Potential panic ensued Tuesday for San Francisco Giants fans when ace Madison Bumgarner suddenly left a Cactus League game after only two short innings of stellar pitching.
After further explanation from manager Bruce Bochy, it became clear that the reason for this was not a masked injury, but rather a precaution to protect Bumgarner’s arm from overuse before a season in which the pitcher expects to take on a sizeable and important workload.
With the recent rise in serious pitching injuries, monitoring pitch counts and innings pitched has become an increasingly debated issue.
Take, for example, the much-criticized usage of former Chicago Cubs reliever Aroldis Chapman during the 2016 World Series. Cubs manager Joe Maddon decided to have the closer pitch multiple games in a row for more innings than Chapman was used to throwing. Especially in Games 5-7, Chapman was clearly overworked, tasked with making 16 outs in a span of four days and having a pitch count of a whopping 107.
Though at the time Chapman said he was ready to pitch however Maddon saw fit — the Cubs were playing in the World Series, after all — later in December, Chapman admitted even he did not agree with Maddon’s borderline exploitation of his arm.
Chapman maintained the velocity and movement on his pitches throughout the World Series, contributing largely to the Cubs’ victory. Maddon believed Chapman’s heavy workload was a necessary evil to get his team the title — and in all fairness, he was right.
But the question remains: Is exploiting a pitcher’s arm appropriate, even in the World Series?
It was a simple, responsible and intelligent decision to pull Madison Bumgarner after two short innings during a spring training game, regardless of the potential media and fan speculation this action created.
But other similar cases, such as those of Chapman, illustrate a more precarious debate: how to maximize a pitcher’s ability while simultaneously protecting his arm.
Unlike many baseball issues that exist only at certain levels, the question of protecting pitchers transcends all levels of the game. With conflicting science and quickly rising injuries, managers such as Bochy and Maddon are often guessing when gambling with their pitchers’ arms.
In recent years, protecting young arms has become increasingly difficult. Little League to Minor League coaches everywhere wonder how to protect pitchers from the epidemic of arm and shoulder injuries, most notably the elbow tendon injury that requires the famous Tommy John surgery.
Tommy John surgery is, of course, not career-ending; Many argue that after the surgery, pitchers return with even nastier pitches than they had before. The surgery requires moving a tendon from another part of the pitcher’s body to his elbow and takes about a year of recovery time.
Though not necessarily meant for young pitchers, as the injury causing the surgery is usually due to overuse, the last few years have seen a sharp rise in youth players and rookies requiring the surgery.
Experts have yet to agree upon a definitive reason for this phenomenon, though many theories exist for why youth players often find themselves in the overuse situations that Chapman found himself in last fall.
One theory blames the rise of the epidemic in the popularity of travel, summer, fall and winter leagues for young pitchers. The pressure to join off-season leagues is stronger than ever before with the increasing strength and competitiveness of this generation’s baseball youth. But a magic number of innings, outs or pitches at which to cap a young pitcher remains unknown.
And with this competitiveness comes the desire to gain a competitive edge, which could perpetuate a second theory for the overuse phenomenon: the appearance of breaking balls at the youth level.
Throwing a curveball in Little League has always been considered a cardinal baseball sin, but recent data has illustrated that curveballs do not necessarily adversely affect a young arm as always believed.
Additional data has combatted the subsequent theory that the danger in throwing breaking balls lies in a lack of correct mechanics, as studies have found youth players are more mechanically sound than originally thought.
Thus, how to protect pitchers has become more elusive as science has progressed. The surgeries to fix the problems are largely successful, but the methods to protect pitchers from these increasingly popular surgeries leave something to be desired.
Perhaps instead of putting so much time, energy and money into debating how to shave five minutes off a game, Major League Baseball should dedicate more resources to researching and regulating pitching issues, as it concerns the safety and development of baseball players of all ages.