Jeff Passan’s new book, The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports (out Tuesday), investigates how to prevent and manage arm injuries. The sweeping view suggests that changes that comprehensive changes have to be made. In particular, youth baseball needs to be reformed and regulated to mitigate the workload of young athletes. Even then, the lure and proven success of velocity has to be managed. You can read a full review of the book here (in short, I recommend it highly).
I recently spoke with Passan about the book. During the course of our conversation, I came to realize that everyone, from the casual baseball fan to front office members, can learn something from the book. While I don’t presume that the Rockies’ front office isn’t already thinking about some of the stuff I’ll go over below, it’s worthwhile to highlight some of these themes so that outside observers can also keep the lessons in the back of their mind. At best, this will cultivate bottom to top accountability.
One of the major lessons is the need to listen. This shows up in a few ways, and it’s not as simple as it sounds at first. A major theme of Passan’s book is the demand for pitchers to listen to what their bodies are telling them. The problem here, however, is that they might not always know what it’s saying. Passan indicated that he asked a lot of pitchers when they "truly know their bodies." Casey Weathers, whom the Rockies selected eighth overall in the 2007 amateur draft, stated that he didn’t really know his body until he was about 25 years old. At that point, pitchers can tell the difference between "good soreness and bad soreness," and they have a better idea of "when to pull back" and "when to hit the pedal." Teams need training staffs who know the right questions to ask, especially when it comes to pitchers, and especially when it comes to arm health.
There’s another barrier between listening and the potential benefits of listening. "Pitchers don’t think about their health," Passan informed me. It’s not evasion borne of negligence, however. They don’t think about their health "because it scares them." Since improvements in conditioning have mitigated the prevalence of shoulder injuries, pitchers’ health relies on the integrity of an elbow ligament a few centimeters long. The fear that the small ligament will go "pop" is a real fear because there’s a real chance it will happen. In this respect, Passan’s book serves as a reminder to have open conversations about arm health. Fear can stigmatize, and stigmatization prevents the dialogue that can help prevent and manage arm injuries.
Drew Goodman and Ryan Spilborghs recently interviewed Adam Ottavino, who should return from Tommy John surgery this season, during a spring training game. Ottavino said that he had a lot of conversations with other pitchers who went through the operation. Passan’s book is a way to get ahead of the conversation. It might not be a bad idea for the Rockies and other teams to put in a bulk order and distribute it to the entire roster.
Competitive demands also play a role here. Passan suggested that he’s waiting for the first team to "run roughshod through a group of young starting pitchers to get the most of their six or seven years" while they are under team control. This, he asserts, would be a cruel way of squeezing value out of pitchers without regard for their health. Again, this appears like something easily avoidable. But there are two problems.
First, doing this might work. Major league hurlers have a finite number of pitches in their future, and velocity generally begins to decline in a pitcher’s early 20s. Second, the pitchers themselves would be unlikely to complain. They are competitive, and in a team-oriented environment where each player holds himself accountable to his teammates, he’d do what was asked of him. That is why it is necessary for there to be interventions from the outside in order to moderate this competitiveness. For youth pitchers, that means parents and coaches. For professionals, that means field staff and the front office. At both levels, all parties involved have to negotiate the pitcher’s health and competitive demands.
The Rockies and the question of altitude don’t play a prominent role in Passan’s book, but they do open up additional avenues of exploration with regard to arm health. Prior to the 2015 season, the Rockies exhibited interest in signing relief pitcher Todd Coffey (who is prominently featured throughout the book) to a minor league contract. "I don’t even like to play catch when I go to Colorado," Coffey intoned, "why would I want to go there to play?" Whether he was thinking of the nine hits and four runs he gave up over six Coors Field innings in his career, or if he was simply didn’t like the idea of pitching in Colorado for ERA or health related reasons, his statement opens up some questions.
I asked Passan if altitude related consequences such as relatively more rapid fatigue, possible unintentional mechanical changes, or slower recovery from athletic activity play a role or make it more likely for a pitcher to suffer an arm injury. "Theoretically," he asserted, these "sound correct." Further, Passan suggested that he would "hypothesize yes" to the questions I asked, and said that he "would love to see studies on" the questions.
Passan concluded with remarks that go beyond physical questions of arm health, that get to the core of a lot of trouble the Rockies have faced over the years. "Maybe it’s not just the physical part," he offered, "maybe it’s how the mental aspect burrows into a player’s head, causing him to think he has to pitch differently in Colorado." The result might be "a self-fulfilling prophecy" of either ineffectiveness, or even injury.
In a January interview with MLB Network Radio, Rockies General Manager Jeff Bridich stated, in response to a question about pitching at Coors Field: "The bottom line is, if the pitcher that holds that baseball on that mound doesn't believe that he's going to go and do well, then it really doesn't matter what type of stuff that he has." Whether it’s about performance or arm health, the onus simply cannot be on the player entirely, especially given the peculiarities altitude and Coors Field pose. Ultimately, that’s the biggest lesson the Rockies front office can take from Passan’s book. Listening is a group exercise, and while the conversation might not lead to specific solutions to any given problem, the questions themselves are productive.