On Stephen Strasburg, Felix Hernandez, And How Lucky We Are

Felix Hernandez emerged as a standout prospect and came up to Seattle back around when analyzing pitching mechanics was bigger than pogs. The consensus opinion at that time was that Felix was an injury risk. Well, all pitchers are injury risks. So the consensus opinion was that Felix was a bigger injury risk than most. The word being thrown around was 'violent' - Felix's throwing motion was violent, suggesting that there was a lot of stress and strain in there that wasn't completely being channeled into the ball.

Since his August 2005 promotion, Felix has made 166 starts and thrown 1109.1 innings, only once going on the DL for an arm injury - a forearm strain that kept him out less than a month. The last two years he's become perhaps the American League's leading workhorse, and rather than show signs of wear and tear, he's flourished.

This isn't to say that the people evaluating Felix's mechanics years ago were wrong. The issue isn't that we don't know what certain actions during the throwing motion will do. The issue is that we don't know how much each individual pitcher can take. We don't know, really, until they get hurt.

Consider the elbow. A little blurb I've been repeating an awful lot lately is that, according to studies done by Glenn Fleisig at ASMI, the average upper-level pitcher puts about 80 Newton-meters of torque on his elbow when throwing a fastball. Other studies, also done by Fleisig, have shown that the average ulnar collateral ligament (UCL - the ligament that requires Tommy John surgery if it tears) snaps when subjected to about 80 Newton-meters of torque. Why, those numbers are identical! You certainly get an idea of why so many pitchers' elbows break down. They're pushing themselves up against their limits.

But note the use of the word 'average'. People deviate from the average. Through biomechanical analysis, it's possible to get some idea of how much torque a specific pitcher puts on his elbow. It is not, however, possible to get some idea of how much torque his elbow can withstand.

That's what makes it a guessing game. With elbows, and with shoulders, and with everything. For all I know, today's mechanical analyses could be absolutely correct. People could be right on when they talk about things like inverted W's and throwing across your body. Without knowing anything about each pitcher's unique physical threshold, though, no concrete conclusions can be reached. We might - might - be able to say that Pitcher A has good mechanics and Pitcher B has bad mechanics, and that makes Pitcher B the greater injury risk, but we can't say whether or not Pitcher A or Pitcher B will get hurt, because we don't have enough information.

Some guys are fragile, and some guys are freaks. That's just the way it works out. Mark Prior's physical limits, we may conclude, are probably pretty low. Randy Johnson's physical limits, we may conclude, are probably pretty high. There's nothing you can do about it as a pitcher. You can't strengthen your UCL or your shoulder labrum. You just pitch, and you hope that you might be one of the lucky ones.

Based on the evidence we have, it would appear that Felix is one of the lucky ones. And based on his recent activity and this morning's news, it would appear that Stephen Strasburg is not.

It is unfortunate. Strasburg, when healthy, throws the best stuff in baseball. Strasburg, when healthy, has the ability to make any game interesting, and he has that ability as a National. Stephen Strasburg wasn't just a gift to Nationals fans. He was a gift to baseball. He was a gift to fans of the game, and a gift to possible converts. Stephen Strasburg was compelling - is compelling? - more compelling than any other arm in the league.

And now we won't get to watch him for a year, or possibly more than that, after a doctor cuts his elbow open, drills holes, and puts in a tendon he scavenged from another part of the body. And even after Strasburg comes back, we'll spend the whole time wondering. Strasburg will come back uneasy. He'll come back unsure whether he can trust his body to throw like he threw. And we'll be right there with him, wondering if what happened was a one-time deal, or a big flashing warning of more trouble to come.

I feel bad for Nationals fans, because I remember what it was like when Felix left that game against the Twins. I remember what it was like when Carlos Beltran bulldozed his way into Felix's ankle. I remember what it was like to watch Mariner games without any Felix starts on the horizon, and I wouldn't wish that despair upon anyone. It's miserable. Being without a guy like Strasburg makes a guy like John Lannan all the harder to tolerate.

But out of Strasburg's injury comes a message, or a lesson - one that sadly requires someone else's grave misfortune to be heeded. Be thankful for Felix. Be thankful not only that Felix throws what he throws; be thankful that Felix is able to throw what he throws every five days, with no interruption. Be thankful that Felix is an ace, and be thankful that Felix is a workhorse. Though his stuff is rare, his combination of stuff and durability is rarer still, and we've been given a blessing.

Felix could end up hurt. Any pitcher could end up hurt. Just because he's out of the danger zone doesn't mean he's out of danger entirely, and we could see something happen to his elbow or his shoulder at any point, on any pitch. That, though, isn't a concern unique to Felix. It applies to every arm in the league, and it's meaningful because we don't have to go into every start proceeding with caution. We can have confidence in Felix. We can worry about his game, and only about his game.

Be thankful that we have what we have. And should Felix's career come to a sudden end tomorrow, be thankful that he gave us five years of consistent availability. Pitchers like Stephen Strasburg don't come around very often. Pitchers like Felix Hernandez come around even less.

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