Sandy Koufax was never subjected to the innings limitations or pitch counts imposed on today’s major-league pitchers. The kicker? Koufax won two of his three Cy Young Awards — in 1965 and ’66 — while pitching with a sore arm.
Fifty years later, teams are protective of their young pitchers. Yet cautionary steps have not curtailed injuries, as exemplified by the Mets’ rotation. Last week, Steven Matz became the fourth starter sidelined for the season, joining Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler and Jacob deGrom.
Koufax, a Hall of Famer who pitched 311 innings for the Dodgers in 1963, was diagnosed with an arthritic left elbow the following year. “It started in 1964,’’ he said recently from Los Angeles. Koufax threw “only” 223 innings that year, a high number by today’s standards, before bouncing back with a league-leading 335 2⁄3 and 323 innings in his final two seasons.
Koufax, 80, said the pain intensified through his remaining seasons, eventually leading to early retirement at age 30 after he went 27-9 with a 1.73 earned run average in 1966. Today is the 50th anniversary of his final victory.
Tommy John, who in 1974 became the first pitcher to have the ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction surgery that bears his name, said the late Dr. Frank Jobe told him that he believed that Koufax might have had the same problem.
“He said, ‘I really believe Sandy Koufax needed Tommy John surgery,’ ” the 73-year-old John said Friday from La Quinta, California. “I said, ‘Then I would have had Sandy Koufax surgery.’ ”
Pitching with pain
During Koufax’s era, pitching with pain was commonplace. “If it’s a serious injury, you can’t perform,’’ Koufax said. “If it’s an injury that you can still perform, nobody would admit it. Now, because there are so few pitchers, they’re trying to protect everybody, trying to keep them as long as they can.
“I think medical science moved far past what we had. Nobody remade shoulders, nobody did elbows . . . When I joined the Dodgers, there was 650 signed players. If 150 pitchers got hurt, they signed another 150. You never saw the others again. Today, an organization has 150 players. Everybody is cared for medically.’’
Players were on one-year contracts and had to perform to earn another one. “I didn’t have a multiyear contract till the second half of my career,’’ Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan said from Houston, where he is an adviser to the Astros. “You were rewarded or penalized for the previous year that you had. You realized that and there were no guarantees, so even if you had aches and pains, you’d pitch through them because if you aren’t pitching, somebody was there to take your job.’’
Ryan, 69, has been outspoken against the idea that pitch counts and innings limits are a deterrent to injuries. “I’m not a doctor and I’m not a scientist. All I am is a guy who threw over 5,000 innings,’’ he said. “I know what pitchers go through and I know what it takes to do that and I real ly believe we don’t condition our pitchers for what they are asked to do. And because of that, I think we increase our chances of injury on them.
“I believe when an organization puts those kind of random restrictions on their pitching staff, they don’t take advantage and utilize the talent that they have. I think everybody has a pitch limit, but I think also you can tell when a guy’s reached his pitch limit by watching him. That’s what pitching coaches used to do. Now they look at the number of pitches and at around 100, they get somebody up and that pitcher comes out of the game no matter whether he’s having an exceptionally good game or if he struggled. Obviously, they put pitch limits to try to protect people, but I think it’s worked just the opposite.’’
Ryan is fifth on the all-time list of innings pitched with 5,386. Asked if his record seven no-hitters would have occurred under the current climate of safeguards, Ryan said: “I used to average 150 to 160 pitches a game because of the nature of pitcher I was. Would it have impacted my effectiveness? Yes. I think it probably would.’’
MLB studying problem
Major League Baseball is in the early stages of a five-year study to examine the proliferation of injuries to pitchers. The research is largely focusing on ulnar collateral ligament injuries, often an indicator for Tommy John surgery. A 2012-13 survey by MLB revealed that 25 percent of big-league pitchers had undergone the procedure; close to 500 in the major and minor leagues according to beyondtheboxscore.com.
“If I would have known it was going to be like that, I would have gotten a patent on it, a copyright,’’ John said. “I would make more money than I ever made in baseball. I thought I was the unlucky bloke that happened to hurt his arm.’’
