|Pitching 'til the arm falls off - the abuse of young pitchers||| Print |||Send|
Written by Jonathan Leshanski (Contact & Archive) on May 12, 2003
Occasionally someone utters a statement that just makes you stand in disbelief of the lack of common sense that you have just heard. The above quote is one of these things. The Florida Marlins have had one of the best groups of young, talented pitchers at their disposal for the last 5 years. Note the use of the word disposal – because that is precisely what the Marlins have done with their pitchers. Somehow every single one of these seemingly talented youngsters has been a disappointment and the Marlins rotation has never come together to make them into what should have been a contending team over the last several years.
The real question is why? The answer is pretty simple. It is due to injuries, overwork and abuse by the team manager. And it is due to having young players who are asked if they can go on and don’t know their limits. These young athletes try to stick it out when their manager asks them for just one more inning, or one more batter, or if they can pitch through the pain, and they continue to throw until something finally snaps. Literally.
I have never been reserved in my criticism of Jeff Torborg when it comes to pitching. In my opinion he has destroyed some of the most talented arms that have made it to the majors in the past few years. Last season A.J. Burnett threw 115 or more pitches in a game 17 times and more than 120 pitches 10 times. By August 18th of last year when he threw a complete game shutout he had already thrown 191 innings. That is when his arm problems began. He came back on September 14th and went on to throw another 13.1 innings. And now he is out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Burnett has not been the only one used in that fashion. Looking back over Torberg’s tenure in Florida, Michael Tejera, Brad Penny, and Ryan Dempster have all been worked far harder and longer than they should have been - even when they were playing with injuries. Currently the Marlins have four pitchers that are injured – Beckett (sprained elbow), Redman (broken thumb), Tejera (back/Achilles’ tendon) and Burnett.
One may think that this is a coincidence but it is no secret that most injuries occur to tired and overworked players. And Jeff Torborg has had a long history of overworking and destroying pitchers' arms. Lest we not forget the players that he had in Chicago - Jack McDowell, Greg Hibbard, Wilson Alvarez, Alex Fernandez and Bobby Thigpen whose careers were all shortened by arm injuries. This probably is what ultimately led to Torberg’s dismissal from the White Sox.
Pitch counts along with number of innings pitched are critical factors to consider. Upon examination it is not difficult to see the pattern in Florida; a good pitcher comes in, throws a lot of innings, often surpasses 110 or even 120 pitches per game and finally breaks down due to the combined factors of overuse and the lack of a strong bullpen in which Torborg felt he could count on.
Perhaps it was not his fault. Torborg is an old school manager and like many other managers he works with what he has and he wants to win. His starters were essentially his only weapons from the pitching standpoint, which of course, is a failing of the GM’s office. Like many managers his job depended on his record and his record depended on the only pitching he had. Incidentally, Torborg has not been the worst offender when it comes to letting pitchers throw more than 120 pitches per game. In the 2002 season, Bob Brenly in Arizona let Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling pass more than 120 pitches 14 times. In San Francisco, Dusty Baker let his pitchers do it 20 times – an alarming statistic that should concern Cubs fans since they have many talented young arms.
The crime here is not solely one of abuse by the manager but in the whole system of management. While baseball fans are often middle class with a degree of education the same cannot always be said for the players on the field, as many only have a high school education or even less. And when you look at managers most of them have worked their way up through the system and come to their jobs from a pool of older players with less education than anyone on the team save their coaches and ballplayers. Even the average trainer has more education than some managers and far more knowledge of the physical limitations of athletes and what they can do.
So why are the trainers not the ones with final say on when a player is done for the day? Or the team physician? Why is a man with a lesser education, who does not understand the anatomy, physiology or limitations of the human body, not advising a manager when the pitcher has had enough?
Without a question Torborg was guilty of not knowing how to protect his young talent and even possibly of abusing it in order to protect his job. In the past he has publicly stated that he had lost management jobs by paying attention to pitch counts and that he would not pull a pitcher based on pitch count. The charitable among us will chalk it up to stupidity and leave it at that. However when you look at how other organizations have handled developing young pitchers you need to give the Marlins a failing grade and one which required a change from the head down.
It is definitely time for baseball to put better-educated men in charge of the athlete’s body - if not the tactical decisions on the field. Mercifully we’ve moved past the day when managers could be allowed to use a pitcher until he could no longer pitch and destroy his career - finally including Florida, where Jeff Torborg and pitching coach Brad Arnsberg no longer rule.