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Posted at 7:30 AM ET, 03/10/2011

On Stephen Strasburg, idols and the unknown

By Adam Kilgore
Morning brushback

The point of my story today is not to refute the fascinating, excellent piece Tom Verducci wrote about Stephen Strasburg this week. I'm not good at pinpointing exactly which writers most compelled me to want to write about sports. I do know that, from the time I was 12 or so, I practically lived for the moment every Thursday when Sports Illustrated would arrive in my mailbox. Once I started becoming aware of bylines, I came to anticipate Verducci's more than pretty much any other. If I had to make that list of writers who inspired me, I'm certain Tom Verdcucci would land near the very top. So, no, my intention was not to start an argument in print with Verducci. I'm smart enough not to play swords with Zorro.

The point of the story was to add another voice to the discussion, and that voice, primarily, is that of Dr. Tim Kremcheck, one of the leading surgeons rebuilding elbows these days. His point is not that any one theory of why pitchers break is right or wrong. It's that there are only theories, not definitive answers, and that clinging to one theory as gospel can be, to use his word, "dangerous." There is really only one certainty. The human arm was not meant to throw a baseball overhand, certainly not to chuck it 100 miles per hour. Pitchers get hurt, essentially, because they're pitchers.

strasburg tigers.jpg

Incidentally, there were two other pieces on Sports Illustrated's web site that added to the Tommy John conversation, one by Will Carroll, an authority on sports injury, and another by Joe Lemire.

With that said, a few quick nuggets left on the cutting room floor:

>>> Kremcheck made an interesting analogy about changing a pitcher's mechanics. He likened altering a pitcher's motion with giving a long-distance runner new shoes. Suddenly, a familiar activity would create unfamiliar stresses on ligaments and joints. Every pitcher has developed his own unique arm slot, release point, etc., and trying to change those on the fly can throw off the way muscles have been built and trained, he said.

>>> Kremcheck also hailed the way the Nationals handled Strasburg last season.

"When someone young like that injures their elbow, especially a young phenom, the first thing people want to do is point fingers," he said. "Somebody wants to look for a blame. I don't necessarily think there is a blame, because I think the Washington Nationals handled him as well as they could, especially given the scrutiny.

"I watched how Stephen Strasburg was taken care of and coddled by the Washington Nationals, and everybody tries to throw a rock at them. I would have done the same thing. They did not - here's a young kid who was crying and ready - they definitely walked him along the right way. I just believe that."

>>> From afar, Kremcheck developed one hunch for why Strasburg's ligament may have snapped. He talked about the trap many young pitchers fall into of "pitching to the radar gun." Basically, no matter how fatigued, pitchers will try to reach a certain velocity, because it's such a tangible and clear measure of what they're doing. The incredible attention on Strasburg, Kremcheck postulates, could have led to him throwing harder than his body wanted to, affecting his mechanics just enough, for at least one pitch, that the torque in his elbow surpassed the strength of his ulnar collateral ligament.

"Kids pitch to the radar gun," Kremcheck said. "Here's a guy that was on an international radar. He was under the microscope to throw the ball hard from a young age. Maybe that had something to do with it. I think it's very, very important that somebody doesn't step out and say, 'He planted his foot here, and that's why this happened.' "


FROM THE POST

The questions surrounding Stephen Strasburg may not have any clear answers.

By Adam Kilgore  | March 10, 2011; 7:30 AM ET
Categories:  Morning brushback  
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Comments

Appreciate the fact that subject matter experts like Dick Mills are brought into the discussion, supplemented with outside assistance from kinesiologists and biomechanists.

The one SME that I haven't read is Mike Marshall: he was on the bump for 11,12 years, and has his Ph.D. in kinesiology. He's done a ton of work in this area, and I'd love to get his analysis on Strasburg. I'd rather have a former MLB pitcher who is a Ph.D. than the combo of a pitching coach with non-baseball kinesiologists. Marshall's been there, done that, and his body of work speaks for itself.

Posted by: joemktg1 | March 10, 2011 7:46 AM | Report abuse

Adam, I'd like to say thanks for the coverage since ST began. You and your sidekick Dave (I only phrased it like that to cause you to squirm) have done a really good job of keeping us entertained and informed from a wide variety of different angles. Thanks.

