Past TimesMay 09, 2007
The Old-Fashioned Way to Develop Durable Pitchers
By Al Doyle

It's the constant puzzle of the 21st century.

If there is one question that is repeatedly asked by major league organizations, minor league development directors and baseball diehards, it would be "Why are pitchers so fragile these days?" The usual followup is "What can we do to prevent injuries?"

From a theoretical standpoint, this should be the era of rock-solid durability. There is an embarrassment of riches available to pitchers including personal trainers, nutritional supplements by the truckload, coaches armed with the latest in technology, obsessive statistical data, hyper-specialized medical care and (for the better prospects) a nanny-like level of protectiveness that includes strict pitch counts. So why are hurlers dropping like Al Capone's rivals during Prohibition?

Notice the word "theoretical" in the previous paragraph. In most instances in life, theory and reality are two entirely opposite concepts. Pitching gurus declare that their coddling and sophisticated systems are the right way to do things, but the facts don't support those claims.

Is there a better way to develop durable pitchers who can perform regularly without calling it quits after every tweak and twinge? In this case, it pays to look to the past - say 1930 to 1970 - when starters took the mound every fourth day instead of the current five-day schedule. Relievers routinely went several innings, and they often pitched as long as today's five and six-inning starters.

So what was the secret to regularly tossing 250 to 300 innings as a starter and 100 or more innings from the bullpen with some spot starts mixed in for variety? Perhaps the key to building sturdy pitchers has nothing to do with baseball or decrees from the experts and gurus. The answer could be much more mundane and humble than high-tech wizardry and micromanagement of hurlers. How humble? Think manure.

In many cases, old-time major league pitchers shoveled countless tons of manure before they debuted in the Show. They also tossed many thousands of hay bales, milked cows by hand seven days a week, spent lots of time on the business end of a spade, hand-dug bushels of potatoes, drove tractors without power steering, strung barbed wire fences and repeatedly picked rocks out of the lower 40.

Small farms were a way of life for a significant percentage of Americans until the 1960s. There has always been a steady migration from rural areas to large cities, since slapping fenders on Chevys or working construction was a breeze (and paid better) compared to life on the farm. That trend slowed as farms consolidated and grew larger, but even those who ventured to the economically greener pastures of urban life brought something valuable with them from agriculture.

Of all the four-letter words in the language, there is one - lazy - that was and remains the ultimate obscenity on the farm. Young and old worked from dawn to dusk. Rural slackers could always move to the city for one of those cushy 50-hour a week part-time jobs. That kind of life and work ethic builds a mental and physical toughness that can't be duplicated in an era of American Idol and iPods.

Today's pitchers look stronger than the old-timers, but looks can be deceiving. Pumping iron may lead to a sculpted, buff body, but I'll trade six-pack abs any time for the kind of strength and endurance I've seen from many farmers I have known in 12 years of living in Wisconsin.

Whether it's a stumpy 5'5" type, a 6'4" stringbean who resembles Kent Tekulve or anything in between, farmers and men who grew up on farms are (pound for pound) the strongest bunch I've ever encountered. There's no preening or flexing their "guns" for the camera. These guys are too busy with chores to strut their usually ordinary-looking physiques. Strength is displayed when needed, as in climbing ladders with bundles of shingles for the new barn roof.

My experience with farmers goes back to when I was growing up in Chicago and suburbs. Andy Toschak - a close friend of my late father - is one of those unforgettable characters that remains in the mind for decades.

When I first met Andy, he was in his early 40s. He stood 5'8" and tipped the scales at 240 without a soft gut or beer belly. A 19-inch neck made it hard for Andy to buy shirts. Growing up poor on a farm in southern Illinois coal country during the Depression had formed Andy into an eminently practical man.

After serving as a Navy Seabee in World War II, Andy moved to Chicago to work in the building trades. A booming postwar economy provided decent wages and plenty of overtime, and Andy never shied away from work. He attended a Cubs tryout camp just for the experience.

