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Velo obsession is hurting baseball

Noah Syndergaard's injury signifies the need for a cultural change in baseball

Ken Rosenthal

May 1, 2017 at 9:29p ET


So, what was your over-under date for Noah Syndergaard getting hurt?

I don’t mean to be flip, but virtually the entire industry saw this coming from the moment Syndergaard showed up at spring training with an extra 17 pounds of muscle and announced that, after averaging a major-league best 97.9 mph with his fastball last season, he wanted to throw even harder.

As it turned out, Syndergaard’s over-under date was Sunday, April 30, when he left his outing against the Nationals after 1 1/3 innings due to a possible lat strain. Or maybe it was Thursday, April 27, when he was scratched from a start due to biceps tendinitis.

Syndergaard, 24, declined an MRI that the Mets requested, threw a bullpen session Friday without incident, then came out throwing 100 mph Sunday, as if to prove that he was fine. He isn’t fine (UPDATE: He’s headed to the DL), and maybe he wasn’t fine entering the start, but we’ll never know for sure.

The Mets, who ended up losing to the Nats by a mere 23-5, are notorious for misdiagnosing injuries, downplaying the severity of injuries, basically screwing up with injuries in every way possible. Sports Illustrated’s Emma Span tweeted hilarious “Mets-to-English” translations before Syndergaard even took the mound Sunday. One of her examples: “It just tightened up” = debilitating degenerative illness.

Syndergaard finally will get an MRI on Monday, and I’ll leave my friends in the New York media to administer the beatdown that he and the Mets deserve. A team cannot force a player to do anything medically, but one would hope A) that the player is smart enough to take every precaution necessary and B) that the player and team share enough trust to come to mutual understandings in such cases.

Alas, Syndergaard evidently viewed himself as invincible, a common affliction among great young athletes — in fact, among young people in general. His physical issues, though, are emblematic of a larger problem, one that seems almost exclusive to the Mets, given their daily injury dramas, but continues to plague the entire industry.

Jeff Passan wrote his book, “The Arm,” about baseball’s inability to keep pitchers healthy, detailing a broken system that dooms would-be Syndergaards from almost the moment they pick up a ball.

Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz, my colleague at Fox and MLB Network, sounds the same alarms, and not just on the air. Even when we speak privately, Smoltz is adamant that the sport is in a crisis, and it frustrates him to no end.

“We’re so numb to it,” Smoltz said. “It’s not ‘if’ guys are going to get hurt, but ‘when.’ It’s a bad place to be for the sport.”

Teams reward velocity, valuing it far more than any other pitching attribute. Their obsession trickles down to the youth levels. Private companies such as Perfect Game hold year-round showcases and tournaments, encouraging young athletes to play baseball and only baseball.

Hence, the broken generation.

“(In the past), each pitcher was given the opportunity to learn what kind of pitcher they were going to be,” Smoltz said, “Now they’re all robots.”

Smoltz — whose career spanned more than two decades and included four surgeries on his elbow, including a Tommy John, and one on his shoulder — compared a pitcher who tries to throw hard-harder-hardest to his old golfing style of going for every par five. He started swinging better, he said, when he took a more measured approach.

That’s just one analogy – in another, Smoltz compares pitchers as racecars. The most difficult thing for pitchers, he explained, is distinguishing between injury and soreness. And with most taught to simply throw as hard as they can, they are unable to adjust to flashing signals on their personal dashboards.

“I call it the red-line factor,” Smoltz said. “When you keep running your engine above the red line, you’re going to blow it out. If you race your car hard for too long a period, it’s going to overheat.

“We’re getting dangerously close to every pitcher red-lining when he doesn’t really have to. They’re not preparing to learn how to pitch like it’s a six-gear car. They’re always in sixth gear. Never in fourth or fifth.”

Baseball cannot turn completely away from judging pitchers by velocity — that’s unrealistic. But the trend is toward harder and shorter when durability should be goal.

Rather than baby young pitchers — an idea that sure doesn’t seem to be working — why not teach them how to pitch, manage lineups and extend outings?

Passan wrote a book on the subject. Smoltz will talk about it to anyone who will listen. But on Sunday, Noah Syndergaard became the latest casualty — a casualty that probably was inevitable, even if he had been handled properly.

“I say this now as a fan and broadcaster: I want to see Noah Syndergaard pitch for 15 years, not five or seven,” Smoltz said. “Everyone is trying to come up with solutions. But nobody has answered the arm-injury question — no one.”

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