I was pleased to see there is a strong push from the medical field on seeing what can be done about trying to limit and possibly end the rash of elbow injuries to pitchers. As Dr. James Andrews and many others have stated, the injury begins to happen at an early age to pitchers who play in multiple leagues, don’t get enough rest between appearances and attempt to throw too fast at an age when their bodies are not completely developed. Too much stress on the ligaments, tendons, muscles and bones that are still not completely mature.
I respect what all of them say but I also would add this component to the discussion: Why don’t the leaders of our professional and amateur organizations ask those of us who have pitched at the highest level for long periods of time what we did to train and condition our arms to avoid serious injury? Were we just lucky or are there things we did that could be helpful to pitchers of all ages and levels of experience?
I’m certainly not looking for work or suffering from a bruised ego, but I think drills and theories I learned from the late, great Warren Spahn and coaches like Eddie Lopat and Johnny Sain could benefit today’s pitchers. Johnny was Leo Mazzone’s mentor and Leo coached those great staffs the Braves had in the 90s. They did more throwing between starts than most organizations.
It’s puzzling to me how the culture has changed in trying to be the best you can be. I couldn’t wait to meet Warren Spahn, Robin Roberts and Whitey Ford and pick their brain about the art of pitching. I have told this story many times to groups. Whitey and I were the starting pitchers for a game in Minnesota in the early 60s. The bullpen mounds at Met Stadium were about 20 feet apart. As we were warming up, I could hear the spin on Whitey’s pitches. Yes, hear the spin.
I casually walked over to the fence that separated the two of us and asked, “Whitey, would you mind showing me how you hold your fastball? (“Hold” meaning position of the fingers on the ball and finger pressure.) He could have told me to get lost, but he took a minute to show me. We were competing against one another that day! That was incredibly generous of him. I switched to that grip, picked up added spin and movement and my pitching effectiveness improved. I have several other stories like that about picking up little tips from pitchers who were successful.
I’ve been involved in professional baseball for over 30 years since my pitching career ended. I have had very few pitchers who ever approached me and asked how I did certain things or trained and conditioned my arm. Roy Smith, who pitched for the Twins in the late 80s, was the only pitcher I can remember asking me several times to talk pitching. It’s disappointing to hear coaches in Major League organizations tell me, “A lot of them don’t know you played and don’t care if you played or how you did it.” It’s just the way it is today.
Even with that attitude today, I would hope organizations interested in developing pitchers that have the best chance to pitch effectively and free of injury would want to find out what pitchers from my era did to be able to start more games a season, pitch more innings and complete games and remain injury-free for years. I don’t care if they ask me. Ask Jack Morris, Greg Maddux, Jim Palmer, or Tom Glavine. There is a wealth of information available to help today’s pitchers — not just from doctors, but guys who have pitched effectively in the Major Leagues for a long period of time.
If I had a son who was a pitching prospect, I would first try to hook him up with former Major League pitcher Tom House. Tom offers drills, exercises and advice on how the pitching arm should move. Different muscle groups have separate jobs, but all need to work harmoniously. I thought for years that Tom was eccentric and his training methods were way too radical. Now I’m proof that we can get a little smarter as we mature and realize we are not always right. I do Tom’s shoulder exercises as part of my training with my Titleist Performance Institute trainer. Interestingly, I think golf has adopted Tom’s methods more than baseball.
I also would recommend that a pitching prospect consult Buddy Biancalana, the former Royals shortstop and a big part of the Royals’ World Series win in 1985. Buddy works with athletes on “getting out of your own way” by getting the brain to do what it is designed to do and not interrupt it with our own doubts and fears. Hundreds of us former pitchers can provide input on the art of pitching: grips, drills, and theories like the importance of the count. That’s always what should dictate how you pitch and what pitch you throw. The count and the scoreboard should be considered above all else in pitching.
A couple more items: I was discussing the dilemma of avoiding home plate collisions with Johnny Bench, probably the greatest all-around catcher in baseball history, at last week’s Rawlings Gold Glove dinner. We both came to the same conclusion — and I think Tony La Russa agreed. Just make every play at home plate a force play like first base. Catcher catches the ball and steps on the plate before the runner does it’s an out. Am I missing something? Is that too simple? If the object is to avoid contact, that would accomplish it. You don’t see many collisions at first base.
And pace of play. Let’s start with the batter. Can a company design batting gloves that don’t have to be refastened after every pitch? Can the hitter remain in the box between pitches? Mickey Mantle seldom moved his back foot when he took a pitch and immediately was ready for the next pitch. Can we have musicians record sprint-up tunes instead of walk-up music? Can batters be told they don’t have to step out of the box and look for a sign on every pitch? If it’s 3-2 with the bases loaded, why do you need a sign? We could limit trips to the mound to only making a pitching change.
