11 April 2016

The Most Important Baseball Book Is A Swamp

The Tommy John epidemic, my stomach turns and an eye roll image occupies my mind.  The word epidemic, in this context, is chosen when the person speaking wishes to gin up concern in his audience.  Epidemics, of course, result from infectious agents while pitchers bust UCLs by throwing a baseball. Properly translated, the message is that the incidence of ligament replacement surgery for arm injuries is increasing at epidemic proportions as pitchers at the professional and amateur levels are lying down on operating tables in record numbers.  That hard count concerns many and Jeff Passan's The Arm addresses this issue.  Passan intent is for his work will have far-reaching consequences.

We want every person involved with youth baseball to #ReadTheArm. I think it's an important book. I think you'llagree once you read it.
— Jeff Passan(@JeffPassan) March 23, 2016

The book familiarizes the reader with how elbow ligaments are torn and how the joint is repaired.  It opens with a description of the procedure that Frank Jobe created and performed on Tommy John.  Briefly, holes are drilled through bone.  A tendon is then procured from the patient or a cadaver, is laced through the holes, and ties the joint together.  Over time, the tendon transforms into a ligament.  Over time, players go through immense physical and mental challenges to return to the mound.  Over time, MLB continues to make, at best, half-hearted attempts to address what may have always been happening: throwing a ball destroys arms and crushes dreams.

Passan pays particular attention to the youth game in the United States and the one in Japan.  In the United States, he paints the sports medicine culture progressive, yet reactionary.  He describes youth baseball organizations in the throes of grabbing as much money as possible.  Passan uses Japan as foil.  The country is characterized as medically regressive.  The sport hampered with an obligation to follow a historical bushido-influenced baseball code which legitimizes practices like nagekomi.  This approach to pitching utlizes daily marathon throwing sessions to establish "perfect" throwing mechanics.  Of course, children in both countries though find themselves broken and in pain.  Neither appears to be addressing the situation well.

Interlaced between the 30,000 foot narrative are the two personal stories of Daniel Hudson and Todd Coffey.  Both are going through difficulties recovering from ligament revisions (second surgeries).  The long, slow, inch-by-inch rehabilitation process toys with the competitive mind and invites depression.  Individuals must practice extreme self-discipline and benefit greatly with a strong family support structure.  Throughout the book, Passan returns to them to give gravity, and sometimes levity, to this issue.

The fourth prong is Passan trying to wade through the swamp that is the field of arm injury prevention.  He tries to consolidate the efforts used to prevent arm injuries from happening in the first place.  He meanders through the sideshows of pitching gurus and snake oil salesmen to fall upon the work of Kyle Boddy and James Buffi.  To varying extends, both use scientific tools and foundations to develop applications to improve preventative approaches to avoid arm injuries as well as increase velocity.  The section is perhaps a bit too brief.  Passan familiarizes that there are many approaches currently trying to address this issue and that none will likely produce sound results beyond logical inference and case study success.

While reading, I did have three major contentions with the narrative presented and I will address them below.

On Youth Baseball
Major League Baseball drives baseball in this country, often indirectly.  MLB is notoriously reactionary and tends to be more concerned with optics than impact.  For example, the league's concern with steroids was limited to a bargaining chip against the union until congress became irrationally involved.  This resulted in a PED program that is focused on punishment as opposed to player health.  The arm injury issue is fairly similar.  Injuries have always been an issue, but with cries of "Think of the children!" increasing in volume MLB might decide to wield its clumsy hammer.

The playbook is simple.  The first thing MLB does is to lay blame elsewhere.  That target is Perfect Game and it is pretty clear in this book that the league's message has found its way into the pages.  Perfect Game came into being because MLB ignored amateur baseball and its members were not interested in joining forces to make scouting easier.  Perhaps, the clubs with better scouting departments did not want to make things easier for others.  Anyway, Perfect Game filled that hole by organizing showcases and tournaments to make it easier for amateurs to be seen by scouts.  In turn, scouts are thankful that Perfect Game streamlines the process to see the big named amateurs.

