X’s Three Stars Of The Week (6/21/15 – 6/27/15)

Here is a look at this week’s “three stars” – according to X Marks the Sport.

1. Jordan Spieth (PGA Tour – United States)

It would be easy to classify last week’s U.S. Open as a collapse or come-from-ahead loss by Dustin Johnson (United States), but we’ll stay positive and keep the focus on the winner. Jordan Spieth had to overcome some adversity of his own, giving up a 3-stroke lead on the 17th hole with a double-bogey, to pick up the win. Credit him for being able to recompose himself and pick up a birdie on 18 when he needed it most to put himself in position to win. Spieth came into the final round tied with the aforementioned Johnson and Branden Grace (South Africa) and bested them on Sunday by 1 and 2 strokes respectively. So this win was more than “just a guy blowing it” – Spieth earned it. With the win, Spieth became the youngest player (age 21) win the U.S. Open in 92 years. He joined some of golf’s royalty (Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Craig Wood, Tiger Woods) by winning the U.S. Open and Masters in the same year. He is the youngest player to win both majors in the same year, and the first player in 13 years to pull off the feat. For several reasons, Spieth’s win on Sunday was historic.

2. Nolan Arenado (3B – Colorado Rockies)

If Nolan Arenado were on a better team, he would be at the forefront of National League MVP discussions halfway through the season. This week was just another sampling of how good he has been in 2015. Arenado recording at least one hit in all six games he played this week, pushing his overall hitting streak to 14 games. He had two multi-home run games this week and scored at least one run in every game this week – often batting himself in via the long ball. He also had at least one RBI in every game, including a pair of 4-RBI games. His overall stat line for the last week was a .391 batting average with 6 home runs, 12 runs batted in, and 9 runs scored while slugging an impressive 1.217. Usually more power leads to more strikeouts, but Arenado only struck out once in 23 at bats. At just 24 years old, a superstar is being born in Colorado.

3. Washington Nationals Starting Pitching Rotation

When the Washington Nationals signed Max Scherzer in the offseason, their rotation on paper was one of the best Major League Baseball had ever seen. Outfielder Bryce Harper indicated as much when he (in)famously quipped “Where’s my ring?” in response to learning about the final piece to the loaded rotation. The performance by the rotation this week is what Harper had to be envisioning when he made that remark. Gio González kicked things off by firing 7 scoreless innings on Sunday to clinch a series sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Stephen Strasburg (5 innings), Jordan Zimmermann (8 innings), and Doug Fister (7 innings) took turns pitching nothing but shutout innings in a series sweep of the Atlanta Braves. Max Scherzer closed out the weather-shortened week by holding the Philadelphia Phillies to 2 runs (the first runs surrendered by the starting rotation all week) in another Washington win. For the week, Washington’s starting pitchers combined for 4 wins (would have been 5 had Jordan Zimmermann not received a no-decision after a Drew Storen blown save). 35 innings, 0.51 ERA, 0.77 WHIP, and a sparkling 24:4 K/BB ratio. If they keep performing at this level, they will end up fulfilling Harper’s brazen prophecy.

The Tommy John Epidemic: “Babying” Doesn’t Work

Miami Marlins phenom José Fernández is the latest young MLB pitcher to require ulnar collateral replacement (Tommy John) surgery. Though it’s unclear as to why there has been such an increase in these procedures on young pitchers, one thing is clear. Coddling these pitchers by invoking arbitrary innings limits is not helping. Here are some numbers to prove that an overly conservative workload does not help protect young pitchers.

José Fernández had an amazing rookie season, winning the National League Rookie of the Year award along the way. He started 28 games in which he averaged 6.2 innings per start. He didn’t reach 8 innings in a game until his 16th start and never pitched 9 innings in a game. The Marlins let him loose a little more in 2014, allowing him to average 6.5 innings per start and reached 8 innings in 2 out of 8 starts in 2014 as opposed to 8 innings pitched in 3 of 28 starts in 2013. Despite Miami’s fairly conservative approach, Fernández still went down. There are more glaring examples if young pitchers being overprotected and that plan backfiring.

Stephen Strasburg could serve as Exhibit A. The Nationals tried very hard to keep his innings down when he debuted in 2010. In 12 starts, Strasburg averaged a modest 5.7 innings per start and was never allowed to exceed 7 innings in any start. Despite that, he still had to be shut down on 21 August 2010 and ended up needing Tommy John surgery. Matt Moore is a much more recent example. From 2012-2014, Moore made 60 starts and averaged just 5.6 innings per start. In those 60 starts, he only went 8+ innings 3 times and didn’t pitch a 9 inning game until his 52nd start. Two starts into the 2014 season, Moore is on the shelf despite being babied by the Rays. The Braves were extremely conservative with Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen. In 28 starts from 2010-2011, he averaged 5.6 innings per start and never pitched 8 innings in a single start. He finally was allowed to cross the 8 inning threshold in 2012 in his 36th start, and increased his average start to 6.2 innings for the season. Still despite a modest workload, Beachy had to undergo Tommy John surgery in 2012 and again this year. Atlanta was even more conservative with Kris Medlen, often using him out of the bullpen to keep his innings down. Medlen pitched less than 4 innings in 33 of 37 appearances in 2009, and pitched 3 innings or less in each of his first 12 appearances in 2010. Still, he ended up undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010 and again in 2014. All of the pitchers named so far had been held back and limited by their respective organizations for protection, and all of them needed UCL replacement surgery at age 25 or earlier.

None of the pitchers mentioned above ever pitched 180 innings in a season before their elbows gave out. Compare that to a workhorse pitcher like Félix Hernández. He first reached 190 innings in a season when he was just 20 years of age, and has pitched over 200 innings in each of the last six years. For his career, he averages 6.8 innings per start, and was not affected by averaging 7 innings per start as a 19-year old in 2005. Clayton Kershaw would be another example of a pitcher who wasn’t hurt by a big workload at a young age. His innings count was low as a rookie due more to ineffectiveness than anything else, but starting in his age 22 season (2010) he has pitched over 200 innings for four straight years and averaged 6.9 innings per start over that span. Justin Verlander also successfully shouldered a heavy workload early on. In his first full season as a starter (at age 23) he was allowed to pitch 186 innings, averaging 6.2 innings per start. Verlander has gone on to pitch over 200 innings for seven straight seasons, maxing out at 251 innings in 2011. Over that span, he has averaged 6.7 innings per start. There are other examples of pitchers who have thrown a lot of innings at a fairly young age, such as CC Sabathia and Tim Lincecum, without dealing with significant elbow or arm injuries.

While there is no concrete answer as to what is causing the Tommy John epidemic amongst young MLB pitchers, one thing is clear. There is no correlation between how many innings a pitcher throws as a young major leaguer and ulnar collateral ligament damage. My advice – take the reins off of these young pitchers. It’s clear that imposing pitch counts and innings limits does not reduce the likelihood of injury. If anything, it might be what causes these pitchers to go too hard, knowing that they’re only going to be in the game for so long no matter how they pitch. Taking preventative measures such as keeping pitchers under 100 pitches per start and shutting them down with three weeks left in a season clearly don’t work. Perhaps a crazy concept like actually observing these pitchers and talking to them to see how the feel rather than using arbitrary numbers to gauge their pitchers might be more effective.