Once upon a time, it seemed like every top pitching prospect the Pittsburgh Pirates had would go down with a major injury. Bobby Bradley, Kris Benson, Sean Burnett, Bryan Bullington, John Van Benschoten, and plenty of others were plagued by injuries. Some of those injuries were career altering. But over the last several years, that trend has disappeared.
Under Neal Huntington, the Pirates have been extremely cautious with their pitchers. They promote clean mechanics. They use very conservative pitch counts and innings limits. They restrict individual throwing programs (i.e., long toss beyond the standard 120 feet) until they know that a pitcher can safely use that throwing program.
And yet, as we saw today with Jameson Taillon needing Tommy John surgery, injuries to pitchers are inevitable.
The Pirates’ Recent History
With help from Baseball Heat Maps, I gathered the list of Pittsburgh Pirates who have had Tommy John surgery since 2008, when Huntington took over and implemented the changes.
|Spent five years in Houston’s farm system. Joined the Pirates in 2008.|
|Spent 10 years between Oakland, New York Mets, and Atlanta systems before joining the Pirates in 2008.|
|Was in the Cubs system for four years, then was a Rule 5 pick for the Pirates for the 2009 season.|
|When he signed, had a nine year MLB career that started with the Pirates. Signed in 2012.|
|Drafted by the Pirates in the 18th round of the 2009 draft.|
|Pitched 7.5 years with the Braves before joining the Pirates in 2009. About three years with the Pirates before the surgery.|
|Drafted by the Pirates in the 12th round of the 2009 draft. Was injury prone, causing him to fall in the draft.|
|Drafted by the Pirates in the 14th round of the 2007 draft. Only pitched 66 innings before Huntington arrived.|
|Drafted by the Pirates in the 9th round of the 2011 draft.|
|Drafted by the Pirates in the 1st round of the 2010 draft.|
The injury that leads to Tommy John surgery involves the ulnar collateral ligament. This ligament doesn’t get damaged from one pitch, or in one year. It usually wears down over time. For that reason, people like Barthmaier, Yates, Veal, and Beimel aren’t really the fault of the Pirates. Charlie Morton would be borderline, since he did spend a significant amount of time with the Pirates before the injury.
The notable guys here are Beckman, Inman, Holmes, and Taillon. They are the guys who were drafted and fully developed since Huntington took over. You could add Kyle McPherson to this list, since he didn’t throw a lot in 2007. If we’re going to dismiss Tyler Yates over the fact that the Pirates probably didn’t do much to him in one year, then we can’t ignore McPherson because of his one year under Littlefield.
I wanted to get an idea of the percentage of Pirates pitching prospects who have been completely developed under Huntington, and who have had Tommy John surgery. First, I limited the field to the 2008-2011 draft years. I stopped at 2011, because the 2013 group has barely pitched, and the 2012 group has just one full season so far. These two years could really skew the results. On that same note, I only included pitchers in the top 20 rounds. Most pitchers after round 20 are only drafted to fill a role for about a year. Adding those guys could once again skew the data.
The Pirates drafted and signed 28 pitchers in the top 20 rounds from 2008-2011. Of those pitchers, only four (Beckman, Inman, Holmes, Taillon) have had surgery. That’s 14.3%. By comparison, Will Carroll of Bleacher Report did a study that showed 124 out of 360 (34.4%) pitchers who started the year in the majors last year have had Tommy John at some point in their careers. I don’t know if the rate is the same for minor league pitchers, but that 34.4% is much higher than what the Pirates have experienced with their fully developed players.
The Preventative Methods the Pirates Take
Jameson Taillon is a perfect example of how a team can take every precaution, and still see a player come down with an injury. Will Carroll wrote another article, detailing the realities and myths surrounding Tommy John surgery. In the article, Carroll quotes Dr. Frank Jobe — the man who pioneered the surgery — on why more injuries seem to be occurring lately. The entire article is an excellent read, but I wanted to focus on this quote for the purposes of this article (bold parts are for my emphasis):
The numbers are high for high school, college and minor-league pitchers, too. That it’s needed at all on middle school pitchers is mind-boggling, but the procedure has been done on those as young as 13. Andrews was doing as many as 150 UCL surgeries back in 2003, and that number stayed about the same from 2004-07. The pace has not slowed since then.
Jobe has an answer to the question, “Why?”
“Overuse,” he said simply during our recent interview. “It’s a little bit surprising [that Tommy John is still frequent]. I think it can be prevented, we can monitor how much they throw, make sure their mechanics are perfect. I think that people like Jim Andrews still work on some exercises that will determine how many pitches are suitable.”
