The announcement earlier this week that Miami Marlins ace starting pitcher Jose Fernandez will miss the remainder of the 2014 season due to an damaged ulnar collateral ligament and the impending Tommy John surgery it brings marked the 14th time* this season (and we’re only in mid-May! Yikes!) that a notable Major Leaguer (or top prospect) will miss a significant chunk of time due to the elbow ligament replacement procedure.
*Others of note include: Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, and Cody Gearrin of the Braves; Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin of the A’s; Patrick Corbin of the Diamondbacks; Matt Moore of the Rays; the Yankees’ Ivan Nova; the Padres’ Josh Joshson; the Mets’ Bobby Parnell; the Royals’ Luke Hochevar; Bruce Rondon of the Tigers; and Pirates’ top prospect Jameson Taillon.
While there are certainly a few small benefits to this, such as a dispersal of service time (allowing teams to keep their window of control open and keep costs down), as well as the exceptional track record of pitchers recovering and regaining form after the surgery, the negatives far outweigh the positives.
Teams are losing valuable cogs in their machines each time a pitcher is forced to go under the knife. This damages not only the team’s prospects of winning (which should, ideally, be every team’s goal) but it also hurts the team at the box office if, particularly in the case of Fernandez, the pitcher is a dynamic attraction who lights up the ballpark each time he throws a pitch.
Ultimately, the skyrocketing rate of Tommy John surgeries is going to damage the game, forcing teams to bypass top pitchers in each summer’s draft due to elbow concerns, the workloads of starters will continue to dwindle, and soon the game will look nothing like what we know today. Teams in this dystopian future will carry 12-man bullpens, starting pitchers will be only nominally that, each hurler tossing just the initial inning or two before giving way to a clown car full of mediocrity and specialization.
Offense will jump to ridiculous levels as the overall quality of pitching declines further and further down the abyss. And while the 1990s proved that offense is a potent box-office draw, it’s not going to last forever. The appeal of offense is in the challenge of it, the scarcity of it, the rareness of it. If every baseball game you attended or watched was always a 10-8, or 7-6, or 15-11 contest, you’d get bored eventually. We all would. And the game would suffer because of it.
With the game currently swimming in several billion dollars worth of revenue, we need to consider why this is so. Why is baseball — which is at its core, a business — doing so well financially during a time when offense is not the driving force?
It’s because of the diversity of it all. The strategy, the excitement, the randomness of what could happen each time an umpire bellows “Play Ball!” It’s the personalities of players like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, David Ortiz, Miguel Cabrera, and yes, Jose Fernandez.
The root of this epidemic seems to be steeped in the amateur ranks. Many of today’s players grew up when chicks were digging the long ball. Their heroes were fireballers like Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, and Randy Johnson. Scientists like Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine*. Hulking sluggers like Ken Griffey, Jr., Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa.
* Combined MLB totals: 1,536 wins, 21,301 innings pitcher, Zero Tommy John surgeries. I don’t know if this means anything. Correlation is not causation, certainly, but the greatness of these five and their ability to stay healthy does, I think, prove that health is indeed a marketable, and manageable, skill.
Players and coaches want to win, so the success of those men listed above was imitated, regardless of strain, stress, or cost. However, the steroid crackdown that this same generation of talent saw wash over baseball changed things. The young men who are now going under the TJ knife had to throw farther, throw harder, and as often as possible to beat the aspiring sluggers they faced. This battle of attrition is now bearing its cost in full as these men attain their dreams of pitching at the highest levels, just as they get going, it is being taken away from them — not to mention their fans — and something needs to be done.
So, what’s the answer?
It’s a problem that has its roots far away from the bright lights and big contracts of the Major Leagues, so unlike many of MLB’s problems, there is something that we, as fans, friends, and family members of the next generation of MLB stars, can do.
Do we lobby MLB to enforce tighter innings limits and pitch count restrictions throughout the minor leagues? Do we lobby college coaches to “ease up” on the kids that could determine if said coach keeps his job? Do we harangue and harass Little League coaches because “Timmy is throwing too much”? Should year-round baseball be put to rest? What’s to be done?
There is probably not any one, singular answer. But if 14 significant Major League pitchers — including one of the best young arms in recent memory — isn’t enough to tell baseball brain trusts the world over to start re-evaluating things, then all we can do is pray that our guy, our team’s ace, isn’t next.