Monday, May 26, 2014

"Sounder Arms, Saner Childhoods" by Dad

                                                      Can skipping stones mean...
... skipping Tommy John?

     So I’ve been talking and texting about Tommy John surgery with my older son (byline: Bojo) since we posted his recent blog about this procedure’s recent epidemic.
     And I do think he’s on to something in pointing to its possible cause as the year-round, practice-intensive way that our most athletic kids have been playing baseball for the last couple of decades.  That routine is now coming home to roost, as a bunch of our very best 25-year-olds are paying for year-round, repetitive, disciplined throwing since the age, most likely, of 10.
     To read exactly what Bojo wrote, check the blog preceding this one. To read Bojo seconded by Tommy John himself, check out the May 26 issue of Sports Illustrated. To save you the time and money, and to make 2gensportsden even more worth your reading, here’s what TJ himself said in SI about today’s overworked young arms: “High school sports have become year-round, and kids at a young age have to pick one sport… Your kid goes in every Saturday and works on pitching. I tell parents this: If the best pitchers in the world don’t pitch year-round, why should your kid?”
     Tommy John himself on the reason for the rash of his namesake surgery… I think this is a powerful indictment of my generation of parents. Yup, the Boomers. Specifically, the Type A Boomers. I had thought, as we started raising our kids, that we children of the Age of Aquarius would be less competitive and more contemplative, less zoned and more Zen, than our own parents had been.
     Turns out, not so much.
     In fact, not at all.  Our Greatest Generation parents, having emerged from a Depression that ate their childhoods only to go straight into a World War that pretty much finished off that whole ‘be young and have fun’ thing, decided that their young adulthoods would be how they made up for lost time.  And so they left us, their kids, amazingly on our own.
     As they cha-cha’d and cocktailed, we pretty much just played outside. Organized baseball consisted of spring Little League, a game and a practice a week for about eight weeks, with the true point of each game being to end up at Carvel’s.
     And here’s where I want to bring in another expert on the throwing arm, Nolan Ryan. Ryan has maintained for years that so many pitchers are experiencing arm trouble because they don’t throw enough, and that when he was a kid, he threw all the time. This, of course, sounds like the opposite of what Tommy John is saying.
     But, looking back at my own boyhood, here’s how I think their positions converge.
Ryan is a good deal older than I am, and was no doubt a waaaaay more accomplished youth athlete than I ever was. But in some basic ways, I believe his Texas boyhood and my Connecticut one were more alike than not, in that they were not nearly as structured and uber-competitive as childhood today. I also believe him when he says that he threw all the time, because my friends and I did, too. We just didn’t throw a baseball 12 months a year, from a mound, endlessly and repetitively, under the watchful eye of a paid coach. And I’m going to bet that Ryan didn’t either.
     So what did we throw, my friends and I? In the year I turned 10, I threw baseballs, but also:
 • tennis balls and whiffle balls, the true balls of pick up, backyard baseball.
• stones skipped into ponds with that classic side arm motion.
• large rocks hurled as mock hand grenades with a weird straight-elbowed, side arm fling that mimicked the World War Two TV shows then popular.
• rotting crabapples, flung in yet another war game whose point was to leave marking stains on enemy tee shirts, a sort of odd, organic precursor to the paint ball.
• pretty much anything that would fit in our hands.
     We threw everything at different arm angles, no doubt using different sets of muscles, and so likely not overusing any one set. And, in what may be more than a play on words, it could just be that this unstructured play resulted in less structural damage to those young arms of ours.
     So, although it will never happen, my wish would be to scale back sports in a way that dials back time. It could just be a recipe for both sounder arms and saner childhoods.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

"An Old Surgery Gets a New Wave of Participants" by Bojo

     When Tommy John surgery, or in technical terms, a UCL reconstruction surgery, was first completed a number of decades ago, it was a virtual God-send for major league pitchers. The surgery, which brought back pitchers from the baseball dead for the first time, seemed like a miracle to player and fan alike; but part of that was the rarity with which it was attempted or needed.

     However, the surgery is not all that rare anymore. With a peak in 2012 of 36 players undergoing Tommy John, there have already been (as of this writing) 15 players under the knife this season, in only 2-ish months of baseball. In the 15 seasons, before that, there were only 20 UCL surgeries performed on major leaguers. 

     What gives?

