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Voices from the Basement: The Walking Wounded

Kevin: I've been out all night and after I returned home, I learned that 300-lb. Calvin Pickering hit a three-run triple in Tuesday night's game against Anaheim. Earlier in the evening, I was told by three friends that I, while under hypnosis, believed I was Jerry Seinfeld and petted a non-existent bird. So how much stranger could things get? I found this in a Kansas City Star article (http://www.kansascity.com/mld/kansascity/sports/9469823.htm) dated August 23, 2004, and written by David Boyce:

[Ken] Harvey is the latest member of the Royals to suffer a rib-cage injury, calling into question whether the Royals are training properly or just a victim of misfortune.

Relief pitchers Jeremy Affeldt and Nate Field have both suffered tears in their oblique muscle. Harvey has a strain, and Stairs has just recovered from a bruise in the rib-cage area.

"There have been 31 rib-cage injuries in baseball this season," Royals trainer Nick Swartz said. "The Padres had three position players go down with oblique muscle injuries in one week.

"But with four players on our team suffering rib-cage injuries, we are going to go back and look at it."

If a person is going to blame a single thing for KC's downfall, he or she can point to key players going down with injuries...for a long, long time. It's been well-noted that the Royals' training staff, led by Nick Swartz, has seen an absurd number of players go on the disabled list. 2004's count is up to 17, with Reverend Sweeney's infamous back landing on the DL once again on Tuesday night. I don't know how many players other teams have to disable during the course of a season, but I'd put even money that the number is less than 17.

That said, I don't know how much control teams have over their players' health. I'm certainly not going to stick 100% of the blame on Swartz & Co. for the pitchers in the Arm Injury Ward -- Runelvys Hernandez, Kyle Snyder, and Miguel Asencio. That has more to do with Tony Pena and his coaching staff, in my opinion. The Royals also have no control over injuries caused by hit-by-pitches or by sliding in to second base in an awkward fashion.

But the Royals probably DO have some measure of control over preventing injuries such as hamstring pulls and ribcage strains and making sure the injury does not recur. For the past couple of seasons, I've felt that the Royals have cast aside all these injuries as plain ol' bad luck with no interest in considering there might be a problem. It's nice to see Nick and his cronies seeing a pattern and re-tracing their steps to make sure they're doing everything in their power to keep the Royals happy and healthy.

It's sad it took the R's this long to admit they have a problem keeping their guys on the field, but I'm glad they're finally doing it. Better late than never, right?

Daniel: I suppose that Swartz's duties to keep players as healthy as possible can go hand-in-hand with other coaches, specifically John Cumberland in the pitching department. Of course, Cumberland encumbers the Royals no longer (you decide whether that pun was intended), but obviously his handiwork remains -- both in the quality of Royals pitchers, and in the quality of the Royals' pitchers health.

I don't pretend to know enough about pitching mechanics to assume that Cumberland was, in addition to attempting to make better pitchers, also trying to make sure Royals pitchers pitched from the right arm slot, used the right amount of effort on their pitches (no overthrowing), and put the least amount of pressure on their bodies when pitching from the wind-up and the stretch. But couldn't there be a link between the Royals pitching injuries and Cumberland? Maybe I'm looking for a bail-out for Swartz.

I just can't imagine a trainer being this horrible. Whether it's different players going down with the same injuries (like the rib cage plague), players with injuries that recur more than twice (Sweeney), or players that take longer to come back than anyone thought at first (Tony Graffanino and Juan Gonzalez), it's been a comedy of errors this year. I mean, this surely couldn't be his fault, but Aaron Guiel missed most of the year with eye troubles -- who have you heard of going down because all of a sudden they can't see?

And you know the funniest thing? All of the newest Royals, whether called up or acquired, seem to avoid getting banged up . David DeJesus, Ruben Mateo, Andres Blanco, Abraham Nunez, Mike Wood, John Buck, Ruben Gotay, and other callups have avoided injury, and the most glaring thing they have in common is that they haven't spent the entire year under Nick Swartz's "watchful" eye. Coincidence?

Kevin: I'd like to think John Cumberland had everything to do with most of KC's pitchers falling to the arm injury bug, if only because he's no longer with the organization. If that were true, the Royals should have way fewer pitching injuries, right?

Sadly, I don't think the issue stops, does not pass go, and does not collect 100 dollars with good ol' John when it comes to the pitchers. Like you pointed out, it's hard to believe that Nick Swartz could exact a single-man reign of terror on the entire roster, so we can't fairly place the R's history of pitching injuries firmly on the shoulders of Brent Strom, Al Nipper, or Cumberland. Wouldn't it have to be a "team effort" within the organization? As you also pointed out, several of the new players who haven't been directly under the Royals' watch all season have stayed healthier than their superiors, for the most part.

