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The Glass Arm

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And it was precisely what was being taught to young pitchers. The idea was that pitchers who weren’t especially tall or strong could increase their velocity by essentially whipping their arm forward. In many cases, this worked. But O’Leary says it’s inviting a lifetime of arm troubles. “Naturally speaking, a lot of these guys shouldn’t be able to throw over 88 miles per hour,” he says. “They’re using the inverted W for fake velocity that will cost them in the long run.”

O’Leary went online with his theories. As much as anything else, O’Leary is a showman; on his website, he sells a business self-help book called Elevator Pitch Essentials: How to Get Your Point Across in Two Minutes or Less. Suddenly, he was no longer Chris O’Leary: He was the self-styled Pitching Mechanic. Suddenly, his site was being visited by young pitchers and their parents and even, eventually, major-league teams. One of the people who contacted him was Wiemi Douoguih, the head team physician for the Washington Nationals. One of the people O’Leary had predicted injury for was Stephen Strasburg. In O’Leary’s eyes, Strasburg was a classic violator of the inverted-W movement. “We hadn’t seen work like his,” Douoguih told me, “and it was relevant, we thought, to our situation.”

Chris O’Leary, mind you, is not a doctor; he is just a guy with a website. But it speaks to how bewildering the world of pitcher injuries is—and how desperate teams are for any sliver of understanding—that the Nats reached out to him. “It turns out that he or someone in their organization heard me talking on the radio to a D.C. station about Strasburg, and he actually commissioned a study to look at my conclusions on the inverted W,” O’Leary says. “It is not a hugely rigorous study, but the gist of what he told me is, ‘I see what you see in terms of the relationship between arm action and injury rates.’ ” O’Leary says he’s going out to D.C. to give a presentation to Douoguih and other medical professionals in May.

Another inverted-W believer: Brett Marshall. He attributes his past arm problems to being taught that style. “It was inverted W, it was totally that,” Marshall says. “I was bad. When I landed I was down, and I knew what I was doing wrong.”

Glenn Fleisig, a biomedical engineer, is the research director of the American Sports Medicine Institute and one of the men at the forefront of the study of pitching injuries. (His longtime research partner is the well-known orthopedic surgeon James Andrews, who has treated many professional athletes.) “I’ve dedicated my career to this issue, and let me tell you: There is no magic,” Fleisig says. “We’ve made great strides, but baseball pitchers will always get hurt. All we can do is reduce the risk.” Poor mechanics are certainly a factor, Fleisig says: “It doesn’t matter how many miles you put on a car. If the tires are misaligned, you’re gonna have a blowout.” But what he emphasizes to the teams he works with is that pitching is, by its very nature, breaking down. “Every single pitching injury is a cumulative injury,” he says. “Pitchers say, ‘Oh, it was a cold day, I felt something pop.’ But something was going on for a long time; the arm muscles had been eroding.”

Pitch counts and innings limits are probably a good idea, but no one knows exactly how much rest is necessary, Fleisig says. “Every person is different than every other person. That’s humanity.” The trick, he believes, is spotting when a pitcher is tired or hurting or getting him to tell you that—“human interaction,” he says. Human interaction, of course, is also complicated. Major-league and college teams, high-school and Little League coaches—even well-meaning fathers—all have incentives to push pitchers too hard, as do the pitchers themselves. Success, pride, and in some cases millions of dollars are on the line.

Even when a team and a pitcher have the best intentions, in other words, the pitcher still might get hurt. Pitching is an unnatural, violent motion. A pitcher probably will get hurt. All he can do is go out there, take the ball when it’s his turn, and hope that today’s not the day his number comes up.

“Every now and again,” Marshall says. “You get the thought of, What if it’s happening again? But you can’t think that way. You just have to put it out of your head.”


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