Why do Young, Promising Pitchers Completely Flop?

Let’s look at the pitching prospects of Rick Ankiel and Ian Snell and try to get a feel for what may be going wrong.

Rick Ankiel is a pitcher of such immense talent that one baseball executive described him as simply “one of the best left-handers I’ve ever seen.” In 1997, USA Today named him the High School Player of the Year. Shortly after that, he signed with the Cardinals for a $2.5 million bonus, the fifth highest ever given to an amateur. In 1999, USA Today and Baseball America named him the Minor League Player of the Year, and by the summer of 2000, his first full season with the Cardinals, he was arguably the team’s best pitcher, with an 11-7 won-lost record. He went 4-0, with a 1.97 earned run average, over the last month of the season and was picked by his manager, Tony La Russa, to start the first game of the National League division series against the Atlanta Braves.


Before that first playoff game, Rick Ankiel, 21, was being compared with another Cardinal left-hander, Steve Carlton, who is in the Hall of Fame. Like Carlton, Ankiel has a smooth, seemingly effortless delivery, an exploding fastball and a sharp curveball. Carlton, however, was widely seen as an arrogant, ignorant and self-absorbed man. Ankiel is a sensitive, intelligent and considerate young man. He is nothing like Carlton.

In fact, his career and his nature more closely parallel that of a more distant Cards pitcher, named Max Von McDaniel. In 1957, at the age of 18, Von McDaniel signed with the Cardinals for a $50,000 bonus on the strength of his smooth, seemingly effortless delivery, his exploding fastball and his sharp curveball. He was described by all who met him as a sensitive, intelligent and religious youth. The Cardinals brought him directly from high school to the major leagues, where he won his first four games. McDaniel pitched 19 consecutive scoreless innings, including a one-hitter, a two-hitter and a perfect game for six innings. He finished the year at 7-5 with a 3.22 E.R.A. and — with the exception of two disastrous innings in 1958, during which he walked seven batters — never pitched again in the major leagues.

McDaniel’s sudden failure had nothing to do with physical injury. What happened to him is the stuff of Greek tragedy. Despite his blinding talent, there was something in his nature that fated him to fail for reasons neither he nor anyone else has ever been able to explain.

The same thing happened to Rick Ankiel in the 2000 playoffs. In two starts and one relief appearance, first against the Braves and then against the Mets, he walked 11 batters in four innings and threw nine wild pitches, most of which sailed 10 feet over the batters’ heads. He broke a record for wild pitches in an inning that had stood since 1890. His once-classic delivery was riddled with the flaws of a Little Leaguer. He looked like a pitcher who, in a single moment, forgot how to pitch. Ankiel seemed to be suffering a physical and psychic breakdown reminiscent of the one McDaniel suffered in the spring of 1958.

“Oh, my gosh, the same thing happened to my brother,” says Lindy McDaniel, 65, who himself pitched for many years in the major leagues. “He lost his coordination and his mechanics. There was no real explanation. Some people thought it was psychological. But who knew about those things then? They sent Von down to the minors, but he couldn’t get anyone out. He kept sinking further and further until he couldn’t pitch anymore. It depressed him for years after he left baseball. But he couldn’t talk about it.”

What happened to Rick Ankiel and Von McDaniel has befallen a number of major league pitchers over the years, most notably Herb Score of the Cleveland Indians in the 1950’s, Steve Blass of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1970’s and Mark Wohlers of the Atlanta Braves in the 1990’s. They had a lot in common: blinding youthful talent, sudden success, thoughtful and intelligent natures. They were all nice guys, humble men, who somehow never trusted their success. It came too quickly. They didn’t deserve it. What if they lost it? Indeed, Von McDaniel once said that “maybe things came too easily.”Lindy’s recollections are not entirely accurate. When Von “mysteriously lost his rhythm and control,” according to a 1961 Sporting News article, he drifted all the way down to the lowest, Class D, league. But there, in 1960, Von McDaniel “began to throw smoothly again.” In the sleepy anonymity of the Florida State League, Von fashioned a 13-5 record. The following season, the Cards brought him to spring training amid great expectations but, once again, he lost what The Sporting News called “his magic touch.” He would never regain it.

Pitchers who forget how to pitch seem to fear not failure but success. They don’t want to face the pressure of the expectations of their success. So they rebel, self-destructing in a way that puts them beyond blame. The reason for their failure, their fear, is so deeply rooted that neither they nor anyone else can ever drag it to the surface to make them confront it. It’s all a mystery. But the only way they can ever overcome their apparently inexplicable collapse is to admit that it’s no mystery, that it is their fault. They are afraid.


What are they afraid of, anyway? Throwing a baseball? They have been doing that since childhood. Somewhere along the way, though, they realize that it makes them special. After that, a simple act takes on mythic importance. They begin to think about it, the mystery of their gift, and they get lost. They stand on the mound, their minds filled with discordant thoughts. Sometimes they replay their pitching mechanics over and over until they begin their motion and, unbelievably, it all flies out of their heads like a bird loosed from a cage. In midmotion, they remember nothing, move as if in a dream, weightless, until they release the ball and come back to where they were — on the mound, waiting for the catcher to retrieve their latest wild pitch. Now, too late, they remember everything.

Thought is their enemy. They either remember too much or forget everything. Both cause their failure. All they really need to do is perform an enormous act of will not to think. All they really need to do is what one of Rick’s minor league pitching coaches once told him: “Just throw, man. Just throw.”

 

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————- I always considered Ian Snell and up and coming star in the Major Leagues. Let’s face it, he had moderated success for the Pittsburgh Pirates which has been a bottom feeder for several years. When the Cardinals got him I thought that to be a decent acquisition for pitching coach Dave Duncan and the Cardinals. Now he has failed in Spring Training and is said to be retiring from baseball.

Young athletes begin competing seriously at younger ages. From pre-teen sluggers going on weight training programs to little league pitchers throwing curveballs as young as 8 or 9, the race is on to be the next rising star.

But along with trying to win that race comes danger. Major League relief pitcher Todd Jones wrote about the dangers that young pitchers face, especially when attempting to use breaking balls, which require a different arm motion than does a fastball. The arm motion required to throw a breaking ball puts more stress on the elbow and shoulder which, at a young age, can cause significant injury.

“These kids may be risking their baseball futures by using breaking balls to help their team with the Little League World Series,” Jones said.

The theory that breaking balls are dangerous to young pitchers is one that Atlanta Braves pitcher Tim Hudson fully believes in.

“If you’re a young kid, you want to try to limit the breaking balls you throw,” he said.

Tara Bruno wrote in Science World that because “throwing a pitch is not a natural arm motion, over-pitching can result in a torn ulnar collateral ligament (a main ligament in the elbow). Surgery to replace this piece of tissue, which holds together the ulna and humerus arm bones at the elbow, has been on the rise of high-school pitchers over the last 12 years.”

Bruno goes on to add that “pitchers (who) overuse their arm are 36 times more likely to need surgery later in life.”

In a study conducted by J.T. Davis and other scientists, published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers found that the most important aspect of youth pitching is mechanics. Davis wrote that “youth pitchers with better pitching mechanics generate lower rotation torque, lower elbow load, and more efficiency than do those with improper mechanics. Proper pitching mechanics may help prevent shoulder and elbow injuries in youth pitchers.”

 

-parts reprinted from NY Times and Gainesville Times-

 

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In other news unrelated to baseball I purchased Washington, Florida State, Princeton in a Calcutta auction because they were cheap. Can I at least get one or two wins each?