By In Stuff

The Long Sad History of Injured Pitchers

There seems to be an impression out there that pitchers get hurt today more than they ever did before. It seems that every time a high profile pitcher gets hurt — the latest of these being Mets phenom Matt Harvey — that we get a rash of stories like this one from my friend Terry Moore, recommending some solution for this “epidemic of starters and relievers” who pitch well, then feel pain, then go the DL, then go under the knife. Terry’s recommendation is pitchers throw more, something I’ve heard from a lot of veteran baseball people (“Operation Long Toss”) and it’s a perfectly reasonable concept. I’m personally all for it.

But let’s be clear about something: I don’t believe for one minute that there’s some new epidemic of starters and relievers getting hurt. I think this is a story as old as baseball. I think that as long as pitchers throw baseballs as hard as they can, often mixing in various twists and turns and grips, elbow ligaments will burst and shoulders will pop and rotator cuffs will tear. And while there might be ways to protect pitcher’s arms, to limit the damage, to give pitchers their best chance to survive — long toss, limited innings, ice treatments, heat treatments, five man rotations, progressive inning increases, occasional skipped starts — the worldwide reality will not go away. Pitchers get hurt. A lot.

I think maybe we think of the old days different because when pitchers got hurt then, they were simply discarded and never heard from again. The code phrase for this was “He had arm fatigue” or “”he stopped being effective.” It’s actually pretty comical, if you think about it. You see those phrases, or something similar, scattered throughout baseball history.

Take Russ Ford. Have you ever heard of Russ Ford? In 1910, Ford at age 27 came to play for the New York Yankees and he went 26-6 with a 1.65 ERA and 209 strikeouts in 299 2/3 innings. He gave up just 194 hits, meaning the league hit roughly .188 against him, and he gave up four home runs all year. Yes, it was the Deadball Era, but this was a spectacular debut. Truth is, Russ Ford had invented something new — a pitch that would be called the “Emery Ball.” He had learned that if you scuff up a baseball you could make it move in unpredictable ways. Others would take the trick all the way to the Hall of Fame.

But the point is — Russ Ford soon suffered from, yep, “arm fatigue.” What’s that? His arm hurt. He had a good second year, but by his third he led the league in losses. They Yankees dumped him after the next year. He picked up with Buffalo in the Frontier League and had a good year, then a lousy one, then was out of baseball where he nursed a sore arm for pretty much the rest of his life.

You know the story of Mark Fidrych. Amazing in 1976 at age 21. The talk of baseball. One of the biggest sports personalities of my entire childhood. He went 19-9 with a 2.34 ERA and a ridiculous 24 complete games. The next year he blew out his rotator cuff. He pitched in the Majors again, but he never made it back. Arm fatigue. And he stopped being effective.

Tommy Thomas at age 27 won 19 games with a 2.98 ERA for the Chicago White Sox. He led all pitchers in WAR. Three years later, he blew out his elbow, suffered from ptomaine poisoning (pitchers had it seriously rough in those days) and spent the next eight years just struggling to hang on in the big leagues as the pain shot up and down his arm.

How about Bill James — the pitcher. In 1914 he went 26-7 with a 1.90 ERA. He was called Seattle Bill and he completely turned around the fortune of the Boston Braves, who went from 69-82 to World Series champions. The Miracle Braves, they were called, and Bill James was that miracle. The next year he came to camp with that dreaded “arm fatigue.” He won five games. He tried shoulder surfer after shoulder surgery. He never pitched another Major League game.

Remember Justin Thompson? He was 6-foot-4, left-handed, an exciting young pitcher. In 1997, age 24, he went 15-11 with a 152 ERA+ and a 151-66 strikeout-to-walk. He made the All-Star Team. Injuries ended his effectiveness.

Do we need to talk about Mark Prior? As a 22-year-old — 18-6, 2.43 ERA, 245 strikeouts in 211 innings. Injuries. Never made it all the way back.

Herb Score? The common perception is that Score’s brilliant young career — as I’ve written before, he was Koufax before Koufax — was detailed by a line drive off the bat of Gil McDougald. That was the lead sentence of his obituary in the New York Times (which you might not be able to read right now because of the cyber attack), and it is partially true, though the full truth from many people around him seems to be that it was actually ARM troubles in his comeback that cost him what seemed sure to be a Hall of Fame career.

