Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Me Pitch Through Pain, Me Tough

  • And me remarkably stupid:

When word got out that Stephen Strasburg was scratched from his start for the Nationals against the Braves because he couldn't get loose, Ron Darling said during the Mets telecast (I'm paraphrasing) that he'd never heard of that before. The implication was that Strasburg was either being a baby; the Nationals were being too cautious with him; or a combination of the two.

There's a mistaken assumption that because I'm against pitch counts and the treatment of pitchers as if they're breakable artifacts that I maintain a brain-dead "tough guy" outlook on how to handle pitchers as if any twinge or ache should be ignored and they should pitch as long as there's no bone protruding through their skins.

It's nonsense.

Under no circumstances should Strasburg have been allowed to pitch if he couldn't get loose. He was diagnosed with shoulder inflammation and is "day-to-day"----ESPN Story----and the Nationals are going to be more cautious than they were previously. And they're right to do it.

For someone as smart as Darling to revert to the ballplayer "code" of playing through pain as a means to either impress others or show how tough he is is a bizarre straddling of the line from the Yale educated philosophy buff and the old-school athlete who'd rather be perceived as macho than do what's best for himself and the club by speaking up when feeling something out of whack.

Was Strasburg supposed to pitch anyway? Was he expected to risk that Hall of Fame arm in the interests of pleasing others?

Despite the Nationals' questionable attempts to improve on the fly and stay in "contention" when they don't have current personnel to do so, they'd rather lose 95 games than have anything happen to Strasburg in the interests of a relatively meaningless game against the Braves in late July. The club's future rests on Strasburg and that shoulder which he couldn't get loose; had they pitched him or if he'd kept his mouth shut, it would've been the epitome of idiocy, just like Darling's comment. It'd be one thing if it was coming from someone like Rob Dibble, but Darling should----and presumably does----know better.

On another note, the Nationals had to start Miguel Batista on short notice and the fans expecting to see Strasburg were decidedly not happy about it. Batista's a piece of work; he writes poetry and novels; says what's on his mind; and is old-school on the mound in that he'll pitch wherever and whenever he asked and is willing to buzz the hitters when he needs to. Any team can use Batista on and off the field.

  • A pitcher who couldn't get loose:

When I head the phrase, "couldn't get loose" with Strasburg, I thought back to an article about another pitcher who had a similar issue, pitched through it and began a long career of good-to-great pitching and rampant injuries with extended stays on the disabled list.

In 1990, Peter Gammons profiled former Red Sox, Pirates, Cardinals and Dodgers pitcher John Tudor as he was in the twilight of his career trying to hold on as long as he could. The entire article can be found here----Sports Illustrated, May 21, 1990.

Here's the relevant quote and what those who are immersed in the shaky premise of what defines a "man" should try to comprehend if they think Strasburg should've pitched last night regardless of his shoulder problem:

After his third start for the Red Sox in '79, he says, "My shoulder was such a mess that when I went to warm up for my next start, I couldn't get loose."

Burdened by injuries, he was labeled by some in the Red Sox organization as "gutless."

Tudor was an excellent pitcher when he was healthy; in fact, I don't think he was given adequate credit for being as good as he was. There were few better during his blazing hot streak in 1985 as the Cardinals marched to the National League pennant. Would he have been better had he been treated more judiciously by the club and himself? If he was willing to tell someone that he was in pain rather than drag himself out to the mound injured and make matters worse?

It was a different time then and had Tudor said something, there's every possibility that he would've been shipped to the minors; had his reputation besmirched throughout baseball as a supposed "wimp"; and seen his career go down the tubes. Plus Tudor wasn't the prospect that Strasburg is; he didn't have an entire organization's future----on and off the field----riding on him.

In short, he was disposable. But that doesn't make it any better that he chose to pitch injured based on some ridiculous notion that he's not a "man" if he doesn't.

  • Speaking of Tudor...

