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Pitchers must be discouraged against playing through elbow injuries

There is a time and place for everything. When it comes to playing through elbow injuries, pitchers should proceed with caution instead of trying to play through it.

MLB: New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Nathan Eovaldi is the latest high-velocity pitcher to need Tommy John surgery, in addition to another surgery to repair the flexor tendon in his right elbow. Eovaldi will be undergoing his second Tommy John surgery, after needing it in high school. The tough part about elbow injuries is that pitchers can’t exactly train their tendons and ligaments like ordinary muscles. Instead, what they can do is speak up when they feel like something is wrong.

According to Wallace Matthews at ESPN, Eovaldi initially felt discomfort while playing catch after his August 4th start against the Mets. It wasn’t until his August 10th start in Fenway when he finally admitted to being hurt, when his average fastball velocity dipped from 97 mph in his previous outing to 94.

Aside from the velocity dip, the other telltale signs of fatigue were not showing up. Eovaldi’s release point was roughly the same, and the average spin rate of his fastball was actually up in 2016. The latter has been used as a measure of pitcher fatigue in the past. By most indications, Eovaldi appeared to be healthy.

For professional players, taking the field while hurt comes with the territory. No one likes a quitter, and players who fail to persevere through injuries are considered to lack the motivation needed to contribute to the team. For example, the usually calm and collected Derek Jeter once allegedly mocked the often-injured Carl Pavano to his face about his lack of innings pitched in a Yankee uniform. For better or worse, the old “rub some dirt in it” adage will always be a part of baseball.

However, for pitchers, elbow injuries are a different matter. They should not be seen as a sign of weakness or poor preparation, as experts themselves are currently scrambling, trying to figure out how to decrease the likelihood of Tommy John surgery. If anything, it’s the opposite. In a segment with MLB Network, Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez said he thought exercises like weight training have contributed to the recent wave of elbow injuries. His theory is a common one, as many believe that pitchers with greater muscle mass put extra torque on their elbows.

Of course, it is equally shortsighted to act like pitchers are arrogant enough to put their careers on the line for stripes in the clubhouse. Pitchers at any level beyond little league presumably enjoy playing baseball, so being sidelined for any period of time is probably something they want to avoid at all costs. Also, the fact that pitching puts pressure on a person’s elbow is never going to change. If pitchers could automatically tell the difference between simple inflammation and a torn UCL, nobody would ever sit through an MRI.

In all likelihood, keeping quiet about his elbow pain is probably not what did Eovaldi in. According to Matthews, he said that he “felt like something bad would happen” if he “let [his] fastball go” while playing catch after his start against the Mets. It is likely that the damage had already been done at that point. Regardless, the actions of pitchers like Noah Syndergaard should be commended. On June 22nd, he left a game against the Royals with discomfort in his right elbow. Fortunately for the Mets’ ace, his MRI didn’t reveal any structural damage.

It may have led to a series of annoying questions for the imposing righty, but the peace of mind provided by his quick MRI was clearly worth it. In the wake of Eovaldi’s injury, pitchers should be reminded to speak up if they think something is off. Without a noticeable drop in velocity, it is not easy for coaches or managers to pick up on injuries.

In the meantime, it will be a long road back to a big league mound for Eovaldi. Going back under the knife will cost him a lot of money as well, since he is set to hit free agency after 2017. When he does return, he will have to build on what he did in the second half of the 2015 season, when he pitched 56.1 innings to the tune of a 3.67 ERA. Undergoing Tommy John surgery in high school did not stop him from making it as a Major League starter in the first place, so the second one should not be too much of an obstacle. Hopefully, he is back with a clean bill of health sooner rather than later.

Data is courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.