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Tigers' Justin Verlander is anti-coddling

3/21/2015

LAKELAND, Fla. -- One man is the ultimate workhorse pitcher of his generation, the other is a scientist who has spent his professional life trying to gain a greater understanding of why pitchers get hurt.

On one side, we have Justin Verlander, who theorized this week that many pitchers are breaking down in the big leagues because they’re "coddled" in the minor leagues.

On the other side, we have Dr. Glenn Fleisig, who respectfully argues the other side: that no pitcher is destined to wind up in an operating room some day.

There's no absolute right in this debate. There's no absolute wrong. What matters most is that six big league pitchers this spring are either about to have Tommy John surgery or have already had it -- and baseball is full of people with theories on why.

One of them is Verlander. He was busy dissecting his most recent spring start for the Detroit Tigers the other day when the talk turned to the parade of pitchers who have already gone down this spring. It's a trend that amazes him -- and everyone else.

"Yeah, crazy," he said, but he didn't stop there.

"You know, I've got my theories on that," he went on. "I think baseball coddles guys so much now that you delay the inevitable. I think the reason you see so many big leaguers blowing out at a young age is because they would have done it before. But now teams limit pitch counts so much, even at the major league level, that now a guy in his second or third year will pop, when it would have happened in the minors.

"Before," he continued, "when there wasn't such an emphasis on pitch counts, I think you kind of weeded that out. Then, guys would have surgery [in the minor leagues]. Then, they'd come back, and then, they'd get to the big leagues."

Verlander, obviously, has not been one of those guys. He has certainly never been "coddled." He has never spent a day on a major league disabled list. And since 2007, he ranks No. 1 in baseball in games started, pitches thrown and pitches per start. In fact, only one pitcher in the whole sport (James Shields) is within 2,000 pitches of him in that span.

"I think I threw a lot more pitches than a lot of young guys do now at an early stage in my career," Verlander said. "It's just the way that the game's changed. I was kind of right at that transition [point], and we had an old-school manager in Jim Leyland, who let me go out there and pitch, and I'm grateful for that. I proved to myself and to everybody that I could manage a huge workload."

Since 2007, he's one of just three pitchers who have ground out 200-plus innings every year. (Shields and Mark Buehrle are the others.) And in the process, Verlander said, he's essentially demonstrated to himself that it's possible to stay healthy despite that mammoth workload.

"In this game, you do what you're trained to do," he said. "If you train your body to go out there and throw 200 innings, you're probably going to do it. After my rookie year, the next year I pitched 200, and I haven't looked back since. If you have to, you just go out there and pitch. And you get there."

But when he was asked if he thinks there's a moral, for other teams and other pitchers, to his story and how he was handled, Verlander took a step back and acknowledged there are other factors involved.

"I just think it depends on how teams want to handle it," he said. "I don't think that my opinion is necessarily the right one. That's just my opinion, but I think [with] the amount of money in this game now, an organization can't afford to just run a guy out and just let him go. And if something happens, if a guy is gone for the year after 190-some innings, that organization would just be blasted. And you can’t afford to do that."

But that's not all organizations can't afford to do, said Fleisig, the research director at Dr. James Andrews' American Sports Medicine Institute. What they really can't afford to do is to continue doing things the way they used to, before the science of biomechanics came along to show them there's a better way.

"First of all," Fleisig said, "I have tremendous respect for Justin Verlander. You and I are not Justin Verlander. We've never thrown 200 innings in the major leagues, or even one inning. So he has a different perspective than we have. But I also have a different perspective. I have science."

It's readily acknowledged in sports medicine circles that no one has spent more time studying Tommy John surgery and its causes than Fleisig. So he understands that Verlander's combination of skills -- his velocity, his ability to throw harder late in games -- is "almost unique to him. It's rare. It's true for him. It's not true for everyone."

And Fleisig's research tells him it isn't "coddling" that is leading to all these Tommy John surgeries. Its single biggest cause is pitchers who reach the point of fatigue but keep pitching until they've injured themselves.

"I agree that if a pitcher has poor mechanics and he pitches a lot, he's going to have a higher chance of breaking down than a guy with good mechanics," Fleisig said. "But I don't agree that if that's the case, you should just let him pitch and let's see what happens.

"With biomechanics, we can now identify who has poor mechanics, and there are a lot of progressive organizations that are now modifying kids' mechanics in the minor leagues after they're drafted and as they develop."

What those organizations are doing is attempting to fix those poor mechanics before they lead to more serious issues. And they're tailoring pitch counts and innings limits on an individual basis, depending on how pitchers respond.

It's a major step in the right direction, yet pitchers still get hurt -- at a rate that continues to defy comprehension.

"I share everyone's frustration with the number of injuries out there," Fleisig said. "That bothers me. We've made a lot of progress scientifically, but there's a lot more to be done. It's led to more pitchers pitching with more velocity, but it's also led to more pitchers being pushed beyond the body’s limits."

So Fleisig, along with a number of other astute, inquisitive people both in baseball and in sports medicine, continue to look for answers. It's a quest well worth undertaking, but there are days, as the Tommy John surgery list grows ever longer, when everyone wishes they could just look for more Justin Verlanders.

"I totally respect his perspective," Fleisig said of Verlander. "He knows what his body feels like. But he's unique. Basically, he's a sample size of one."