Young Pitchers Are Fragile Things

The bigger question though is, what does it mean? Some people have been asking whether the Nationals rushed him to try to cash in. Others have wondered if this is proof that pitchers are too babied today (though I fail to see the logic that says that having him pitch more makes him less likely to tear up his elbow, but whatever). I don’t really have an opinion on that, beyond thinking that his workload didn’t have much to do with anything, rather, I want to use this to talk about something I think gets far too little attention; the damage going to college can do to a pitcher.

One thing I always found weird about the praise directed at Strasburg was the claim that he had “perfect mechanics,” because it wasn’t even close to true. Strasburg, like Mark Prior, uses the “inverted W” pitching motion, a great description of which can be found here. The basic gist of it though is that the elbow gets above the shoulder and the forearm is not vertical when the shoulder begins its forward rotation. The benefit of this, and why (the last I knew) a lot of college pitching coaches teach this to their pitchers, is that it keeps the ball harder to spot longer into the delivery. You can imagine how, with a pitcher throwing near 100 MPH, an extra second or two before the batter can see the ball may be a huge deal, especially when the hitter has an aluminum bat. The trade-0ff, however, is that this motion is terrible for your elbow and shoulder, as the extra motion of bringing the forearm up after the shoulder begins its movement to the plate puts more stress on the shoulder and torque on the elbow. As Prior and Strasburg has shown, it’s not a trade-off that pays dividends in the long run, particularly for major league teams.

It’s times like these that make me wonder why pitchers with that sort of ability even bother with college baseball. Yes, a lot of teams, especially the teams who tend to pick at the top of the draft, have an infatuation with college pitchers because they’re closer to the majors than high school pitchers. But they’ve also got much more wear and tear and, in some cases, downright abuse on their arms. Frankly, some of the things college coaches do to their pitchers, especially seniors, is just scandalous. Guys have thrown 150+ pitches, come in on the other side of a long rain delay, started both games in a double-header, you name it.

The problem here is pretty obvious; incentives. The minors aren’t perfect, and can be plenty rough on a 19 year old kid, but at least your coaches have a vested interest in your future. Their boss doesn’t care how many games they win, they care about how they do in terms of helping prospects move along to the next level and, ultimately, become useful to the big league club. If you succeed in the long-term, so do they. College is just the opposite. Athletic directors might like to point out the great players who came from that school, but ultimately they don’t care how you do as a pro, they care about what you do for them. Managers aren’t judged on how many pros they crank out, they’re judged on wins and losses, and that doesn’t create the most conducive environment for top young pitchers who hope to be top major league pitchers some day. I’m not saying that college managers are bad people (though some of them certainly are) just that young pitchers should really think about whether or not the guy they’re putting their arm in the hands of has their interests at heart, or his own. Because as we say, it’s about the money, and no one wants to lose their job.