First Pitch: Why Don’t Pitchers Speak Up Sooner About Injuries?

Wandy Rodriguez will visit Dr. James Andrews. Photo credit: David Hague
Wandy Rodriguez will visit Dr. James Andrews. Photo credit: David Hague

Earlier today I spoke with James McDonald at Pirate City, talking about his injury this year and his rehab work. McDonald mentioned that he had trouble getting his arm loose early in the year, and felt “constricted”. He originally thought it was dead arm, then told the Pirates when the condition got worse.

Later this evening, it was announced that Wandy Rodriguez would visit Dr. James Andrews after experiencing pain during a sim game. Rodriguez had felt pain before in his rehab work, which does raise a question why he was throwing so soon when he experienced pain before.

In each case the Pirates are in a tough situation. Only the pitcher can tell if he’s in pain. And in each case, you can see why the pitchers wouldn’t want to speak up right away.

In McDonald’s case, dead arm is very common. This article is a few years old (Francisco Liriano is in a Twins jersey in the video), but still relevant in discussing the condition. Every year pitchers get dead arm and experience a fatigue in their arm. A lot of times this happens during Spring Training. McDonald started experiencing problems near the end of Spring Training, so you can see how it would be easy to confuse the issue. Considering how he finished the 2012 season, you could also see how he might want to get back out there and rebound from his poor second half.

In Rodriguez’s case, he was experiencing some setbacks. There are a ton of reasons Rodriguez might have wanted to get back early. Personal reasons (better negotiating power if he finishes the year healthy), professional reasons (the Pirates are in a playoff race and need him in the rotation), and just the fact that he might have thought the pain was normal. I’ve talked to plenty of rehabbing players who have tried to come back, have felt pain or soreness early in the rehab, and have seen that disappear toward the end of the rehab.

The question here is, how do you prevent these situations? A lot of people are already upset about how cautious teams are with starting pitchers. So putting someone on the disabled list because of dead arm, or holding them out until they are 100% pain free after rehab wouldn’t be seen as a good approach. These are two different issues, but they both share the same frustrating problem.

Anyone who has ever had back pain, muscle pain, neck pain, arm, shoulder, or knee pain, or any other type of pain that is hard to diagnose knows about this frustrating problem. Sometimes there is no obvious solution. It doesn’t always work out where a player feels hurt, gets a scan, and finds the reason he is hurt. In a lot of cases the scans come back inconclusive.

Dead arm isn’t a medical issue, and fatigue won’t show up on any scans. McDonald thought he had dead arm, and it ended up that he had tendinitis, which won’t show up on X-Rays and is hard to determine on an MRI. We know that it wasn’t dead arm in hind sight, but if you treat every situation of dead arm with precaution, you’re going to be benching people who might just be tired for 1-2 starts. It might be useful to bench a player for a few starts when dead arm creeps up, but you’re still going to have the issue where you can’t figure out the exact problem, no matter what scans you perform.

Rodriguez went down in early June with “forearm tightness”. It was determined that he had inflammation in his left forearm, and he started throwing again almost immediately. He then went through cycles over the next two and a half months where he would throw, experience tightness or soreness, and then stop throwing. I think the easiest solution here would be to err on the side of caution. Inflammation isn’t a long-term thing, as anyone can get that to a varying degree. But Rodriguez was throwing about a week after his injury, and you could blame the Pirates for that, but any team would do the same if a test came back with just inflammation.

The pitchers aren’t going to step up and take themselves out of the rotation. No one wants to be seen as weak or injury prone. The team can have a tough time diagnosing the injury until it gets worse and more obvious. Therefore it becomes a situation where the pitcher doesn’t feel right, the team doesn’t know what it is, and everyone just hopes for the best. Unfortunately there’s not really a better option. The only solution might be to hold guys out for a longer period before they start throwing again. That might help guys like Rodriguez and McDonald recover sooner, but it also might take more guys out for time they don’t really need to miss.

Overall I think it’s a tough situation all around since there’s no clear way to diagnose the minor injuries. McDonald should be back in September, serving as bullpen depth, assuming no setbacks. The Pirates probably won’t see Rodriguez the rest of the year, and will hope that his condition isn’t serious enough to cause him to miss significant time in 2014, as he almost certainly will exercise his $13 M player option (of which the Pirates are on the hook for $7.5 M, with Houston paying $5.5 M). Perhaps some actual rest will do him some good.

Links and Notes

**The latest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast is out: P3 Episode 17: The Pirates Issues With RISP, Platoons, and Small Ball. A new episode will go up tomorrow morning at 9 AM.


**Prospect Watch: The Numbers From Tyler Glasnow’s Latest Start Are NSFW.

**Alen Hanson Picks Up Three Hits, But Pitching Dooms Curve.

**DSL Prospect Watch: Tough Losses For Both Teams As Season Winds Down.

**Minor League Schedule: Heredia Tries to Keep Power Ahead in Playoff Race.


**Pirates Light Up Giants’ Cain, Mijares for 11 Hits in 10-5 Win.

**Wandy Rodriguez to See Dr. James Andrews.

**James McDonald Felt His Arm Was Constricted Early in the Season.

**Rationalizing the Value of RISP Issues.

  • Pirates have an off day Monday, and then only two more for the rest of the season. As it now appears we may not see Wandy the rest of this season, it might make sense to give a spot start to a 6th starter after the Sept. 1 roster expansion. Cole and/or Locke could skip a start or you could just give everyone an extra day between starts. It now appears Cole will be a starter the rest of the regular season, and might even be their #4 in the playoffs. I would say give Locke one more regular turn. If he is still this bad, skip one or two turns with him.

