Stephen Strasburg burst onto the MLB scene and dominated batters with his 100+ mph fastball. Unfortunately, it quickly led to Tommy John surgery. Two years after the surgery, his general manager has limited him to 160 innings during the 2012 season to avoid re-injury. Is limiting total innings to prevent injury the best option for Strasburg and other pitchers, or are there other factors involved? Read on to find out.
Pitching is a craft (Check out STACK's Guide to Pitching to hone your craft). Like any artist, a pitcher develops his skills over time and after many failed attempts to achieve perfection. The goal is to be able to repeat the same motion over and over, which increases pitching speed and accuracy. However, if you do anything over and over again, hundreds or thousands of times, your body begins to wear down.
Pitchers who throw the hardest have the most mobility. The upper arm bone rotates in the shoulder joint at an extremely high velocity. Small muscles around the shoulder blade and connected to the arm work together to slow the arm down, to keep it from flying forward and following the ball when it is released. The repetitive extreme forces and stress begin to add up and can lead to an injury of either the shoulder or the elbow.
On The Scott Van Pelt Show on ESPN Radio, renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews recently talked about exercising caution with a player within two years after undergoing Tommy John surgery. During this timeframe, a player has the greatest chance of reinjury. In the same interview Dr. Andrews noted that it was impossible to know whether the inning limit set for Strasburg will be sufficient to prevent reinjury over the course of his career.
One downside of Strasburg's 160-inning limit is that not all innings are created equal. An inning is always three outs, but it can involve anywhere from three pitches to more than 40; and the amount of rest between innings can range from five minutes to more than 20 minutes. So, an inning limit does not effectively determine whether a pitcher has been throwing too much. It is more appropriate to limit the number of pitches.