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Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander Among 12 Star Pitchers Set to Miss 2024 Opening Day: Pitch Clock or Bigger Issue at Play?

Published 03/15/2024, 12:46 PM EDT

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Baseball’s 2024 season begins with the specter of injury hanging over its most prized possessions starting months before Opening Day arrives—the game’s elite starting pitchers. The litany of the 12 names on the injured list reads like an All-Star roster gone wrong: Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander, Sandy Alcantara, Shane McClanahan, and more.

This crisis not only impacts teams and pennant races but also threatens the enjoyment we derive from watching the best test their limits on the mound. It begs the urgent question: Has baseball reached a breaking point, where the pursuit of excitement and pace has pushed pitchers beyond a sustainable limit?

An in-depth look at injuries of players scheduled to miss 2024 Opening Day

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Gerrit Cole (New York Yankees): The Yankees’ ace suffered a severe shoulder strain mid-season in 2023, an injury experts linked to overuse and high-stress mechanisms like throwing sliders with maximum effort. His lingering issues are a nightmare for a team heavily reliant on his dominance—more so, as the ace is expected to miss a few months of time in the wake of his recent MRI stint.

Justin Verlander (Houston Astros): Verlander’s seemingly ageless arm finally succumbed to an elbow ligament tear in August 2023, a devastating blow to Houston’s repeat World Series hopes. This reinforces the unfortunate reality that even the fittest pitchers aren’t immune to the passage of time. Verlander has been scheduled to open this season on the injured list.

Jacob deGrom (Texas Rangers): After an injury-plagued 2023 start in Texas, deGrom underwent Tommy John surgery, casting doubt over his return until 2025 at the earliest. The gamble on signing him hasn’t paid off for the Rangers.

Sandy Alcantara (Miami Marlins): The 2022 Cy Young winner experienced elbow inflammation during the 2023 postseason, leading to off-season UCL surgery. His case raises questions about managing workload to ensure longevity for a team’s top pitcher, especially for someone who has been speculated to miss the entire season this year.

Max Scherzer (Texas Rangers): An oblique strain sidelined the outspoken veteran in September 2023, fueling the debate about the pitchers’ health risks in a fast-paced, pitch-clock-driven environment. Scherzer’s own outspoken concerns stating, “The injury bug is going to be coming across the league.’ Get in shape. Don’t let it be you,” now feels prophetic.

Shane McClanahan (Tampa Bay Rays): One of the game’s brightest young stars had his 2023 season cut short by a shoulder impingement that eventually required surgery. This highlights the vulnerability of even the most promising young arms; regardless of the age, teams have to be ready to deal with hurdles as they come.

Kodai Senga (New York Mets): The Japanese import, after struggling to adapt to the pitch clock rule last season, suffered an elbow strain during Spring Training 2024. Did the rushed adjustment period contribute to his breakdown?

Walker Buehler (Los Angeles Dodgers): Buehler never fully recovered from his 2022 Tommy John surgery; his return to the mound was delayed yet again by elbow issues. His situation underscores the long, uncertain road to recovery.

Clayton Kershaw (Los Angeles Dodgers): The future Hall of Famer’s illustrious career appears to be nearing its end due to chronic back problems and nagging shoulder troubles. Is this the foreshadowing of a heartbreaking end to an era?

Brandon Woodruff (Milwaukee Brewers): Woodruff’s promising 2023 season ended abruptly due to a forearm strain that required surgery and a lengthy rehabilitation process. This is a major blow to the Brewers’ playoff ambitions this year.

Kyle Bradish (Baltimore Orioles): A breakout star in 2023, Bradish faces a potential setback with the need for surgery to address a recurring shoulder impingement. Could his increased workload have taken a toll?

Lucas Giolito (Boston Red Sox): Persistent elbow problems and a subsequent flexor tendon strain have sidelined Giolito indefinitely. Is there a pattern for pitchers with high-velocity fastballs?

Read More: New York Yankees Ace Gerrit Cole Weigh His Thoughts on the New Pitch-Clock Rule Ahead of the 2023 MLB Season

These sidelines raise a critical question: Is the recently implemented pitch clock a contributing factor, or is a more complex web of issues at play?

The role of the pitch clock: Culprit or coincidence? A deeper look

The MLB pitch clock, introduced in 2023, was intended to revitalize the game by quickening the tempo. While it succeeded in that respect, the clock’s impact on pitcher health is a hot-button issue. Critics like Max Scherzer predicted a potential injury spike for The Athletic as pitchers faced reduced recovery time between pitches and innings—“Be ready for this. It’s going to knock people out. Personally, I have to look at this as, ‘What’s the worst-case scenario? Yeah, pitchers start dropping.’”

