The injury to Philip Hughes provides a perfect platform from which to introduce a theme this column will run with, among other things: The art of building, maintaining, and making the most efficient use out of a pitching staff. I find pitching -- the totality of it -- most fascinating. I have some pretty particular ideas about the optimal training and use of pitchers, and you'll become familiar with those over the next few weeks, perhaps so familiar that you'll find yourself sending me boxes full of cookies. Anthrax-riddled cookies. But don't worry: I've already built up an immunity to anthrax. I have a lot of friends out there.
In Philip Hughes' case (by the way, are we starting to call him "Phil" because we want to, or because he wants us to?), the denizens of the Evil Empire are no doubt annoyed at his joining the list of pitchers out for a month or two, which so far this year has included Mike Mussina, Chien Ming-Wang, Carl Pavano (no, really!), Ron Guidry, Lefty Gomez and Nuke LaLoosh. We're starting to suspect some kind of hamstring conspiracy, which is why the Yankees fired their newly-hired strength and conditioning coach, who no doubt cowered in fear as Darth Steinbrenner told him to get the hell out of his office.
By the way, I grew up in Pennsylvania and I can tell you from firsthand experience: If you go and play sports in cold weather, and you don't stretch really well, you're going to strain or pull a hamstring or calf or quadricep, or maybe all of the above. I know I'm rocking the boat again here, but maybe teams ought to make sure their pitchers stretch or something. The lesson here is, April was really cold, and leg injuries abound when it's cold.
Leg injuries to pitchers are really a perfectly fine thing, since they usually don't become chronic problems and don't have anything to do with the pitcher's arm. However, any injury, be it to a leg, a foot, a back, an abdominal -- any such injury must be handled by the team with extreme caution. Why? Because of the "Cascade Effect," a term not invented by Will Carroll, but certainly popularized by him. The Cascade Effect, like cyanide and the idea that walks are for lazy guys, is simple, subtle, and exceedingly deadly. It works like this: You hurt your leg, say you mess up your calf real good. You spend a month or so resting the calf, but you try to go back to pitching too soon, even though the calf is still sore. You want to show the world that you're a real manly man and can pitch through any kind of pain. You even volunteer to let someone set you on fire, so you can pitch while engulfed in flames. That's how manly you are.
This is good place to invoke Scrap-Iron Dupris: The body knows what fighters don't: how to protect itself. A neck can only twist so far. Twist it just a hair more and the body says, "Hey, I'll take it from here, because you obviously don't know what you're doing. Lie down now, rest, and we'll talk about this when you regain your senses." It's called the knockout mechanism.
Same concept here. You may be impressing 35,000 people with how manly you are, but your body knows the truth, which is you're just being stupid. There's a reason you feel pain. It's your brain's way of warning you, hey, ace, something's about to break here. And if you don't want to do anything about it, your body will do it itself.
To wit, without you consciously having anything to do with it, your body is going to subtly alter the motion with which you throw a baseball, to take pressure off that calf. And that is going to put extra pressure on some other, currently healthier part of your body. And usually, that part is: Your throwing arm. So you pitch with the trick calf for a week or two, then, lo and behold, your elbow starts to hurt. At which point you continue demonstrating your manliness until the day you lie down on a table and make Dr. James Andrews a little bit richer. That's a cascade injury.
Someone asked me what I think the Yankees should do with Hughes. This was nothing more than a casual conversation mind you. There are many good reasons why I'm not qualified to make any actual decisions concerning Philip Hughes particularly, including:
What I am is a historian, or a guy that fancies himself one, anyway, and history, even recent history, is riddled with cascade injuries caused by some mix of coming back too soon and being overworked (see: Prior, Mark).
Philip Hughes is a property of immense value. Ace pitchers do not grow on trees. The team in possession of a pitcher as good as Philip Hughes is under the obligation to do everything humanly possible to keep the guy healthy. This is one of the several reasons people cite for doing silly things like keeping Tim Lincecum in AAA ball (whole other column there.) I don't advocate keeping a pitcher in AAA when he obviously could be helping your team in the major leagues. But I DO advocate treating young pitchers, especially very young pitchers like Hughes, with extreme caution.
I'll get to my point now: The typical timeframe on a Grade 2 hamstring strain is 4-6 weeks. With Hughes, at the very least, that timeframe should be doubled. Yes, the Yankees can use the guy, but (especially after they sign Roger Clemens,) they'll make do without him, and his long-term prospects are much, much more important. Hughes has some injuries in his past, and let's face it, even assuming the Yankees sign Johan Santana in 2009, by then Clemens and Mussina and Pettite and even (gasp!) Pavano will be on a permanent golf vacation, and pitchers might be tricky to scrape up. So having one of the best pitchers in the game without even having to pay him would be, you know, good.
1. You want to absolutely, positively eliminate the faintest trace of the slightest hint of a cascade injury happening. You want to be REALLY certain about this.
2. It gives his still-developing arm a lengthy rest. The idea is gaining steam in baseball medical circles that a pitcher getting half a year off on account of a non-arm injury is a good thing for his development.
Don't send the kid home to sit on the couch, eat Doritos and watch Friends reruns until March; that's not what I'm saying here. Keep him around the team complex. Get a pitching coach/pitching consultant who knows his stuff, and have him teach Hughes everything possible about the fine art of intelligent pitching while Hughes' body is resting. Go over film with him several hours a day. If you don't have a pitching coach that can dedicate that kind of time, hire one.
You would have to be up-front with the media and fans about what you're doing. You don't need them going bananas because they think you're concealing some serious injury from them. For this reason, the Yankees may not be the ideal franchise to introduce a new way of thinking about pitcher injuries and recovery times; but the Yankees are the ones with the injured young star pitcher, not the Athletics (their young star pitcher's arm is already shot beyond repair,) and they should be pro-active in ensuring he'll be around to help them win their 100 games come 2010, 2011.
It would be quite a lot harder to do this if you're the Brewers or Padres or somebody, and sending your young stud pitcher home might make the difference between you winning the division by a game and losing it by a game. Then this decision gets as lot murkier. But the Yankees are going to be fine this year with or without Hughes, because the starters are going to get back to the above-averageness expected of them, and this lineup will rake and rake and rake. For the Yankees, this is an easy call. Spend the year teaching him how to pitch; start letting him throw in controlled sessions late in the year; wait until next spring to let him try it in games.
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