by Chris Lingebach

WASHINGTON (CBSDC) — Major League Baseball has an increasingly problematic epidemic on its hands ripping through the sport, affecting pitching staffs from top to bottom, from the elbow up.

The frequency of Tommy John surgery has reached such a point, it appears the way teams are approaching pitch counts with pitchers may need to be reevaluated.

Almost as troublesome, everyone in baseball seems to have a different opinion, which is uncomfortably understandable considering how many variables one must factor in when trying to pinpoint the precise cause of wear and tear on a pitcher’s throwing arm, and at which point that erosion begins to set in.

Former longtime Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone, for instance, who was largely credited with the success of one of the most successful pitching staffs in the early- to mid-1990’s, recently asserted his belief that the solution is to have pitchers throw more often, but with less exertion.

One reality, at least most can agree upon, all of whom are becoming increasingly aware of, is that something needs to change.

Retired pitcher and Hall of Fame hopeful John Smoltz has his own well-carved out opinion, which he shared with the Sports Junkies on 106.7 The Fan last week.

“Let’s say the rate of Tommy Johns is somewhat normal, and all the kids are doing youth sports the way they should. Let’s just get that out of the way, which we know they’re not, but let’s say it’s normal,” Smoltz said. “Then I’m more of the mindset the way we train, and the way we prepare for a season is no different than you would prepare for a marathon. I highly doubt marathon runners are only gonna run a mile or two, and then show up for the race and run that marathon.”

“I just have a hard time thinking that that would be a formula,” he continued. “And in some form or fashion, that’s kind of what we’re doing today. We’re not training sport-specific; we’re training to look at a beach body. Guys are leaner, stronger, bigger, throw harder; they don’t know how to maximize a full season, and 240 innings. We’re not training them to do that. We’re almost like deconditioning them to think that they only have so many throws in their arm, and 200 innings, and oh my gosh, 115 pitches they’re gonna break down.

“And I would liken it to this: If I called you guys every day and told you you were gonna get sick, eventually you’re gonna get sick, and then you’re gonna start worrying about getting sick every single day and you might make yourself sick. I just don’t understand why guys before me threw 300 innings like it was nothing, or 280 and it was no big deal, and we threw in the 240s regularly, and over 200 – now, eventually, if you look at the curve and the trend of all these computer geniuses that are running baseball nowadays, we will throw 150 innings at some point near in the future, and that will top out. And maybe we’ll have 10 of those guys. Who knows.

“That, to me, if I had to look at an organization and evaluate a pitching staff, we all know that mechanics are very important – it’s not the end-all, but it’s very important – but if you don’t train and prepare yourself for something, you’ll never reach it.

“And so we’re not training and preparing these guys from minor league innings, for the ability to know who they are as a pitcher, to come up in the big leagues and identify, ‘Hey guys, go get ‘em.’ And what else are you gonna do? You’re gonna max out; you’re gonna throw as hard as you can; you want to be successful because those stats mean something, and obviously your paycheck is what you’re playing for. So when you do these things and put the lid on people, then I don’t know why they are surprised these things are happening. We would not be having these discussions if limiting pitches and limiting innings was working. It’s not.”

Locally, the Nationals recently lost their 2011 third-round pick, Matt Purke, to Tommy John surgery. Their first-round pick from the next year, Lucas Giolito, was drafted by the team knowing he’d almost certainly need Tommy John surgery, from which he’s since fully recovered and has finally begun his professional career.

Two bigger names, Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg, each underwent Tommy John surgery during their MLB rookie campaigns, in 2009 and 2010, respectively.

The bottom line, the problem hasn’t evaded the Nationals, just as it hasn’t evaded the entire Major League ranks. Smoltz may not have the answers, but he certainly knows what he feels the answer to this rapidly spreading Tommy John epidemic is not: pitch counts.


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