The Week of the (Wounded) Pitcher: Shohei down, Strasburg out


By Jeff Kallman

Ouch! The guy who pitches like a co-ace / No. 2 starter and hits like he’s dialing the Delta Quadrant has a torn ulnar collateral ligament, possibly facing Tommy John surgery and acceptance of a smaller-than-expected free-agency payday.

Double ouch! The first No. 1 major-league draft pick to go on and win a World Series Most Valuable Player award has thoracic outlet syndrome and related surgery, keeping him to only one pitching appearance in the past two seasons but is paid to his career long enough before he finally made it official.

Shoh-time is over, at least on the mound. (If the Angels suddenly find something other than coconut milk for brains among their brain trust, they’ll close the Shoh at the plate, too, until his physical health is restored completely.) But it’s no más for Stras. Baseball’s No. 1 marquee attraction is down. Washington’s 2019 World Series MVP is out.

Thus was the last full week of August was one of the most depressing August weeks baseball’s ever known.

Shohei Ohtani’s pitching days may be numbered in the wake of his torn UCL.

Shohei Ohtani has at least a fighting chance to return if he undergoes Tommy John surgery. Stephen Strasburg tried to fight his way back from TOS surgery long enough, hard enough, and futilely enough. Ohtani can still remain must-see television in due course. Strasburg’s must-see television now becomes whatever he and his family call it at home.

Ohtani may still command a small island economy’s equivalent after maybe signing a Shoh-me single-year deal up the street. May. Strasburg now wishes to command life as a husband, father, and actor in whichever second act he chooses to make of his still-young life.

Don’t say nobody tried to warn anyone.

Some of us actually hollered “not so fast” when Ohtani emerged as baseball’s potential all-time unicorn. We thought it was playing with nuclear fire letting him pitch as a rotation regular and swing as a designated hitter the rest of the time.

“Why would you stop him,” the New York Post’s Joel Sherman once demanded of MLB Network’s Brian Kenny. “[Because] one could damage the other,” Kenny shot back. One didn’t necessarily damage the other, since Ohtani swings left-handed with his pitching arm the lead arm. But it may not have done him any favors, either.

Especially since he’s already been through a Tommy John surgery. But the Angels did him no favors, either, by not pushing to resolve the matter when Ohtani complained a few times, prior to last week, about a tired arm and a few hand and finger cramps. Now it’s a tear in the UCL that was already replaced once.

Oh, sure, Angels general manager Perry Minasian said Ohtani balked when the team prodded him to get an MRI. If you believe that, I’ve just knocked another fifty grand off the price of my Antarctican beach club. For all we’ve learned about athletic injuries over the past few decades, athletes still remain reluctant to speak up more firmly when ailing. If you don’t know why, I’ve taken another fifty grand off that price.

The Angels’ brass plays more CYA than the government plays CIA. Now, the Angels shake, rattle, and roll their way out of the post-season picture while their two greatest players (Hall of Famer-in-waiting center fielder Mike Trout is also on the injured list again) can only watch. They’d be better off with a private screening of any new film telling of the Andrea Doria sinking.

Strasburg was a different case. The Nationals took no chances when his first elbow blowout turned into his first Tommy John surgery. Controversially, they shut him down early in 2012 out of well-stated, well-quoted regard for his and their future. That paid off when Strasburg—who’s been good, great, off the charts, and back, several times over—stood proudly hoisting the Willie Mays trophy as the 2019 Series MVP.

They didn’t ignore or neglect his injuries in between. Neither did they balk when he opted out of his old contract after the ’19 Series but then clicked his spiked heels three times chanting, “There’s no place like home! There’s no place like home!” They signed him right back up big. Neither he nor they quite expected what happened soon enough to happen soon enough.

But maybe they should have.

Strasburg’s wounding mechanical flaw was the inverted-W cock-and-release, with his elbows up above his shoulders and thus his throwing arm coming around flat before releasing the ball out of sync to his landing foot. Timing off, elbow and shoulder stressed.

Maybe the miracle was that Strasburg pitched as long as he did in the first place, never mind as well as he did. He pitched one season fewer (13) than Hall of Famer Don Drysdale (14)—who also had the inverted-W cock-and-release pitching style. And, whose career ended with a shredded rotator cuff in 1969, long enough before surgery existed to repair it.

The hype around Strasburg’s draft may have driven him into enough of a personal shell that it took over a decade before he could let himself show the pleasures he took in competing and triumphing. Even as he proved repeatedly that the hype was a little understated. (He was deadly in the postseason lifetime: 1.46 ERA; 2.07 fielding-independent pitching; 0.94 WHIP; 11.5 strikeouts per nine.)

They used to talk about learning to say hello when it was time to say goodbye? Strasburg let himself learn to dance on the threshold of the last dance being called. His too-badly-compromised shoulder leaving him unable to lift his young daughters for fatherly affection told him there had to be another dance away from the mound.

It’s too late for Strasburg, but not too late for Ohtani. Maybe baseball’s government, from the commissioner to the owners to the front offices to the brain trusts, finally decides and demands there must be an entire overhaul and remaking of the game’s medical systems.

Pitching coaches need to learn more physiology. The game’s lords need to know it will no longer do not to send the “suck it up and go for the glory” mindset to the grave in which it belongs. Where’s the glory if you sacrifice careers to save or win seasons? The cheers and champagne shampoos and parades last only as long as the next pennant race.

The next time someone tries to warn you that a two-way unicorn may run into big bad physical trouble for his unicorning, heed. The next time someone tries to warn you a particular pitching style can be dangerous to a pitcher’s long-term health, heed.

Before that, wish Shohei Ohtani a sound recovery. (And, perhaps, eventual escape from the Angels’ unsound house.) Wish Stephen Strasburg a happy husband-hood, fatherhood, and whatever other hood he chooses for his life’s second act.

Jeff Kallman is an IBWAA Life Member who writes Throneberry Fields Forever. He has written for the Society for American Baseball Research, The Hardball Times, Sports-Central, and other publications. He has lived in Las Vegas since 2007, where he plays the guitar and writes music when not writing baseball. He remains a Met fan since the day they were born.
Uncertain of what lies ahead, two-way star Shohei Ohtani ponders his UCL tear and looming free agency.Photo byMogami Kariya, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0

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