On a warm, windy day in Tampa, everyone—fans, coaches, other pitchers—stops what they’re doing to watch Brett Marshall throw. It’s just a warm-up, with no actual game action scheduled for a few more days, so he’s not really letting it fly, but he doesn’t have to. Everyone is still staring.
It’s not the velocity, although that’s there. It’s not the distinctive thump of the ball hitting the catcher’s mitt the way it does only for those blessed with such lightning arms. It’s how easy it looks. Each motion looks like the last motion, which looks like the last motion, which looks like the last motion. The fastball comes in at a consistent 94 mph, but it’s the changeup, widely considered his best pitch, that you have to keep an eye out for; the arm action is perfectly deceptive for being so repeatable. Marshall looks fluid and simple, like he could throw forever. To watch him pitch is to think that throwing a baseball is the most natural thing in the world. When he finishes, a group of fans standing on a walkway above burst into applause. He has simply been playing catch.
In the clubhouse afterward, Marshall is taking a sip of water and checking his iPhone with his non-throwing hand. He is 22 years old and seems unaware of the show he’s just put on. The display is over, just another workout session in a career full of them. Marshall has been in the Yankees organization for five seasons, and has climbed through the team’s minor-league ranks at the exact pace you’d want him to. He will likely spend this season in Triple-A Scranton, one stop from the bigs, where guaranteed contracts and the major-league-minimum salary of $490,000 a year, at the very least, await. If he puts up the kind of numbers scouts think he’s capable of—double-digit wins, with a 4.00 ERA, 175 innings a season, say—he could well earn $10 million a year or more. He’s on the verge of becoming a millionaire and playing for the New York Yankees in front of the entire world. And he knows it could all blow up in a second. “You just want your arm to hold up,” he says. “You have to not think about it. I do not, man. Not at all.”
There’s something strange about almost every snapshot ever taken of a professional baseball pitcher while he’s in his windup or his release: They look grotesque. A pitcher throwing, when you freeze the action mid-movement, does not look dramatically different from a basketball player spraining his ankle or a football player twisting his knee. His arm is almost hideously contorted.
“It is an unnatural motion,” says former Mets pitcher and current MLB Network analyst Al Leiter, who missed roughly three years of his career with arm injuries. “If it were natural, we would all be walking around with our hands above our heads. It’s not normal to throw a ball above your head.”
Ever since Moneyball, baseball has had just about everything figured it out. General managers know that on-base percentage is more important than batting average, that college players are more reliable draft targets than high-school players, that the sacrifice bunt is typically a waste of an out. The game has never been more closely studied or better understood. And yet, even now, no one seems to have a clue about how to keep pitchers from getting hurt.
Pitchers’ health has always been a vital part of the game, but it’s arguably never been more important than it is today. In the post-Bonds-McGwire-Sosa era (if not necessarily the post-PED era), pitching is dominant to a degree it hasn’t been in years. In the past three seasons, MLB teams scored an average of roughly 4.3 runs per game. The last time the average was anywhere near as low was 1992, at 4.12. In 2000, the heyday of Bonds & Co., it was 5.14. A team with great pitching is, in essence, a great team. Pitchers themselves have never stood to gain, or lose, as much as they do now. The last time scoring was this low, the average baseball salary had reached $1 million for the first time and the minimum salary was $109,000. Now that average salary is $3.2 million. Stay healthy, and you’re crazy-rich. Blow out your elbow, and it’s back to hoping your high-school team needs a coach.
And yet, for all the increased importance of pitching, pitchers are getting hurt more often than they used to. In 2011, according to research by FanGraphs.com, pitchers spent a total of 14,926 days on the disabled list. In 1999, that number was 13,129. No one is sure why this is happening, or what to do about it, but what is certain is that teams are trying desperately to divine answers to those questions. Figuring out which pitchers are least likely to get hurt and helping pitchers keep from getting hurt is the game’s next big mystery to solve, the next market inefficiency to be exploited. The modern baseball industry is brilliant at projecting what players will do on the field. The next task is solving the riddle of how to keep them on it.