Ivan Nova left yesterday’s game with a bruised ego and a sore elbow. This morning, his main affliction is undoubtedly a crushed spirit. An MRI on Nova’s tender elbow revealed the same devastating diagnosis that has haunted over a dozen pitchers this season alone: a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament.
The waiting list for Tommy John surgery has been a long one in 2014, but Nova didn’t figure to be joining it. At age 27, Nova is entering his prime, but, despite being a professional pitcher for nine seasons, his workload has been relatively light. Including the minors, majors, and postseason, the right hander has neither topped 200 innings nor experienced a precipitous increase from one year to the next. Based on his time on the mound and years in the big leagues, Nova had seemingly navigated the injury mine fields of being a pitcher, but now, he counts himself as one of its many victims.
Ivan Nova’s Innings Progression, 2006-2013
Note: Includes minor league and major leagues as well as post season in 2011.
Although Nova doesn’t exactly fit the profile of a potential Tommy John patient, he hasn’t had a clean bill of health. In 2011, he suffered from a forearm strain (often the precursor to an elbow injury) during the ALDS, and then, in each of the next two seasons, landed on the 15-day DL with shoulder inflammation and soreness in his triceps, respectively. The most significant red flag, however, might have been his diminished velocity this season. Whereas Nova’s fastball averaged 93.2 mph (93.0 mph in his first four April starts) last year, according to fangraphs.com, this year’s reading was only 91.8 mph. Velocity has become a preoccupation in baseball circles, and there has been a reactionary tendency by some to dismiss the obsession. However, with anecdotal evidence suggesting a link between a decline in velocity and a pending injury, it might be time to take this data more seriously.
It’s extremely premature to draw a link between Nova’s diminished velocity and his UCL tear, but it would be equally foolish to dismiss any correlation. With serious arm injuries becoming epidemic, baseball has reached the point of erring on the side of caution, and velocity analysis should be an integral part of that approach. It’s not enough to simply monitor velocity on a game-by-game basis. When a drop-off is noted, it needs to be treated as a potential symptom of an injury and cause for action. Maybe a 1 mph drop off would cause a pitcher to skip a start? A larger decline could mean a stint on the 15-day DL. In addition, regimented MRIs (assuming it is medically safe to do so) could be employed to consistently track the health of a pitcher’s elbow and shoulder. These are just arbitrary suggestions, but if teams and their medical staffs are not seriously considering developing some kind of protocol, they’re neglecting their responsibility to both the team and the individual.
Over-the-head throwing is widely characterized as one of the most traumatic body movements in all of sports. Considering how often a pitcher employs this motion (with extreme velocity and torque), it’s a miracle serious arm injuries are not more prevalent. However, major league baseball shouldn’t be content to thanks its lucky stars. The next commissioner’s crusade should be to study arm injuries and preventive techniques. If Bud Selig had spent half the effort and money on this issue as he has trying to clean up his legacy regarding PEDs, Tommy John might not be the most prominent pitching name in baseball 25 years after his retirement. Injuries will always be a part of the game, but a constant and concerted effort to minimize them should be as well.