The recent rash of "Tommy John" ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) surgeries this season in Major League Baseball has led to an accompanying rash of articles about the subject. It can very quickly send you down a rabbit hole of readership, as I quickly swallowed up everything Jonah Keri at Grantland and the guys at FiveThirtyEight have written, plus dozens of other articles.
I'm not about to go along with someone like Tom Verducci who suggests that this is an "epidemic" requiring a drastic measure such as lowering the mound, but it is certainly moving to the forefront as something that has become so dominant that it needs to be found out a) if it is truly preventable, b) what can actually concretely be done to prevent it, and c) whether (in the long run) those measures all wind up working.
That's all well and good, you say, but what does all this rambling have to do with my beloved Mid-American Conference baseball? Well, that rabbit hole I stumbled upon took a dead halt when it landed me at Boyd's Nation, a website that does many things - one of which is track the number of instances this season where an NCAA pitcher records an (actual or estimated) pitch count of 120+ pitches. For instance did you know that Sam Street, who pitches for Texas-Pan American, has thrown at least 120 pitches in a start eight times this season? That's out of only 14 total starts - enough to make one wonder if Dusty Baker has taken over the head coaching job this season... okay no, he didn't. Just needed to check.
There are articles upon articles out there to explain what you need to know about the theories behind this trend, but it boils down to this - pitchers are pitching more and more, resting less and less, and building up massive amounts of wear and tear from pitching (an unnatural motion to begin with) at the earliest of ages. Add the amount of this stress that occurs while their bodies are still developing, and you have a natural cocktail destined to produce exploding elbows.
One of the issues raised in this developmental boon is the idea of there being so many instances of collegiate coaches having zero hesitation in leaving their pitchers - usually starters - in for however long they damn well please, regardless of any ramifications that may have beyond the day it occurs. So how does this affect the MAC?
In two ways, as it turns out. In combing through the list that Boyd's Nation maintains, it turns out that there have been nearly 300 instances of a starting pitcher staying in the game for at least 120 pitches as of Friday night, and 20 of those belong to the MAC. Not only that, but of the 11 instances that occurred on Friday alone, Western Michigan's Chad Mayle set the new record for this season by throwing ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY SIX pitches while completing a complete-game, two-hit shutout of Central Michigan.
To some small extent I can understand Mayle's case - you want to let a kid pursue perfection, so letting him stay out there despite his pitch count in order to keep a shutout going is nice. As long as you don't let him rip his arm off in pursuit of a game that is only superficially perfect (he walked six batters on the night). In fact, of the 291 instances, 105 of them were complete games, and 32 of that group were complete-game shutouts. Those are not a horrific thing, and in isolation (unlike Mr. Streets above) aren't a huge deal.
But what about repeat offenders? The MAC has some of those, as well. Ball State only appears on the list once, and CMU, WMU and Miami only appear twice each (Six of those seven, all but Mayle's outing, occurred in the first 18 days of April). Then you have the repeat offenders.
Buffalo appears on the list three times, with two of those being 120-130 pitch outings for Mike Burke. Not a huge deal. Then comes the granddaddy of them all: Northern Illinois is responsible for fully half of the instances this season where a MAC pitcher has thrown at least 120 pitches in a start. Most MAC teams only roll with three starting pitchers and they only wind up pitching once a week, but NIU is the only group where all three starters have seen their night end at 120+ pitches multiple times this season.
First up is Jordan Ruckman, who tossed 125 pitches in his lone spot start. Then Alex Klonowski comes in at two starts of 120+ pitches but none over 129 in 14 starts. After that comes Eli Anderson, With four starts of 120+ pitches, three of 130+ pitches, and two of 140+ pitches. That leaves Anthony Andres, who is either better or worse than Anderson depending on your perspective. He only has three instances of 120+ pitches including one 143-pitch outing, but he has also only made 11 starts.
As a complete dunce to the inner workings of college baseball, it seems very odd to me as a great way to have a kid's arm fall off someday - you have three pitchers who are ostensibly bearing the load of 55% or more of your innings pitched, despite the fact that they represent about 25% of your pitching staff. Why lean on players so heavily if it does them little good beyond wearing them out for the future - especially if in some cases, it doesn't even get you the win?
I turn it to you, commenters, as there are many unanswered questions in my mind. Are there obvious mitigating factors I am unaware of that create these scenarios? Are you just as baffled by this as I am? Do you think you yourself could throw a ball 130 times over a few hours and still have an arm left to speak of, let alone going out and doing it again a week later?