Bradley’s Buzz: Baseball’s dilemma - its best pitchers can’t stay healthy

Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone is surrounded by the Fab Five pitchers (from left) Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, Kent Mercker, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz. His job of pitching coach was made easier by the formidable starting rotation. (AJC file photo)



Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone is surrounded by the Fab Five pitchers (from left) Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, Kent Mercker, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz. His job of pitching coach was made easier by the formidable starting rotation. (AJC file photo)

Last week, ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel ranked baseball’s best pitchers. Of the nine listed as “aces,” five are injured or recovering. Of 19 “almost aces,” eight are unable to pitch. His third tier included another 19, nine of whom are unavailable.

So: Of MLB’s top 48 starting pitchers, 22 aren’t pitching. That’s a rounded-up 46%. That sounds awful. This will sound worse: Nine days ago, Scott Pianowski of Yahoo! Sports offered this on X: “So you want to watch a Cy Young Award winner pitch in The Show this week. Any winner from the last 14 years will do.

“Blake Snell. Corbin Burnes. That’s the list.”

Not every Cy Young winner of recent vintage is injured. Jake Arrieta, Cory Kluber and Rick Porcello retired. Dallas Keuchel, briefly a Brave, just signed a minor-league deal with Seattle. Trevor Bauer is on no MLB roster. Still, you get the drift, which is more like an avalanche.

Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw: There’s 11 Cy Youngs. They’re all rehabbing. Sandy Alcantara, the 2022 NL Cy winner, had Tommy John surgery in October. Shane Bieber, the 2020 AL Cy winner, had elbow surgery on Friday. So did Spencer Strider, who entered this season as the favorite to win the NL Cy.

Strider and Bieber didn’t just have surgery the same day. They had it in the same place, performed by the same surgeon, Dr. Keith Meister of Arlington, Texas. Is this getting creepy or what?

At the end of a week that saw Strider, Bieber and three other pitchers of note develop sore elbows, the players association issued a statement blaming this rash of injuries on the pitch clock. This prompted MLB to offer minor-league data in rebuttal. The issue, however, goes beyond clocks and numbers. This has to do with the human arm, which has been around as long as there have been humans.

Those of a certain age recall when sliders were believed to be injurious to the health of those who threw them. There was a time when Bruce Sutter’s split-finger fastball was all the rage — until it spawned a backlash of injury. Today it’s not a particular pitch but all pitches, seeing as how most pitches are delivered with maximum effort at either maximum velocity or with a maximum amount of spin.

We also recall the Mazzone Method, to which no team — not even the Braves — still subscribes. As the pitching coach charged with shepherding the greatest of all rotations, Leo Mazzone had his pitchers throw twice between turns, as opposed to the usual once. Difference was, Rockin’ Leo had his guys work without max exertion.

Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz won six Cy Young awards under Mazzone while almost never missing a start. Smoltz had Tommy John surgery at 34. Maddux and Glavine never did. Then again, those two didn’t throw 100 mph. Some days they’d barely break 90. Their hassle-free deliveries were perfect for their era, which is not our era.

It must be noted that the most gifted Braves pitcher of those days — Steve Avery — was less fortunate. His career was compromised by a shoulder that began hurting during the Last Great Pennant Race of 1993. (Then as now, there’s no Tommy John for shoulders.) By ‘97, he’d become a junkballer with Boston. By ‘99, he was essentially done, having just turned 30. Even the greatest rotation wasn’t immune to human frailty.

In the era of velocity and spin rates, there are no more Glavines and Madduxes. With middle infielders capable of hitting 35 homers, pitchers cannot pitch to contact. The result is that they throw harder and spin it faster until their elbows start barking. Then they go see Dr. Meister, master surgeon. Then, in a year, they come back and try again.

We ask what baseball can do to remedy this. The answer: nothing. From Joe Sheehan’s newsletter: “The harder a fastball is thrown, the harder it is to hit. It works the same for sliders. You can’t just tell pitchers to take something off it, because pitchers who do that end up in grad school.”

After 14 games, the Braves’ rotation ranks 27th in ERA (5.50). Allan Winans started against the Mets on Thursday. Darius Vines was scheduled to work Monday night in Houston. That’s the effect of losing Strider. That’s not to say workarounds can’t be found, but this is what the sport has become. The best pitchers are hurting. Nobody has enough pitching.

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