decades now, I would say that humans are probably not meant to be throwing that hard for all 12 months in a calendar year.

While simply ramping things down likely wouldn’t solve the problem either since pitchers have been tearing their UCLs since baseball was a thing (Tommy John surgery has been around since 1974, after all. Plus, the surgery was needed to help turn that particular injury from a career-ender to the season-ender that it is today), it sure seems some sort of offseason pitching moratorium would help take some stress off of pitchers and their throwing arms.

The main question at this point is whether or not pitchers at any level would be down to calm things down? As ESPN’s Jeff Passan mentioned in this article written by Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer on the subject, it might take “a half-generation” and a lot of patience in order to change the mindset. Considering the current cultural climate when it comes to, well, everything, I personally have my doubts that patience could win over instant results at this point in time.

When it comes to solving this problem, it is extremely difficult to pin down this current rash of injuries to one single thing. MLB is reportedly currently in the process of conducting a study concerning the rise in injuries and who knows how long it could take before they even figure out a proper response — much less what the cause of this could be. Until then, you’re not going to find any definitive answers as to how to solve this problem and it’s honestly frustrating to observe as a fan of the game.

Maybe it’ll just become an accepted part of the game that pitching this hard and this often will lead to serious injury. Maybe we’ll start to see pitchers in MLB get similar treatment in terms of contracts and usage to how the NFL currently treats running backs. Maybe pitchers will continue to put up with it if it means they can pitch well enough for just long enough to make some serious bank in free agency. Maybe the old school fans are right and pitching needs to get back to Good Ol’ Fashioned Pitching-with-a-capital-P. Whatever the case is, it’s clear that this is an issue that’s going to be sticking with baseball for a long time and it’s something that the entire sport at all levels needs to reckon with much sooner rather than later for the good of the game going forward.

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