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Can pitchers throw hard and avoid Tommy John surgery?

Doctors recommend not pitching at maximum effort to pitchers who are at risk for Tommy John surgery. But how can they pitch well without trying as hard?

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

With the recent epidemic of Tommy John surgeries in baseball, the entire baseball community has been searching for ways to prevent young pitchers from going under the knife. With high profile pitchers like Matt Harvey, Stephen Strasburg, and Jose Fernandez all recently tearing their UCL's, there seems to be a link between Tommy John risk and young, hard-throwing pitchers. During the summer, noted orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews published a position paper on Tommy John Surgery, recommending that pitchers refrain from throwing every pitch at maximum effort. For most pitchers, throwing with less velocity and retaining effectiveness is easier said than done. But there may be a way to hold back velocity and actually get better.

In May, Noah Woodward of The Hardball Times put out a great piece on the effectiveness of fastballs by location and velocity. Here is one of the charts from his article:

Somehow, the data suggested that fastballs moving at a relatively pedestrian 86-90 mph were actually more effective than high-velocity heaters when thrown low and away. Intuitively, this does not make sense, but there may be a couple of explanations.

About a month after Woodward's article, SB Nation's Jason Turbow released his article on Effective Velocity. According to the theories presented in his piece, pitches thrown up and in to a hitter can appear up to five miles per hour faster, while pitches low and away seem slower. Secondly, because power pitchers grow up dominating their competition, they probably never have to focus on command as much as pitchers who are not blessed with the ability to hit triple digits on a radar gun. I call it "Shaq Free Throw syndrome." Legendary NBA player Shaquille O'Neal's size allowed him to dominate his competition for so long that he never really had to learn to shoot during his formative years. A similar trend can be seen with extremely mobile quarterbacks and throwing accuracy.

Let's say someone like Nathan Eovaldi, whose fastball averaged 95.7 mph in 2014 according to Baseball Savant, throws a fastball down and away at full intensity. By throwing as hard as he can, one would presume that his command would be slightly compromised. In addition, the Effective Velocity theory would suggest that his fastball looks slower to the hitter. In other words, his fastball appears to be traveling at around 92 mph in an area where a hitter can get solid extension, while the pitch might not be located well. This would seem like a recipe for disaster.

Perhaps pitchers should consider taking some velocity off their low and away fastballs. Besides the extra command, there are plenty of potential benefits. First of all, they would be able to take Dr. Andrews' advice and would lower the risk of overexerting their elbows. Secondly, changing speeds could potentially keep hitters on their toes. Finally, they would conserve energy and could be effective later in games. Justin Verlander is known to keep his fastball velocity in the low 90's for the first five or six innings before dialing it up to up to 100 mph later in the game. Take a look at how hitters fare against him during the third time through the order in comparison to Eovaldi (courtesy of Baseball Reference):

Player (Season) BAA OBP SLG%
Verlander (2011) .208 .260 .336
Eovaldi (2014) .329 .380 .486

Eovaldi's numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt, as hitters can get used to the fact that he did not really have a changeup and was very predictable. But saving some of his energy in the earlier innings could help him pitch deeper into games and become a key part of the Yankees' rotation.

In addition to robbing the game of several promising young pitchers, Tommy John surgery is also causing teams to attach more risk to pitchers who light up the radar gun. But if pitchers take some velocity off low and away fastballs, they would set themselves up to gas hitters away with high heat, while simultaneously pitching in a manner that is safer and possibly more effective.