Ernie Broglio? Remembered for being on the wrong side of the Lou Brock trade, but Broglio at 24 went 21-9 with a 2.74 ERA, 188 strikeouts, and he led the league in WAR. What happened? “(The Cardinals) got a heckuva player; they gave up damaged goods,” Broglio told ESPN in 2011. “I think that they knew I had a bad arm.”

Cy Blanton led the National League in ERA in 1935 as a 26-year-old. He pitched reasonably well for pretty good Pirates teams the next three years before basically disappearing. Blanton was an alcoholic, and he died at age 37, and many blamed his ineffectiveness on alcohol. But, his fall as a pitcher traces directly to a serious arm injury he suffered in sling training 1939.

Gary Nolan was a phenom, only the second pitcher in baseball history to strike out 200 batters in a season before he turned 20 (the first was Bob Feller — Dwight Gooden became the third in 1984). He had so many arm issues that, at some point, the Reds sent him to a DENTIST and told him they had solved the problem (they thought it was all in his head).

Sparky Anderson predicted Don Gullett would be in the Hall of Fame the year Gullett turned 22 years old. Everybody thought so. He had 100 wins before his 27th birthday. He finished with 109 after blowing out his rotator cuff at 27.

How about Brandon Webb? Cy Young winner at 27, a 22-game winner at age 29, out of baseball at 30 after shoulder surgery.

Jon Matlack. Rookie of the Year. Three-time All-Star. Elbow Surgery at 29. One full season after that.

Dizzy Dean. Led league in strikeouts four straight seasons, won 30 and 28 games back to back. At age 27 he was hit in the toe with a line drive. This, legend has it, caused him to change his pitching motion, which led to him badly hurting his arm. It also could have been the 1,531 innings he had thrown the five previous years. It also could have been that pitching hurts arms. He tried to hang around on his name with junk pitches, but he did not win a game after age 30.

Schoolboy Rowe won 24 games as a 24-year-old and charmed everyone with his superstitions — they say he would carry around luck charms galore and would always wear his lucky tie. In 1937 and 1938 he suffered that all-encompassing arm fatigue and disappeared. He spent the next 10 years bouncing up and down, pitching well for stretches and then having completely lost seasons. He won 158 career games, so this made him one of the lucky ones with arm fatigue.

The late Dick Radatz was such an overpowering reliever from 1962-1964 that Mickey Mantle was known to call him “The Monster” which led to him being known as, yes, the Monster. Through his first four seasons, he went 49-32 with a 2.57 ERA and 608 strikeouts in 538 innings pitched. Then he had what was called a “puzzling drop in velocity.” That’s another code phrase. “Puzzling drop in velocity.” LIke it’s really puzzling. He was traded to Cleveland and won three games the rest of his career.

Craig McMurtry finished second to Darryl Strawberry in the Rookie of the Year balloting in 1983 and was seventh in the Cy Young voting. Then: Elbow problems.

You can go like for much, much longer — though I sense we’ve gone on too long already. If you go down the list of pitchers who had early success in the big leagues, you come upon injury after injury after injury. And for many — Wilcy Moore, Buck O’Brien, Herman Pillette, Whitey Glazner, on and on — there’s no clear injury to talk about because pitchers just ascended and descended so quickly that nobody really bothered to keep track. And don’t even get started on the hundred, no, thousands of promising minor league pitchers through the years who have had their dreams crushed by injuries.

This, of course, is not to say that teams should stop trying to prevent injuries. They should absolutely keep trying, keep studying the arm, keep studying the mechanics of the windup, maybe get pitchers to throw more like Terry suggests. It’s more important now than ever with all the money and interest in the game.

But let’s not kid anybody. Pitchers get hurt, and there’s no solution for that. The Matt Harvey story is a tale as old as time. The thing that has changed, the miracle here, is that, with treatment and possibly surgery, Harvey will have the opportunity to come back and, we all hope, be as good or better than ever. That’s new. If he pitched 50 or 70 or 90 years ago, Matt Harvey might have a two paragraph Wikipedia item talking about how he was an exciting young pitcher until, inexplicably, arm fatigue caused him to have a puzzling drop in velocity. And he stopped being effective.

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43 Responses to The Long Sad History of Injured Pitchers

  1. Scottienyc says:

    And of course, one of my all-time favorites, Steve Busby. Two no-hitters and a 20 game win season before age 24, then blew his rotator cuff.

