No general manager ever gets a good night’s sleep. This being baseball, anything can go wrong. This being baseball, the thing most apt to go wrong is pitching. The most important thing in baseball, always and forever, is pitching.
The Braves have won five consecutive division titles. On paper, this team is better than the previous five. Through 22.8 percent of the regular season, they have MLB’s second-best record. They hold the widest lead among division leaders. They’re on pace to win 110 games. They also have reason for concern.
The great Max Fried has landed on the injured list for a second time in a month. The first was for a tweaked hamstring. The second is for a forearm strain. (Not a “sprain;” with arms, one letter makes a difference.) An MRI revealed no tear, which would have meant Tommy John surgery, which would have meant we wouldn’t see Fried throw another pitch until 2024 at the earliest.
Kyle Wright, winner of 21 games last year, missed much of spring training due to a shoulder that required a cortisone shot in January. He didn’t pitch until the season was two weeks old. He was pulled after two innings from his fifth start. An MRI – once upon a time, sports folks said the acronym meant “maybe really injured” – diagnosed a strained shoulder.
Speaking with reporters this week, Wright said he believes he’ll miss more time than Fried. Informed guesses hold that each will miss at least two months. July is the loose return date for Fried; there isn’t even a loose return date for Wright.
At such a time, revisiting the basics of sore arms seems warranted. Without further ado …
· Shoulders are more mysterious than elbows. The elbow is basic – it bends. The shoulder twists; if it twists too far, it shouts. (Beatles reference. Ask your grandparents.)
· A worst-case scenario with elbows is TJ surgery. The first TJ is a rite of pitching passage: You have the surgery, you miss a year, you return throwing harder. Justin Verlander was 37 when he had it. He won a Cy Young at 39.
· Fried had TJ in August 2014, when he was with San Diego, the team that drafted him. The Braves acquired him in December 2014. He didn’t pitch for this club until 2016. He was worth the wait.
· A second TJ is problematic. The surgery involves drilling through bone to trade a damaged ligament with a healthy tendon. Re-drilling the same bone is iffier. Jonny Venters, a Brave of distinction, underwent what he termed “3.5″ rounds of TJ and kept working his way, if briefly, back to the majors. He was out of baseball at 34.
· An initial diagnosis can mislead. Sometimes rest and rehab don’t work. The Mets are known for having pitchers with slight twinges become pitchers with career-compromising injuries. Matt Harvey just retired at 34. Noah Syndergaard, the mighty Thor, has seen his fastball drop from 98.3 mph at age 23 to 92.1 at 30. Jacob deGrom, the best in the business when healthy, has started 42 games since 2019; now a Ranger, he’s on the IL yet again.
· Every era has its cautionary tale. Powered by a matchless offense, the Big Red Machine made four World Series, winning two, from 1970 through ‘76. Those Reds might have been better. Their Round 1 picks in 1966, 1967 and 1969 were high school pitchers Gary Nolan, Wayne Simpson and Don Gullett. Simpson was an All-Star at 21. Nolan started Game 1 of the World Series at 22. Gullett pitched in the Series at 19. None was still a big-leaguer at 30.
· TJ surgery arrived on Sept. 25, 1974, when Dr. Frank Jobe retrofitted a Dodgers pitcher named, er, Tommy John with a new elbow. Pitch counts weren’t always a thing. Luis Tiant is credited with throwing – accounts vary – between 155 and 165 pitches in Game 4 of the 1975 World Series. (He won.)
· With pitchers, every team errs on the side of caution. Nobody wants to be the Cubs, who wasted the futures of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. The Nationals shuttered Stephen Strasburg for the 2012 playoffs. Seven years later, he was the MVP of a stunning World Series title. That’s the good news.
· The bad: Over the three-plus seasons since, Strasburg has worked 31-1/3 innings. Under contract through 2026, he didn’t attend spring training or the Nationals’ opening game. The most protected pitcher ever appears done at 34.
· One last discouraging word: Fried has a strain, which is better than a sprain and way better than a tear. Still, as David Schoenfield of ESPN notes: “A forearm strain is often a precursor to Tommy John surgery.”
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