A Brit Learning Baseball Through Books: Jeff Passan’s “The Arm”

I finished reading Jeff Passan’s book The Arm shortly after making my pitching debut in the London Mets Fall League, pitching exclusively what one teammate charitably described as ‘80s loop balls’ (referring, of course, to the decade of the 1980s and not my pitching speed). My one inning in relief ended with no walks, four hits and one run given up, but also with the third out granting me my first ever strikeout as a pitcher. That’s a feeling I’ll never forget, and one that has brought me close to the stories about pitchers’ arms in Jeff’s book.

The Arm is the very definition of inside baseball: a book that looks behind the scenes and leaves no stone unturned in its quest to understand not just the relationships that major league pitchers have with their throwing arms, but also the afflictions they suffer and the complex web of solutions to them. Specifically, the book centres on the increasingly common Tommy John Surgery, the procedure for fixing a torn UCL (ulnar collateral ligament) by replacing it with a new tendon from elsewhere in the body. It’s one that has allowed a large number of pitchers and a smaller number of position players to return to the game after blowing out their elbows and as such, is a revelatory and brilliant thing, which Passan, an astute baseball columnist for Yahoo Sports, acknowledges. But the book pulls no punches in its presentation of how the surgery can affect pitchers, and how it relates to baseball’s failure to take care of its pitching arms and to prevent arm injuries.

The book’s greatest strength is that it provides intimate detail and revelatory statistics and numbers, but that is never loses its focus on people and narrative, which is ultimately what (in my opinion) sets baseball apart from other sports as one with a unique capacity for storytelling. Passan spent a number of years not just interviewing the right people to tell the story of the arm, but getting to know them and clearly becoming close to some of them. He occasionally drops in personal anecdotes and interactions with those the book focuses on, but it’s always their story and not his, which is a journalistic talent.

Most notably, the book’s biggest stories are those of two pitchers who dealt with elbow injuries and their Tommy John journeys: Daniel Hudson and Todd Coffey. I hadn’t heard of either pitcher before picking up the book, but I now feel that I know them intimately, and I found myself highly invested in their baseball journeys as the book progressed. Hudson underwent back to back Tommy John surgeries in 2012 and 2013, leading to his being non-tendered by the Diamondbacks before eventually re-signing with them. The book chronicles the effects this had on his family life, his morale, and his psyche, and does the same for Coffey, who struggled to return to the major leagues after his Tommy John surgery. Both pitchers saw other people in similar situations doing better than them, managing to return, wondering why the surgery hadn’t given them a straight road back to where they were supposed to be, why their elbows blew out, and what it meant to them, and the book deals well with presenting them as human, fallible. Having known the thrill of pitching myself, I felt close to their stories, like a member of their family.

The journeys of Hudson and Coffey are interspersed with stories from the surgeons and doctors who created Tommy John Surgery and surgeons who now find themselves performing the surgery on children and adults alike with alarming regularity. Passan also looks at the youth baseball institutions and talks to kids and parents, some of whom are willing to work their kids’ pitching arms into the ground despite the obvious risks, and others who are more cautious and realise that the pitching arm can easily blow, and must be carefully looked after. He also goes to Japan, where the baseball establishment is inclined to see extremely high pitch counts as a badge of honour: one pitcher, Tomohiro Anraku, threw 772 pitches over nine days at the 2013 Summer Koshien, Japan’s prestigious annual high school tournament. And although the book’s back cover copy promises that Passan “explains that without a drastic shift in how baseball thinks about its talent, another generation of pitchers will fall prey to the same problem that vexes the current one,” which he does, he also manages to do so without being overtly judgmental of those he interviews and discusses. Instead, the book is a chronicle, not a manifesto.

It’s appropriate, therefore, that Passan doesn’t propose a definitive solution to the problem of pitchers getting injured with alarming regularity. Instead, there’s a chapter titled ‘The Swamp of Possible Solutions,’ in which he visits a surgeon providing synthetic tendons with faster recovery rates and presents the research of a number of doctors and biomechanicalists who provide focused training programmes for the pitching arm and experimental facilities with varying results. It’s clear from this chapter that a rethink of the culture surrounding pitchers’ arms is needed, but that we’re not at a point where any agreement can be had on how to get there. Still, the book nonetheless provides hope and presents the intersection of research, analytics, common sense and medical science as place where improvements to pitchers’ health can be found.

The appeal of this book is perhaps more niche than some of the others I’ve reviewed for this column, but it’s nonetheless well written enough to interest any baseball fan. It’s timely, too, given that high-profile players including two-way phenomenon Shohei Ohtani and brilliant Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius have just undergone Tommy John Surgery and are expected to miss the majority, if not all, of the 2019 season. The beginning of the 2018 season was dominated by Ohtani hype, as the Angels announced they would rotate him as both a pitcher and a DH. His blowing out his elbow has ended the season not with a bang, but a whimper. However, I’m eagerly awaiting his return and hope that, as Passan’s book shows, the ‘swamp of possible solutions’ can somewhere ensure that Ohtani’s journey – and those of the pitchers who will follow in his wake – is one that still has many years of major league success to come.

The Arm is published by Harper. The best place to find it in the UK is probably Amazon.

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