  2. Scott says:

    The Detroit Tigers have been particularly snake bit by this one. Add to Mark Fidrych and Justin Thompson Matt Anderson and Joel Zumaya, who regularly topped 100 mph before injuries very early in what looked like promising careers.

  3. B.E. Earl says:

    My father-in-law was a great pitcher out of high school in the early 60’s. Went 24-11 in 2+ seasons with a 2.60 ERA through a few levels of minor-league ball with the Yankees organization. He had to go into the Army Reserves at 21 (ballclubs had some pull with that back then), where he injured his pitching arm in basic training. That was that. Spent several more years with the club rehabbing the arm, but he never pitched professionally again. He was never bitter about it, although there were regrets. Just said that was how it was back then. Pitchers got hurt and then they were done. But he got to spend a few Spring Trainings with Mantle, Maris, Ford, etc…

  4. BobDD says:

    . . . and then Satchel Paige and Nolan Ryan are still throwing fastballs until they’re like 86 – Freaks!

    • NRJyzr says:

      If one believes the designation in the lovely Neft & Cohen book, even Nolan Ryan had an elbow problem, in 1975. (I wasn’t paying attention to MLB at the time so don’t know the nature of the injury)

  5. shaggy says:

    The article really brings home the point that while big league pitching is hard to hit, pitching to big leaguers is even harder and more taxing.

  6. Bugaj says:

    …and not a single word about Dr Mike Marshall or the blackballing of Jeff Sparks. If you’re not a part of the solution, you’re part of the problem, Joe.

    • Tracy Mohr says:

      The “blackballing” of Jeff Sparks? Sparks averaged 5.6 walks per 9 innings in the minors and had 30 in 30.1 major league innings.

      His problem was that he couldn’t find home plate with a map and a flashlight.

    • Dan Shea says:

      I’m no kinesiologist, but my understanding of the Dr. Mike Marshall school of pitching is that pitchers using his methods (e.g. those who throw a “torque” fastball) generate lower velocities and throw with less accuracy with about the same arm stress. So I’m not sure how he is the solution.


      “Compared to elite traditional pitchers, the torque fastball pitchers produced similar shoulder and elbow torques, but significantly less ball velocity. Compared to a matched traditional group, the torque fastball group produced similar ball velocity, but required significantly greater shoulder and elbow force and torque.

      Accuracy was also an issue. Collectively, the three skilled Marshall‐style pitchers threw only one‐third (9 out of 27) of their maxline fastballs for strikes, and about one‐fourth (5 out of 21) of their torque fastballs for strikes.

    • Rob Smith says:

      I like Marshall, but he’s a paranoid nut by any standards. Teams don’t pickup Marshall’s pet projects because of a conspiracy. They don’t pick them up because they aren’t good enough. Teach a donkey to throw an accurate 95 MPH fastball and someone would sign him.

    • schuyler101 says:

      Bugaj also thinks the moon landing was hoaxed.

    • David says:

      Although I wouldn’t believe anyone who’s quoting Glenn Fleisig. He and James Andrew are medieval barbers with million-dollar bank accounts. They can’t fix anything, yet baseball teams are forever sending pitchers there.

      A Marshall-technique pitcher will eventually make it. Not many in all likelihood, but they generate seriously freaky movement on their pitches.

  7. Ed McDonald says:

    What saved Nolan Ryan was that he didn’t throw over 200 innings until the year he turned 25. Wasn’t he one of the examples used to show that young pitchers should be used sparingly until their bodies fully mature?

  8. Ed McDonald says:

    Don’t forget my favorite, Smokey Joe Wood. He went 34-5 in 1912 as a 22 year old, pitched 344 with 35 complete games. He never pitched over 150 innings again. At least he did come back as decent outfielder in 1918.

  9. Frank says:

    Two thoughts occur: (1) Pitchers with a career of ten or more years almost always have some sort of arm (or back) injury. Don Sutton comes to mind as an exception to the rule.

    (2) I believe that some of the babying of young arms often does more harm than good. At the very least, the value of it is overrated. Notwithstanding the over-protection, Stephen Strasburg, Joba Chamberlain, Matt Harvey, and others have all succumbed. No doubt they have had this mothering from Little League, Babe Ruth high school, and college. On the other hand, some of the Latin American pitchers – who did not having innings limits and often played year-round – have not seemed to have had as many issues. I may be wrong, but it would make for an interesting study.