Andy smacked the ball with authority and handled himself well enough at third base to be offered a Class D contract. "Sign here, son. You'll get $75 a month," the scout told him. After scuffling through the Depression, Andy wasn't going to take a big step backwards financially. He turned down the offer and spent the rest of his life working in the trades, raising six children and occasionally outrunning skinny young punks who challenged the stocky old man to 50-yard dashes.

So how did a guy with the build of a nose tackle run so fast? Farm life helped put some speed in Andy's feet.

"During the Depression, we usually didn't have money to buy .22s for rabbit hunting," Andy recalled. "We had to chase them down to get meat for supper."

What made this tale especially outrageous was Andy's perpetual honesty and sincerity. This was no spinner of tall tales, so how could he run down rabbits instead of hunting them like a normal person?

I loudly expressed my disbelief. Andy smiled and said "Let me explain how we did it. We'd spot a rabbit in the field. Me or my brother George or cousin Gooch would start chasing it. We'd chase him down into the culvert. The rabbit would run into the culvert, and one of us would be waiting on the other end with a milk pail. The rabbit would run into the milk pail. We'd take him out and wring his neck. That's how we hunted rabbits."

This was done for "fun" after completing a long list of chores and any odd jobs that could be scrounged up. Take Andy's story, multiply it across America, and is it any surprise that pitchers of the past could go nine innings without complaint? After all, they wouldn't have to do it again for another three days, plus they were getting the outrageous sums of $8000 or even (gasp!) $10,000 a season for such pleasant labor. It sure beat working the cotton fields during a Mississippi summer or dealing with dozens of smelly pigs.

Modern workout and exercise programs are certainly beneficial for pitchers, and they sometimes produce bodies that merit a photo spread in Muscle & Fitness magazine. However, when it comes to developing real strength and toughness, the answer might be down on the farm.

[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Think Factory.]


I am not doubting the conclusion that farm work fosters strength and endurance. But I am asking a question about the premise, and it is a question only. That is, were pitchers in an earlier era more durable than they are today? Or are we simply remembering the ones who survived-the Spahns and Walter Johnsons-and forgetting those who flamed briefly like Joe Wood or Walsh (or who got injured without ever making a mark) before suffering debilitating injuries?

Leaving aside anecdotal evidence, did pitchers generally have longer, more injury free careers in earlier eras? I have seen comments on both sides, but have not seen hard evidence either way. I know there is evidence that pitchers used to throw fewer pitches within games, but if year after year you studied the rosters of all the teams, would the pitchers then have demonstrated greater endurance than those now?

Great question, Bob. To come up with anything close to a conclusive answer would probably take more research than anyone has time for.

Don't forget the pitchers who had long careers in the Pacific Coast League with its 170 to 200-game schedules. Many others spent a decade or more in the minors without even a cup of coffee in the Show.

Ask Tommy Lasorda about his 25-K, 15-walk game in the Canadian-American League. It lasted 15 innings, and Lasorda went the whole way. Being a career minor leaguer in the old days meant plenty of innings for meager pay.

Lots of pitchers with careers that ended because of a "dead arm" as it was called then could be fixed through surgery today. Modern medical techniques are amazing.

Al - great article, and I think your idea's a fascinating one.

How might we go about backing up your statement though? Many people contend that pitchers today use "max effort" in their deliveries, while much older pitchers did not. Would this be a problem in any study comparing pitchers?

Would it be possible to do a study of pitchers from say, the 1950's, and overlay their innings pitched with their backgrounds? In other words, are pitchers from rural farming communities demonstrably more durable?

I'm not sure how sample sizes would work, but if the sample were big enough, you could control for levels pitched and quality of pitcher as well.

For some reason, I have the feeling that this kind of study would be more valuable in backing up your assertion than a comparison of pitcher durability across eras.


