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Draft Danger

Excuse me if I'm not overjoyed that the White Sox have the third overall choice in Thursday's major league amateur draft.

For one thing, this is just another reminder that only the Astros and Marlins had a worse record than our athletes last season, and only a masochistic goofball wants to be reminded of the disastrous 2013 season. Since the Sox pick right before the Cubs, we also must face the fact that the guys on the other side of town were a wee bit less laughable as our Sox a year ago.

Yet there are other circumstances associated with the number 3 pick that concern me.

More likely than not, the Sox will select a pitcher. Already high school kids who throw as hard as 100 mph along with the top college pitchers who are clocked in the 90s have been receiving rave reviews from the scouts who make recommendations to their bosses.

The Sox struck oil four years ago when they got Chris Sale in the first round with the 13th overall pick. Sunday's complete game performance, a 4-1 win over San Diego hiking Sale's record to 5-0 and bringing the Sox back to .500 at 29-29, wasn't notable so much for Sale's nine strikeouts, no walks, 100 pitches, and the final 14 Padre hitters going down in order. No, the fact that San Diego got two hits and scored a run was more noteworthy. That's how good Sale has been.

Despite a stint on the disabled list last month, Sale is healthy. But with every whiplash of his golden left arm, you can bet that general manager Rick Hahn hopes and prays he stays that way. Is it not unreasonable to worry that if Hahn selects one of the aspiring pitching phenoms, the kid will develop arm problems requiring surgery long before he ever reaches the South Side?

Unless you've been following nothing but the Blackhawks, you know that legions of pitchers are nursing elbow scars from all the Tommy John surgeries performed so far this season. If for some reason Steve Ballmer decides not to buy the Los Angeles Clippers, no doubt one of those doctors who have been repairing pitchers' elbows and shoulders will be in a good position to ante up the $2 billion price tag for the team.

Listening to all the discussion and explanation for the recent rash of pitchers' injuries, one believable theory is that the damage often is done before the age of 12.

"Part of the injury can be explained by kids throwing too much too actively at an age when their bodies are still developing," pitching instructor Travis Kerber, who pitched professionally for the Gary RailCats, told me last week. For the past two years, he's been a head instructor for Elite Baseball Training after working at the Bulls/Sox Academy for 10 years. Kerber's youngest student is 7.

Kerber describes pitching as a "high-level athletic movement that you ask [kids] to perform repetitively when they're not ready to do it. Younger kids don't always have the coordination that a higher athlete has. Sometimes we just work on stability and coordination and timing."

Living in an age of specialization, the parent who thinks his kid is the next Chris Sale - or even Scott Carroll - may be tempted to go beyond simply encouraging his child.

"[You have] parents who are very competitive," Kerber said. "A lot of kids throw too many pitches per outing without enough time between outings. Kids are pushed past the point where even they are not comfortable."

Tony Cogan, who grew up in Highland Park and pitched at powerhouse Stanford before being drafted in the 12th round by Kansas City in 1999, took just two years to make the Royals' roster in 2001 as a relief pitcher.

"I played in travel ball," said Cogan last week, reflecting on his childhood experiences. "I don't think it was nearly as intense as it is now. The pressure, the politics, and the amount of games picked up in seventh- or eighth-grade. My sense is that it wasn't what it is now. It was still fun, a game. Obviously it was very competitive; I lived and died with it. I don't think that it was as intense as it is with bigger pressure from parents, coaches, and all the politics with the feeder systems. They were there, but they just weren't as intense."

Cogan began private lessons for pitching when he was in junior high. Throughout his schoolboy, college, and early professional career, Cogan said, "I never missed a game in my life." Once the 2001 season ended, the Royals insisted that Tony pitch in the Puerto Rican winter league even though he wanted to return home for some R&R after the season.

"I was a starter down there in Puerto Rico," he related. "I never really got much rest or recovery or much of an offseason after my first big-league season. I went to spring training the next year, but I didn't last long in big-league training and was sent down to [double-A] Wichita. I had good numbers, made the All-Star team, but there was something missing. I knew I wasn't as sharp as I was in the past. In the middle of the season, I began to feel a little bit of fatigue and pain."

