Prospect pitching injuries remain unpredictable

From the Nolan Ryan influence in Texas that had pitchers throwing more between starts to organizations that limit long-toss distances to every strategy in between, every organization has its own top-to-bottom plan for how to best develop pitching prospects.

But, let’s face it: None of us has a clue how to prevent injuries.

Two of the game’s top prospects—Dylan Bundy and Danny Hultzen—will miss significant time with arm injuries over the next month or so despite their respective organizations—the Orioles and Mariners—doing everything they believed was in the best interest of their prized possessions the entire time they had them. And for all we know, they were.

The injury situation surrounding Bundy has been downplayed by the Orioles all season, but you can go only so long without your top prospect appearing in a game before people begin asking questions. The Orioles recently announced that Bundy was “pain-free” and was doing “strengthening exercises,” but less than two weeks later, he was visiting Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala., the place where UCLs go to get reconstructed.

Yesterday, Bundy avoided the Tommy John diagnosis and instead had a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection. That’s a procedure in which your own blood is spun around in a centrifuge and then injected back into the area where there’s a problem. There are no side effects to the procedure, but it also doesn’t always work. Essentially, it’s worth a shot to try resting him for six weeks before cutting Bundy open and having him lose a year.

In Hultzen’s case, the diagnosis isn’t quite as grim, but the part of his body it involves is worse.

The rule of thumb when it comes to pitching injuries is that elbows are more easily repairable than shoulders. A second Tommy John surgery is bad news, but it’s been done. Johan Santana’s second shoulder capsule injury could end his career.

Hultzen isn’t dealing with anything that devastating, but his injury was initially diagnosed as a rotator cuff strain that was going to keep him out for two weeks. It’s already been upgraded (downgraded?) to at least a month away from game action.

These are two very different injuries affecting two of the game’s top pitching prospects in two different organizations that took every precaution imaginable to protect these players and their investments in them.

The Orioles have taken an incredibly cautious approach with Bundy to try to avoid situations exactly like the one in which they now find themselves. Despite his domination, the Orioles kept Bundy to a strict innings limit last season, not allowing him to go past three innings in his first few starts, and restricting his total for the season. He finished 2012 making 23 starts but throwing only 103.2 innings, averaging about four and a half innings per start. He rarely struggled, but the precaution was because the Orioles didn’t want to jump his total innings too much from his senior year of high school, in which he threw 71 innings.

The Mariners allowed Hultzen, selected two picks before Bundy in the 2011 draft, to work much deeper into games in his first professional season. He had built up his innings while at the University of Virginia. Hultzen threw 103.1 innings in 2011 at UVa and the Mariners used him for 124 innings in 2012. Those innings were spaced out over 25 starts, coming to almost five innings per outing, although those numbers were skewed by Hultzen’s struggles in Triple-A last season which caused high pitch counts and unplanned short outings.

The Mariners were understandably more lenient with the older Hultzen than the Orioles were with Bundy, and the Orioles have already allowed 2012 top pick Kevin Gausman, out of LSU, to work deeper into games this season than Bundy did by the midway point of last year, signaling that their philosophy on restricting pitchers is based heavily on that player’s workload history.

No matter the precaution, pitching injuries are a part of the game. The Orioles and the Mariners have done everything they can to protect their players while also preparing them for life in the major leagues, yet both now play the waiting game to see what each of their futures hold. Bundy will take a little over a month off, then attempt to rehabilitate the injury. The goal for Bundy is to be able to come back without having surgery. For Hultzen, the timetable is shorter— two weeks of no throwing followed by rebuilding his arm strength—but the goal remains the same.

But it seems that no matter how much we learn about what causes and prevents arm injuries, there’s still so much more we don’t know. And even less that we can do about it.

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9 years ago

There’s one big problem with the study of arm injuries and how to prevent them, namely that we don’t know how many drafted pitchers are damaged goods. I suspect that most of the most sought after prospects are, at least if they have grown up in the US. A lot of these guys have been pegged as pitching stars since their Little League days. How many of them have sustained arm damage because of the way they were handled as amateurs? Right now we just don’t know. There’s little chance we’ll ever find out either. To really study this question, a suitable sample of pitching prospects would have to be given complete workups upon signing to find out what kind of condition their arms were in at that point. This is unlikely to happen. It would be expensive and the prospects’ agents would resist it for fear that it would hurt the futures of their clients.