Pitching Through Pain Rarely Works Out Well

Diamondbacks lefty Patrick Corbin suffered a partial tear to his ulnar collateral ligament over the weekend, and will almost certainly require Tommy John surgery. Obviously, that’s a big blow to Arizona’s playoff hopes — and, as with Matt Harvey last year and Stephen Strasburg before that, just a huge downer to any baseball fan who enjoys watching talented young pitching — but we’ll get back to that in a second. What really caught my eye about Corbin’s injury was this quote from the MLB.com story:

Corbin said he had been feeling tightness in his forearm through much of the spring and during his Saturday start, but the pain went to a next level with the final three of his 91 pitches in Saturday’s game. He said he felt “a little shock” but no pop in his elbow those last few pitches, and he decided to shut it down.

“It was just the same tightness I kind of had the first three starts, but nothing out of the ordinary,” Corbin said

That’s because Mets lefty Jon Niese said something similar after leaving Sunday’s game with what is being termed “elbow discomfort”…

“I told them I felt fine, but obviously they don’t want to take any chances,” Niese said, noting that he first felt discomfort in his elbow during an intrasquad game last week, which was his first game action since a bout of shoulder pain in late February.

…as did Dodgers prospect Ross Stripling earlier this month

He first noticed something was wrong with his elbow early in spring training after pitching to former minor league teammate Joc Pederson during batting practice.

Stripling said the competition got the best of him and after he threw a series of cutters to Pederson, he felt a tearing sensation. He continued to pitch but his elbow felt sore the rest of the week. After an MRI exam, the Dodgers’ medical staff said surgery was necessary.

…and A’s starter Jarrod Parker, who has the dreaded “visit to Dr. Andrews” on his calendar:

The early days of spring weren’t bad, but the more he threw, the more he had trouble getting comfortable or even throwing without pain.

He tried to pitch through it, hoping things would clear up, but on Thursday’s side session, both pitching coach Curt Young and manager Bob Melvin noticed his struggles. Melvin called him into his office, and it was then that Parker admitted the pain was back.

Notice a pattern there? When the human body is asked to do something that it’s perhaps not built to do — say, repeatedly throwing a baseball at a high velocity thousands of times — and there are already clear warning signs, continuing to perform that same activity generally only continues to add stress, until the stress reaches such a point that the body can’t take it any longer. Something breaks. Seasons end.

And those are just in the last few weeks. If you delve into previous years, there’s undoubtedly dozens, if not hundreds, of similar examples of pitchers attempting to push through pain, only to find that the outcome wasn’t a positive one. Tony Cingrani hid a back injury last season, eventually landing on the disabled list when it worsened, or as he put it, “I really couldn’t even stand up any more.” In 2006, Eric Gagne tried to pitch through pain, and after it became clear something was wrong during spring training, he admitted to it and found that the damage was such that the valuable portion of his career was essentially over at age 30.

You get it, of course, and we don’t know for sure that the teams weren’t aware of any of this (though Parker’s and Stripling’s seem to be clear that their clubs did not). Professional athletes are groomed to be “warriors,” to “play through the pain,” to “leave it all out on the field,” or whatever other description works best for you. No one wants to be injured. You want to play, right up until the point where it’s absolutely not possible for you to do so. Some don’t want to be seen as being weak or risk their standing in the clubhouse by appearing too often in the trainer’s room, as this excerpt from former major leaguer Dirk Hayhurst’s most recent book shows all too well. For a younger player, there’s the worry that the chance in front of them is the only one they might get, which Rockies pitcher Franklin Morales all but admitted to in 2008, when he hid a back injury all season long. Morales didn’t end up causing himself further injury, but he did hurt himself in another way — after a nice 2007 debut, he pitched so poorly in 2008 while hurting that he ended up spending most of the season in Triple-A. For Daniel Hudson, he kept elbow discomfort to himself because he was weeks away from completing a long rehab from Tommy John and was eager to return; he’s now currently attempting to rehab his second elbow operation.

Intuitively, this makes sense. There’s obviously a certain amount of ego that goes into being a professional athlete, that belief that you are the best at what you do, that you are indestructible. And as any athlete will tell you, there’s rarely a time where you feel 100 percent — there is always some sort of ache to work through over a long season. Objectively, however, you wonder how some of these injuries might have played out had they been dealt with immediately. If Stripling, for example, had stopped pitching when he first felt soreness, perhaps he might not have blown out his elbow. If he hadn’t continued to pitch for the remainder of the week after feeling “a tearing sensation,” it probably wouldn’t have prevented the Tommy John — it’s pretty easy to assume the damage was done by that point — but maybe he would’t have had to undergo a preliminary elbow surgery just to prepare for the Tommy John, because since he still hasn’t had the zipper done yet, his 2014 season isn’t just gone, his 2015 outlook is in peril too.

This isn’t limited to pitchers — there are similar examples among position players — but with the recent spate of pitching injuries this spring, with Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, Cory Luebke, A.J. Griffin, and Joe Wieland all suffering serious arm trouble, we’ve been talking a lot about what can be done to keep pitchers healthier. Perhaps a good first step is attempting to improve the communication and the culture around being open with what a player is feeling internally. That certainly won’t solve every issue, because pitchers are always going to get hurt. Any pitch could be their last, and it doesn’t always come with a warning. But many do, and an atmosphere where it’s not necessarily seen as “weak” to disclose and report trouble might save arms in a way we could never really measure.

Back to Corbin, he hasn’t decided yet if he’ll have the surgery, and we also don’t know the exact sequence of events that he did or did  not discuss with his training staff. But it definitely doesn’t sound promising for him, sadly, and with Bronson Arroyo having made only a single spring appearance while battling back trouble, this cascades down the Arizona rotation. Instead of having enough depth to send Archie Bradley to the minors to start the year, they now may need to rush him and start his clock. Instead of the 2-3 WAR Corbin was expected to provide, they now need Wade Miley to be more than he is, and to wonder if they’ll need to resort to Zeke Spruill or Bo Schultz or Alex Sanabia or Josh Collmenter in the rotation.

It’s bad for both Corbin and his Diamondbacks, who spent this winter in order to contend right now. The events of the last few days make that seem less likely. Mostly, it’s bad for baseball. No matter how you feel about Arizona, no one wants to see a pitcher coming off a breakout year go down, and with the number of injuries we’ve seen recently, it’s become more clear than ever that the next great breakthrough in baseball — the one that will be worth millions or even billions — will be the one that helps figure out how to preserve some of these arms. It’ll take work on both sides, though. The first step has to be honesty.

Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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10 years ago

Sure. But we only hear of this happening when things get much much worse.

Why would these pitchers continue to pitch when catastrophic injury seems so nearly inevitable? Perhaps amongst themselves, just about every pitcher is feeling these pains and worries about their careers. But as long as most of the successful ones make it through the pain with the rest of the league watching, we’re going to have other players try to emulate that.

I want there to be fewer pitcher injuries just as much as the next guy. I just think we need to try to understand the issue a little better than this.

10 years ago
Reply to  Steven

It’s not about working through the pain necessarily. It’s about the contract and competitiveness.

A lot of these guys are young and on their first contract. If they do well, they get a big contact. There’s a huge motivation right there to power through whatever pain you may have to make the big bucks. A lot of these guys have spent their lives training to be baseball players – they need to big contract or else everything they’ve worked for is for nothing.

Competitiveness is also a huge and more immediate factor. I pitched in high school and college through arm pain because the thought of taking time off was that depressing. I was there to play, so sit on a bench and do stupid rehab. A year of not playing the game I loved was a terrifying thought.