WASHINGTON (CBSDC) – Former Major League Baseball pitching coach Leo Mazzone has an answer to the exponentially growing number of serious arm injuries, and the era of the pitch count, which tends to treat starting pitchers with kid gloves in an effort to avoid the dreaded Tommy John surgery.
Make pitchers throw more.
Mazzone, who’s credited with enhancing the pitching careers of Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Greg Maddux during his years with the Braves organization, which concluded in 2005, said he developed his own personal method of building stamina, berthed out of the natural evolution of the game in the early- to mid-1990’s.
“The mentality was based on this: when I broke in, baseball was in a 4-man rotation, but then it moved to a five to prevent arm injuries, okay – to give them more rest in between – and basically that didn’t work either,” he told 106.7 The Fan’s Grant Paulsen and Danny Rouhier.
“So what I tried to do was go into a five, and work the pitchers in between as if we were in a four,” he said. “And by that I mean this: we would throw a little more often with less exertion.”
Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan has long been a champion of a similar theory, saying on countless occasions and as recently as last month pitchers need to throw more often to build up long-term stamina, and stave off the Tommy John epidemic that seems to be taking hold of the sport.
“It’s because pitchers simply don’t throw as much as we did,” Ryan told the New York Daily News. “That’s the real issue here. When I pitched, we pitched every fourth day and guys would pitch 300 innings and it wasn’t considered a big deal. If you don’t get on the mound and develop stamina, you’re risking injury.”
The Nationals have certainly have had their dalliances with torn ulnar collateral ligaments, having to rebuild the arm of Jordan Zimmermann in 2009, and Stephen Strasburg in 2010.
Around the league, in only one week of Spring Training, Tommy John surgery was the fate of four pitchers: Brandon Beachy, Pat Corbin, Kris Medlen, Jarrod Parker and Bruce Rondon. For three of them (Beachy, Medlen and Parker), this was their second run-in with Tommy John surgery.
“More often with less exertion is the key to lowering the risk of arm injury,” Mazzone said. “For example, I had them go on the mound more often than other pitching staffs to practice their craft at 60’6” going downhill to a catcher, but the effort was controlled because our goal was to find out what the effort was going to be on the pitch, or the max effort that we could put on the pitch without maxing out.”
“What would be the effort on that pitch to get the end result that you want, and trust that it would work?” he said. “So we found out that by practicing that, and trying to acquire touch on the ball, guys could make pitches with a 90 percent effort, automatically smooth out their mechanics, and their control got better.”
As mentioned above, baseball is fully immersed at this point in the pitch count era — setting a cap, which, for starting pitchers is usually upwards from 100 pitches, and not allowing them to advance to another inning once a pitcher has reached that number.
“Sometimes they even count pitches on a throw day,” Mazzone said. “I didn’t count pitches on throw days. I got down there and we got loose. I had one coach say, ‘Well, Mazzone, as much as you throw your pitchers, there won’t be nothing left in August.’ Well, by the way, we were the strongest in August and September.”
In one particular 8-year stretch – from 1991-98 – with Mazzone as their guide, the Braves split 6 Cy Young Awards, between Maddux (3), Glavine (2), and Smoltz (1).
The Braves also won 7 National League East titles, and advanced to 7 National League Championship Series and 4 World Series, winning one, in that same stretch.