More velocity a double-edged sword for young hurlers
Higher numbers on radar guns draw teams' attention, but injuries are on the rise, too
We've reached an interesting intersection in the evaluation of young pitchers -- a convergence of fascination and fear.
The fascination is that we've simply never seen so many hard throwers, and that extends to the prep ranks, where mid-90s heat has become commonplace.
"When I first started doing this," said a longtime amateur scout, "you hoped to see a high school kid at 90-91 [mph]. You were pretty excited about that. Now, I want to see the guy throwing 94-96."
The fear -- especially in the midst of a season in which we've already seen 17 pitchers on Major League rosters have Tommy John ligament replacement surgery -- is what that heat at an early age could mean at a later date, if not an immediate one.
"These kids are trying to throw 90-plus miles per hour," renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews told MLB Network Radio last month. "We found out from our lab that the red line for a Tommy John ligament in high school is -- guess what? -- about 80 to 85 mph. The ones who throw beyond that are going beyond the developmental properties of their normal ligament, and they're getting hurt. The radar gun is a problem."
And the radar guns are out in full force this time of year.
Across the country, scouts are getting their last earnest looks at the deep pool of pitching prospects expected to dominate the early stages of the June 5-7 First Year Player Draft. MLB.com expert Jim Callis has speculated that as many as 20 pitchers could go in the first round alone.
One of the pitchers particularly high on Draft boards this year is Tyler Kolek, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound right-hander from Shepherd (Texas) High School whose fastball has been clocked as high as 102 mph. The consensus is that he'll be a top-three pick.
"You've got to be working for a bad team to get him," a National League scouting director quipped.
You've also got to be willing to take the risk that accompanies those triple-digit radar readings.
Lucas Giolito was the Nationals' No. 1 pick in 2012 on the premise that his 100-mph fastball was worth injecting into their system despite the fact that he had spent his senior season rehabbing an elbow injury. Sure enough, Giolito underwent Tommy John surgery shortly after signing for a $2.925 million bonus. He's currently in Class A ball.
Jameson Taillon was a No. 2 overall pick by the Pirates in 2010. Dylan Bundy was taken No. 4 overall by the Orioles in 2011. Taylor Guerreri went to the Rays at No. 24 in 2011. Cam Bedrosian went 29th to the Angels in 2010. They all came out of high school with mid-90s fastballs, and they all wound up on a surgeon's table. None of them -- except for Bundy, who pitched in two games for Baltimore in 2012 -- has reached the bigs yet.
Archie Bradley, the D-backs' No. 7 overall selection in 2011, was clocked at 101 mph during the Oklahoma state championship game. He recently went down with a strained elbow that Arizona hopes is minor.
"Bodies are getting physically stronger faster, and then these guys are putting more and more behind their throws," an American League scouting director said. "It's not a natural thing to throw a baseball that way. People are learning how to throw harder at a younger age because it's part of that showcase mentality. But at some point, something's going to break."
The data supports the belief. A study by Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci found that five of the 39 pitchers, or 12.8 percent, taken with the top 30 picks between 2002-09 wound up having Tommy John surgery. In a much smaller sample -- 2010-12 -- five of 16, or 31.3 percent, have already had the procedure.
The ugly trend is rising.
Velocity alone is certainly not the only factor. Andrews and Glenn Fleisig, the research director at the American Sports Medicine Institute, have expressed concern about year-round baseball that doesn't allow young arms to recover. And pitchers who play for more than one league, and therefore don't have coordination of their pitch counts and innings, are also in precarious spots.
The problem, of course, is that those who play in multiple leagues or over long periods of the calendar year are more likely to be seen by scouts. And the pressure to light up a radar gun in the current environment cannot be overstated.
Scouts have become increasingly familiar with the potential cost that comes with those radar readings, but that doesn't make the readings any less important in their recommendations.
"It's difficult to walk away [from high velocity]," the AL scouting director said. "You're looking for that. So what you pay more attention to now is the mechanical side of it and definitely the [pitcher's] build. If he's throwing 100 and is 6-4 and 180 pounds, there is some concern there as to the durability of the frame and the effort being put into the delivery."
Still, the 100-mph reading is enticing even in that circumstance.
"It's like the running back that runs the 4.3-[second] 40-yard dash," an NL scout said. "That's what gets the attention."
Over the five-year span from 2008-13, the average fastball velocity at the Major League level has risen more than a full mile per hour, from 90.9 to 92. That might be the most tangible effect that year-round training has had at the big league level, and it is easy to infer that the increased emphasis on specialization at a young age is what has contributed to the rise of velocity at the amateur level, too.
Teams are so hungry to add more impact arms that they'll sign up for damaged goods. That was the case with Giolito and it is expected to be the case again this year with East Carolina junior Jeff Hoffman. It was announced earlier this week that Hoffman, who was listed as high as No. 1 overall in some mock drafts, will undergo Tommy John surgery, but he might still be a first-round selection on the strength of what his mid-90s fastball could be worth once he's healed.
Hopefully, the increased understanding of the effects of overwork and pitching while fatigued will be an eye opener to amateur pitchers and that more dutiful tracking of workload takes place. Clearly, though, the current injury epidemic is not affecting what scouts look for when they assess talent.
They want raw stuff that has the potential to play at the big league level. Stuff like that of the 18-year-old Kolek, whose fastball prompted two disparate but understandable assessments from the AL scouting director.
"Thrilling," he said in one breath.
"Nerve-wracking," he said in the next.
Fascination meets fear.