Tuesday night, Trevor Bauer makes his second start of the season for the Cleveland Indians. Since the D-Backs drafted him No. 3 overall in 2011, the 23-year-old right-hander has been considered one of the top pitching prospects in baseball.
Bauer’s star has diminished somewhat over the past 16 months. The D-Backs even traded him to the Indians before last season. But if he’s finally ready to follow through on his promise, Bauer could have a significant impact on the team’s future. (Maybe it’s too late to make a direct impact this season, as Cleveland is 9.5 games behind the Tigers for last place in the AL Central.)
Yet it would also be understandable if Indians fans were reluctant to fully embrace a young pitching star.
This is a team with which CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee won Cy Young Awards, but were traded away for prospects the next season. (None of the young talent received in those deals have developed into major league stars either.) Current No. 1 starter Justin Masterson seems certain to leave, despite attempts to negotiate a short-term contract extension.
However, there are bigger reasons why Indians fans — and baseball fans, in general — might not want to buy into the latest pitching phenom, the young arm that looks like he could be one of baseball’s future dominating pitchers, someone who becomes appointment viewing every fifth day.
Though this is surely a broad oversimplification, it feels as if every budding superstar pitcher that we’ve fallen in love with in recent years has fallen to serious injury. We all presumably worship at the church of baseball, but our faith has been tested. The latest blow was Marlins sensation Jose Fernandez, who was diagnosed with a sprain in his right elbow last week and underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery days later.
Fernandez joined an alarming number of pitchers who have suffered significant elbow injuries and required reconstructive surgery this year. Among them are several young arms viewed as present and future stars for their respective teams, including Patrick Corbin of the D-Backs, the Braves’ Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, Jarrod Parker of the A’s and the Rays’ Matt Moore.
But with no disrespect intended to the pitchers listed above, Fernandez’s injury was the one that truly felt like a gut punch, that made even casual baseball fans shake their heads solemnly.
The 21-year-old won the NL Rookie of the Year award in 2013 and was one of the league’s best pitchers in the early stages of this season. His starts had become must-see viewing throughout baseball and in the larger sports culture. When a pitcher becomes that sort of sensation, it’s one of the most exciting developments in the game, bringing fans and observers together. And when a talent like that goes down — even if the success rate of Tommy John surgery indicates he’ll be back — it’s a blow to baseball.
Is it possible that MLB risks losing any fan who became enamored with the sport because of Fernandez, but then loses interest when he’s out for the rest of the season and will take at least a year to return?
Some might say, well, that fan wasn’t much of a baseball devotee then. But if he or she was making a point to watch Fernandez pitch, or at least checking the results of his performance that night or the next day, isn’t that person still a fan? And isn’t that some of what MLB needs as it continues to compete with the other major pro sports for attention?
Did MLB lose anyone who had become a big fan of Matt Harvey last year? Harvey may not have had the same rookie success as Fernandez, but was having a breakout year in his second major league season. Not only was Harvey pitching like a Cy Young Award candidate, but he was named the NL’s starting pitcher for the All-Star Game (played at his home ballpark of Citi Field) and showed potential to break into larger pop culture by appearing in a skit for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
Yet by late August, Harvey had suffered a tear in his elbow, ending his season and putting him on the train toward reconstructive surgery. If the Mets had any ambitions toward contending in 2014, losing Harvey for the season derailed those plans. And once again, that left MLB without one of its brightest young stars on the field for at least a year.
Three years earlier, Stephen Strasburg was baseball’s brightest young pitching star. He was MLB’s No. 1 overall draft pick in 2009 with little standing in his way to taking the top spot in the Nationals’ rotation and establishing himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball. The Nats’ needed the juice, slogging through a fifth-place season, but MLB always seems to benefit from the buzz that comes with the next great pitching phenom seizing the attention of fans and media.
Strasburg was an immediate success, allowing two runs or fewer in seven of his first nine starts. In eight of those games, he struck out more than a batter per inning, twice notching 10 or more strikeouts. Whenever Strasburg started, the day was viewed as a virtual holiday, deemed “Strasmas” by joyous Nats fans and baseball observers. He had become an event.
But after 12 starts, the worst fears of all who enjoyed Strasburg’s dominance — or benefited from it — were realized. Then 21 years old (the same age as Fernandez now), Strasburg came out of a game after throwing a pitch to the Phillies’ Domonic Brown. He winced in pain, grabbing his wrist and shaking it, all worrisome signs. The initial diagnosis was a strained flexor tendon (by now, knowledgeable fans know that’s hardly reassuring), but an MRI exam revealed a far more serious injury: a torn elbow ligament. Tommy John surgery was imminent.
Strasburg did return a year later and has made at least 28 starts in each of the past two seasons. Nitpickers might say he has yet to establish himself as a true ace, and there have been some injury scares. Of course, there was also the decision to cut Strasburg’s 2012 season short, as the Nats didn’t want to overextend a pitcher in his first full season since Tommy John surgery. But during the past two years, he’s been one of the 10 best pitchers in the NL, as measured by Wins Above Replacement (WAR).
We’ll never know if the fans caught up in the joy of Strasburg’s rookie season were lost when he went down with injury. More importantly, we don’t know if those supporters came back when Strasburg returned to the mound approximately one year later. Optimistically, the hope is that any fans who stopped following baseball embraced the sport again once Strasburg recovered.
But what if they didn’t? What if anyone who then also got caught up in the excitement of Harvey’s breakout or Fernandez’s success had their fandom diminished when those players were no longer pitching?
Serious injury to stars is a concern in any sport, of course. But this seems to be so much more of an issue for baseball right now. Pitching injuries are building to epidemic numbers this season. Maybe it’s just a one-year fluke and not indicative of a trend. Obviously, MLB — and baseball as a whole — is concerned about so many elbow injuries occurring and that’s creating a dialogue of how this problem can be solved.
Ultimately, maybe nothing truly can be done. Pitchers are throwing harder than ever, and maybe these injuries are the cost of the human arm doing something it wasn’t really meant to do for the long term. But MLB has to try, lest it risk losing the loyal customer. If you devoted your attention and money to any other product that couldn’t consistently deliver, would you continue to give your business to that establishment? Are baseball fans in danger of always being Charlie Brown, flying through the air after Lucy pulled the football away yet again?
But maybe we just love this sport too much, especially when a young prospect carries the promise of greatness. Perhaps Tuesday will be the beginning of a great career for Bauer. We’ll also enjoy watching the Royals’ Yordano Ventura, Garrett Richards of the Angels, the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka, Gerrit Cole of the Pirates, the Cardinals’ Michael Wacha and the many other exciting budding stars that continue to develop in baseball. Plenty of others are on the way as well.
It just might be a bit more fun to watch them if we knew they weren’t in danger of blowing out their elbows in a year or so.