Experts like Dr. Neal ElAttrache noted worrisome trends, observing, “I’m seeing injuries now that I haven’t seen to this degree.” Several MLB officials maintain that there’s no clear correlation between the pitch clock and injuries but admit that continuous monitoring is crucial.

This debate rages on, demanding further data and analysis to determine if the clock is a direct culprit—or just one troubling factor in a larger equation of risk. While the pitch clock’s impact is debated, a bigger picture emerges: a pre-existing landscape of pitching stress that demands attention before Opening Day rosters are decimated.

Beyond the seconds: Looking at the bigger picture of pitching stress perceiving before Opening Day arrives

The pitch clock debate distracts from the larger picture. Rising fastball velocities, often topping 95mph, along with increased emphasis on high-spin breaking balls, place unimaginable stress on pitchers’ arms. The league’s crackdown on “sticky stuff” further compounds the issue. Some pitchers may overcompensate to generate spin, leading to altered, potentially harmful mechanics.

The pitch clock alone cannot shoulder the entire blame. Several interrelated factors contribute to the injury epidemic:

The Velocity Obsession: Average fastball velocities now consistently exceed 94mph, placing immense strain on pitchers’ arms. The spectacle of triple-digit heat comes at a potential cost.

Revolution of the Breaking Ball: Today’s pitchers rely on high-spin, devastating breaking pitches at unprecedented rates. While effective, the taxing mechanics needed to generate these pitches may contribute to breakdowns.

The Sticky Stuff Crackdown’s Aftermath: When MLB cracked down on the use of grip enhancers, some pitchers struggled to adjust. Dr. Keith Meister, the Rangers’ team physician, believes pitchers are over-gripping the ball to compensate, a dangerous shift in mechanics.

The underlying causes of these injuries are concerning, but the question remains: Can we implement proactive solutions to prevent a similar scenario from plaguing the upcoming season?

Could these injuries have been prevented?

The mounting toll of injured pitchers demands more than just analysis and debate. It’s time for a fundamental shift from a reactive approach—treating injuries after they occur—to a proactive strategy focused on preventing them in the first place. Could a different mindset, combined with smarter tactics, have changed the outcome for these sidelined stars?

Hindsight is 20/20, but a more proactive approach IS possible:

Understanding Individual Thresholds: Every pitcher is unique. Teams need to invest in sophisticated biomechanical analyses that go beyond simple pitch counts and delve into how each pitcher’s body handles stress. Identifying potential red flags early could prevent disasters down the line.

Rethinking Pitching Philosophies: The “max-effort” approach to every single pitch might be exciting, but it’s unsustainable. Should pitchers be encouraged to pace themselves, perhaps trading a few miles per hour on the fastball for long-term health and the ability to go deep into games?

Smarter Rest and Recovery: Optimizing recovery isn’t just about how long a pitcher sits between outings. Technologies that measure real-time fatigue, personalized recovery plans, and potentially even exploring a 6-man rotation for built-in rest could revolutionize how pitchers manage workload and avoid injury.

Having peeled back the layers of this complex issue, a critical question remains. What’s the verdict on the root causes of this pitching crisis?

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The verdict

Baseball faces a grave threat. The joy of witnessing an ace duel for nine innings on Opening Day, of watching a young phenom explode onto the scene, risks being replaced by a constant stream of star pitchers heading for the operating table. We owe it to the athletes, fans, and the game itself to prioritize solutions.

Read More: Inside MLB’s Divisive Pitch Clock: What It Means, How It Changes the Game, Reactions, and More

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The pitch clock debate serves as a wake-up call, forcing a hard look at how the game is evolving and the potential unintended consequences of always pushing for more speed, more spin, and more sheer spectacle. The health of those who make the game thrilling should never become the price we pay for entertainment.

Read More: Amidst Heavy Pitch Clock Criticism, Another Set of New Rules Fails to Impress the MLB Community

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Written by:

Shrabana Sengupta

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Shrabana Sengupta is an MLB writer at EssentiallySports. Shrabana shot to fame when she covered two prime MLB events: the 2023 World Series and the Free Agency that followed. During the 2023 World Series, Shrabana wrote her unfeigned perspectives on the Texas Rangers’ Corey Seager and his wife, the 27x World Series Champions’ heartbreaking season, and later covered Shohei Ohtani’s highly anticipated record-breaking contract in 2023-24.
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Edited by:

Himanshu Sridhar