This isn't to suggest that the team and the pitcher should be absolved of all blame for him getting hurt and pitching through the pain, but Tudor's mechanics had a great deal to do with his injury history. They were horrible. He threw across his body and barely used his legs or lead arm to gain leverage; plus he was a short-armer (he didn't extend his arm fully until he released the ball); it was only a matter of time before either his elbow, shoulder or both blew out----which they eventually did at separate times.

Mechanics play a large part in a pitcher's longevity; probably more-so than his workload. If he's overstressing his arm, he's going to get hurt sooner or later. Nolan Ryan and Greg Maddux had drastically different approaches to getting hitters out; but they both shared flawless motions that were honed to the point where they didn't have to worry about where their elbows were; where their landing spot was; where their glove was positioned----it was natural. Their long careers and absence of arm injuries is a testament to throwing properly.

This isn't to say that Tudor was wrong in pitching the way he did either. It's very possible that if he tried to copy a Ryan or Steve Carlton, he would've gotten rocked all over the ballpark. It was Tudor's motion that----in part----made him so effective. In the article linked above, it's mentioned how well he hid the ball and that his release point would get lost in his uniform; then he added great control to the mix. If he was more conventional, hitters would've been comfortable and gotten a better look at the ball and likely bashed him.

With Josh Tomlin making his Major League debut last night against the Yankees (and winning), I thought about former Pirates lefty pitcher Randy Tomlin who had a short but useful career.

Randy Tomlin had mechanics that could only be described as atrocious. He threw completely across his body (worse than most); he landed as if he was taking a step toward the first base dugout. Tomlin didn't throw hard and had something he called a "Vulcan" change-up that looked like the "live long and prosper" sign from Mr. Spock on Star Trek with the ball buried between his middle and ring fingers; he won 14 games in 1992 and got hurt in 1994. After hanging around the minors for a couple of years trying to come back, he retired at 31.

Would Tomlin have even had a big league career had he been taught to pitch more conventionally? Or was it that quirky motion that got him the few years----good years----in the big leagues? We'll never know, but my guess is that he wouldn't have.

Because of these different individuals and their effectiveness despite small stature or lack of "stuff", it's not feasible to try and create a one-size-fits-all pitching motion; and this, by extension, is the same reason that the arbitrary pitch counts, innings limits and babying rampant in baseball is not as cleverly planned an endeavor as the inside baseball and blind followers portray it. It's a result of self-justification and fear and why every individual should be treated as an individual while in an intelligent framework of how best to develop him and keep him healthy.

Cookie-cutter techniques are boring, paranoid and, most importantly, don't work.

  • Viewer Mail 7.28.2010:

Jeff (Street Boss) at Red State Blue State writes RE Joba Chamberlain:

Ugh... Joba. Spot on with the man-child's sitch (it's never pleasant being compared to (Kyle) Farnsworth, I'm sure)...

I don't think the Yanks will get much for him at this point. Maybe he would do well with a change of scenery.

If he joined my team I'd kick his ass for every time he did one of those outrageous fist pumps in a meaningless situation.

They'd be able to get a star player with Chamberlain as the centerpiece of a deal; they're not going to trade him now though. In the long run, it might be beneficial to have this struggle happen as long as it doesn't cost them a shot at a title this year. If Chamberlain has become such a reviled character to Yankee fans and the media, then it'll be easier for them to stick him in their desired role for him. Tempered expectations will let him slowly rebuild his confidence and stuff; over time, they could get the pitcher they thought they were getting in their preferred role for him; it won't be as quick as they'd hoped, but plans and schemes don't always work immediately and end up better in the end.

With the fist pumping, I'd be stunned if he hadn't been spoken to by Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera about his excessive celebrating; he's getting his comeuppance now and I think we can all pretty much imagine the stuff he's hearing from the opposing clubs' bench jockeys. (You may not believe this, but I was quite the bench jockey.) I'd also bet that Jeter is quietly applauding some of the things that are said to Chamberlain as he slumps because he asked for it and he's getting it.