Of course, this service costs money to run.  Owners and employees like to support families as well as have nice things, so additional money will need to exchange hands.  Likewise, the customer base has to find all these services worth the money.  Once Perfect Game found the sweet spot for success, competitors came in.  Perfect Game then engages families of children as young as four and five in order to pipeline them into teen tournaments when they get older.  The problems inherent in the industry magnify with Perfect Game as a convenient target.

This too is how The Arm treats Perfect Game, as a target.  Parents and MLB are upset over arm injuries, but placing blame on the infrastructure that all parties desired is misguided.  The infrastructure is not the problem.  It merely highlights it while it tries to implement heralded approaches to keep arms safe.  Those heralded approaches are akin to alchemy, but implementing the best ideas around is the most one can expect of companies like Perfect Game.

This not to say that Perfect Game is a flawless moral actor in youth baseball.  The Arm notes that they present to parents of seven year olds reports that indicate whether their kid is on the same path as Mike Trout.  That is some vicious exploitation of parents and children.  There is no reason for them to publicly communicate that to parents because it is so misleading.  I would understand if they did that for internal records in order to figure out who to keep tabs on and provide invitations, but it is not something that parents are likely able to comprehend.  Then again, people like bells and whistles, so maybe the customer desires to be willingly misled.

The Arm also discusses how baseball in Japan is grueling.  It presents the Japanese style as a practice in recreational bushido.  Coaches demand total allegiance, unending repetition, and suffering.  Arm injuries are treated with throwing, which is a concept that American medicine abandoned 50 years ago.  While American medical counterparts are composed of individuals well-trained in tendon and ligament injuries, Japanese sports medicine appears to be dominated by bone specialists with passing knowledge of ligament replacement.  The Arm suggests that by ignoring ligament injuries, the Japanese way is regressive, but that might be more damning in relation to adult pitchers as opposed to children.  Of course, the demanding nature of Koshien (i.e., a pitcher throwing over 500 pitches is normal over the short length of the tournament) and daily practices appear to be absurd, but maybe they are not.

The Arm tends to make a Gonzo style narrative conclusion and then later dismantles that conclusion without much contemplation.  For instance, Passan is appalled at how the Japanese game tears up its youth.  That conclusion is later challenged with an adoring description of supposedly how Trevor Bauer turned himself into a wunderkind by throwing 360 days a year.  For the well-disciplined reader, this communicates how the industry is unsure how to solve this issue and acts almost completely on what simply sounds like a good idea.  Again, this is what alchemy is and a lot of smart people like Newton logically thought lead could be turned to gold.  Logic is quite important, but it can lead you down some errant rabbit holes.

Convoluted Section on Avoiding Injury
The Arm aggressively notes problems and then languidly searches for answers.  The whole thesis leads up to a brief section infatuated with the efforts of Kyle Boddy and, to a lesser extent, James Buffi.  Passan presents two individuals who many consider the most forward thinking arm researchers in the game.  Largely ignored are established researchers like Glen Flesig and his group at ASMI.  In that way, the book frames Boddy and Buffi as the future.

Personally, I know several smart baseball folks who believe in Boddy.  I also do not consider what Boddy does as science.  His work is more on an applied engineering scale or perhaps similar to a doctor using a medicine off label and publishing a case study.  Yes, there may be something there and it relies on established science, but Boddy is not carrying the scientific method forward.  Instead, his work relies on lottery tickets to establish the perception of success.  Without the amazing success of Casey Weathers, Boddy would not have much to point toward.  One could just as easily focus on Nick Hagadone who did not reap benefits by working with Boddy.  As with most pitching success mantras, people forget the failure and provide a narrative for the success.

Boddy can implement a wide range of peer-reviewed mechanics papers into his approaches.  While the foundation of his work is connected with science, his work and his evaluation of his work is not science.  Again, this does not mean Boddy is wrong.  Instead, he likely gets some things right similar to other pitching specialists.  There are probably many ways to skin a baseball as opposed to one Way.  Maybe there is a single way at this elite level, but that has not been firmly established.

Boddy certainly is a rarity amongst pitching gurus.  He does publicize his errors in reasoning when he takes a turn in his approach.  His manner comes across more cleanly than that of someone like Chris O'Leary with his defensive obsession with letter shaped arm angles inverted-W (as seemingly described in the Arm).  Most everyone has a gimmick and if you take in a cynical perspective, Boddy's gimmick is "Science!" in a suit filled with alchemy.  In essence though, this field is still an applied mish mash of what sounds like good ideas.  Practitioners are often snake oil salesmen and I am unsure if this book effectively communicates that.

