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Pitching Injuries and Overuse

   by Al McMordie - 06/21/2010


<> When wagering on baseball, pay extra attention to pitchers who are coming off injury stints and ones off starts where they threw a lot of pitches. When he was 40 years old, former ace Curt Schilling pitched a complete game at Oakland, one where he lost a no-hit bid with two outs in the ninth. He wanted it, of course, and really put forth the extra effort in the eighth and ninth to try and get the no-no. That's a lot to ask of a 40-year old pitcher, even one with his credentials. Schilling was then bombed his next two starts, despite being a favorite of -140 and -275! He then went on the 15-day DL after taking an MRI. No damage was found, but it's reasonable to assume that turning it up a notch while going nine innings had something to do with it. It was Schilling's first complete game in three years.

A pitcher being overused, throwing a lot of pitches, or taking it up a notch like Schilling did is important for sports bettors to pay close attention to, especially with older pitchers. Guys like Roy Oswalt (age 32), Barry Zito (32), Johan Santana (31), Livan Hernandez (35), Derek Lowe (37) and Jamie Moyer (47) all have a lot of innings over the years. That's a lot of wear and tear on an arm. Zito had a good start to the season, but has tailed off since. The team is 3-3 his last six starts, giving up 5 runs or more in two of them.

<> NY Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen believes that Santana's issues, such as a drop in his strikeouts and walk ratios, are a result of injuries in 2009, which culminated in season-ending elbow surgery Sept. 1. Warthen believes that Santana made mechanical changes to be able to pitch through the injuries last season, which has had a residual effect this season. Following a video study with Santana after his loss in his prior start to San Diego, Warthen and Santana "felt the arm was in the right slot, but didn't feel that he was loading the same way that he has in the past."

Pitchers can get into bad habits when they are not 100%. Santana has developed a bad habit of rotating his midsection too early in his windup, causing his arm to lag. That has made his fastball cut out of the strike zone, and affected the sharpness of his changeup. Before the game, Warthen said that he saw evidence of improvement in Santana's most recent bullpen session, but that did not translate into his game performance Tuesday against Cleveland. His fastball is in the 91 mph-range and in his last two starts he's given up 4 runs each time in 7 innings.

Another factor that is similar is when pitchers come off the DL or make their first start in a while. Pitchers are creatures of habit, and throwing every five days is important for many reasons. Arm strength needs to be built up to maintain velocity and throwing regularly to real hitters is essential because of control. Finding the corners of the strike zone is not easy. It takes regular practice and a disruption to the routine can be detrimental. Even too much rest can be bad as it can disrupt a pitcher's control.

We see this often with pitchers coming off arm trouble, such as Francisco Liriano and Florida ace Josh Johnson over the last few years. Johnson was an ace with dominating stuff, 12-7 with a 3.10 ERA in his 2006 rookie season. However, he had shoulder trouble the next spring training and spent two years rehabilitating. He made his first two starts that season and got pounded. After returning from an elbow injury, Johnson's ERA rocketed to 14.85, surrendering 15 runs, 11 earned, in 6 2/3 innings. It has taken several years for Johnson to regain his old form, and took Liriano even longer. Both are enjoying outstanding 2010 seasons, but were money-burners the last few years while working their way back.

Another example is ace Roy Halladay of the Phillies. In a 2-1 loss to the Pirates back on May 18, Halladay pitched a great game, 9 innings only 2 runs allowed, 1 walk and 6 strikeouts. It was also the most pitches he's thrown in a game all season: 132. Sure, it's a pride-thing for a workhorse ace to be able to do that, but it can take a toll on any arm, even an ace like Halladay (who is 33 years old). In his next start, Halladay was terrible, getting pounded in an 8-3 loss to Boston as a favorite, giving up 6 runs in less than 6 innings. Handicappers need to pay attention to excessive pitch count as it can have a bounce-back effect the next game.

<> I recall when Angels righty Jered Weaver was a dominating rookie pitcher, winning his first nine decisions and finishing 11-2 with a 2.56 ERA in 19 starts. He didn't make his first start the next season until April 17. He came off the disabled list after recovering from biceps tendinitis in his throwing arm. He did not pitch for the Angels all spring. So what happened in his first two starts of 2007? Losses of 4-1 and 9-5, allowing 11 runs in 7 innings. Weaver threw 70 pitches in 1 2/3 innings and retired only five of the 14 batters he faced in his second start after coming off the disabled list. The right-hander was charged with seven runs -- five earned -- and seven hits. He said after that loss, "Everything feels good. I don't blame anything on what happened because of anything physical. I just couldn't get any of my off-speed pitches over for strikes, and it showed. You're not going to have a very good night when you don't have your secondary stuff working for you."

See? Throwing to major league hitters takes more than rest and arm strength. It takes timing, locating your pitches, finding a groove. Even the mental aspect comes into play, trying to figure out what the batter thinks is coming, and then trying to trick him. There is a lot to the art of pitching. Being sharp, healthy and on a regular routine is usually needed for a pitcher to be at his best. And those that aren't, can be overvalued by oddsmakers. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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