Nice piece but I think you have missed the obvious....pitchers from the good old days threw more....what a concept...if you want to build a strong and durable arm you build it up by throwing. Alan Jaeger (among others) have been champion this fact for some time. If you want a strong and healthy arm use it! The way a typical MLB teams limits their pitchers to 120' long toss is bordering on the absurd. With the wave of Japanese pitchers coming in who build up their arms by using them, and with durable pitchers like Barry Zito who have developed a coherent long toss program maybe MLB pitching coaches will wake up and smell the roses!

So how explain Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal & the other pitchers of the 60s & early 70s who regularly pitched 20+ complete games and well over 200 innings?

Interesting speculation. I share both Bob R.'s and Will's questions.

I also think we might want to examine the premise that farm life was somehow more physically challenging than city life before WWII. There were relatively few white collar workers in early twentieth-century cities, most blue-collar jobs required much more muscle power than they do in today's automated world, and many children worked from a fairly early age.

I recall reading that Nick Swisher--although he's not a pitcher--embarked on some sort of "real-world" training regimen over the offseason, that had him splitting lumber, hauling hay bales, etc. He's also missed some time with a pulled hamstring this year.

I'm with D. Griffith here. Seriously, I believe modern pitchers are coddled too much, from the beginning, and their arms simply aren't strong enough.

This doesn't mean I think high schoolers should be throwing 200 pitches a game. But I think that maybe they should be throwing a lot in shorter stints. 80 pitches every two days. In the minors or young major leaguers, under 25 yrs old, 100 pitches every 3-4 days. Go back to the 4 man rotation. Get guys throwing more often, not more pitches per start. Throwing tired causes injury. What's more likely to get you hurt, 365 pitches in one day, or 1 pitch every day for a year? Scale that down to a proper healthy level. After they've been developed to throw throw throw, in their late 20s and beyond - let them go as long as they are successful in a game.

I really believe that's what killed Prior. He was brought up coddled, and then Baker ground his arm into dust. He wasn't physically prepared, too young and not enough throwing leading up to it.

Interesting theory, but this article may be more appropriate for a site title "Baseball Anecotes" rather than analysts. You have not analyzed anthing, you have merely related a theory and an anecdote.

I grew up on a farm, so I understand what that kind of strength is and hard work. But putting shingles on the barn roof does not make one a pitcher. Is it really a good assumption that lack of strength, and not lack of good mechanics, is the cause of all these injuries.

My own anecdotal theories:
Injuries today are not necessarily more common, but we just know about them more because we have more media coverage and more fans following all levels of baseball from all over the country.

Couple that with pitchers being protected more and you have pitchers missing games instead of pitching through injuries.

My favorite theory, also with nothing to back it up, is that training regimens have changed. Pitchers might actually benefit from throwing more, harder, and at greater distances (long-toss) on their off days. I remember Jim Kaat saying a few years ago how if he could back he would throw even more, and he already threw a lot more than today's pitchers.

Also, your theory completely ignores the fact that many great pitchers of days gone by came from urban backgrounds.

Did anyone else have visions of the training montage from Rocky IV while reading this article? Ivan Drago on his high-tech workout machines, with regular injections of "substances", while Rocky grows a beard and pushes hay carts around in the snow?

Marichal and Gibson fall into my pre-1970 timetable.

I didn't get into it because of length, but urban blue-collar urban work was also more demanding in the old days. Nails were hammered, not propelled by an electric nail gun. A drill was the thing that you turned by hand and not powered by a cord or battery pack.

I couldn't agree more with those of you who say pitchers don't throw enough. Just ask Mickey Lolich about that. The radar gun obsession may push pitchers as well.

As Ned Garver once told me, "When you're a sinker/slider pitcher (which he was), you don't want to throw as hard as you can. You want the ball to move." I know managers and coaches repeatedly tell young hurlers to change speeds and location, but it's a mixed message.

I've always been a big believer in the importance of movement over speed. MLB hitters are some of the best people when reacting on split-second information - they swing almost based on where the pitcher releases the ball - that's all the time they have. You throw a dart, they can hit that far more than something 10mph slower but breaks even 5 inches.

