Opinion of Kingman's Performance

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Precarious Life of an Elite MLB Pitcher

One day he’s on top of the world.  One of the best in the league and a true Cy Young Award contender.  Nothing seems to phase him.  He’s an All Star starter and he’s got the Big Apple on its ear.  The next day he’s staring at a surgeon’s scalpel and possibly will be out of the game until 2015.
Mets pitcher Matt Harvey appears to be headed towards Tommy John surgery. (photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Such is the risky life of a starting pitcher where the torque of a twisting arm throwing a breaking ball in an unnatural and unorthodox nature can cause you to be out of the game, perhaps permanently.  Matt Harvey was the talk of baseball a few weeks ago.  Now he’s the talk of the game, but for all the wrong reasons.  In another few weeks he’ll be remembered as the guy that will probably disappear from the baseball scene for a year and a half.

Partial elbow ligament tears are a difficult thing.  St. Louis’ Adam Wainwright had one and continued pitching effectively for five years, winning 20 games in 2010 before his elbow ligament finally gave way.  Chad Billingsley was unable to make it to his third start of the season after being shut down in August the previous year.  For most the consensus is that the ligament replacement surgery will eventually have to be done, so it’s best to get it over with.  Try convincing a pitcher like Harvey who could do almost no wrong on the mound that surgery is the best option has got to be difficult.  It’s got to be a real crushing blow and difficult for him to accept.  It was for Billingsley.

Through decades of baseball pitching and study of the craft, very few understand anatomy to the extent that they are able to teach pitching mechanics that will avoid the catastrophic elbow ligament injuries that shut down careers.   That’s because throwing a baseball overhand is an unnatural motion that will often lead to injury. Yet, there was a great Dodger pitcher, a Cy Young Award winner, that believes he knows the formula and absolute proper mechanics that will allow a pitcher to remain healthy and get the absolute most out of his arm for years.

Mike Marshall was known as “Iron Mike” for one reason, and that was his ability to pitch day after day without fatigue or injury.  In 1974 Walter Alston put him on the mound in 106 games as the Dodger closer.  When we talk “closer” in that era, we aren’t talking about a ninth inning man.  Marshall was called on as early as the fifth and sixth inning to close out some games.  He pitched 208 innings out of the bullpen that year alone.  He finished with a 15-12 record and 2.42 ERA.

In today’s game where pitch counts have almost become the most monitored statistic in the game by managers, let’s put the remarkable achievement of Marshall in perspective.  He was the “Kenley Jansen” of his day, the Dodger closer in an era when the number of saves wasn’t watched as it is today.  The concept of pitch counts and lifting pitchers who had reached a certain numeric “fatigue” level was not even considered.  Fact is, Marshall only had 21 saves that season, but it was arguably the greatest season ever for a closer in the history of the game.  There was one occasion that season where Marshall pitched six innings of relief. On another he went five innings.  Imagine throwing Jansen out there for a five or six inning stint.  He’d have to sit out for the next 5 days.  Marshall was back on the mound two days later after both incidents, and for more than an inning too, both effective outings. 

In that amazing 1974 season, Marshall pitched two innings 35 times.   He went 2 innings plus 5 times, three innings 9 times, three innings plus 4 more times.  He endured a four inning game another 6 times.  Then you can add in the 5 inning game and 6 inning game. Of his 106 appearances, he went two innings or more 61 times, (a rate of 57.5% of the time).  It’s simply an amazing feat.

How could his arm be abused at such an astounding pace?  Add to that his “out” pitch was a screwball that few throw today due to its propensity to cause arm injuries.  What it comes down to is that Marshall understood the science of pitching and how to take advantage of that knowledge to get the most out of his body and comeback, day after day.  Marshall admits today that he actually could have pitched even more that season.

As a young man he was fascinated by science and I personally witnessed his reverence and respect for that.  One of my earliest recollections of interaction with a ballplayer was when I watched him tell an autograph seeker once that he should get his science or math teacher’s autograph instead of an insignificant ballplayer like him.  At the time we thought he was a jerk for saying it.  Now that I look back at it, what he said made perfect sense.
Dr. Mike Marshall, 1974 Cy Young Award Winner
Kinesiology was Marshall’s field and he eventually earned a Ph.D. in exercise physiology.  His Doctoral Dissertation was titled “A Comparison of an Estimate of Skeletal Age with Chronological Age When Classifying Adolescent Males for Motor Proficiency Norms.”  All this was completed during off season study, (dissertation presented at Michigan State University, Spring, 1978).  Marshall has answered questions from parents of young adolescent ball players over the years on-line.  His position is clear with them and that is that their kids shouldn’t be throwing baseballs overhand until their bodies have fully developed and matured.  His dissertation study specifically was related to that.

Throughout his playing days Marshall was viewed by some as an eccentric player with wild ideas.  The reality of the situation was that he was probably the smartest man in the game, and he had difficulty following the regimens of pitching coaches that he knew were ruining pitcher’s arms.  His greatest successes occurred under managers and coaches that allowed him to do his own unconventional things, like throw weighted balls and exercise his arm through strengthening exercises when others said he needed to rest it.  

