Pitching legend Greg Maddux on solution to MLB’s Tommy John crisis not encouraging

The next time you attend a Major League Baseball game and hear a sound that sounds like a clap, the better chance is that it’s the pitcher on the mound whose elbow just popped.

Blame not the pitch clock, but the pitch count. Once baseball people started to track, and emphasize, pitch counts it’s led pitchers down a road of power, money, and surgeries.

While the NFL invents rules to prevent injuries to its highest paid players, MLB cannot figure out a way to stop its best pitchers from injuring their elbows in the prime of their careers.

This month, Cleveland’s Shane Bieber, Atlanta’s Spencer Strider, Miami’s Eury Pérez were all lost for the season with torn ulnar collateral ligaments in their pitching elbow. According to a report in USA Today, in the last 13 months 38 major league pitchers have suffered this injury, which requires the now common Tommy John surgery.

This is after MLB stars Shohei Ohtani, Sandy Alcantara, Shane McClanahan, Felix Bautista and Jacon deGrom were all hit with the same injury last year.

This figure does not cover the college, or high school, levels where this injury has been on the rise for the last decade.

How does baseball reverse what is becoming its latest out-loud crisis?

“Who knows? It depends on who your coach is. Change the mentality to all of it,” said Baseball Hall of Famer, pitcher Greg Maddux, in a phone interview.

Maddux is one of the greatest pitchers ever. He pitched from 1986 to 2008, and the statistics he amassed look impossible today. From 1998 to 2001, he averaged more than 200 innings each season.

Maddux is in town to play the 2024 Invited Celebrity Classic, the three-day PGA Tour Champions event combined with a load of retired athletes who are also good golfers. This includes his former teammates with the Atlanta Braves, pitchers John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, both Hall of Famers.

For years Smoltz has been a fierce critic of the evolution of pitching, pointed primarily at the youth level where kids learn the “best way” is velo’. The devotion to velocity has led to a stratospheric rise in severe arm injuries to teenagers.

“Velocity matters,” Maddux said. “Teams want guys who throw hard. As a coach, I’d rather coach a guy who can throw it 95 than 90. Faster is better, but at the same time it’s not the answer to your problems.”

Earlier this month, Major League Baseball Player’s Association executive director Tony Clark issued a statement saying that the rise in these injuries is directly related to MLB’s pitch clock, which was implemented last season. This is a reach.

How we reached this point in 2024 started decades ago, when teams started to track how many pitches a pitcher threw during a game. There was a direct correlation between a drop in performance after a pitcher threw a certain number of pitches; 100 pitches became the invisible line.

A pitcher knew he was coming out of the game around No. 100; it eventually translated to all of them throwing every single pitch as if their life depended on it.

It was around that same time when there was an emphasis more on power, and strikeouts, as the best way to advance to the next level.

“When I started coaching is when I saw it; I was at UNLV and the guys would rather throw it 95 than get a guy out,” Maddux said. “It’s like, ‘C’mon guys, we’re trying to win a baseball game here.’”

Entrepreneurial types saw an opportunity, and all over America clinics, camps and instructors popped up specifically to develop arm strength, and power. Take that, combine it with an increased emphasis on “spin rate,” which requires the pitcher to put dizzying movement on pitches at high speeds, and you have one hell of a player.

Holding it together is the frail ulnar collateral ligament. The skill level and weight training are so good, but the person is asking something of a ligament that has repeatedly proven can do only so much before it snaps.

The common sense way to derail the injury train is to revert towards Maddux’s era of pitching, when location was currency.

“My brother (Texas rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux) teaches this well; it’s about the execution of the pitch more than spin rate, or velocity,” Greg Maddux said. “I am not saying you have to take something off the ball to locate it better, but the focus is now on kids at the high school and college level is to see how hard you can throw.

“When I pitched, we were content that our fastball was our fastball. We never tried to throw it harder but execute it better than the guy you faced.”

It’s a boring solution, and because Maddux is now 58 he’s apt to be dismissed as outdated, and a product of a bygone era.

What this era of baseball has produced is a pitcher who can do things with a baseball that not even Maddux could, but he won’t last nearly as long.