  • It is amazing how well this team played and the biggest topic is on how bad a Pirate pitcher pitched. It is usually the right fielder, but today we decided Locke would be the whipping boy. How about how good Tabata looked?
    My thoughts are not on who played poorly, Locke was going to wear down, I said this a lot of times, he is frail, over the winter he needs to build up those legs, but any comparisons to any other pitcher is not warranted, Locke started the game throwing 93mph, but by the 3rd inning that was gone. Teams have adjusted, they still can’t hit him if he stays on the corners, but pitchers that tire tend to have pitches drift over the plate a little too far. IMO, I think they will probably skip a turn with him. I would think that is something they don’t want to do because it means more innings on someone else, but Locke is clearly into territory he has never been in.

    • Locke threw 176 innings last year, at 143 this season it is not a case of territory he hasn’t been in. His average fastball velocity has actually been higher in 3 of his starts this month than all season beforehand. It sounds like a case of seeing what you want to see and not reality. Reality is that Locke is a somewhat valuable back-end SP, not a top or mid rotation guy.

    • I think it is mental fatigue more than physical. He has put a lot of guys on base this year and has gotten by by living on the edges. When you have to be that perfect with your pitches that often it wears on a pitcher. Hitters have adjusted. They aren’t chasing like they were early in the season. He needs to go after hitters early in the count. Trust that his stuff can get outs when he puts it over the plate. Locke and Cole are polar opposites. Locke nibbles off the plate. Cole tries to split it in half.

  • CalipariFan506
    August 23, 2013 6:41 am

    Jeff Locke is hurt now too IMO.

    • Jeff Locke is just being Jeff Locke. He had a great “J-Mac” first half, but that’s over now. All season people have been talking about Jeff Locke’s regression is coming. Now that it’s here, all we hear is “What’s wrong with Jeff Locke?”. Nothing, this is what he is.

      • It is not out of the question that he could be wearing down, since he did miss that game before the all-star break. Also, he only has 158 pitches in his last two starts, so the bucs are possibly being careful. Over his last five starts, his ERA is 7.7. Even including his two good starts right after break, his ERA is 5.88. That is nearly as far above his FIP as he was below it before break.

        Having a FIP at 4.2 does not mean that since he had an ERA at 2ish in the first half, he will have an era at 6ish in the second half. That is one of the biggest gambler’s fallacies.

        Rather FIP predicts his ERA going regress to around 4.2 going forward, which is well above what we have seen lately. With such a large stretch of the season with Locke under his FIP. Using FIP to project the future, Locke should end the season closer to his FIP, but still under.

        In summary, how poorly he is pitching now, *SMALL SAMPLE SIZE ALERT* is starting to veer well beyond normal regression to the mean or in this case FIP. Hopefully, Jeff will continue to regress, which in this case would be a vast improvement on what we have seen lately.

        • axc : +1

        • Its not “small sample size”, Locke hasn’t pitched very well all season. He has put too many runners on base with walks and is fairly hittable. He was never going to keep his strand rate so high and he was going to have a regression in his babip against. This is what we’ve been saying for months. Locke is a #4,5 SP and he should continue to produce in that manner until he limits baserunners and throws strikes. He just isn’t going to be successful with a 4.5/9 BB rate. He also isn’t going to maintain his very low HR rate.

          Locke’s ERA is regressing, but he really hasn’t changed much. He just isn’t get incredibly lucky anymore with batted ball outcomes.

          • The definition of “pitching well” goes to runs allowed and innings pitched. Nothing else, possible what percentage of games started your team wins. The “activities” which produce those numbers such as k/9, bb/9 BABIP are important to look at as factors when a pitcher is not “pitching well” you and a lot of people look at it completely backwards. “activities” as we say in sales, generally “lead” to results. But don’t mistake activites as being the results. The fact is, Locke HAS pitched extremely well until lately. Regression or not, quite frankly he just isn’t pinpoint in his control in the zone and sharp with the pitches as he was earlier in the season which could be cause he’s wearing down.

            • Seems like you are having trouble separating individual performance from team performance. That is the crux of the Saber /DIPS movements. Locke has not pitched well however his defense has performed great behind him and he has gotten lucky with the sequence of hits allowed.

              Runs allowed and consequently innings pitched are not solely determined by the pitcher. You can say he has done well (mostly luck and defense), but you can’t say he has pitched well.

              • I agree with jalcorn. Y2 introduced the concept of selling and I agree activities should lead to results. Sometimes they don’t. Just like sometimes results happen in sales in spite of a lack of good activity – and I think that’s where Locke falls. He had been getting good results (low ERA) even though his peripherals have been pedestrian. Its like a sales rep who has a large account or large order fall into his lap even though he/she has not done what you would typically expect to happen to earn the account or order.

  • if i was running a team, i’d give my players periodic checkups and x-rays, especially my pitchers. may once a month or bi-monthly.
    what’s a few bucks and an hour or so a month when protecting my investments worth millions.
    also this way, no one would seem “weak” cause the xrays were mandatory.

    • Hey mike,
      As mentioned up above, often times x rays are non conclusive. If this would really protect the investment, they would be doing this already.
      All you would be doing was your best to make the players glow in the dark.