Are Mariners' pitchers setting themselves up for injury?

A big conversation in baseball is elbow injuries and Tommy John Surgery. Are Mariners' pitchers setting themselves up for injury?

Texas Rangers v Seattle Mariners
Texas Rangers v Seattle Mariners / Steph Chambers/GettyImages

More and More MLB pitchers require Tommy John surgery. Experts are split as to what factors contribute to this injury. Dr, Keith Meister was the orthopedic surgeon who performed the Tommy John Surgery on Robbie Ray. Matt Brash also consulted with him during Spring Training.

An Athletic article refers to Dr. Meister when it says, “Prominent MLB team physician sounds alarm on pitching injuries,” The doctor shares his concerns about MLB teams’ expectations of their pitchers and whether certain pitches are more likely to cause serious injuries. He notes that MLB teams have been prioritizing performance over availability. He is hopeful that the league will address this issue since he recently met with MLB representatives about his concerns for pitchers.

Performance v. Availability

Meister noted that until recently he thinks that MLB teams just introduced another pitcher when a regular one was injured. The question: Do you want a good pitcher who pitches fast (performance) but might get injured, or have a good pitcher for the long term (availability)?

The performance emphasis begins when players are young. MLB teams recruited six pitchers with prior elbow reconstructions in 2011-2013 and 24 players ten years later. Meister said, “We used to say, you get your one TJ, you’re good. Then it was, you get 10 years out of one. Then it was seven to eight. Now guys break down in three to five depending on who they are, the stuff they have, what they throw.” Former Mariner Justin Topa had had two Tommy John surgeries before his time with Seattle.

Pitch velocity causes injury but analytics do prioritize speed. Meister believes that spin is worse than velocity. Sweepers, for example, stress the inner elbow. Hard movement changeups strain the arms. Grips have changed from a light to a tight squeeze.

Injured Mariners in 2023

A tear in a ligament, such as the UCL in the elbow, is the result of smaller tears over time. Last season, former Mariner, Robbie Ray, needed Tommy John surgery in his tenth year as a starting pitcher, at age 31. Former Mariner Penn Murfee (Braves) went under the knife in his second MLB year at age 29.

In 2022, Ray threw sliders 44% of the time, averaging 87 mph; four-seamers 56%, averaging 93 mph. As a relief pitcher, Penn Murfee pitched sweepers" 63% of the time, averaging 79 mph; four-seamers 35% averaging 88 mph; and a sinker 3% averaging 88 mph. Dr. Meister might have advised Murfee to throw fewer sweepers.

Dr. Meister believes that some pitches strain the UCL more than others. Those who disagree say that the speed of the pitch, the number of pitches thrown, and the pitcher's throwing mechanics determine the likelihood of injury.

2024 Seattle Starting Pitchers

All-Star Luis Castillo enters his eighth MLB season at age 31 and has fast pitches. In 2023, he primarily threw his fastball and a sinker at an average speed of 96 mph. He threw a changeup 16 percent of the time at an average speed of 88.3 mph. Daniel Kramer notes Castillo’s fastball held his batters to a .165 BA.

Logan Gilbert is 26 and pitching in his fourth MLB season as a starting pitcher. His favorite pitch iast season was the fastball at 96 mph. He throws a curveball less than 15 percent of the time at 80 mph. Logan feels confident that he has more options for pitching this year.

All-Star George Kirby enters his third MLB season as a starter. He has a diverse portfolio of pitches: fastball, sinker, slider, curveball, split-finger, change-up, and knuckleball. In 2023, Kirby threw his fastball more than the others with an average speed of 96 mph. Kirby threw a sinker and slider, each about 20% of the time. He used the curveball 12% of the time. Kirby's sinker matched the speed of his fastball.

Twenty-five-year-old Bryce Miller relied primarily on his fastball and his slider in his rookie season. He also threw a sweeper, a sinker, a change-up, and occasionally a curveball. Miller threw sweepers less than 10 percent of the time and changeups about five percent of the time. "A sweeper is a variant of a slider . . . The main characteristic of a sweeper is a large amount of horizontal movement, as opposed to a traditional slider, which has a "tighter" break."

In his rookie year, Bryan Woo threw his fastball almost half the time, averaging 95 mph. His second favorite pitch was the sinker which he threw 25 percent of the time at the same speed. He threw sliders, sweepers, and changeups in the remaining 25 percent of the time. These later pitches had speeds in the 80 mph range,

Relief Pitchers Brash and Munoz

Matt Brash and Andres Munoz throw like their hands are on fire. In 2023, Brash threw his fastball half the time. His second most popular pitch was the 4-seam fastball he threw about one-third of the time. He also has a curveball, a cutter, a sinker, and a change-up. He threw both the fastball and the sinker at 98 mph. Brash threw the rest of the pitches in the high eighties or low nineties mph.

Munoz enters his fifth season at 25 years old. He too throws at high speed in 2023. He threw his slider half of the time at 88 mph. He threw his fastball a third of the time at 99.2 mph. The rest of the time, he threw a sinker at 98 mph.

The Mariners Do Not Primarily Throw the Pitches that Concern Dr. Meister. All throw with speed, however.

All pitchers who can throw as fast as these pitchers need to know that velocity may cost them a serious injury at some point. I hope that the Mariners pay attention to the number of pitches our starting and relieving pitchers throw as well as to their mechanics.

My greatest concern is for Matt Brash and Andres Munoz. Brash's elbow was so sore that he met with Dr. Meister to rule out the need for Tommy John surgery. He is well known not only for the speed with which he throws but also for the spin the balls get. He also has remarkable vertical and horizontal breaks. This Spring Training, Munoz three one hundred mph or higher in an inning.

Miller and Woo throw sweepers at fast speeds. If the sweepers or any other pitches cause them more soreness than the others, I assume that the pitching coaches will take notice.

I love watching our pitchers throw as if their hands were on fire. I hope that they remain healthy, however. Go Mariners!