Survivorship bias: the broken logic that comes streaming out of every pitching dinosaur who ever threw a gazillion innings and never broke doing it. No season supports the dinosaurs' thinking more than this one, all of them disgusted by the fact that today's pitchers make so much money, and are so important to so many franchises, yet simply refuse to stay healthy.
All together now, you thundering lizards of decades past: Because today's pitchers are weak. Because today's pitchers are babies. Because today's pitchers don't have that fire in their bellies to go out there and push through a little thing like arm pain!
Oh, if only a meteor would strike the earth and send them all into extinction.
Last year, when Matt Harvey went down, Tom Seaver offered one hell of a sound bite as to why. He actually used the phrase "these kids today" -- and then the real winner: "It just goes to show how all this babying of pitchers -- pitch counts and innings limits -- is a bunch of nonsense."
Yes, trying to keep players healthy by limiting fatigue according to an experiential plan developed by doctors -- what a bunch of nonsense!
This season, we have Masahiro Tanaka, whose upbringing in baseball is rooted in Japan. In that land, throwing 100-pitch bullpens and hours of catch each day are standard operating procedure, along with mastering nearly every breaking pitch baseball has ever seen. Now Tanaka breaks down, and where Seaver once stood, Ron Darling steps in, ready to blame the whole thing on the Yankees for not babying him!
Look, I love the old stars of the game. I love that they can get on television and give that nostalgic, from-the-mouth-of-a-general feel to baseball. But I can't understand why virtually none of them are able to see injury for what it is: the natural result of doing something as unnatural as pitching.
Seaver's survivorship rant a year ago completely missed the fact that guys in his day did break down, with staggering regularity. You just never heard about them. Tommy John surgery was new on to the scene, still experimental and, to some, a bunch of nonsense. Tommy John himself was called a pussy for getting the surgery done. A lot of players felt he should have toughed it out, like they were doing.
There wasn't much in the way of sports medicine back then. Surgery had no track record for resurrecting fragile talent. The only real solution to was to bring in great herds of players, filling spring training with nearly three times the body count it currently sees. If a pitcher broke, the team would release him and promote a healthy one. Injury was just as common then as now, though guys reported it less. Why report something that you can't verify is a problem, running the risk of being branded as weak? Why report something that's just going to get you fired?
It's not like the pitchers of yesteryear didn't have pain while they were working. Lord, did they ever. Sandy Koufax was in so much pain toward the end of his career that his arm turned purple after starts. He only stopped pushing himself when a doctor told him that continuing to pitch might result in the loss of use in his pitching arm. Geez, what a baby!
In those days, the guys who made it to the top, the ones who turned in ludicrous numbers of innings without breaking, they were genetic freaks. Baseball simply threw enough bodies at the injury issue that it seemed to not exist. We all remember the ones who endured, but ask yourself, how many great pitchers saw their careers end in the trenches, because there was no way to fix them?
So here's Tanaka, a front-runner for the 2014 Cy Young, almost single-handedly keeping the Yankees in contention. He breaks -- just like the babied pitchers and workhorses alike break. Breaks at the absolutely wrong time. Breaks with hundreds of millions invested in him. Yet, instead of confessing the obvious -- that because of the rise of sports medicine, sabermetrics and sports science, baseball has been able to specialize and find bigger, faster, stronger and more volatile talent with respect to what the human body was meant to handle -- we still have analysts who turn the issue into a talk about whether an organization babies players too much or too little.
Why hasn't Yu Darvish broken, you ask? What you really mean is, why hasn't Yu Darvish broken yet? Why hasn't Mark Buehrle broken yet? Or why hasn't any pitcher broken yet? I can assure you, it's not because one pitcher is a man and the other is a mouse. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Pitching isn't an injury waiting to happen, it's an injury happening. Some players break faster than others. Some never break. But that's the symptom, not the disease. Pitching is a dangerous activity, and as bodies are trained to throw harder and generate more power, that danger goes up.
Contrary to what Darling said, even if the Yankees had babied Tanaka, he could still have broken. Every pitcher has damage in his arm, especially after logging the kind of workload Tanaka has. The Yankees didn't do anything wrong here. In all likelihood, had they not pitched Tanaka as they did, they probably would have faced more criticism, considering what they spent to sign him. I can just hear Seaver ripping the Yankees a new one, talking about how they're teaching the youth that sitting on your ass and making money to stay healthy is what baseball is all about now!
Darling went on to say that today's pitchers seem to throw "as hard as they can... from pitch one." While today's pitchers do throw harder more consistently than those in Darling's day, it's not because today's pitchers are stupid (or geeked up on that RedCow drink they think is just the bee's knees.) No, the over-throwing is just another example of how the game has changed. Today's pitchers are drafted by the radar gun. Their other tools matter, but not nearly as much as their velocity.
If you're a young amateur, or even a young professional, you want to throw as hard as possible, as often as possible, because that's what's going to get you paid. By the time you make it to the big leagues, you didn't get there because you knew how to dial it back. You got there because you were successful on-field and also successful at selling your talents as "projectable to the top." Most of today's pitchers don't learn to throttle their stuff until they've had enough success in The Show to prove they can stick there. Even then, some pitchers never learn it. This is another byproduct of the survivorship bias. We tend to remember the ones who are like ourselves and forget all the others who were different.
Tanaka did exactly what the Yankees wanted him to do, what they scouted and paid him to do. The Yankees followed the industry trend, finding a young, hard-throwing, proven talent and going all-in on him. They used innings limits and pitch counts. He still broke.
Harvey, Fernandez, Johnson, Moore, Nova, Corbin, 40 other major and minor league pitchers and potentially Tanaka. This isn't a question of babying a guy or pushing him harder to make him stronger. This is a question of the system's values. If pitchers continue to specialize and get stronger, straining the limits of their bodies, injuries will continue to go up. It's a mistake to look at the pitchers who don't break and say, "They're the ones that should be imitated." It's a mistake to look back to an earlier time without recognizing all the facts or the context. When we compare those who endure against those who don't, we're not proving anything. It's a model for failure.