Jeff Passan Breaks Down The Tommy John Epidemic

Yahoo! Sports MLB columnist Jeff Passan dropped by CBS Sports Radio on Tuesday to discuss numerous baseball topics, including his new book, “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports.”

The book focuses on the Tommy John epidemic that is sweeping across baseball despite increased attention by managers and executives to keep pitchers healthy. After researching and writing this book, Passan, surely, could tell us why this is happening, right?

Eh.

“No,” Passan said flippantly on Gio and Jones, prompting laughter from the hosts. “Listen, I came into this whole process saying to myself, ‘Baseball spends a billion-and-a-half dollars every year on something it doesn’t understand. I’m going to figure it out.’ And that was kind of hubristic of me to think that – because there are people far smarter than I am who have devoted their lives to trying to figure it out and still aren’t there. But I do think I have a sense of what’s causing a lot of it, especially in the younger generation, and that is significant amounts of overuse in kids. That’s more or less feeding baseball’s player development system with either guys who have been broken – and thus are likelier to break in the future – or with guys whose arms are ticking time bombs because they just have too much wear and tear on them.

“You see Tommy John surgeries happening younger and younger these days,” Passan continued. “I think the most important number in this book is between 2007 and 2011, 56.8 percent of Tommy John surgeries were on 15-to-19-year-old kids – and that number has only gone up according to doctors and researchers with whom I’ve spoke in the meantime. That is a frightening figure when you realize that this surgery came about to save the career of a major leaguer and really never was intended to deal with teenage kids.”

Gregg Giannotti assumes the answer is innings limits, pitch counts and not pitching as often, which will naturally protect and save a player’s arm.

Maybe, maybe not.

“We don’t know that actually,” Passan said. “That’s the thing. I’m sorry to cut you off there. That is a totally reasonable assumption to make; I just don’t know that the data bears it out. Because think about it. All we’ve done in baseball over the past 25 years is throw less – and the injuries have not gone away, which leads me to believe that this is something that you can trace back to something else, because you’re right: The less that you throw theoretically should have less stress and strain on your arm. So let’s look at other factors. Are they throwing more maximum velocity pitches now than they ever have before? It’s tough to say.”

Many of baseball’s old-timers, Passan said, claim that “back in their day,” they only threw at 60 to 70 percent of maximum velocity. Passan is skeptical.

“Any story that starts with ‘back in my day’ generally is full of crap,” he said. “They are throwing harder than they ever have. I think that is a huge, huge issue, and you can’t tell someone not to throw hard because the fact is, velocity works. That’s the one thing that I feel like I’ve yet to solve in all of this. If velocity works, can you really discourage velocity? No, because the whole point of the game is to get outs. Velocity is easy, though. It’s the quick fix that a lot of people have turned to in lieu of control and command, which are a much harder things to get.”

The damage starts early, too – not at 14, 15 and 16, but at 8 and 9 and 10.

“There was a study that came out in Japan yesterday,” Passan said. “I think it was 62 kids, ages 9 to 12, and 42 percent of them had damage to their ulnar collateral ligament. That just goes to show you this starts early.”

Passan, by the way, is the pitching coach for his 8-year-old son’s baseball team.

“It scares the crap out of me because I know these kids’ elbows are in my hands right now,” Passan said. “The last thing I want to do is put them in a position where they have a scar on them.”

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