     There are a number of theories out there, but I personally subscribe to two. The first theory is that many players these days seems to opt for the surgery quickly after an injury instead of a long-term rehab plan, regardless of the intricacies of their specific injury. The results seem to support this option positively, so do what you have to do, I suppose.

             Typical modern Tommy John recipient Matt Harvey

     The second theory, and the one I personally put the most stock in, is that kids grow up playing baseball year-round these days, something no other generation has done. Not trying to compare myself to major leaguers (I wouldn’t ever) but I am 24 now, the same age or older as many Tommy John patients, and I played on a competitive year round baseball team in middle school, and then on the high school team. Even my arm, which was used minimally compared to these major league players, has some serious wear and tear on it. If I had continued year-round baseball, who knows what would have happened. 

     Because I doubt year-round travel baseball teams will ever stop now that they have been well established over the past decade or two, this frequency of surgeries might just be a part of the modern game, strangely enough. 


Tuesday, May 6, 2014

"Mussina A Must for Hall of Fame" by Dad

     So my younger son (byline: CBoh) and I had a fairly long car ride this past weekend, during which we unsurprisingly talked a fair bit of sports. And, as in many long rides taken by sports fans, the conversation drifted to that timeless game, “Hall of Fame or Not?” This game, of course, seeks to ask and answer these pressing, timeless questions:
     What current players are on a path to the Hall?
     What former players aren’t in and should be, or are in and shouldn’t be?
     Some of this is easy and obvious. In and shouldn’t be: Rizzuto and Mazeroski.
Asked and answered.
     Some is a little tougher. After Jeter, Pujols, and Cabrera, the list of active, obvious future Hall of Famers gets more problematic. The similarly named Beltre and Beltran? Maybe.  And beyond them, there’s a raft of great players who are simply too early in their careers.  We’re looking at a golden age of 20-somethings right now, for whom time will have to tell.
     So now, that third category: who isn’t in and should be?
     I offered up Mike Mussina, with a comparison to Tom Glavine as my rationale, and several days after that car ride, I still think I’m right.
     Let’s start with the given that Glavine is deservedly going into the Hall this summer.  I think that’s unarguable. So let the comparisons begin.
     Career wins? With 305 career wins, Glavine crossed that mythical 300 that seems to separate the men from the boys. Mussina finished with 270.
     Let’s make a couple of points here.
     First, we’re going to see Pedro Martinez inducted as a first ballot Hall of Famer with just 219 career wins.  But he also unarguably was the dominant pitcher in the game for a run of five or so years.
     This argument leads to the Blyleven Dilemma: Do we just honor longevity, winning 300 games because a guy pitched a lot of years? If that’s the case, I think it’s telling that Glavine reached his total by averaging 13.9 wins a year during a 22-year career.  Mussina pitched 18 years, averaging an even 15 wins a year.
     Now, how about peripheral stats?
     Mussina’s career ERA was 3.68, just barely higher than Glavine’s 3.54. But importantly, Mussina’s ERA was compiled while pitching in the American League with its designated hitter, meaning he lacked the huge advantage of pitching to a pitcher multiple times a game, as Glavine did.  More on this “where they pitched” issue later.
     Next, WHIP? Even given the NL/AL relative advantage for Glavine, Mussina’s WHIP was more than slightly lower: 1.19 versus 1.31.
     Complete games? Mussina squeaks out a win here, too: 57 to 56.
     The only clear career differentiator that elevates Glavine over Mussina is Cy Youngs. The score? Glavine 2, Mussina 0. But I would argue here that Glavine simply pitched for better teams and, more years than not, the Cy Young and MYPs tend to go to excellent players, yes, but on dominant teams.
     Which leads me to the final, but maybe most important reason that Mussina is no less deserving than Glavine. Mussina pitched his whole career as the ace of his staff, more than half the time that team being Baltimore, which means he generally faced the other team’s one or two guy. And he did this in the AL East in an era when the Yankees were dominant, and the division really good.  Then, when he finally got to the Yankees… same good AL East, but now the Red Sox ascendant.
     Glavine, on the other hand, spent the bulk of his career pitching from the three spot behind Maddux and Smoltz, in a division that his Braves won nearly every year. This means, of course, that his career totals were helped by facing the back end of rotations of teams generally not as good as his own.  It’s not a surefire recipe for 300 wins – a lot of guys have done a lot less given similar sets of circumstances.  But it surely accounts for a lot of his 35 win advantage over Mussina. All of which means to me that if Glavine is Hall-worthy, as he surely is, then so is the maligned Mussina.