I happened to be thinking about Baltimore Orioles pitching prospect Dylan Bundy this afternoon at McKechnie Field. I was watching Nick Kingham long tossing from about 300 feet, throwing from the area between the mound and home plate all the way to the wall next to the 335 sign.
I think about Bundy every time I see a Pirates pitching prospect long tossing from beyond 120 feet, and especially with extreme distances like Kingham today. It’s actually a pretty regular occurrence. Charlie Morton, Vic Black, Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, and of course, Tim Alderson. Those are all guys I’ve seen long tossing beyond 120 feet in the last month, and that’s not even the complete list.
The reason I think about Bundy is because of an article that came out in Yahoo Sports before the 2011 draft. Bundy told the Pirates not to draft him for fear that they’d restrict his long tossing and individual workout program. It had been pretty commonly reported in the national media at the time that the Pirates restricted pitchers to 120 feet, which I had already pointed out was false. The Pirates don’t just let pitchers come in and do whatever they want. Nor should they. It would be irresponsible to commit over $6 M to a high school pitcher and then let him do whatever he wants without making sure he can handle certain workloads. That’s what the Pirates do. They make sure players can handle a certain workload while throwing every day, then allow individual throwing programs to go beyond 120.
Obviously they allow plenty of players to go beyond the 120 marker, and not all of those players go to extreme 200-300 feet distances. I think that the benefits have definitely been shown. I could probably list 20 pitchers in the system who throw 95 or harder. There was a time when you’d have trouble listing more than one player who could hit 95.
I think about Bundy when I see those individual throwing programs going beyond 120 feet, and I wonder what would have happened if that mis-information about the Pirates limiting pitchers to 120 was never out there. The Pirates actually went to visit Bundy, and were told by his representatives not to pick him. You have to wonder what would have happened if he knew the truth, rather than the misconception that the Pirates restrict pitchers. That’s nothing against Gerrit Cole. Bundy has been ranked higher in recent prospect lists, but I think he and Cole have the same upside. It’s mostly splitting hairs and wondering how things might be different with a guy considered the top pitching prospect in the game, rather than the second or third best in the game.
Ironically, a few hours after watching Kingham, I saw that Bundy was being sent to Dr. James Andrews to check on his elbow. So that “what if” game doesn’t look as good today.
You don’t want to say that the injury is due to long tossing or Bundy’s radical workout plans. But that’s not to say the warning signs weren’t there. Aside from the throwing program, there were workload problems. Here is what I wrote a month before the draft in 2011:
The problem with Bundy comes with the workload. I wrote an article about him the other day, referencing a four day stretch last year in which he started three different games, combining for 293 pitches, including 181 in a single day. That raises some huge concerns with me. First of all, it’s doubtful that this was a one time deal. You don’t just have a guy throwing 80 pitches per outing, then send him out for almost 300 pitches in three starts over four days, including both games in a double header. While Bundy is a big workout freak, and didn’t get injured from the workload, that doesn’t mean the damage hasn’t been done.
Again, you don’t want to say that this is the reason Bundy was eventually hurt, but the warning signs were there. 293 pitches in four days. 181 in one day. That’s got to wear on an arm.
I think ultimately pitchers get injured. The human arm wasn’t meant to pitch. I was talking with Zack Von Rosenberg about a similar subject this week. I didn’t play baseball in high school or college. Instead, I played tennis, to the point where I had 1-2 tournaments per weekend at various times throughout the year. A lot of the motions in the serve are similar to what a pitcher has to do, as far as distributing weight from the backside. The one difference is that the racket takes the strain off the arm. Your arm is swinging the same weight the whole way through. As Von Rosenberg pointed out, the difference with pitching is that you release the weight mid-way through, which causes the strain on your arm.
Pitching will lead to injuries. I think that’s unavoidable for pretty much every pitcher. Some pitchers manage to avoid injuries. Some pitchers only experience periods of dead arm, but nothing surgical. I think there are methods you can take to do a better job of avoiding injuries. And with that I’ll note that the Pirates have done a great job of this system wide. They’ve had very few pitchers go down with serious injuries. In the past it seemed like every top pitching prospect went under the knife. Now guys like Kyle McPherson are the exception, rather than the rule. I say this with caution, knowing that one day after talking about this same subject last year, Charlie Morton had Tommy John surgery. So chances are we’ll hear tomorrow that the reason Phil Irwin hasn’t pitched in Indianapolis since his start a week ago is because he needs surgery to replace his arm, and if that happens, you can totally blame me. (By the way, I don’t know why Irwin hasn’t pitched since going back down, if you’re wondering…I’ll still get this question on Twitter at some point tomorrow though.)
Normally when I think about Dylan Bundy I’m thinking about how he would fit in the system. With today’s news I’m thinking more about the Pirates’ approach with pitchers. It has been criticized by many, and probably unfair criticism in most cases. The national media said they restrict pitchers from throwing beyond 120 feet when they really don’t. Pirates fans say they’re too conservative with promotions, even though it’s pretty routine for high school pitchers to go to the NYPL (a college league) in their first season, and full-season A-ball in their second year. Considering how well the Pirates have avoided injuries, especially to their top arms, and considering how many pitchers they have who throw in the mid-to-upper 90s, I’d say any criticism about them being too conservative or restrictive is off-base. They’re definitely not conservative with the rate that they move pitchers (Luis Heredia is a week or two away from full-season A-ball at the age of 18). And if being the least bit restrictive, or even a bit conservative leads to this strong injury prevention, then that’s something I think anyone would take.
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