Blue Jays to examine cause of pitching injuries
Is something wrong with developmental system, or is it bad luck?
TORONTO -- The Blue Jays' 2012 campaign began with a lot of hope and promise, but in the end, it will be remembered as the year injuries derailed those lofty aspirations.
Toronto arguably has been hit the hardest by the injury bug of any club this season, both in the total number of ailments and the quality of talent that has been forced to step aside.
Now the Blue Jays must evaluate whether there is something internally wrong with the organization's developmental system, or if this can all be associated with bad luck and fluke occurrences.
"We're certainly examining it," general manager Alex Anthopoulos said recently. "We're examining maybe workloads in the Minor Leagues -- are we doing enough, are we over protecting guys in the Minor Leagues? We're looking at re-evaluating arm actions, things like that.
"We're going to examine it, no doubt about it, but I know there definitely seems to be more injuries across the game, more Tommy Johns, seems like everybody is going through it. Almost everybody seems to have had one, one way or the other. So it's just for us, it all snowballed at once."
Answers to the Blue Jays' complex questions won't be easy to come by. Last year, Toronto dealt with very few injuries on its way to a surprising 81-81 record. With the exception of a minor Spring Training injury to Brandon Morrow and a midseason setback for Carlos Villanueva, the rotation remained healthy all year.
The organization's philosophy on handling its pitchers didn't change this season, but the overall health did. In a dramatic fall from grace which spanned just four days in June, the Blue Jays lost starters Kyle Drabek, Drew Hutchison and Morrow to a series of devastating injuries.
It was something that even 24-year veteran Omar Vizquel had never seen before in his career. The rapid succession of injuries left the team undermanned and ill-equipped to remain competitive in the American League East while Baltimore, Tampa Bay and New York enjoyed successful seasons.
"You know, I've been doing this for 12 years here, it's kind of rare," pitching coach Bruce Walton said. "It was a bad week. It was unexpected, it happened and we got through it. Obviously when stuff like that happens, you start evaluating things and you take a look at everything."
Morrow's setback is likely one that couldn't have been avoided. He suffered a torn oblique muscle, and since it's not an arm-related injury, there's little the Blue Jays could have done to stop it from happening.
The cases of Hutchison and Drabek are a little different. Both young pitchers suffered right elbow injuries that required Tommy John surgery, and their situations should prove to be the focal point of any internal investigation.
One of the biggest debates in baseball is whether young pitchers should be throwing more or less. Toronto subscribes to the line of thinking that prospects should be protected, and the Blue Jays are notoriously cautious with their emerging talent, as evidenced by what has taken place in Class A Lansing.
Toronto's Big 3 -- pitching prospects Noah Syndergaard, Aaron Sanchez and Justin Nicolino -- began the year partnered with another starting pitcher in each game to limit their overall innings. Even as the season progressed, the trio rarely pitched more than five innings per outing and was always on a strict pitch count.
Hutchison went through a similar progression on his way to the Major Leagues. By the time he made his big league debut on April 21 in Kansas City, Hutchison had thrown just 234 2/3 innings over parts of three seasons in the Minors.
That's well off the 450-frame benchmark manager John Farrell was recently quoted as saying is preferred for Minor League pitchers. But would the results have been any different if Hutchison had been pushed harder in the Minors or given more time to develop? It's a question that needs to be answered, but also one that remains complex in nature.
"The one thing we can't do is replicate this environment, that's impossible," Farrell said of the big league environment.
"Every pitch is thrown in a high-stress state, because that is how they are wired. The fine line is to tell them, 'Hey, back off.' Establishing rhythm and carrying that rhythm through a game is critical. Then the body works more efficiently, but a lot of times, the mind doesn't allow that to happen, and then that is where a guy pitches a little bit like a middle linebacker."
Drabek's injury was the same as Hutchison's, but the circumstances were much different. The 24-year-old was drafted by Philadelphia, and by the time Drabek reached the Major Leagues, he had thrown well over 400 innings.
The knock on the Texas native is that he pitches with a somewhat violent delivery -- one that could lead to additional stress on his throwing arm. That led to a Tommy John surgery in 2008 and a second one four years later while in Toronto.
That's opened the debate of whether clubs should be taking a closer look at the mechanics involved in throwing each pitch. Usually teams avoid making major changes to deliveries, because for the most part, it's the way pitchers have been throwing their entire lives.
But with increasing awareness of what warning signs to look for, there's a growing belief that prospects should be taught a proper approach in an effort to avoid serious injuries later in their careers. Since the act of pitching is unnatural to the human body, perhaps there are ways to ease the stress and maximize performance.
That's where biomechanics comes in. The science is relatively new to baseball, but it can be used to figure out which motions are easiest for the body to produce and what pitfalls should be avoided. It's something Farrell is more than familiar with, having spent time with the Indians' organization as the director of player development from 2001-06.
"When in Cleveland, I did it for four straight years," Farrell said. "So, yeah, it's another tool for evaluation. It's not a cure-all, and we've had discussions recently internally here about looking to incorporate that more than it's been.
"I can't say that previous years there's been any usage of that tool, but there's an education process that people [who] are interpreting the reports that come back that have to go through, understanding what it describes, but what are the normal ranges of different testing areas? Ultimately, the bottom line is, when you get the information, how do you use it? That's the biggest key, because in and of itself, it can be useless if it's not interpreted correctly and ultimately applied at the field level."
For now, the Blue Jays are remaining relatively secretive about their future plans for player development. They remain confident that slowly developing prospects such as Syndergaard, Nicolino and Sanchez is the correct approach.
It's possible that changes will be made, but Anthopoulos insists he's not about to overreact and do something drastic just because of one season. He puts just as much of an emphasis on the club's previously stellar track record.
"The two years prior, we've had unbelievable health on the mound and we haven't changed anything that we've done," Anthopoulos said. "If this had happened multiple years, it would be one thing, but again, I think, knock on wood, for the most part in 2010-11, the only starter at the time that went on the DL for us was Shaun Marcum. And he was coming back off Tommy John. And he didn't necessarily need to go on the DL, he was just a little sore.
"Other than that, we had very good health ... I don't want to overweight it, it doesn't mean we're going to ignore it, we're definitely going to try to take something out of this one way or the other and see if there is something we can come up with. But I don't want to jump to conclusions, especially when for years, this organization has done things the same way and we've had pretty good health."