That's what makes the knuckleball so infuriating. It's 30-40mph slower than a fireballer, but guys spend all day hacking.

Long time reader, first time poster...

I think that both Bob R. and tball mention the most pressing concern with this type of article: Do modern pitchers actually get *hurt* at a greater rate than their past counterparts? The advances in modern medicine have made pitchers more willing to openly discuss injuries, due to the ability to correct most ailments. "Playing Hurt", one of the mythical ablilities we ascribe to the old time ballplayers, was in many cases the only option - play hurt, or don't play anymore.

Also, one must consider the prevalence of information at the fingers of joe schmoe due to fantasy baseball and the internet. It is highly likely that the 1930's Mark Prior burned his arm out as well, but who would ever know who this guy was?

While I don't doubt the benefits of an active lifestyle I do doubt that a softer lifestyle is the reason for the apparent fragility of modern pitchers. I attribute this to a combination of:

1. Selective memory. We tend to forget about all the pitchers from the early days who flamed out. Pitcher injuries have always been common. However, one would think that the lessened workloads and superior medical treatment of today would reduce injuries. But arm injuries seem to be as common as ever.

2. Standardized coaching. While this may seem at first to be a good thing the standardization of training would tend to impart the same strengths AND weaknesses to as many pitchers as will listen. I believe it is entirely possible, even probable, that coaching today teaches pitchers how to injure themselves. Coaches are not medical experts. And medical experts do not necessarily understand the act of throwing. In the past, just by accident and experimentation some pitchers would learn mechanics that allowed them to sustain heavy workloads effectively. Now pitchers are being "taught" rather than being allowed to learn.

3. Too much emphasis placed on pitch limits and rest. This has the effect of placing a ceiling on the fitness level of a pitcher. There are pitchers today who probably could work 300+ innings and face 1200+ batters per season without breaking down, just like Marichal and Jenkins and Gibson, etc. But nobody is ever asked to pitch that much anymore.

On a related note, have you ever wondered what modern pitchers might be able to handle a much higher workload?

Greg Maddux, to me, always seemed to be able to handle 220+ innings with no problem. A few seasons were shortened by random injuries, but on the whole he seemed to have a very resiliant arm.

Kevin Brown, in his prime, was noted for having a "rubber arm". I recall the year the Padres made the playoffs and Brownie pitched some relief innings in addition to his regular starts (and if I recall correctly, also started on short rest). Of course, this "abuse" may have led to his string of injuries in later years.

Livan Hernandez has always had a reputation as a "workhorse", but then, he's also been noted for having average stuff. Still, 230-240 innings of "league average" pitching is actually pretty valuable.

Any others that come to mind?

Rich, what does the ultimate post-1970 workhorse - Bert Blyleven - say about injuries and developing pitchers? I know Blyleven hates pitch counts and doesn't subscribe to the theory that there are so many pitches in an arm.

Have you ever worked on a farm? If you did, did you do a lot of throwing every day?

Isn't the difference that modern pitchers throw 10-20mph faster then old time pitchers and have reached the limits of the human frame? Humans have not evolved since baseball started, yet they throw much harder now. Its almost a requirement that you sniff the 90's to make a team now.

Al, You're right. Bert doesn't believe in pitch counts and is of the opinion that young pitchers don't throw enough. Here is what Blyleven told me in an interview after witnessing Felix Hernandez pitch in just his second big-league game in August 2005:

Rich: Hernandez is the youngest pitcher to start a major-league game since Jose Rijo in 1984. Why do you suppose that the number of teenage pitchers has declined so sharply over the years?

Bert: The number has declined because minor-league pitchers don't throw enough. Come on, minor-league managers and pitching coaches, along with their organizational staffs, rarely let a starter go past the 7th inning and they pitch about once every 5th or 6th day. If a young minor-league pitcher has more then 150 innings in a season, my God, they shut him down. The pitch count is so over-rated. I believe mound presence would tell you more then a pitch count! Plus the hitters on the other side would let you know, too, if he was tiring because of the hard-hit balls.