Maybe we could get sponsors to sponsor three innings of a game or even an entire game, then we could open the telecast saying , “Tonight’s game is brought to you by ________ with limited commercial interruption.” Then we could have 50-second breaks between half-innings. I know, I’m dreaming or hallucinating.
Feel free to voice your opinions on any of this as long as your goal is to continue to make the game better. You’re certainly not obligated to agree with me.
The now common MRI. It seems like if a pitcher sneezes nowadays and mentions “elbow discomfort,” an MRI is scheduled and if there is a micro tear or strain of any kind, the pitcher is shut down and soon the now-famous Tommy John surgery is next.
I have kidded Tommy, knowing him well enough to do it, that some people think he is a doctor! It’s really the Frank Jobe procedure and we shouldn’t let Dr. Jobe’s name lose its significance now that he has passed on. Now it’s James Andrews and David Altchek who do most of these procedures, grafting the ulnar collateral ligament with a tendon from the wrist or hamstring.
I had the privilege of participating in a roundtable discussion on MLB Network recently with both doctors, discussing the alarming number of amateur pitchers who are having the surgery. I deferred to the medical professionals on how best to prevent it. They identified the overuse of Little League pitchers and youngsters trying to throw too hard before their bones and muscles are full developed as the causes.
Fast-forward to the professional level, and I don’t think any Major League pitcher who has pitched a significant number of innings would have a perfectly “clean” arm on an MRI of their elbow. My point here is — and again I would respect Drs. Andrews’ and Altchek’s opinions — can a pitcher pitch with some micro tears and not do more damage if he or she throws with proper technique?
Here I would defer to the opinion of former Major League pitcher Tom House, whose ideas were misunderstood and questionable to me for years. I have come to respect his knowledge of the biomechanics of the pitching arm. How the elbow, shoulder and lower body have to work as a team to reduce the chance of injury. I say “chance” because there are no guarantees it won’t happen.
I speak out on this subject because of my own experience with the same injury. I recently saw a video on YouTube of a game I pitched in September of 1967. My last start of the year. We win, we go to the World Series. I was having the best month of pitching in my career. (I won’t bore you with my stats, but if I won the game it would have been my eighth win that month, and I was averaging nine innings every start.)
Suddenly in the third inning, while throwing a pitch to the pitcher, Jose Santiago, I felt like I bumped my elbow on a hard surface and hit my “crazy bone” as we called it. After throwing several more pitches, I had to come out of the game. The diagnosis was the injury that now seems to require TJ surgery, but that procedure was not available at the time. I never had surgery and let it heal naturally over the winter. I wasn’t as effective for a few years, but I was able to do what I enjoyed: pitching.
Looking back on my workload in 1966 and 1967 has given me some insight into the possible cause. I had pitched over 300 innings in 1966 and was in the high 200s in 1967. The smoking gun probably was September of 1967, when I was starting my eighth game that month and into the mid-60s in innings that month. I was — and still am — a big proponent of the four-man rotation with three days’ rest between starts. The arm recovers fine, control is more consistent, and delivery probably will be more repeatable because you get to the mound more often.
I write this hoping we can learn a way to use pitchers to their maximum efficiency and value to their team and yet be prudent in not overworking them. A thought I have is the types of pitches and the emphasis on power might be more harmful to pitchers today than in my era. We were basic fastball, curve, change-up pitchers. The slider came along, but it really was what we call a cutter today — not all the action with the elbow, and more emphasis on finger pressure and the wrist. Not as many splitters or hybrid sliders. Today’s slider for most big league pitchers is the most hittable pitch around if not thrown with the perfect combination of power and break.
The recent article on the screwball by Bruce Schoenfeld in the New York Times has prompted me to get on my soapbox and say, “Bring back the screwball and the slow curve!” Josh Beckett is making good use of a slower curveball in his recent string of well-pitched games. (Unfortunately a hip injury has sidelined him.) David Wells was a very durable pitcher and most of his career was a fastball/curveball pitcher.
Marv Grissom, my pitching coach in the early 70s, helped me develop a screwball. I abandoned my version of what people today would call a slider — we called it a short curve — and went with fastball, slow curve (12-to-6 or 11-to-5 break) and a screwball in 1972. I got off to the best start of my career and was headed for potentially my best season when a broken wrist on July 1 ended my season. My screwball never was as good after that. Why? It is thrown with more wrist action and less elbow torque.
I really believe if pitchers would begin to practice pitching from 45 to 50 feet and work on spinning the ball with their wrist and pay attention to grip pressure, a relaxed thumb, and stick today’s version of the slider where the sun doesn’t shine, we might have fewer injuries, more complete games and more durable pitchers. Splitters and sliders might be making hitting more difficult, but there is a price to pay for overusing them.
This article is written because of my disappointment in not seeing Matt Harvey, Masahiro Tanaka and many other injured pitchers be able to enjoy longer careers and allow us the pleasure of seeing them match up against each other and pitch the whole game.