Cogan's elbow was sound, but his shoulder wasn't. Two surgeries followed, but his career wasn't over. Cogan pitched for five more seasons in the independent Northern League. He and Kerber were teammates at Gary for two seasons, forming half of the team's four-man starting rotation.

Cogan is convinced that the winter of pitching in Puerto Rico resulted in his shoulder breaking down. "Without knowing for sure, had I not gone to Puerto Rico that winter and gone into spring training well-rested and ready, I think that I never would have gotten injured," he said.

Pitch counts have become as much a part of the game as double plays and sacrifice flies. But the numbers are far more accurate for starters than relievers who frequently throw a bunch of pitches warming up on days even when they don't enter the game.

"Roberto Hernandez was our senior guy in the bullpen, and he thought they were throwing me too much or not paying attention to how many times I would get up in a game and not pitch," said Cogan. "As it was, I was a rookie, and I was eager and wanted to hone the craft. So I was trying to get loose with maybe twice as many pitches. I was trying to get exact. They [his bullpen teammates] were saying, just get loose, don't get exact. So I probably threw a few too many in that respect, but I never felt a hint of pain or weakness during that season."

The pitchers who will be drafted on Thursday have been scrutinized for a variety of talents, but none quite so much as how hard they throw. If a scout forgets his razor or deodorant for a trip, it's no big deal. But misplacing his radar gun could cost him his job.

"Everyone wants to know exactly how hard they're throwing," said Kerber. "The threshold for Tommy John surgery is 80 to 85 miles an hour. This is a sign of higher risk of breaking down. My job is to take these kids and identify the issues that might cause them breaking down."

Kerber points to the days when radar guns didn't exist, when there were no indoor training facilities, and baseball was a seasonal game.

"There's something to be said for back in that time period when a lot less people were indoors doing something," he said. "They were out being physical every day, climbing trees, just being outside. Bob Gibson throwing 30 complete games will never happen again. Is it because baseball wasn't as much as a year-round thing? [In high school] we probably played 15 games in a season. We played only played 35 games a year. Now kids are playing 90 games a year at the 10-year-old level. We moved on to other sports, basketball and football."

Does Kerber think that decades ago pitchers didn't get sore arms? Far from it. "Back then if you got hurt, you just stopped playing," he noted.

Of course, the most famous of those was Sandy Koufax, who retired in 1966 at the age of 30 after going 27-9 with a 1.73 ERA. He pitched 353 innings that year.

Then there's Big Ed Walsh, a Hall-of-Fame pitcher for the White Sox. You don't see his number painted on the fa├žade behind home plate at The Cell because Walsh pitched before players had uniform numbers. He won 40 games in 1908. You read that correctly. That year he pitched 464 innings, which seems crazy until you learn that this total ranks only 105th all-time for innings pitched in a season. Guys with names like Old Hoss, Pud, and Kid pitched half their teams' games, amassing more than 600 innings in the pre-modern (before 1900) era.

Whether Walsh tore his ulnar collateral ligament or his labrum will never be known. What we do know is that Big Ed won 182 games by the time he was 31 and just 13 thereafter when he was a seldom-used broken-down right hander who left the game when he was 36.

Walsh didn't learn his trade from instructors like Travis Kerber advising him on mechanics, flexibility, stability and kinetics. He simply threw a baseball as hard and as accurately as he could, which, when you think about it, is what still happens today. Even with pitch counts and the careful care assigned to stars like Chris Sale, the repetitive stress and strain are unnatural. Body parts are asked to do things for which they were not designed.

Let's hope that Rick Hahn's top draft pick is one of those gifted young hurlers, destined for stardom, blessed with the metabolism, luck and fate necessary to keep all those muscles, ligaments, tendons and whatever else is under the skin intact and healthy.

What's more likely is that there will be some 38th-round pick who never reaches 90 on the gun, pitches well into his 30s with nearly 200 career wins, never misses a start, and who has a no-hitter and perfect game on his resume. Someone like Mark Buehrle.


Roger Wallenstein is our man on the Sox. He welcomes your comments.

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Posted on Nov 26, 2021