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Pressure on pitchers to throw harder could be leading to more injuries like Bieber's

Cleveland Guardians starting pitcher Shane Bieber looks down as he walks off the field.
Lindsey Wasson
Cleveland Guardians starting pitcher Shane Bieber walks off the field after pitching against the Mariners in a game Tuesday, April 2, 2024, in Seattle.

After two nearly flawless starts to begin the season, Cleveland Guardians 2020 Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Shane Bieber is out for the year with an elbow injury.

Bieber missed more than two months last season with elbow issues, but worked on his velocity in the offseason and returned feeling healthy. He notched 12 scoreless innings and 20 strikeouts against Oakland and Seattle before experiencing pain.

Ideastream Public Media sports commentator Terry Pluto said Bieber joins a long list of Major League Baseball pitchers to undergo Tommy John surgery. Atlanta’s Spencer Strider, the New York Yankees’ Jonathan Loáisiga, Miami’s Eury Pérez and Oakland’s Trevor Gott are others.

“What it really is, it's a ligament transplant surgery in your elbow. It's very common for pitchers to have this and seems to get more common all the time. And so a lot of people are saying, 'Well, why is this happening?'” Pluto said.

Over the weekend, MLBPA executive director Tony Clark blamed the spike in elbow injuries on the pitch clock, which was instated last year. It gives pitchers 15 seconds to throw with no base runners and 20 seconds when someone is on base.

“I'm not buying that. And the data actually doesn't show that," Pluto said. "They have a thing called the injured list — pitchers getting hurt, put on the injured list. In 2021, when there was no pitch clock, there were 243 pitchers on the injured list. In ‘22, before the clock, it was 226. Then last year they put the clock in, it was 233. In other words, it’s the same,” Pluto said.

Pluto believes the problem starts when pitchers are young.

“If you go, sometimes, to a high school game, certainly summer league games, you see radar guns. They’re almost more concerned with a high reading on the radar gun than in getting people out. It's almost like there's an indoctrination when you're younger, if you're throwing this hard, it'll get you a college scholarship, it could get you a pro contract. You could even see it sometimes in a big-league game. I've seen a guy throw a pitch, turn around and look at the scoreboard to see how hard it was. But here is the problem: people are not robots. So the more pressure you put to throw harder on these ligaments, on your shoulder, leads to more injuries,” Pluto said.

Pluto said another issue is spin rates that pitchers are putting on the ball.

“You see how the breaking ball, the ball curves and sinks and that. The harder you twist your wrist to create a faster spin rate, the sharper the ball breaks or dives. And the more you take your wrist and twist it and twist it, it puts pressure on the elbow,” Pluto said.

The average fastball is also getting faster, Pluto said. It’s currently 94 miles per hour.

“Fifteen years ago was 92 (miles per hour). In the 1980s, it was 90. So, in other words, what is average was throwing extremely hard way back when. So, I just think the emphasis on trying to do things like a machine instead of like a person has led to a lot of these injuries," Pluto said. "And then there's, I think, a bit of a false narrative thinking, ‘I'll just get the Tommy John elbow surgery and I'll be fine.’ Well, for some guys it is. And other guys get hurt again."

Bieber's is future is uncertain.

“It used to be they try to get him back in 9 to 12 months. But they found out that that was rushing it and these guys are hurting their arms again. So now it's 12 to 18 months,” Pluto said.
Pluto said Bieber’s injury has created a ripple effect for the Guardians.

“For Shane Bieber, the arm injury is terrible because he's hurt. He needs surgery. Not only that, he's going to be a free agent at the end of the year. So, his chance to get a big contract is going to be on the operating table and be on hold for a couple of years," he said. "It’s bad for the Guardians because they lost their best pitcher. And it's even bad ... for the Guardians because they had tried to sign Shane Bieber to some contract extensions, and he turned them down. So, they were going to trade him and hopefully get a good player for him. And now they can’t."

Pluto said the team will have to make do without Bieber, possibly using Carlos Carrasco or Xavion Curry to fill in.

Baseball must address the problem of elbow injuries in pitchers, Pluto said.

“Baseball is correct when they value pitching over anything else, but they have to value pitchers and how to keep them healthy over the radar gun, the spin rates and the obsession with strikeouts,” Pluto said.

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