  10. What’s the problem, Bugaj? Injuries to pitchers?

    Joe wrote paragraphs upon paragraphs above presenting a small sample size of pitchers in history whose careers fell short likely due to injury and never fully recovering. It’s not a treatise or dissertation scientifically exploring the problem of pitchers’ arm injuries and possible solutions to minimize these injuries.

    And yet you wrote just two sentences. Your first sentence is intriguing; why not tell us more? I know about Dr. Mike Marshall, but perhaps you can expand on that, and be certain to include any thing and every thing, so that no one accuses you of being part of the problem. Because your second sentence is worthless tripe, and I wouldn’t want someone to throw it back at you.

  11. Phil says:

    Tempted to add Dave Stieb to the list. He’d thrown a ton of innings by the time he turned 27, including four straight years of 265+ starting at age 24. He struggled at 28 and 29, then had three more good years–but pitching 60 fewer innings a season and striking out about a batter a game less. And that was it; he was finished at 33.

  12. Kent Morgan says:

    I certainly know about Russ Ford, who was born in Brandon, Manitoba. I researched his career and pushed for his induction into the Manitoba Baseball Hall of Fame and the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame. When he was inducted into the latter in 2002, I had the honour of accepting on his behalf. The Ford family had left Manitoba for Minnesota when he was quite young and we were unable to track down any of his family. The Society of American Baseball Research members tried with no success. Russ had a brother who also played organized baseball.

  13. Hank says:

    One of the saddest stories I know is Christian Parker of the 2001 Yankees. He was a rookie, not only made the team, but started the 4th game of the season behind Clemens, Pettitte and Mussina. He pitched 3 inning, hurt his arm, gave up 7 runs for an ERA of 21.00. Went on the DL and never made it back to the show, tried for several years, did good at AA, but got lit up in AAA and finally retired.

    Lifetime stats 1GS, 3IP, 7ER, ERA 21.00.

  14. Mark says:

    Karl Spooner. Struck out 15 in his first game (a shutout) and pitched another shutout his next game late in 1954. Hurt his arm in 1955, hung around long enough to lose game 6 of the World Series and never pitched in another Major League game. Sort of Koufax before Koufax. And speaking of arm problems and Koufax…..

  15. I followed the Yankees starting in the early 1950s. Every year through the early 1960s at least one young pitcher emerged with a big year. Bob Grim (24), Tom Morgan (24), Bob Turley (24), Johnny Kucks (22), Tom Sturdivant (26), Ralph Terry (25), Bill Stafford (21), Rollie Sheldon (24), Jim Bouton (24). Later on, Mel Stottlemyre, who was done after age 31. Most had one or perhaps 2 good, sometimes great, years before fading away, usually while still in their 20s, and in just about every case it was obviously arm trouble.

    Only Whitey Ford was a constant in that period of dominance, and even he had injury problems in his late 20s. It’s also interesting that one of the knocks on Ford was that, compared to other aces, he did not usually complete as many games.

  16. NMark W says:

    I’ve often wondered what is the big difference between players today benefitting from modern surgical techniques that can get them out on the field/court as good as new (or in case of TJ surgery better?) when athletes from earlier time had no such help. Are new surgeries sort of like PED’s? I’m serious on this – I’ve never heard any discussion on how legal modern medicine is unfair if earlier athletes did not have the same advantage.

    • schuyler101 says:

      You could argue that if Tommy John surgery is legal why aren’t PED’s legal for players to use to come back from injury. Lasik surgery is another practice that seems to occupy a grey area.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Modern surgical techniques do not improve performance. They merely correct injuries, and best case get the player back to where they were. Some think surgery improves them, but that’s a myth. The rigorous rehab strengthens muscles and increases flexibility, which is intended to prevent future injuries, but also gets the pitcher’s arm in top shape. In many cases, pitchers had not been diligent about their strength and flexibility regimens. Forced into a rigorous program to get back on the field, they come back often stronger than ever.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Why are surgeries different than PEDs? Well, to start with, most banned substances are illegal and surgeries are not. I could go on, but I don’t want to get pulled into some ludicrous irrational discussion.

    • Masa Chekov says:

      Steroids, amphetamines, and HGH are not illegal substances if prescribed by a doctor, yet are not allowed in baseball.

      So I don’t know what you are saying at all when you say “most banned substances are illegal.” It’s simply not true.

    • Rob Smith says:

      So you’re suggesting that athletes have legal prescriptions from legitimate doctors for some sort of “condition”? Really?

