Sports Are Bad For Us

About two weeks into the new baseball season, the Milwaukee Brewers are hot, but the early theme is probably injuries, particularly those that require Tommy John surgery. The Atlanta Braves have been particularly hard-hit, but they're not the only team that's now planning surgery and re-shuffling the rotation.

About a year ago, Eno Sarris wrote a piece titled Every Pitch is Bad For You. His theory was that pitching injuries aren't about cutters or curveballs or any other specific pitch, but about the act of pitching itself: "Pitching is an unnatural movement that puts unnatural stress on the elbow and shoulder joints." Sarris wasn't talking about simply throwing a ball, but about throwing a major-league quality pitch. It's a fascinating idea, really, and there's considerable evidence to support it.

Pitchers injuries are perhaps the greatest puzzle in baseball. Over the last 150 years or so, rotations have grown larger, outings have gotten shorter and complete games have become less common, and use of relievers — especially multiple relievers — has become standard. Today's players use weight training, consult nutritionists, and have access to advances in sports medicine that would have been revolutionary even a single generation ago. They have experienced coaches, they use pitch counts, and their managers don't hesitate to call upon the bullpen. So why aren't pitcher injuries decreasing? With all these advantages, all these new techniques, pitchers today get injured as often as ever.

You can find parallels in most popular sports. Football players are better-conditioned than ever before. They have better protective gear, better training techniques, great doctors paying attention to them. Injury rates are as high as ever, and we're still learning about the dramatic risks of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Sprinters in track meets routinely pull up with hamstring injuries and other muscle issues. In almost every sport, injuries are becoming more common, not less.

Every level of athletics from high school up commits a comparable amount of time to their sports. Pros practice the most, of course, but a college athlete has hours-long practice or a game, probably six days a week. High school isn't far behind. Why do the best in the world get injured as often as teenagers who are still learning how to play?

The explanation is simple: sports are bad for us. There are certain things the human body wasn't designed to do. Run 30 miles an hour, leap 30 feet, throw 100 mph. High-level athletes suffer major injuries at many times the rate of low-level athletes. The competitors in the best physical condition, with the finest training facilities and the best doctors, get hurt more often than kids on varsity.

So how do we protect pitchers? I agree with Sarris: every pitch is bad for you. Breaking stuff is probably worse than fastballs, but the pressure put on an arm to accurately deliver a 95-mph fastball to a major league hitter is going to stress that person's body. Today's pitchers throw more violently than they did in the era of four-man rotations and complete games. I don't believe the breakthrough is coming. We'll continue to get better at treating injuries, but preventing them is just going to get harder.

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