Matt Harvey And The Velocity Trap
Wouldn’t it be great if Matt Harvey wasn’t really injured? If it was just some sort of minor strain that was blown way out of proportion by Dan Warthen, Ray Ramirez and “Dr. James Andrews?” A coaching staff conspiracy if you will? In lieu of imposing hard innings limits on Harvey and Zack Wheeler perhaps they fabricated the whole thing. The season was obviously a lost cause, why not implement this ingenious little medical reuse to ensure the front office thinks twice before dealing from a purported strength in starting pitching? No?
I’m kidding of course. I think it fair to say Harvey did indeed hurt his elbow, but oddly enough Matt Harvey’s injury may have intruded in the front office’s decision making process at just the right time to effectively derail notions of trading from our pitching depth, like a giant MRI wrench tossed into the gears. In this sense, Harvey’s injury may actually benefit the Mets in the long run, particularly if it dissuades team officials from trading some of the more important and promising cogs on our minor league pitching rosters.
My sense is that one of Noah Syndergaard or Rafael Montero was slated to be traded this Winter and (particularly with all the talk about adding a free agent starter) I no longer believe that is the case. This is a good thing. It is good because while home runs put fannies in seats, pitching wins championships. It is good because it keeps Montero in a Met uniform, and Montero, if he remains a Met, will win more games for the Mets than Syndergaard, Wheeler, and maybe even Harvey. There, I said it.
Now hear me out before you start throwing cabbages and tomatoes. There’s been a staggering volume of research and data surrounding pitching injuries in recent years in an effort to get to the bottom of why so many pitchers end up blowing their elbows out. The consensus, at least anecdotally, bemoans a time when men were men and pitchers routinely threw 300 innings. Sadly, most analytics seem to point to breakdowns in mechanics and sudden increases in workloads, when the real culprit may be something far simpler.
The radar gun.
Since the advent of the radar gun, scouts have taken copious data on velocity as a virtual be all end all to a given prospect’s “chances.” Rather than taking a more informed approach to the craft of pitching, which is what scouts did prior to the radar gun, these days the heart of a scouting report involves whether a prospect can “touch 97.” The idea behind this is that you can teach the other stuff, you can teach anyone to throw a change-up, but you cant teach 97 mph. It also makes the scout’s job a lot easier. There was a time when a hard luck prospect on a bad team who didn’t throw very hard but who nevertheless had a knack for getting guys out still had a shot, these days not so much.
Harvey threw harder in 2013 than he’d ever thrown before. He was blowing batters away with high 90’s heat late in games and he routinely seemed to run out of gas in the 8th. It was amazing to watch but you’ve got to wonder if he’d have been better served had he dialed it back a notch and whether he might have actually completed a few more games that way. You want to know why so many guys blow their elbows and shoulders out? Look no further than our contemporary velocity trap. These guys are bigger, stronger and maybe better conditioned than baseball players have ever been before, but the human body can only do so much, and the human elbow and rotator cuff can only throw so hard. There are structural, mechanical and anatomical limitations to how hard a person can throw, and while we see an increase in the number of players who can throw in the upper 90’s with every year, we aren’t going to see anyone throwing 110 or 115 mph in the near future. It’s not physically possible.
Barry Bearak penned a fascinating piece in the N.Y. Times a couple of weeks ago in which he profiled Dr. Glen Fleisig’s life and career as a player (he was actually a Met for a while) and a biomechanical engineer. He quoted Fleisig:
“Everyone is trying to throw faster these days, especially youngsters,” said Fleisig, the biomedical engineer, whose office is in Birmingham. “The ticket to being scouted is to light up someone’s radar gun.” In the process, he said, pitchers are populating the practices of orthopedic surgeons.
He also concluded that pitchers have been getting hurt with greater frequency because more of them are big enough and strong enough to approach that dangerous limit.
“Oh, there may be an outlier, one exception here or there,” he said. “But for major league baseball pitchers as a group of elites, the top isn’t going to go up anymore. With better conditioning and nutrition and mechanics, more pitchers will be toward that top, throwing at 95 or 100. But the top has topped out.”
Over the past 25 years or so pitchers have been running up against an anatomical wall with greater and greater frequency because of improved conditioning and nutrition … this is why we have witnessed this explosion of arm injuries.
This is why Montero, a pitcher who relies on impeccable control, on poise and guile and intelligence more so than sheer throw through a brick wall velocity, a guy who only throws as hard as he needs to, will have a longer career and will win more games for the Mets than our prized cadre of fireballers. The irony with Harvey is that his stuff and his instincts are so good you could argue he doesn’t need to throw that hard … but don’t tell that to the guys working in the radar gun factories!
Does anyone here really think these cigar smoking beer guzzling 300 inning guys from the good old days (it was estimated albeit crudely that Walter Johnson’s fastball came in at around 86 mph) threw as hard as the Matt Harveys of our world? Not a snowball’s chance in Bora Bora … the reason they lasted so long was because they only threw as hard as the situation called for. They were locating, they were changing speeds, they were spinning nasty breaking pitches, they were throwing smart, and they didn’t have radar guns judging their every pitch. There’s a reason why knuckleballers can pitch well into their 40’s.
For anyone interested, here is a handy dandy slideshow presentation on pitching biomechanics (in PDF) by Fleisig himself.
About the Author: Matthew Balasis
I’ve been a Met fan since August 1969 when a fire resulted in the Red Cross placing my family on the 6th floor of a building in Willets Point. I could see Shea from our balcony and I knew something big was going on. I followed them through the dark years and the resurgence of the 80’s only (sadly) to miss the fall of 86 because I was in Boot Camp. I've been serving penance ever since in Minnesota where I'm an SLP. I've written a lot about the Mets in an effort to share with my kids (and anyone else who might listen), a sporting tradition that made much of my childhood worthwhile. Follow me on twitter: https://twitter.com/MatthewBalasis
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