There are plenty of MLB/ ex-MLB people who have essentially said if you get rid of radar guns you'll end up with better pitchers with fewer injuries.

Reading about Mike Marshall and his thoughts on pitching is always fun. A little bit kook, a little bit genuis, a great combination.

Posted by: Sunderland | March 10, 2011 7:55 AM | Report abuse

So, how many games will Stras win in 2011?

Meanwhile, Brian Matusz is gonna win 20+ games, win the Cy Young, all while helping lead the Orioles to a sweet World Series Championship.

All the while Natinals fans will be left wondering what could have been.

Hopefully Natinal fans will have something, anything, to cheer about before the team picks up its steaks, for a third time, before moving to anorher city that actually loves baseball.

Posted by: P00PY_MCP00P | March 10, 2011 8:09 AM | Report abuse

So, how many games will Stras win in 2011?

Meanwhile, Brian Matusz is gonna win 20+ games, win the Cy Young, all while helping lead the Orioles to a sweet World Series Championship.

All the while Natinals fans will be left wondering what could have been.

Hopefully Natinal fans will have something, anything, to cheer about before the team picks up its steaks, for a third time, before moving to anorher city that actually loves baseball.

Posted by: P00PY_MCP00P | March 10, 2011 8:09 AM | Report abuse

Now let me get this straight. Kremcheck is a doctor, Verducci stayed in a Holiday Inn Express last night. If I'm Stephen Strasburg, I know who I'm going to listen to.

Posted by: FeelWood | March 10, 2011 8:16 AM | Report abuse

I thought the story was excellent as well.

The thing that scares me the most is the theory, apparently held by the Nats, that the injury was the result of one particular pitch, rather than 15 years of wear and tear. If that's truly what happened, why shouldn't we be concerned that it will happen again, suddenly and at any time? I would rather think that Strasburg will have several more years of pitching before the UCL is in danger than to think that every time he throws a pitch, it could snap.

Verducci's story essentially rejects the single-pitch theory of Strasburg's injury as an impossibility. Kremchek at least seems to entertain it based on what's written above. What do we know about the Nats' evidence? Do they have enough pictures of Strasburg's UCL to support their belief that this was a sudden tear? Do you believe them when they say that's what happened, or is it part spin?

Posted by: jcj5y | March 10, 2011 8:17 AM | Report abuse

From what I've read from Mike Marshall, he's likely to criticize SS's motion, because he believes that almost all pitchers should change the way they rotate their forearms when pitching. IIRC. He is very interesting to read, and hey, he might just be right, but his analysis is very different from conventional opinion. That said, yeah, I'd like to hear from him.

Someone - darn, I forgot who - said on XM that the scariest aspect was that the Nats knew nothing about his UCL status, had not researched his mechanics, so no wonder all this was a surprise to them. Doubt this, but it's out there.

The notion that the ligament snapped due to one pitch doesn't ring true to me. Sure, there's a last straw, but had to be a progressive weakening to make it vulnerable. No idea if the landing foot synchrony is the root of the problem, but had to be some wear and tear.

Posted by: utec | March 10, 2011 8:50 AM | Report abuse

In a bizarre footnote to this I heard Dibble and his XM radio partner absolutely blast Rizzo the other day for how he supposedly mishandled Stras last year - letting him pitch after he had been on the DL (for an unconnected injury) and then supposedly scapegoating by saying it was a "freak injury". This from a guy who, without any knowledge of the situation, told Strasburg to essentially suck it up and get in there and pitch. Good riddance Dibs.

Posted by: mojo6 | March 10, 2011 8:53 AM | Report abuse

"The thing that scares me the most is the theory, apparently held by the Nats, that the injury was the result of one particular pitch, rather than 15 years of wear and tear. If that's truly what happened, why shouldn't we be concerned that it will happen again, suddenly and at any time?"

It's basically a matter of semantics. If the injury is the rupture of the ligament, then of course it happened on that one pitch. But years of wear and tear are what led to the ligament being capable of rupturing on that one pitch. If he'd thrown that pitch on a fresh ligament, it wouldn't have ruptured.