Jane Heller at Confessions of a She-Fan writes RE Chamberlain:

I think sending Joba to the minors would be a good idea. Cliff Lee went to the minors and look how that turned out. Contrary to your comment on my blog, Joba was indeed rushed through the minors the first time around, rising through three levels to the majors in 07. Yes, there were The Rules, but the problem might be a case of too much too soon.

It's a fine line between rushing him to the big leagues and using him for the now. The Yankees felt----accurately----that he'd be a nuclear weapon out of the bullpen for the end of 2007; that they'd be able to deploy him in that role, win a title and then move him back into the starting rotation. Instead, the championship plans were casualties of the Cleveland midges; Chamberlain's stuff and personality became such a phenomenon that they took on a life of their own and infected those hopes for his future.

Joel Sherman wrote in the Post that the Yankees don't want to send a negative message by demoting Chamberlain directly from the set-up role to the minors and that his struggles aren't a result of laziness----he's still working hard----link.

If find this logic to be weak at best. Who cares about the message it sends? If anything, it's going to send the message that no one is safe if they don't do their jobs. And the hard work bit? They could put me in uniform and I'd work just as hard as Chamberlain. So? Does that have anything at all to do with me getting people out? If it takes three weeks in the minors to get him together, why's that such a bad thing?

Max Stevens writes RE the Angels:

While I like the trade for Dan Haren, I don't really get the Angels' acquisition of Alberto Callaspo, do you? He's a relatively inexpensive upgrade from Brandon Wood - and presumably the trade signals the beginning of the end of the Brandon Wood experiment for the Angels - but the acquisition of Callaspo doesn't really bolster the production the team will get from its infield, unless there's something I'm missing. Perhaps the idea is to platoon Callaspo with Maicer Izturis, or Callaspo and Kevin Frandsen? As an Angels fan, neither combination, nor the prospect of Callaspo getting the bulk of the playing time, fills me with much excitement.

Callaspo was cheap in terms of cost and he's a relatively unknown but solid player. He had a fine year last year with good numbers across the board and he's not making any money. Wood's gotten numerous chances and no one can ever say they pulled the plug on him too early; he's still only 25, but he's done nothing at the big league level to justify any more opportunity. The Angels are trying to win now; they need more offense and Callaspo provides that over Wood; plus he's versatile if they get a power bat for third base in the off-season or in a trade in the immediate future.

The Angels' offense hasn't been the major problem----pitching from the back of the rotation and the bullpen has. They did bolster the lineup quietly with Callaspo.

I was a guest with Sal at SportsFan Buzz on Friday. You can listen directly here----link----or click on Sal's site and download it from I-Tunes.

My book is still available on Amazon, I-Universe and Barnes and It's available for download as an E-book here. You can also now get it for less that five bucks on BN via download here.


She-Fan said...

John Tudor. Now that's an interesting name from the past. But back to Strasburg, of course the Nationals were right to be cautious with him and scratch his start. Not only is he a talented young pitcher, but he's their box office, their biggest asset. Why mess around and have him "play hurt?"

Jeff said...

It's obvious that the good folks in D.C. still don't understand the finer points of baseball. The people who came to the game last night were pissed off 'cuz he didn't start?

They just don't get it.


It's times like these that I wish Tim Russert were still alive. He'd kick these newbie fans' asses for sure.

Graham said...

I think it's a little over-critical to lambaste fans who had shown up to see Strasburg. Having a general sense of your team's long-term well-being and wanting to see what you paid for in the short term are not mutually exclusive.

As for Ron Darling, this kind of comment really shouldn't be much of a surprise. This was the guy who broke his thumb -- on his pitching hand -- and tried to stay in the game. This was the guy who retired and walked away from $500,000 rather than be put on the disabled list for the first time at the end of his career. (These are anecdotes from Ron's book, the title of which escapes me at the moment.)

You raise a very interesting point about the cost-benefit paradigm of pitching mechanics. Steve Stone summed it up pretty well when reflecting on his career and his Cy Young season: "I would rather have one year of 25-7 than four years of 15-15." (Paraphrased.)

By the way -- I've just discovered your blog. It's terrific!

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