Getting back to the arm injuries, is it possible the Royals didn't allow their young injured guns to pitch enough? In other words, could Tony Pena be the antithesis of Dusty Baker and not allow his young pitchers to build up their endurance? Rob Neyer and Rany Jazayerli documented earlier in the season that the Royals may have been overly cautious with Donald Zackary's right arm by having him on a three-start skip-a-start program at Triple-A to limit his innings. They didn't pull the same stuff with Runelvys Hernandez, but he got hurt anyway. His 2003 pitch counts:

77, 85, 89, 92, 109, 95, 107, 96, 88, 66, 88, 94, 73, 101, 93, 81

In some of those starts, Hernandez was pulled early because of a disastrous outing. But he was pitching well in a few of those 85-92 pitch outings, namely the April 5 victory over Cleveland in which he used just 85 pitches in seven innings of two-hit ball. Of course, his lack of motivation and subsequent weight gain didn't help the strain on his arm, but that doesn't explain Asencio and the others.

Bob Boone ruined Jose Rosado by having him throw too much, and Tony Muser ruined Chad Durbin by doing the same. Do you think Tony Pena could've ruined the current crop of young Royals pitchers by having them throw too little?

Daniel: If we want the answer to that question -- whether or not low pitch counts have hurt rather than helped Royals pitchers -- I think we have the ultimate lab rat in Zack Greinke, because his health will be watched closely. But he's only 20, so can we really compare him to Hernandez, Asencio, and Snyder, who are all five years older or more?

I don’t think we can. So is this issue self-defeating? Jason Schmidt and Livan Hernandez are examples of pitchers with constant high pitch counts yet no significant injury history. These two often throw 120 pitches or more during their outings, yet stay relatively healthy. Are there many other pitchers who are even allowed as many as 120 pitches, even on occasion? I'm thinking there are very few, because managers nowadays handle pitchers and pitch counts with kid gloves, not wanting to "risk" injury.

Okay, I've avoided your question for long enough. Do I really think the Royals pitchers have been hurt by low pitch counts? Yes, I do. While this is a simplistic explanation, and I'll admit with no hesitancy that I'm the furthest from a medical specialist one can possibly be, I'm thinking that pitching must be like running. To build endurance, a person must run more often. If he runs too much, the risk of getting shin splints and other ailments increases. But don’t run enough, and the risk of not having as much endurance as you might wish is very real.

It's really just a theory with no legitimate way of proving its validity. So why not go by the results? There have been too many injuries, too many mystery injuries, too much time lost to injury for what were key players in the Royals 2004 hopes. The results speak for themselves.

Kevin: It's interesting that you brought up Livan Hernandez and Jason Schmidt, because the successes of those two pitchers proves my point about the Royals being entirely too cautious when it comes to their young pitching.

We all know what happens when an under-developed pitcher is pushed too far too many times; they go the way of Chad Durbin, who's just now getting his feet back under him at the major league level. However, we also know that pitch count isn't everything when it comes to minimizing injury risk. Other variables that must be considered:

1) Is the pitcher's delivery violent, putting more stress on the arm, or fluid, putting less stress on the arm?
2) Does the pitcher use 100% effort on every pitch?
3) In an individual start, what percentage of pitches were fastballs, which cause less stress on the arm?
4) In an individual start, what percentage of pitches were thrown from the stretch position, which place more stress on the arm?

I'm sure I left a variable or two out, but I think you still get the idea. Jason Schmidt has survived several 120+ pitch outings while with the Giants because of his mechanics and tendency to throw what is probably an above-average number of fastballs. Livan Hernandez has survived because, like Zack Greinke, he doesn't use 100% effort on every pitch. Some fastballs come in at 83 mph, and some at 93 mph.

How is this relevant for the Royals and their new methods of handling young pitching? My opinion is that too much emphasis has been placed on the 100-pitch mark at Kauffman Stadium. I think Allard Baird has seen so many promising arms have their careers ruined by high pitch counts, that he's done a 180 and is making sure that no pitcher under the age of 27 goes well past the century mark in pitches in any start. There's no concrete way to prove it, so as you wrote, we have to go on results. The results say something's amiss.

There is no happy medium, which is why this debate is so interesting. Basically, I think the R's have overcorrected themselves in this instance. But it should come as no surprise that even when the Royals' front office believes they're doing something right, it inevitably ends up being wrong.
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