So there's nothing wrong with what the Nats are saying, because as it stands now Strasburg basically has a fresh ligament. Telling him to pitch on it like as if it was the same worn and torn ligament that might rupture on any one pitch would make as much sense as telling someone to put snow tires on their car in July because they got stuck back in January when they didn't have them on.

Posted by: FeelWood | March 10, 2011 8:59 AM | Report abuse

I don't think this is semantics. The story in the Post says "The Nationals believe Strasburg's ligament tore because of a single pitch, not the accumulation of wear." It's crazy to deny that there was at least some level of wear and tear, but that statement says that something different and dramatic happened on one pitch. The original Sheinin story is even stronger, saying "The Nationals said their doctors believe it was one pitch, as opposed to an accumulation of wear and tear, that tore Strasburg's elbow ligament - and if so, it was almost certainly that fateful change-up he threw to Philadelphia Phillies right fielder Domonic Brown in the fifth inning on Aug. 21."

What I want to know is what the Nats' "doctors" saw that made them believe something dramatic happened on one pitch. Even more important, I want to know why that won't happen again.

Posted by: jcj5y | March 10, 2011 9:12 AM | Report abuse

@Joemktg - search youtube for video on how Dr. Marshall's recommended motion. It's"interesting"

@mojo - if you listen to Dibble on XM, you'll hear how bitter he is towards the Nats. He stays professional, but he definitely carrying a grudge.

@feelwood - what the Nats are saying is technically correct, but it's a little disingenuous to say it that because it's generally misleading. Which makes it seem to me that the Nats are hiding something...

Posted by: comish4lif | March 10, 2011 9:13 AM | Report abuse

Mike Marshall's hypotheses are interesting, but unproven. At this point (to my knowledge) none of his pupils have made the major leagues, despite a number of years of pushing by him. It is even more interesting that he has been lobbying, for years, to get a job remaking a team's pitching staff, from majors to rookie ball. So far no takers.

OTOH, IMO, the prevailing concepts, under which teams jigger with pitchers' motions to get them into an "acceptable" framework are probably not valid. Why not have every pitcher throw like Walter J. He hit 100+ (probably) and pitched for 20 years. Today, those in the know would have tried to remake his motion. I know this, because, some years ago, I watched a kid in HS with a motion that resembled Johnson. He was a sophomore, but blew batters away, with regularity. He was a tad wild, but he was 15/16, so he had time. His coaches tried to remake his motion to one more like the standard motion we see. He lost all speed and regularly got lit up. End of a prospect.

Posted by: mikecatcher50 | March 10, 2011 9:49 AM | Report abuse

Hey baltimore fan 1. the Nationals outdrew the orioles 2. Had a better record.3.have better ownership. baltimore will always be baltimore how sad
Go Nats.

Posted by: cheverly1 | March 10, 2011 9:53 AM | Report abuse

Before Strasburg was even drafted, I remember ESPN doing a piece on him. One of the things I remember about that piece was the assertion that his Mechanics were quite good and would not lend themself to elbow injuries...

Bottom line, IMO, is that nobody knows what will happen in one person's body/arm versus the next person...

Posted by: TimDz | March 10, 2011 9:54 AM | Report abuse

"What I want to know is what the Nats' "doctors" saw that made them believe something dramatic happened on one pitch."

Perhaps seeing the obvious pained expression on Strasburg's face right after he threw that pitch? Look, it's not duplicity to say that the rupture itself happened because of that one pitch and not because of the accumulation of wear and tear. Think of Strasburg's arm like an icicle hanging from the roof while the sun beats down on it. The accumulation of wear and tear is like melting. It proceeds at its slow pace until eventually the icicle just falls off of its own accord. But before that happens, something could bump up against the icicle and knock it off. Perhaps something that might not have been able to knock it off before it had started melting. That's the one pitch rupturing Strasburg's ligament before the accumulation of wear and tear can finish the job.