Pointless Vulgarity
I struggled with whether I would include this section in the review.  However, Passan emphasized that this work is intended to be read by anyone involve in youth baseball, so I should write to how he misses that mark.  In one way he missed was his infrequent, yet noticeable, use of vulgarity throughout the work.  While players or wives cussing in quotes provides a closer intimation of who they are as real people, I am at a loss why Passan chooses for him as a narrator to indulge in ways that do not meaningfully improve how he communicates his message.  Instead, his profanity appears to communicate a desire of the author to be one with the players in the training room and in the dugout.

For instance, Passan writes vaguely about Todd Coffey doing everything right as a model AAA relief pitcher on and off the field as he believes he was promised to be the first player called up to Seattle.  Instead, he is passed over for younger arms. Passan states Coffey is being blue-balled.  For those offended, I apologize for writing that term, but for some in the audience it may be unfamiliar.  The term is slang for a sexually frustrated man who thinks a women strongly led him on and then rejects him.  It is a term that blames a woman for reconsidering consent.  While aptly empathizing the situation Coffey experiences, I find it quite strange for this to be written and pass by the eyes of editors when the intent for this work to serve as a public outreach tool.

While many families will read these words and wind up unfazed, we all can imagine that a significant portion would hesitate handing over language like this to their kid.  Whether or not you think parents should be more open to language use like this, the fact remains that these words consequentially may bring exclusivity to the message.  One wonders if the author is so moved by the suffering of pitchers the world over, why would he think of using a few words here or there to challenge them to reject his writing.  At best, this is obtuse or, maybe, spreading the word was a last minute idea to drive sales.  Perhaps, that is unfairly cynical.  To be clear, language like this is infrequent in this 300 some page book.  With that in mind, maybe more sensitive readers will be inclined to gloss over those passages. However, I am wholly nonplussed by its inclusion.  The language does not contribute to the overall message and potentially works against his message that he has self-ordained to be so important and so consequential in the production of this work.

Everyone should read the Arm.  Everyone.  The book has warts, most books do.  The author often paints himself in a corner only to fleetingly admit that he is contradicting previous conclusions.  Passan can oversell what he deems as a success, but is so soft in his final vague suggestion of a solution that I think it is passable.  It passes unlike another break-the-mold book like Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World has Never Seen.  That book wrongly inspired many people to think that minimalist shoes, chia-lime water, and 80 mile runs were good for everyone.  Passan's soft shrug of a sale puts the Arm in a better context.

However, by lacking cohesive in his final statement, Passan ultimately fails if we hold him to his stated intent of impacting youth baseball.  If a reader comes into this book, like me, with a strong understanding of what is occurring, then a disciplined and balanced reading may prove thought provoking.  If the reader is a concerned local coach or parent, then they have very little in their hands at the end of the book beyond concern and confusion.  While the book notes the toll on youth pitchers, it provides no solution or path for them.  The only solution suggested is in a few beams of light being swallowed up by individual MLB teams that will keep that information proprietary.  Instead, Passan leaves the adults on the lowest rung lost in the swamp.  One might suggest that the book lets these individuals become aware of the swamp, but what good is that when it provides nothing instructive and no real place to turn.

To reiterate, a reader must pay attention and be critical when reading this book.  The narrative jumps around, which keeps a reader interested but will often leave the message disjointed.  There is also one-sidedness to the discussion as Passan inserts himself in discussions and begins to paint himself as a reluctantly competent on the issue.  This may be a product of access or cutting things out to improve narrative flow.  Chris O'Leary, one of Passan's punching bags, has complained publicly that his interview consisted of sitting with Passan at a Cardinals game for two innings and that he was never offered a full interview to explain his thoughts.  Sometimes, that happens in research with pressing deadlines or simply moving narratives.  However, one should not consider this book to be a comprehensive look at all the near science being sermonized in baseball.  The work is simply Passan's sometimes chosen and sometimes permitted journey through this swamp of an issue.


The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports
by Jeff Passan
368 pp.

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