    • Scott Lucas says:

      HGH and testosterone analogs can be prescribed, but are not FDA approved for rehabilitating sports injuries. HGH in adults is indicated for muscle wasting as seen with HIV infections. Testosterone is prescribed for men with abnormally low levels. A physician prescribing these substances to an athlete risks discipline from his/her state medical board.

    • Scott Lucas says:

      This comment has been removed by the author.

  17. Ozsportsdude says:

    In the late 70’s in cricket there was an epidemic of back injurys amongst Fast Bowlers. Maybe the greatest Fast Bowler of all time (non-West Indies edition) Dennis Lillee suffered severe stress fractures and made it is mission to make sure it didnt happen to anyone else.

    After lots of study they found that it was crucial that as the back foot hit the ground in the delivery stride it was crucial that the hip and shoulders be aligned. Since then all young academy bowlers in Australia have their actions remodelled to the new ‘safe’ action.

    Mind you now there are a lot of injuries cropping up amongst fast bowlers again so maybe its time for a re-think. Anyway just reminded me of it when Joe mentioned studying the mechanics, maybe there is something that can be done to protect the arm based not on what the arm does (Pitching appears to be an unnatrual motion on the arm regardless at the top level) but by aligning the hips and keeping back in certain positions maybe.

    Just a thought

  18. buggyracer says:

    Joe, you listed tons of pitchers whose injuries permanently derailed their careers. I offer Vernon Law as a prime example of the ‘tier 2’ risk: pitchers who don’t lose their careers to injury, but battle injury off and on for years.

    In Law’s case, there’s a fairly clear pattern: He pitched too many innings – either over a season or in single outings (true story: he threw 18 innings in 1 game in July 1955, look it up, my grandfather was actually at that game), then he had ineffective or injury-shortened seasons. I’m sure there are many others like him.

  19. Anecdotes and individual cases are interesting but hard to draw meaningful conclusions from. Surely there is a stastical study out there somewhere that looks at how the injury rates of pitchers have changed over time? If not, someone needs to ring the red phone in Bill James’s basement.

  20. Daniel Flude says:

    I just have to say, I would much rather be a shoulder surfer than a butthole surfer.

  21. wow9gamer says:

    i think maybe we think of the old days different because when pitchers got hurt then, they were simply discarded and never heard from again. The code phrase for this was
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  22. mo sm says:

    Great post Shoulder Surgery thanks to share this all information here..

  23. The Old Guy says:

    Larry Dierker, Jim Maloney, Catfish Hunter..all effectively finished at 30

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  26. Bike Mike says:

    Was just speculating about all of the Tommy John surgeries today, and who in the past might have benefited had the ligament replacement surgery been available then. Being a Cardinal fan, two guys quickly came to mind, Curt Simmons and Ernie Broglio. Simmons came up with the Phillies as a power pitcher, hurt his arm, eventually was released by the Phillies and signed by St. Louis. He came back as a “crafty lefthander” with a funky delivery and slow, off-speed stuff. He resurrected his career. Broglio on the other hand had an “Adam Wainwright” curve ball, but hurt his elbow most likely early in the 1964 season, and of course was never the same. The Cardinals were able to deal him before it was well known his arm was bad, although the Cards gave the Cubs a list of five pitchers to choose from so the Cubs could have chosen someone else (who knows the others that were on the list. Had TJ surgery been around back then, Broglio might have come back around 1966 or so and been a solid pitcher for the Cubs for several more years. Maybe that surgery today would be known as “Ernie Broglio” surgery.

  27. Dimitri Cavalli says:

    Jorge De Paula pitched three brief seasons with the Yankees, finishing with a career of 0-1.

    In September 2003, I saw him make his first MLB start (after making several brief relief appearances), the second game of a double header. De Paula took a no-hitter in the seventh inning. He gave up a hit, and Joe Torre took him out. The kid received a standing ovation, and I thought he would go on to have a great career. The bullpen later blew the lead and lost the game in extra innings.

    In 2004, De Paula was considered for the rotation’s fifth starter. He got injured and was gone for the whole year. He pitched briefly in 2005 but left the organization. He spent the next five years or so in the Colorado Rockies minor league system and in the Mexican League. He never made it back to the MLB and gave up.

    Jorge De Paula had his moment that September evening. It would have been great if he got the win. You wonder what he might have achieved if he stayed healthy.

    I am glad Chien Ming Wang made it back with the Royals, going 6-0 out of the bullpen.

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