All this time throwing overhanded, since the first four-seamer was hurled at the first curious woolly mammoth, and still we have almost no clue why Jamie Moyer can pitch 1,200 innings past his 40th birthday and Og carried his sore elbow into Frank Jobe's cave at 28 and was done by 31.
Otherwise, we don't have weeks like this one, in which Texas Rangers president Nolan Ryan declares pitch counts to be largely frivolous while Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon is defending his organization's decision to ease off its pitchers during spring training.
Ryan demands more, the Rays wanted less, and neither rotation has been particularly effective, which, in the Rays' case, is news.
They'd both like the same things: For their starting pitchers to make every start, pitch into the seventh inning or so, never lose velocity or command and never get hurt.
So, they'd like all their pitchers to be Nolan Ryan, who pitched 27 seasons and came from an era (just after the Paleolithic) when pitchers made 41 starts and completed 26 games (which Ryan did in 1974).
The Rangers chipped the ice from Ryan, made him their president, and he's trying to make something of a staff that's killed practically every Rangers season for a decade. He began with a conditioning program (his) and now is insisting on a mentality (his, too) that you start a game to finish it, from A-ball to the big leagues, and that pitch counts are an artificial barrier to that.
“Listen, it's not going to happen overnight,” Rangers GM Jon Daniels said. “And obviously talent and experience plays a part, too.”
The Rays, for the first time in their history, had a staff that pitched from the first inning to the ninth, and it took them to the World Series. Thinking they'd had a lot of young arms go a month's worth of innings they hadn't gone before, the Rays slightly relaxed the spring workload: starters maxed out at 90 pitches instead of 105. The Detroit Tigers employed a similar strategy last season. It didn't work for them, either, and by May they believed their starters lacked velocity and touch because of their soft springs. The Tigers had the best pitching staff in baseball in 2006, when they went to the World Series. Two years later, it was among the worst.
Through a little more than three weeks, not only is neither plan working, but we're seeing again there is no science quite so inexact as pitching. Not acquiring it, not developing it, not predicting it. And, Maddon said, definitely not caring for it.
"It's personal preference, like anything else," he said. "It's like which church you go to."
Ryan was smart enough and resilient enough to win 324 games and strike out 5,714 batters. He ought to know what's best for a pitcher. Rays GM Andrew Friedman was bright enough and patient enough to construct a very talented young staff. He and his people – Maddon and pitching coach Jim Hickey – ought to know what's best for a pitcher.
And yet they arrive at organizational philosophies that run foul line to foul line.
“We think it's the right thing to do for a six-month season with aspirations for a seventh month,” Friedman said.
Dr. Lewis Yocum, who has seen the insides of pitching arms and fixed them for decades, chuckled at the organizations' divergent paths. He's been the Los Angeles Angels' team physician long enough to have tended to Ryan's arm, and indeed still refers to him as, “Noley.”
He knows as much about the effects of throwing overhanded as anyone, and yet talks about the pitcher's arm as if it were a mystery folded into a miracle. This is not about why pitchers break down, he said, but how they don't. Given the same programs and conditions, some last. Others don't.
“Who knows why,” Yocum said. “It's hard to say.”
In an age the Tommy John procedure is practically elective surgery, of remarkable advancements in medicine and technology, of revolutionary conditioning and rehab methods, Moyer pitches forever and Mark Prior barely gets started and there's no real explanation. Are CC Sabathia and David Wells put together better than, say, Chris Carpenter? Should Greg Maddux pitch forever while Kerry Wood rehabs forever?
In an age of 100-pitch ceilings and five-man rotations, when elbows and shoulders routinely give out anyway, is Ryan simply leading the Rangers into another disastrous era of tired and ineffective arms? Or are the Rays guilty of yet more pitcher coddling, the kind of excessive caution that has made them all so fragile to begin with?
Asked if he ever considers that the more he knows, the less he knows, Yocum laughed and said, “Every day of my life.”
“I think what these guys do for a living, what they can do, is phenomenal,” he said.
The Rangers have pitched a little better lately, led by veteran Kevin Millwood, a workhorse type who has thrown at least 111 pitches and gone at least seven innings in each of his five starts. He's Ryan's kind of guy, as long as he's on the field and keeps his ERA under 5.00. The Rangers will need more like him.
“This is not an exact science,” Daniels said.
The Rays haven't come upon the pitching consistency of last season still. The staff hasn't been awful, but it hasn't been good, either, and the season is waiting on Matt Garza and Andy Sonnanstine in particular. Friedman grants the organizational strategy might have led to a less prepared staff in the first week or two, but that time is gone.
“I don't want our guys using it as a crutch,” he said. “It could be. But, if it is, I don't see how it lasts all that long. Here's the thing, if it helps us avoid injuries, then it's worth it.”
By the way, the general managers and the surgeon agree in one area in particular: There are no perfect philosophies.
“My only blanket rule,” Friedman said, “is there is no blanket rule. Each one of those guys is unique.”
Daniels insisted the Rangers were not expecting 150 pitches a game and 300 innings a season from anyone.
“There's nothing crazy going on,” he said. “There certainly are guidelines we all try to follow, but at the end of the day these guys are individuals. There is no magic formula.”
So, the point of an organizational philosophy? Well, Yocum pointed out, it's better than the pitchers had in previous generations, like Ryan's, when the science of it was a little more apparent.
“Those guys,” he said, “would throw until their arms fell off.”
- Nolan Ryan