Guardians ace Shane Bieber hesitant to blame pitch clock for spate of UCL injuries

Cleveland Guardians ace Shane Bieber is one of several MLB pitchers to get bad injury news this year, which some have started to blame on the implementation of the pitch clock. Bieber isn't so sure that's the case, though.

The Guardians announced Saturday that Bieber will undergo Tommy John surgery to repair his torn UCL. The same day, Atlanta Braves ace Spencer Strider was also announced to have damaged his UCL. Those injuries, along with others earlier in the year, including to Gerrit Cole, led to dueling statements from the MLB Players Association and MLB over the pitch clock.

Speaking Monday ahead of the Guardians' home opener, Bieber indicated that he believes the pitch clock hadn't affected pitchers as severely as its critics believe.

From the Associated Press:

“I’m not ready to say that that’s the reason that it happened,” Bieber said. “From a conditioning and cardiovascular standpoint, that hasn’t affected pitchers, I don’t think. So it’s hard to say what’s going on in the inner workings of the elbow and the arm. We’ll see what’s to come of it.”

It was an emotional day for Bieber, who choked up when talking about how much he was looking forward to this season, saying, "I was falling back in love with pitching." He went on to receive a standing ovation from the Progressive Field crowd during his introduction.

MLB implemented its pitch clock last season after years of experimentation in the minor leagues, with pitchers allowed to wait only 15 seconds between pitches with the bases empty and 20 seconds with men on base. The league made the restrictions stricter over the winter by unilaterally changing the men-on-base timeframe to 18 seconds.

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 28: Shane Bieber #57 of the Cleveland Guardians pitches against the Oakland Athletics in the sixth inning at Oakland Coliseum on March 28, 2024 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Shane Bieber is out for the season. He isn't alone. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Bieber isn't the only former American League Cy Young Award winner to be skeptical that the current spate of injuries can be laid entirely at the feet of the pitch clock.

Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander, currently on a rehab assignment with the Triple-A Sugar Land Skeeters, gave a lengthy answer when asked about the injuries. Instead of focusing on the pitch clock, Verlander noted how every pitcher is throwing with maximum effort and how changes to the baseball have incentivized a focus on chasing strikeouts:

"I think the game has changed a lot. It would be easy to blame the pitch clock. I think in reality, you put everything together, and everything has a little bit of influence, the biggest thing is the style of pitching has changed so much. Everybody's throwing as hard as they possibly can, spinning the ball as hard as they possibly can."

"Something needs to change. I don't have all the answers. I don't want to beat a dead horse here, it is what it is, I think the data is out there at this point. When the ball started to change back in 2016 and they started flying out a bit more frequently, I know, myself personally, that started to change how I approached pitching. You have to start approaching the batter as 'I want swing and miss, I can't let him put the ball in play.'"

Verlander also mentioned the downstream effects of such changes on college, high school and youth pitching.

Pitchers have been complaining about MLB's tinkering for quite a while — and not just with how the ball flies out of the yard a bit more. Some fans this week dug up a 2021 interview from current Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Tyler Glasnow, in which he blamed a recent UCL tear and flexor strain on MLB's crackdown on sticky stuff.

Glasnow claimed that he had used the common combination of sunscreen and rosin to get better grip. When he went cold turkey off the stuff for a start, he said he could feel significant aftereffects on his arm, and he described how he had to change his pitching:

"I switched my fastball grip and my curveball grip. I had thrown it the same way for however many years I've played baseball. I had to put my fastball deeper into my hand and grip it way harder. Instead of holding my curveball at the tip of my fingers, I had to dig it deeper into my hands, so I'm choking the s*** out of all my pitches.

"I can't hold the ball light anymore ... I'm taking a fastball, I'm squeezing the ball twice as hard, I'm recruiting all these muscles and throwing the ball."

Oakland Athletics pitcher Alex Wood, another former All-Star, pointed to pitchers throwing with maximum effort year round rather than taking time off during the offseason in a Twitter thread Monday. A snippet:

Something being overlooked with the amount of arm injuries recently is the fact that a huge number of players now throw @ moderate to high intents close to year round. When I first came into professional baseball in 2012 as soon as the season ended I usually wouldn’t touch a baseball until at least December and I definitely wouldn’t be off a mound until at least sometime in January.

I knew a few veteran players (All Star types) that wouldn’t even throw their first bullpen until they got to spring training in February!! If you told a young player today that they had to take 8-10 weeks off throwing in the offseason and couldn’t touch a mound until at least the middle of January they would think you were crazy.

It's hard to deny that MLB has significantly changed what it takes to be a pitcher over the past decade. We might be seeing the effects of that now.