Spike in Velocity, Spike in Injuries Across Baseball Have A's Cautious With Rotation

Data suggests that increases in velocity in recent years have put a high percentage of the highest velocity pitchers in line for surgery. The Athletics hope their pitching depth will counterbalance that when the 2020 season gets underway.
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When the 2020 Major League Baseball season starts – notice we’re ever-so-optimistically saying “when” and not “if” – the A’s starting rotation may be the hardest throwing in the history of the franchise.

True, probable opening day starter Mike Fiers only tops out at 95 mph, and Sean Manaea goes slightly faster than that. But the probable Nos. 3, 4, and 5 starters – Frankie Montas, A.J. Puk and Jesus Luzardo – have all hit 100 mph on the radar gun.

The question we’re throwing out there today is having these young arms max out seemingly on every pitch a good idea. As SI’s Tom Verducci pointed out the other day, injuries to some of the hardest-throwing pitchers in the game raise serious questions about the connection to velocity and health.

Since mid-February, the Yankees’ Luis Severino, the Red Sox’s Chris Sale and the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard have undergone Tommy John surgery. For them, 2020 was a non-starter even before the COVID-19 coronavirus made the season problematic. All three were all All-Stars in 2018 and were among the hardest throwing pitchers in the game.

The simple fact is that pitchers throwing hard break down hard. According to Verducci, one third of the 21 hardest-throwers currently in the game had had surgery to repair a torn elbow ligament in the last year and a half.

That’s no surprise to the A’s. Puk and Luzardo are both Tommy John veterans. Puk underwent the procedure two years ago this month; for Luzardo it was four years go when he was still a Florida high school student.

Data suggests that throwing harder increases the chance of a pitcher’s breakdown. Of the 44 pitchers in the last three years who have had Tommy John-style ligament replacement surgery, 32 of them have been charted as having above-average fastball velocity.

Luzardo and Puk have come back from those surgeries throwing as hard or harder than ever. So has fellow A’s starter Chris Bassitt, who is back throwing 94-95 mph, is good, too, after his 2016 Tommy John work. Maybe they are good to go or better than ever.

But you can’t count on it. That’s why the A’s strength going forward is in their pitching depth. They hope they won’t need it. They hope all those fastballs lead to strikeouts and wins, not injuries and time lost.

Hoping doesn’t get the job done. So, they have a deep rotation. And that as much as anything has the A’s poised for big things once baseball starts up again.

Follow Athletics insider John Hickey on Twitter: @JHickey3