Harvey, Wheeler, deGrom and Matz have had the procedure. Wheeler has missed two seasons after the surgery.
“The Mets may get a group and not have a Tommy John surgery for the next five years,’’ said Dr. Gary Green, medical director for Major League Baseball. “You have to look at the entire industry and see what balances out. You can get a very skewed picture by taking just a very small keyhole, even though it’s obviously concerning to the fans in New York.
“We’re focusing on everything from youth baseball to professional major-leaguers. We try to look at large populations because you can’t just focus on some people that are just physical outliers. At the same time, when those guys pitched, they certainly did pitch an extraordinary amount of innings. But there are also a lot of guys whose careers ended prematurely for the same reasons but we unfortunately did not have MRIs. It was just ‘he has a sore elbow.’ ’’
Much attention has focused on youngsters throwing curveballs at an early age. But in 2013, the American Sports Medicine Institute wrote: “Throwing curveballs has been suggested as a risk factor, but the existing research does not support this concern. However, an adolescent pitcher may not have enough physical development, neuromuscular control and proper coaching instruction to throw a curveball with good mechanics.”
There are no statistics for surgeries on major-league baseball players in past decades, Green said, adding: “There were certainly procedures that were attempted for the shoulder and elbow, but they had limited success. I think it would be more accurate to say that before the invention of the ulnar collateral reconstruction surgery by Dr. Jobe, there were very few effective surgical techniques that allowed a player to return to a high level of pitching.’’
Cardinals broadcaster Tim McCarver, who caught Hall of Fame pitchers Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton, has railed against pitch counts.
“How can people be so sure it’s the same for Don Drysdale and Chris Short?’’ he said. “How do people throw these numbers around like it’s wisdom? It’s not wisdom, it’s foolish. Who’s to say it’s 120 pitches, 140 pitches. Juan Marichal in 1963 in that famous game against Warren Spahn threw pitches’’ in 16 innings.
“It’s ridiculous to me to ask a manager about throwing 80 pitches as though anything more would do something that was deleterious to his pitcher’s arm. There has been no study, by the way, by anyone to back up this pseudo study by baseball people to back up what they claim is too many pitches. That after that, they’re all downhill or the chance of injury goes up. How much is overuse?’’
Hall of Famer Jim Bunning, 84, who became a two-term U.S. senator from Kentucky after his baseball career, pitched a perfect game against the Mets in 1964 while a member of the Phillies.
“Go back and look at the innings pitched, complete games,’’ he said of his era. “The arms are capable of doing it. My arm is no different than deGrom’s except that it stayed healthy. Training now is about one-fifth of what it was when I was in baseball. I pitched over a thousand innings in the minor leagues, five full years of stretching my arm out. There were nine innings to be pitched, and you’re expected to pitch nine innings.’’
Restrictions on pitchers are likely to remain in place until findings dictate a new protocol. What will that mean for the future of pitchers in the big leagues?
Said Koufax, “I have no clue.’’
Some fast facts:
n Steve Carlton (304 innings for 1980 Phillies) was the last pitcher to throw 300 innings in a season.
n Knuckleballer Wilbur Wood pitched 376.2 innings for the 1972 White Sox and Mickey Lolich threw 376.0 innings for the ’71 Tigers. Those were the top seasons in the past 50 years.
n Tom Seaver owns the top-five Mets single-season IP marks, the pinnacle being 290.2 in 1970.
n The Yankees’ record for IP in a season: 454.2 by Jack Chesbro in 1904, when the team was known as the Highlanders. Catfish Hunter was the last Yankee to reach 300, when he pitched 328 innings in 1975.
Most career innings pitched, with seasons played in parentheses
1.Cy Young (22)7,356.0
2.Pud Galvin (15)6,003.1
3.Walter Johnson (21)5,914.1
4.Phil Niekro (24)5,404.0
5.Nolan Ryan (27)5,386.0
6.Gaylord Perry (22)5,350.0
7.Don Sutton (23)5,282.1
8.Warren Spahn (21)5,243.2
9.Steve Carlton (24)5,217.2
10.Grover Alexander (20)5,190.0