José Fernández is 21 years old and unquestionably one of the most exciting players in baseball. I use "player" in place of "pitcher" with purpose, because it's not just Fernández's ability to mow down hitters that makes him so much fun to watch; it's the fact that he milks every ounce of fun he possibly can out of every moment he spends on the field. If you're any kind of baseball fan, you probably love José Fernández, and right about now you're probably feeling like baseball just kicked you in the dick.
According to ESPN's Buster Olney, our worst fears about Fernández's injured elbow are about to come true: the kid is heading for Tommy John surgery. Losing Fernández for an entire year is sad for the reasons listed above, but also because he's just the latest casualty in baseball's war on the elbows of dynamic young pitchers. As Yahoo's Jeff Passan points out, it feels like we can't go five minutes without hearing about a great young pitcher being felled by an elbow injury:
Just think about the list of pitchers Fernandez could join who have undergone Tommy John since the end of last season: Matt Harvey, Patrick Corbin, Jarrod Parker, Matt Moore, Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, A.J. Griffin, Ivan Nova and top prospect Jameson Taillon. Even amateurs aren't immune. Jeff Hoffman, a projected top-five pick in the June draft, and Erick Fedde, expected to go in the top 10, both need UCL reconstructions.
Their average age is 24.2 years old.
All one can really do after reading that paragraph is mutter and go looking for a patch of dirt to kick. And the really shitty thing is that each one of these injuries makes it harder and harder get to wrapped up in the greatness of whatever spectacular young pitcher comes along next. Here's a list of pitchers 24 or younger who currently qualify for the ERA title, sorted by ERA plus. You can practically smell the hospital room coming off the page. Are you a big fan of Yordano Ventura? Enjoy it while it lasts, asshole!
In 2008, Tom Verducci wrote a Sports Illustrated cover story about Tim Lincecum, in which he explored just how violent and damaging the act of throwing a baseball is to the human body:
While in the loaded position, the shoulder and elbow bear the equivalent of about 40 pounds of force pushing down. When the ASMI biomechanists wanted to know how much more force an arm could take, they brought cadavers into the lab and pulled and pushed upon the elbow joint to find the breaking point. The cadavers's ligaments blew apart just after 40 pounds of force. "So a pitcher is just about at the maximum," Fleisig says.
From the loaded position, when the ball has come to a stop, it is accelerated from zero mph to 90 mph in 3/10 of a second. Rick Peterson, the former New York Mets pitching coach who has worked with ASMI since 1993 and is the acknowledged expert on pitching biomechanics among his peers, once referred to that measurement in a speech he gave to college coaches. A doctor of physics who was in the audience approached him after the talk.
"Rick, do you know what that means in g-forces?" the doctor asked.
"I have no idea."
"If your entire body was accelerated at that rate of speed for over 60 seconds you would die."
It's funny to look back at that story with the benefit of hindsight. When it was written, Lincecum was still throwing 98 mph and Verducci couldn't help but muse over the idea that maybe Lincecum's freakish delivery had unlocked some sort of biomechanical secret that would keep him off the surgeon's table. Lincecum's lost nearly all the zip on his fastball since then, and always seems to be on the precipice of a complete meltdown.
That doesn't mean that Verducci was necessarily wrong, but it does point out that maybe he was looking for the wrong thing. Fernández broke, but what's broken is fixable. Lincecum never did quite break—those freakish mechanics actually have kept him pretty healthy—but he maybe would have been better off if he had. Three times this year, he hasn't been able to make it out of the fourth inning; over the last three years, he's been perhaps the worst starter in baseball. Whatever's wrong with him, it isn't getting fixed.
Last night, Lincecum struck out 11 Braves in seven-and-two-thirds, the sort of brief flash that just reminds you of what he lost somewhere along the way, and how unlikely it is that he'll ever get it back. José Fernández isn't going to be striking anyone out any time soon, but there's a very good chance chance that when he makes it back he'll still be the player we remember. A straight-out blown elbow is bad. There are worse things.