I think Deez Nuts has the key point. Today's pitchers are throwing harder and throwing harder more often. Higher fastball/breakingball ratios and faster fastballs. It's at the limit of what the human body can take and it requires all that coddling to be able to keep it up for a full season, let alone a career.

I think it's completely bogus to ask the question "why are today's pitchers more fragile?" before you ask "are today's pitchers more fragile?"

A small digression away from the injury issue-

I have an awful hard time believing that todays pitchers are 20 MPH faster than those of 100 years ago. If the human body hasn't evolved much in a few generations, then by what miracle can a human now throw 10-20 MPH harder? Did pitchers back then throw like girls? In the 1870s and 1880s, when underhand pitching was the rule and catchers had almost no protective gear, I can believe that there were lots of 60-70 MPH "fastballs".

While there were no radar guns back then, Walter Johnson reportedly was measured at 99.7 MPH. And it was said that nobody threw harder than Smokey Joe Wood, not even Johnson. There have always been at least a few flamethrowers around ever since overhand deliveries were legalized. Amos Rusie and Cy Young both threw very hard, to the point where the pitching distance (formerly from a chalkmarked box with the front line 50' away from home) was changed to the modern standard. Would that have been necessary if they were only throwing 80-85?

I would agree that there are more pitchers in MLB today who throw very hard (~95+) than ever before. But that is because the scouting and developmental process selects for hard throwers. With radar guns readily available the fastball can be measured and compared in a way that a curve or changeup cannot. How do you measure deception? When all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail. Because the fastball can be easily measured it has become the focal point for scouting.

The subjugation of the minor leagues plays a role in this too. Back when the minors were more independent, with fewer true "farm" teams, there was the opportunity for a less than overpowering young pitcher to hook up with a low-level team, work on his craft, and have a chance to get noticed and advance to higher levels, perhaps to the majors. Today, with minor leagues operating almost exclusively as farm teams to the majors, the talent is pre-selected by MLB scouting and player development departments. And a lot of the pitcher selection is based on what number a young pitcher can get on the radar gun.

ok, I'm confused--I was certain this was satire, and yet everybody here is taking it seriously....

There are too many games during the season. I don't know why they need that many. Fan turnout at 2pm on a Wednesday can't be all that exciting in terms of revenue. they should scale it back by 100 games, then maybe pitchers would last longer or could go more innings.

Rick Peterson Mets pitching coach is an example of a lot of innings pitched while young, but blowing out his arm permanently on a 200-pitch effort. Never got close to pitching in MLB. He wasn't coddled or carefully groomed. He threw a lot. His answers might be the best.

The "farm work" idea doesn't cut it IMHO. Sandy Koufax was "strictly pavement" from NYC, and had a basketball scholarship to Cincinnati. He barely pitched (9 Coney Island league games) before he signed with the Dodgers, and even with them, he spent many years with low usage. Eventually, he did blow out his arm, which would have happened sooner if he had not started later.

Some people benefit from working their way up gradually, some from starting earlier (Zito) and dedicating his whole sports career to baseball.

I think it's the smaller fraction of time people spend playing ball growing up, and earlier specialization. I pitched at ten, two games, and my shoulder was never quite the same in one spot. I was always throwing, but not pitching. If I'd been slotted early as a pitcher I might have done well from ten to 22, then "busted". I think in earlier times, people played many positions, so their moment of "bust" came later in their career.

Farming? No. Proportionately, there were more chances to play ball everywhere, and arms that could take it proceeded, those that would bust left the game early, as if they'd never been there. So I think modern medicine has allowed pitchers who would have been out of the game because of injury(in an earlier era) to last longer: longer, but not 16 year careers. Five years in the majors, used up.