There isn’t much to say here: Jose Fernandez is headed to the disabled list with a sprained elbow. It’s bad news, potentially devastating news if an MRI reveals an even more severe injury in the elbow.
Fernandez had become perhaps the most electrifying pitcher in the game with his devastating combination of stuff, poise, confidence and a maturity well beyond his 21 years.
Before we all flip out and start panicking about Tommy John surgery, about yet another pitcher who may have a season-ending elbow injury, let’s take a deep breath and wait until we get the official word on the seriousness of Fernandez’s situation.
But it’s impossible not to go there. Jeff Passan of Yahoo tweeted that Fernandez would be the 34th known pitcher between the majors and minors to undergo TJ surgery since Feb. 18. Whether you’re a Marlins fan or just a baseball fan, it’s a definite buzzkill. Who doesn’t appreciate watching this kid on the mound? To me, he’s that rare pitcher, like a Nolan Ryan or Pedro Martinez or Randy Johnson or a young Dwight Gooden, who became must-watch TV, a guy with no-hit potential every time out but also with that certain charisma that is elusive and maybe hard to explain.
But at some point during his most recent start, something changed, something you can see in the in-game data when his velocity started to dip. You can speculate what or when, but most of all, why.
Is this an epidemic of Tommy John surgeries? Like the injuries to Stephen Strasburg and Matt Harvey, two other premium young aces who had the surgery early in their careers, it does seem like an inordinate number of pitchers -- many of them young and elite -- are undergoing the knife. There have certainly been more elbow injuries this year than in recent seasons, but we can’t compare today to the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, when we didn’t track injuries or pitchers often pitched through the pain and discomfort. Diagnosis is certainly better, and with the high success rate of TJ surgery, teams and players are more willing to have the surgery and sit out a year.
You do wonder if it’s a case of pitchers simply throwing harder. Strasburg had a big velocity spike in college, Harvey had a big velocity spike after turning professional. Fernandez can dial it up into the upper 90s. Maybe it’s too many pitches when these kids are in their teens, playing year-round and joining travel teams and playing high-impact games from Little League on. (Fernandez, of course, grew up in Cuba before coming to the U.S. when he was 15.) Maybe these guys don’t throw enough pitches in the minors. Maybe all this emphasis on pitch counts and protecting pitchers hasn’t helped prevent these injuries. Maybe it has.
I’m not sure we have answers to any of that.
If Fernandez’s injury proves serious and season-ending you’ll hear a lot and read a lot about “solutions” to this problem.
I’m not sure there is one. Pitchers get hurt. It’s part of the long, sad history of baseball. We’re lucky that surgery and technology at least allow many of these guys to return to the mound. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for Fernandez and hope he’s back sooner rather than 2015.