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Seattle Mariners

Commentary: Decision to pull Mariners’ Bryce Miller underscores MLB’s bigger problem

Bryce Miller of the Seattle Mariners throws a pitch in the first inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at American Family Field on Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Milwaukee.  (Tribune News Service)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

SEATTLE – After scattering three hits across seven scoreless innings, and needing just 78 pitches to do it, Bryce Miller’s day was done.

The debate was just beginning.

Because although Miller left last Saturday’s Mariners game at Milwaukee with a 4-0 lead, it nearly evaporated. Relievers Austin Voth and Gabe Speier conceded a combined three runs in an elongated eighth inning before Seattle escaped with a 5-3 win.

But Mariners manager Scott Servais’ move to pull his 25-year-old starter transcends any individual game.

This was a season decision.

“The biggest thing with that is that he’s got 30 more starts to make,” Servais said in the aftermath. “Have you seen the state of starting pitching in our league lately?”

Cue the elephant in the room – or more accurately, the injured list. Barely 10 games into a six-month season, aces are increasingly endangered in MLB. Cleveland’s Shane Bieber and Miami’s Eury Perez are slated for season-ending Tommy John surgeries, and Atlanta’s Spencer Strider – who, likewise, sustained damage to his elbow’s ulnar collateral ligament – could require the same procedure for a second time.

Texas’ Jacob deGrom is similarly rehabbing from his second Tommy John. Yankees ace Gerrit Cole is out until June because of elbow inflammation, the same injury that has temporarily sidelined Mariners starter Bryan Woo. Former Miami Cy Young Award winner Sandy Alcantara and Tampa Bay ace (and All-Star Game starter) Shane McClanahan continue to recover from elbow reconstruction, and Milwaukee’s Brandon Woodruff and Kansas City’s Kyle Wright will miss the season after shoulder surgeries.

Those are eye-catching lowlights, CliffsNotes for a concerning trend. Of the 166 major-league players who started the season on the injured list, 132 were pitchers, according to a report by the New York Post.

So why the avalanche of exploding arms?

How much time do you have?

“I think the biggest thing is the style of pitching has changed so much,” three-time Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander told Houston television station KPRC this week, while on a rehab assignment with the Triple-A Sugar Land Space Cowboys. “Everybody is throwing as hard as they possibly can and spinning the ball as hard as they possibly can. It’s hard to deny those results, obviously.

“It’s a double-edged sword. How can you tell somebody to go out and not do that when they’re capable of 100 (mph), and then a young guy comes up and throws a pitch 95 and gives up a big homer and everybody’s like, ‘What the hell, man?’ So, something needs to change. I don’t have all the answers.”

Turns out, it’s hard to find solutions before you agree upon the problems. Last week, MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark singled out the pitch clock in accelerating injuries, saying in a statement:

“Despite unanimous player opposition and significant concerns regarding health and safety, the Commissioner’s Office reduced the length of the pitch clock last December just one season removed from imposing the most significant rule change in decades. Since then, our concerns about the health impacts of reduced recovery time have only intensified.

“The league’s unwillingness thus far to acknowledge or study the effects of these profound changes is an unprecedented threat to our game and its most valuable asset – the Players.”

Unsurprisingly, MLB’s brass refuted Clark’s conclusion. And they weren’t the only ones.

“With the pitch clock, your heart rate’s up a little higher and you have to adapt to that,” Root Sports analyst and former major-league pitcher Ryan Rowland-Smith told The Times on Monday. “But no one’s training in the offseason to say, ‘Oh man, I need to combat the pitch clock.’ They’re trying to combat that 94 (mph). They’re trying to throw 97 instead.”

The need for simultaneous speed and spin falls like rain off a Pacific Northwest roof – from the majors to the minors, from the minors to the NCAA, from the NCAA to high school and Little League and down the descending ladder. Renowned (and recently retired) surgeon Dr. James Andrews told in January: “I started following the injury patterns and injury rates in the year 2000. Back in those days, I did about eight or nine Tommy Johns per year in high school aged and younger. The large majority of Tommy Johns were at the major-league level, then the minor-league level, then the college level and then just a handful of high school kids.

“In today’s situation the whole thing is flip-flopped. The largest number is youth baseball. They’ve surpassed what’s being done in the major leagues. That’s a terrible situation.”

Consider, then, that MLB athletic trainer Stan Conte’s data – shared in a story published by The Ringer this month – suggests that there were 263 UCL replacement (Tommy John) surgeries in the 2023 season, 160 more than the 103 performed in 2010.

Rain falls. Surgeries spike.

The whole sport suffers.

“Everybody’s trying to get to this level. You want to go play (Division I)? Then you’ve got to throw hard and spin the ball well. You want to go to the minor leagues? You’ve got to throw hard and spin the ball well. It all starts from here down,” said Verlander, who spoke for 4 minutes and 20 seconds on the subject. “The second you start incentivizing pitching, and guys are getting drafted because they can pitch and get guys out (without having to throw that hard), then that goes down a level and down a level and down a level.

“I just hope that we don’t wait too long. Because it’s obviously a pandemic, and it’s going to take years to work itself out.”

Until then, teams such as the Mariners will attempt to sidestep land mines over the course of a marathon season. They’ll yank starters after seven scoreless innings and fewer than 80 pitches, a precautionary pull. Seattle, specifically, will attempt to keep a talented rotation – its most valuable commodity – intact.

And, yes, that might mean losing a lead or two in the later innings, a necessary sacrifice.

But how can baseball solve its endangered pitcher problem?

That’s the more meaningful debate.