Jose Fernandez steps out on to the mound to begin the fifth inning. It hadn't been the best start for him, as he pitched four innings, allowing two runs, striking out four. But that fifth inning changed everything for Fernandez and was the inning that swung his career in dramatic fashion.
Fernandez had been a fan favorite in the Major Leagues. He is just 21 years old, had been to the 2013 All Star Game, won the Rookie of the Year award, and finished third in the National League Cy Young award voting. He went 12-6 with a 2.19 ERA in 28 starts in 2013. On May 9, however, Fernandez's career had taken a turn for the worse.
During his start, Fernandez's fourseam fastball reached an even 98.46 miles per hour in the fourth inning. Then, in the fifth inning, his fourseam fastball fell nearly 10 miles per hour, to just 89.85 miles per hour. Fernandez retired the side in order, but based on the freak fall in velocity, Fernandez definitely injured his arm in the fifth inning. Although his velocity made a minimal rebound in the sixth inning, he allowed two singles, walked Yasmani Grandal, and gave up a grand slam to Jedd Gyorko before being replaced by Brad Hand.
Fernandez tore his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his throwing elbow. He needed season-ending surgery. Tommy John had the first UCL surgery back in 1974. Since that time, the procedure, known as "Tommy John surgery," has become more common in the Major Leagues. Prior to Fernandez's injury, 17 major league pitchers had to have the surgery this season, including big-time names such as Matt Moore, Jarrod Parker, and Patrick Corbin. The similarity between all of them? They all had velocity drops like Jose Fernandez did on May 9.
The question becomes: How can pitchers avoid Tommy John surgery into the future? Due to the epidemic this season, many have asked the question, and given a wide range of answers. But, they don't know where it really starts. It starts when these pitchers are young; when their arms of developing. And being 13, I have firsthand experience of what goes on with our pitchers and their throwing regimens.
The human arm is not built to throw a ball 95 miles per hour. But, many pitchers have found a way to get their fastballs into the 90s and even into the triple-digits. It's the only way to make the major leagues. For instance, JB Bukauskas, a 17-year-old pitcher from Stone Bridge High School in Virginia, can pitch into the mid to high 90s, and has touched 100. Will he need Tommy John surgery eventually? I don't know. But I do know it's not healthy for pitchers to be doing this.
In the 20th century, baseball was a spring sport only, and pitchers would use the rest of the year to rest their arms for, well, the spring. Now, in most of the United States, baseball can be played in three, and in some places, all four of the seasons. Pitchers can use the off season to take indoor classes, working on their mechanics and bringing their velocity up. They are throwing pitch after pitch, day after day, and even though they are not being injured immediately, the long-term effects can be staggering.
Yes, there are pitch counts. But they can only go so far. If you play on two baseball teams, and the pitch limit is 70 pitches with five days of rest, you can throw 70 pitches one day and come back the next day throwing 70 more pitches. How is this possible? If you are playing on two teams, in different leagues, one team "doesn't know about" the pitches you threw the day before for your other team, thus they can pitch you. And if you're not feeling any pain, why turn down the opportunity to pitch? You wouldn't.
My answer to the "Tommy John question" is plain and simple: people are putting too much stress on their arms when they are young, basically ruining their elbows at a young age. And if/when they make the major leagues, their arms cannot handle what is given to them, causing a tear in their UCL, and leading to what has been a horror for many lately, Tommy John surgery.