In Taillon’s case, the Pirates took preventative methods that involved limiting how much he throws, and improving his mechanics.
Innings and Pitch Count Limits
In 2011, Taillon made his pro debut in West Virginia. The Pirates were extremely cautious with him, to the point that they drew a lot of national criticism for their approach. He started the year in extended Spring Training, in attempt to avoid pitching in some of the coldest weather in West Virginia. He was on a strict innings count when he arrived in West Virginia, being limited to 4-5 innings max in every one of his starts. This was an attempt to limit him on the season, holding him to 92.2 innings in his first full year.
The following year, the Pirates sent Taillon to full season ball right away. They didn’t have to worry about cold weather in Bradenton in April, which helped. However, he didn’t see a big innings increase. Taillon threw 142 innings between High-A and Double-A in 2012, which was a year-to-year increase of about 50. He still saw single game limitations, only going beyond six innings on three different occasions.
Taillon didn’t see much of an innings increase in 2013, throwing 147.2 innings between Double-A and Triple-A. He was slated to go to the AFL over the off-season to get additional innings, but left after getting a minor groin injury in his first start.
The Pirates have strict pitch counts for their pitchers. For Taillon, that meant an extremely strict 75 pitch limit in 2011. He increased that a bit in 2012, although the Pirates didn’t budge on innings when he was efficient, as shown in one early season start where he had less than 70 pitches in six innings. Usually the Pirates increase from 75 to 85 to 100 in the first three years. Last year Taillon was throwing 92 or more pitches in five of his six Triple-A outings. Four of those outings saw 96+ pitches.
The Pirates are so strict about this that they fired one of their pitching coaches in 2008 for going one pitch over the limit. That may have been to set an example during year one of the new management group, but the focus on limiting workloads hasn’t changed.
I first talked with Taillon during Spring Training in 2011. He hadn’t pitched an inning yet in pro ball, and yet he told me that the Pirates were doing something to eliminate a drop in his delivery. I later learned that Taillon’s delivery is what is commonly referred to as a “drop and drive” delivery. Some pitchers have had success with this delivery, with Tom Seaver being a big example. However, in most cases, the delivery can lead to a pitcher getting hit around, and potential arm issues.
The “drop and drive” delivery involves a pitcher dropping his back knee before going forward to the plate. Most pitchers keep their back leg straight, or slightly bent, allowing them to transfer their momentum better to deliver the ball to the plate. When you “drop and drive”, you eliminate a lot of momentum the body generates, putting more strain on the arm to generate the momentum needed to throw hard.
I don’t know if the Pirates were working on Taillon’s drop to avoid potential injuries. I do know that the Pirates were working with Taillon on reducing the drop for fastball command purposes. One of the downsides to the “drop and drive” is that it can cause a pitcher to flatten his fastball out, and can make it nearly impossible for a pitcher to work down in the zone. That’s something the Pirates stress with pitchers, and reducing Taillon’s drop has helped him throw at the knees more often. However, with the injury risk that a “drop and drive” delivery carries, it can’t hurt to reduce that drop, and in the process, potentially reduce the strain put on the arm.
TINSTAAPP stands for “There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect”. It was coined by Baseball Prospectus. It doesn’t specifically focus on injuries, but the fact that every pitcher is prone to injuries leads to the idea that no pitching prospect can be trusted.
I don’t really believe in this, and I don’t think it’s meant to be taken literally, to the point where you don’t actually invest in pitching. If the Pirates didn’t invest in pitching, they might have avoided this situation where their first round pick in 2010 was injured. However, they would have also missed out on Gerrit Cole in 2011, and he’s currently looking like an evolving ace in the majors.
What we know is that every single pitcher is at risk of a major injury. There are steps a team can take to try and limit those injuries, and the Pirates have done a good job of this. But as we are seeing with Taillon, you can’t totally eliminate major injuries to pitchers, even if you’re extremely cautious. The solution? Draft a ton of pitching, take a conservative approach to keep the injury rates down, and hope that enough of them work out to fill your Major League needs.
Links and Notes
**The 2014 Prospect Guide is in stock on the products page of the site. The book features profiles, scouting reports, and grades on every player in the minor league system, including our top 50 prospects. The Prospect Guide has been mentioned as a resource several times on the Pirates’ broadcast, and has been purchased as a source of reference by opposing MLB front office members, opposing scouts, and media members. If it’s a good resource for them, it’s a good resource for you. You can order your Prospect Guide on the products page of the site.