Posted by: FeelWood | March 10, 2011 9:55 AM | Report abuse

I said this yesterday the worst thing the Nats hierarchy can do is listen to every tom,dick and harry, i know this sound's crazy but i would talk to Tony Gwynn and Strasburgh's college pitching coach.

Posted by: dargregmag | March 10, 2011 10:01 AM | Report abuse

Stras is not the first nor the last to have TJ surgery. Plenty of guys that had "perfect" deliveries have blown out there arms. And more guys with imperfect deliveries have had long and distinguished careers. Let him heal, give him the ball, and let him be Stras. He'll learn from his own body and make the small tweaks. The guy is in a club that has very few members with his arm. Let him take advice from the Nolan Ryans of the world.

Posted by: Jurgensen9 | March 10, 2011 10:06 AM | Report abuse

I just looked up the term 'steaks' and apparently they are pieces of meat. So either I've been misspelling 'stakes' for decades, or I actually think baseball teams need to pick up their pieces of meat before they leave a city!

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

Lets all say it together: As always, I am a moron.

Posted by: P00PY__MCP00P | March 10, 2011 11:11 AM | Report abuse

I'm not saying that the Nats are being duplicitous, but I do not think that the description of an icicle melting (a nice analogy) fits with their explanation. They, and apparently their doctors, explicitly denied that this was a result of wear and tear. That seems to me like a deliberate effort to say that something unusual---a "freak accident," Rizzo says in the Verducci story---happened in this case. Contrast that with Carpenter, who had UCL strains in the past, and who probably fits much better with the typical wear and tear explanation. Maybe the Nats aren't trying to say that something different happened here. I just would like some clarity.

Posted by: jcj5y | March 10, 2011 11:16 AM | Report abuse

Al Leiter gave a 5-minute demonstration on MLB Network last night on what Strasburg's problem is. And what Strasburg is doing is really obvious in that context. I think people are lulled into this feeling that he's already gotten his arm fixed and it won't happen again because it's been rebuilt. Well, turns out that Leiter had 3 surgeries before he changed his delivery. It was a matter of simple exercises REPEATED ad nauseum until you master your new delivery. Break your windup into thirds, shift your weight at different times, things you can pick up if you're an athlete. I could see it from the beginning, so him getting hurt was no surprise to me. I called it. If he doesn't change, it's just a question of when he snaps it again. Leiter said the only reason Strasburg got away with it this long is that he's so young and strong and he hadn't reached enough repititions to tear his ligaments. People around here need to watch MLB network once in awhile - you'd get a lot of things answered because these guys will pick up a ball, glove or bat, and SHOW you what the problem is.

Posted by: Brue | March 10, 2011 11:20 AM | Report abuse

"I'm not saying that the Nats are being duplicitous, but I do not think that the description of an icicle melting (a nice analogy) fits with their explanation. They, and apparently their doctors, explicitly denied that this was a result of wear and tear. That seems to me like a deliberate effort to say that something unusual---a "freak accident," Rizzo says in the Verducci story---happened in this case."

Rizzo answered a few questions from Verducci, a reporter. That's all. Don't make it out like he was being deposed for a court proceeding. Whatever Rizzo said might well have been more a polite way of answering "no comment" than it was anything else. He's certainly under no obligation to provide material to advance whatever thesis Verducci is trying to argue.

Posted by: FeelWood | March 10, 2011 11:50 AM | Report abuse

Agree w/ brue - Leiter on MLB was very good on this and how it can be fixed w/out further problems arising - it really just seemed to be a matter of timing and rythm - not a major change of arm slot or anything like that.

Posted by: artguydtd | March 10, 2011 2:56 PM | Report abuse

I had no intention of making it sounds as if Rizzo was being deposed. I simply think that several statements made by the team, as reported by the media, suggest that in the team's view, Strasburg's injury was not a typical "wear and tear" UCL injury. I think that would have ramifications for Strasburg's future. So I would like to know if that's really what the team thinks, or if there's some kind of misunderstanding. They probably won't answer that question directly, but I hope that reporters like Adam will continue to investigate. I want to know if I should be holding my breath every time Strasburg throws a change up or not.

Posted by: jcj5y | March 10, 2011 3:01 PM | Report abuse

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