Marshall understood the human body and physics better than any player ever to play the game, therefore, a pitching coach couldn’t tell him to do something that was counter to science without resistance from Marshall.  Gene Mauch in Montreal and Walter Alston in Los Angeles understood fully that Marshall could teach them each a thing or two and they were savvy enough to know that.  Marshall’s greatest successes on the mound were under those two managers.

So what are teams saying about Marshall now?  Essentially that he’s a kook and persona non-grata in organized baseball.  His methods are so extreme from conventional baseball thinking that no one is willing to take a chance instituting the changes he proposes since it would require a complete restructuring of every pitcher in each organization.  Major League General Managers aren’t willing to buy in to Marshall’s pitching methods.  Former Atlanta G.M. John Shurholtz said in 2007 “It’s so far afield from the traditional, normal method.  Not many people I’ve talked to would be comfortable embracing a concept that’s so diametrically opposed to the teachings of baseball.”  Tom House is respected in the traditional baseball coaching scene where he is viewed as a pitching and throwing guru.  He has even served as a consultant to NFL quarterbacks.  Marshall has great disdain for his teaching methods and says he is ruining pitchers arms. “Mike Marshall thinks I’m nuts, God bless him,” says House.  (Link to article) 

As a ballplayer that was educated, Marshall claims he was a pariah in traditional baseball circles.  “You did not get any respect for your education within baseball.  In fact, you were considered a danger.  That you could understand what they were saying was b.s.  They didn’t like that too much.  I wasn’t an accepting kind of person.  They’d tell me what to do and I’d say, ‘What? That makes no sense whatsoever.  And I want to talk to you about Sir Isaac Newton.’...there were managers that didn’t want me talking to anybody.  In fact, they used that as a reason that they had to get rid of me.  My ideas were seeping into other players, and that just couldn’t happen.”  

Now I could go into Marshall’s pitching school and the unorthodox pitching delivery that he teaches and the strengthening exercises that his pupils use, but that’s another article altogether.  Marshall insists through empirical evidence that traditional pitching coaches teach methods that lead to torn elbow ligaments and other injuries.

Marshall is a stubborn man.  He’s not willing to enter back into baseball without fully integrating his entire pitching philosophy to an organization.  That would include classroom study in anatomy and teaching methods that are unconventional.  He was able to put these into practice at three different schools on the Junior College level to some success.   Any attempt to hire him to work for an organized major league baseball team will fail because there's no doubt that Marshall will insist that the organization buys completely in to his methods.  That’s not going to happen to veteran pitchers who have had success for years.  Can you imagine a pitcher such as Verlander changing his entire pitching motion and starting from scratch after all he has accomplished in the game so far?

What I wanted to address here really before going off on the Marshall rant, are the fallacies that the baseball establishment believes will conserve a pitcher from injury.  Efforts by organizations to cut pitch counts and innings, or even shutting down pitchers as the Nationals did with Strasburgh are simply wrong according to Dr. Marshall.

“Baseball pitchers tear the connective tissue fibers of the ulnar collateral ligament from mis-use,” he says.  He stresses that if a proper motion is taught, that ligament can be saved from injury, but as long as coaches continue the methods that they use today in traditional coaching methods, those injuries are practically inevitable.  Simply cutting back pitch counts and shutting guys down is buying a little time, but not stopping the ligaments from breaking down and reinjuring if the same motions are being utilized.


Mark Walter, the Dodgers Chairman is quoted as saying that “pitchers break.”  Based on the conventional pitching methods taught today and unnatural overhand motion pitchers use, he’s dead-on right.  With recent talk that the Dodgers have addressed extending Clayton Kershaw for upwards of $200 million, it’s a scary proposition to think that he could go the route of Matt Harvey or Chad Billingsley on any given pitch, but it’s probably a chance they’ll want to take.  After all, if they don’t’ extend his contract at some astronomical figure, there’s no doubt he’ll sign with someone else and how will Dodger fans feel watching him pitch in the fall classic for Boston, St. Louis, Texas or the New York Yankees?

Mike Marshall said it best in an email sent to a writer that referenced his work, in an effort to clear the record: “Unfortunately, unlike tendons, ligaments do not have pain sensors.  Therefore, baseball pitchers have no idea they are tearing the Ulnar Collateral Ligament.”  (Source to linked article)  When the ligament goes, it goes without warning.
(photo by Evan Bladh/OKP Blog)
So we simply have no idea.  Kershaw could pitch ten more years without injury or (heaven forbid), go down in his next start, just as Matt Harvey did a few days back in New York.  The clock is ticking. Long term contracts with pitchers have burned this organization before, but how could they possibly let the best pitcher of this generation walk away out of fear that his arm might go at any time?  This is a risk that they’ll have to take.  It might be the costliest risk this current Dodger ownership will ever make.

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