05 April 2016

Jeff Passan's The Arm (Part I) And Dylan Bundy

For Bundy Bash, I thought it was apropos to discuss Jeff Passan's new book, The Arm: Inside the billion-dollar mystery of the most valuable commodity in sports, which is released today.  This book is a rather important collection of information that anyone who has considered throwing a game or having their kid throw a game should read.  The book is short on answers, but does well to describe the problem of arm injuries and how so many approaches have failed as well as how slowly but surely progress is being made.  Passan focuses primarily on ligament replacement, but also expands on that a little when he addresses bone injuries to children. 

This post is the first of three review posts on the book and will tie into the framework of today's Dylan Bundy Bash.  This entry will introduce you to the personal toll experienced by pitchers, like Dylan Bundy, who undergo Tommy John surgery.  It is more than a simple slice and dice, drilling out bone, and tying up some tissues to form a new ligament in the elbow.  The pain is more felt in the weeks and months afterward.  The numbness in the fingers, the slow rehabilitation as arm comes together, and the amazing self-discipline needed to maintain the schedule (even though the schedule differs team to team and is not exactly based on anything other than anecdotes and experience).

Now, Passan did not have the luxury of following Dylan Bundy on his ups and downs in the rehabilitation process.  However, he follows perpetual underdog Todd Coffey and local wonder Daniel Hudson.  While the two differ in pedigree and organizational faith, they share a common bond.  They both were trying to do something few have done: return from a second torn ligament.  This was not planned.  While Passan recruited Coffey in order to follow a second time through a rehab, Hudson was included in order to follow a player on his way back and working through the minors until he was able to stand on that mound again in front of 40,000 fans.  It did not turn out that way; Hudson tore his ligament on his first minor league outing and Passan had a second case of a second ligament replacement recoveree to follow. 

While most fans know of Tommy John as a pitcher being shut down and typically returning a year later, the time between surgery and return is more of a black box.  Passan peeks into that box and describes to the reader how individuals in a highly competitive field try to cope with being unable to do much of anything.  Hudson becomes irate watching his Diamondbacks lose.  He tucks into his depression by obsessively playing video games, but does not give himself the pleasure (or pain) of pitching in The Show.  Instead, he plays as a shortstop.  For Coffey, he dives down into extreme thriftiness by collecting coupons and going to flea markets.  They and their families both learn to deal with how to handle the physical and mental aspects of rehabilitation.

We can imagine the struggle it was for Dylan Bundy.  He was one of the best pitching prospects in the game.  He was on the threshold of an MLB starting rotation gig.  He trained his entire life to achieve that.  And, he had to wait.  And, he hopefully did what he was told.

Dylan Bundy gets a couple pages in the book as an example of another attempt to condition the body to prevent arm injuries that winds up not working out.  Bundy is noted as an atypical high school student.  Him and his father, Denver, had worked together on Dylan since he was six years old to have incredible core strength through hard labor and challenging workout sessions in the training room.  He also loosened up while throwing 300 feet in the outfield.  While much of the chatter his senior year before the draft was about his physique and a conventional wisdom-y reasonable workload, his less-talked-about junior year was not the case.

The most impressive, maybe foolish, feat Bundy achieved in varsity baseball was when he pitched twice in a day during his junior year.  In those two games on a Saturday, he threw 181 pitches.  At the time his father told the press:
"No, I don't regret letting him go 181 pitches. We trained for that number of pitches. (However), we didn't train for such a long delay between the two games. That wasn't good."
Two items that were not covered in the book are make Dylan's case slightly more interesting.  His brother, Bobby, was also drafted by the Orioles.  He was considered less talented than Dylan, but was still valued enough for the Orioles to throw a good bit of over-slot money his way.  His varsity baseball feat was pitching 13 innings and tallying up 163 pitches.  With Bobby as the first generation prototype for Denver Bundy to create the perfect pitcher, Dylan's greater ability likely led him and Denver to push the envelope further and beyond what even his father said he was not exactly comfortable with.

The second aspect of that Saturday pitch count was that the book might be isolating that effort a bit too much.  In fact, that 181-pitch effort was done on two days rest.  He had thrown 112 pitches in his start before that.  In other words, over the course of four days, Dylan threw 293 official pitches over three games.  This does not include warm-ups or getting loose between innings.  Again, as this book indicates, we really do not know whether this was a smart or reasonable thing to do.  At the time, some folks in the Oklahoma baseball scene were aghast. 

That concern, again, was not mentioned all that often leading up to Baltimore drafting him.  Once in the Orioles' system, his workload looked drastically different.  He would go up to nine days without pitching in a game and was limited early on to 40 pitches in an outing.  Dan Duquette's response was that the club was implementing a regimen to get Dylan familiar to what would be expected of him as a major league pitcher.  Basically, the club was starting all over with him.  For better or worse, he ended up needing Tommy John surgery and lost about three years of development time.  It might be worthwhile to note that his brother Bobby has also had his career sidetracked by arm injuries.


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

1 comment:

Roger said...

Seems like his father put him on the path to TJ. Maybe the Orioles should have kept his workload up so he'd break sooner - before he was out of options. Cynical..... I know.