The lonely truth of making a living on pitching mounds is easy to forget as October’s chill descends.
Throwing a baseball is inherently unnatural, but catch a glimpse of someone like Michael Wacha, the 22-year-old revelation for the Cardinals, and the reality disappears in an explosion of flashblubs.
The rookie right-hander pitched St. Louis past the Pirates on Monday with 7 1/3 innings of one-hit baseball and forced a decisive Game 5 in the National League Division Series.
In a game that chews up young pitchers, the former first-round draft pick has survived. So far. But for every Wacha making the craft look easy in front of a stadium that lives on each pitch, there is a Danny Hultzen.
The Bethesda native is the other side. He attended St. Albans School, then the University of Virginia before the Mariners drafted him No. 2 overall in 2011. He’s the fragile part of Major League Baseball we don’t talk about much come October.
Another injured pitcher.
Invent a prospect and he’d look a lot like Hultzen. Unflappable demeanor on the mound. Studious and well-spoken off the field. The sort of person you want as the face of an organization. A left arm that flung fastballs up to 94 miles per hour. Polish. Discipline not to try and blow away hitters. Command of his pitches that drew comparisons to Cliff Lee.
Buzzwords stalked Hultzen: High floor. Safe.
The Mariners guaranteed him $6.35 million to sign. A quick trip through the minor leagues and into the majors seemed inevitable.
Baseball America and MLB.com ranked Hultzen as one of the game’s top 30 prospects before the season. But the 23-year-old is a pitcher, baseball’s equivalent of spinning a roulette wheel.
Last week, Dr. James Andrews repaired Hultzen’s left shoulder in Pensacola, Fla. The familiar story unraveled between aborted comebacks over the last six months: he couldn’t get loose, two months off, the diagnosis of a strained rotator cuff and tendinitis, struggling to get loose again, last month’s ominous news of a visit to Dr. Andrews. Then surgery.
The man who fixed Robert Griffin III’s right knee repaired Hultzen’s labrum. And his rotator cuff. And his shoulder capsule.
That’s the holy trinity of terror for pitchers. An injury to one of those areas is enough to throw a career off track, never mind forcing a pitcher off the mound for a year or more. Three is devastating.
In 2007, surgery repaired all three areas for can’t-miss Cubs pitcher Mark Prior. He hasn’t appeared in a major league game since, exiled to the minors by a series of follow-up surgeries and abortive comebacks.
Elbow injuries once were the death knell for pitching careers until Dr. Frank Jobe pioneered the procedure on Tommy John in 1974 that now bears the pitcher’s name. Now the success rate to fix the damaged elbows approaches 90 percent. It’s almost routine.
That’s what Mets phenom Matt Harvey will have this month. Nationals aces Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann bear the telltale scars, too. Even Hultzen’s older brother, Joe, underwent the procedure while pitching in college. They’re far from alone.
A July study by injury expert Will Carroll showed that a third of pitchers on major league rosters had undergone Tommy John surgery.
But elbows are one thing. Shoulders are dangerous, uncertain territory.
Take Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda. He hasn’t returned to the majors since labrum surgery in 2012. His rotator cuff wasn’t hurt. A Baseball Prospectus analysis of 67 pitchers with labrum problems since 2002 showed an undamaged rotator cuff is a key factor in an uncomplicated return. But the form that made Pineda an All-Star as a rookie in 2011 hasn’t returned.
Perhaps hinting at the problem is a study of youth pitchers by the American Sports Medicine Institute that showed those who threw more than 100 innings in a year increased their injury risk by three and a half times. Arms aren’t made to throw baseballs.
The seeming inevitability of injury is one reason there’s a joke in baseball circles that there’s no such thing as a pitching prospect. A few years back, an analysis of Baseball America’s top 100 prospects from 1990 to 2003 showed 77.4 percent of the pitchers were busts.
Injuries, of course, aren’t the sole reason for the Darwinian wash-out rate. But even with the leaps forward in biomechanics and surgical procedures and rehabilitation, they make pitching one of the most unforgiving professions in sports.
Hultzen is young. The talent isn’t gone. The busted shoulder, though, is another reminder that the reality is more fragile than it appears.