The Marlins took every precautionary measure they could to protect Jose Fernandez’s golden arm short of storing his elbow in a safe or hiring a bodyguard to lift his fork to his lips at mealtimes.
They counted his pitches the way a miser counts coins. They gave him the kind of rest even a baby would envy. They put him on early vacation three weeks before the season ended in 2013.
Didn’t matter. The one thing the Marlins could not do — nor could Fernandez — was force him to ease up on his pitches. Throw with less velocity. Take a little off the fastball that gives hitters whiplash. Reduce power on the slider that makes wicked detours at the plate.
Fernandez didn’t win National League Rookie of the Year or toss more strikeouts than any other pitcher so far this season (70) by being conservative on the mound.
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But his right elbow couldn’t take it anymore. Fernandez fears an awful diagnosis: A tear in the ulnar collateral ligament that will require Tommy John surgery, 12-18 months of rehabilitation, the end of this season and erasure of half the next.
Just when the Marlins were winning games and creating a buzz, down goes their dynamic ace. Just when Fernandez was proving to be a must-see magnet at Marlins Park, where he is 12-0 and drew more than 30,000 for his last start, and nationwide, where he leads the majors in limiting opponents to a .183 batting average, his career goes on hiatus.
Bad karma for a franchise burdened by so much ill will, not to mention the 100 losses last season? Bad luck for Fernandez? Or simply inevitable, given the epidemic in baseball these days? If Fernandez, 21, opts for Tommy John surgery, he will be the 33rd player to undergo the procedure in the past year. Since January, 22 pitchers have had the operation. Two of the top draft prospects have had the surgery in the past week.
Football players blow out knees, which is not surprising given the collision of a violent game with bigger, stronger athletes. Pitchers, even coddled ones, are blowing out elbows at an alarming rate. They, too, are bigger and stronger than they used to be, and they are subjecting the human anatomy to forces it was not designed to withstand.
Tommy John was 31 and a 12-year veteran when he became the first pitcher to undergo the ligament replacement surgery in 1974, performed by orthopedic pioneer Dr. Frank Jobe. In recent years, the average age of pitchers requiring the surgery has plunged. They are feeling the effects of throwing too hard, too often from a young age. Go watch a high school game. Top teens are throwing 95 mph pitches. They are also playing year-round.
Fernandez will join a list that includes Matt Harvey, Matt Moore, Kris Medlen, Patrick Corbin and Brandon Beachy. Former Marlins ace Josh Johnson, who had the surgery in 2007, had it for a second time this spring. So did Jarrod Parker, five years after he had his first elbow reconstruction.
Baseball has a problem. Its young pitchers throw so hard that strikeouts are up for the ninth season in a row, with the concurrent trend that those pitchers break down. Pitch and six-inning limits can’t go much lower lest teams have to add more relievers to the roster and resort to more tiresome pitching changes in games. Youth-league coaches and parents must be vigilant about controlling pitchers’ workload, and baseball at all levels, including MLB, should consider the suggestion to lower the pitcher’s mound, which would reduce arm strain and pitch speed.
Like Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man, Fernandez can be rebuilt to come back better than he was before — although Jobe said pitchers came back as good as they were before, but with more attention to fitness. John pitched another 14 years post-rehab, and the success rate of the surgery has climbed to better than 85 percent since then.
But the Marlins still lose a year of Fernandez’s career. They have won 64 percent of his starts compared to 36 percent with their other starters. Even if they weren’t expected to have a stellar season, they have been a pleasant surprise, even flirting with first place, and his absence early next season will truly hurt their progress. Hear the clock ticking on Giancarlo Stanton’s days as a Marlin? He has to be very disappointed in this turn of events.
Fernandez was placed on the disabled list three days after his pitch speed dropped to 90.7 mph in the last two innings of a poor outing in San Diego.
His dramatic escape from Cuba, unabashed devotion to his grandmother and exuberant nature make him the perfect star for Miami’s much-maligned baseball team. He will return, but it could be a long wait to see the 97-mph fastball that was his asset, and his undoing.