Pitchers find ways to deal with 'dead arm'
It isn't a medical term, but it affects starters and relievers
CC Sabathia is a top-of-the-rotation workhorse counted on to lead a Major League rotation from Opening Day until the end of October.
That's why the Yankees, who missed the postseason last season for the first time in 15 years, shelled out $161 million for him over the winter to take advantage of the fact that Sabathia averaged 247 innings in 2007 and 2008.
But as dominant as the big left-hander can be, he's human, which means he is susceptible to the sometimes-confounding condition known as "dead arm."
"I think you get it as a pitcher growing up as a kid," Sabathia says. "You go through that period when you first start throwing where you have nothing. The first couple times, you get a little nervous. But as you get older, you figure it out. It's just dead arm, and you have to deal with it."
By most accounts, dead arm is an overall feeling of general, non-specific fatigue. It's expected to appear at some point before or during the season, and it has very recognizable symptoms.
Former big league starter Aaron Sele once described it as "a change of pace without throwing a changeup."
Padres manager Bud Black, who had a long Major League pitching career and served as the Angels' pitching coach when they won the World Series in 2002, explains it simply:
"There are times when your arm is going to feel a little tired, not fresh, whatever you want to call it," Black says. "Your arm just gets worn out."
|Below, a list of the Major Leagues' top 10 in innings pitched, entering Thursday's action.|
|1. C. Lee||CLE/PHI||185||11-9||2.72|
|2. A. Wainwright||STL||179||14-7||2.61|
|3. C. Sabathia||NYY||178.2||14-7||3.58|
|4. T. Lincecum||SF||178.1||12-3||2.37|
|5. R. Halladay||TOR||178||13-6||2.78|
|6. J. Verlander||DET||175.1||13-7||3.29|
|7. D. Haren||ARI||174||12-8||2.74|
|8. Z. Greinke||KC||173||11-8||2.44|
|9. F. Hernandez||SEA||172.1||12-4||2.66|
|10. M. Cain||SF||170.1||12-4||2.43|
White Sox reliever Scott Linebrink agrees and points out that while dead arm might not be a clinical term, it's one of the easiest conditions for a pitcher to identify.
In fact, he says, dead arm might be one of the only baseball maladies that can be diagnosed backwards, with a pitcher informing the team's training staff that he's stricken.
"You're not scared because you know exactly what's going on when you have it," Linebrink says.
"There are times where you go out there and play catch or throw long toss and you just don't feel like you have that 'snap' behind it, for whatever reason."
Linebrink's teammate, veteran starter Mark Buehrle said, "We all go through periods where our arms are just a little tired. It's a long season and there are times where you might have thrown 60 or 70 innings but you feel like you've thrown 100.
"There are times where you haven't thrown in five days but you feel like you're thrown for 12 days in a row. I guess that's what I think of when I hear about dead arm."
For Seattle starter Ryan Rowland-Smith and many other Major League pitchers, it's mostly a Spring Training thing.
"You're coming off an offseason where you have your own throwing program," Rowland-Smith says.
"All of a sudden you get to camp and you're throwing to bases, doing extra stuff. You're on your legs all day, and that's when you get that dead arm. You're in the heat, with day games after day games. You're up early in the morning. All those things factor into it."
And when the dog days of August hit and teams are plowing ahead in the latter stages of a 162-game regular-season grind, dead arm can resurface and potentially taint a pennant race.
The key, most veterans agree, is to do the only thing you can do to get rid of it.
"Just pitch through it," Sabathia says.
Easier said than done for a 6-foot-7, 280-pound perennial Cy Young candidate, but Linebrink says Sabathia's dead-on about curing dead arm.
"You absolutely have to just keep going and pitching and you know it'll come back," Linebrink says.
"It's being able to make your pitches, because everyone knows stuff will only take you so far. Your mental capacity and your mental toughness has to be there, plus your ability to locate and to think with and against the hitter.
"I mean, seriously, if you open up any of our shoulders or elbows, you're going to see all kinds of scar tissue and calcium deposits and arthritis and all that. You can call it dead arm if you want, but the more important issue is how you deal with it."
Sabathia and Rowland-Smith say one thing they do to prevent dead arm in the middle of a season is to make sure they get enough rest.
"Sometimes when there's a road trip or a few road trips back to back after a short homestand, that kind of stuff can always factor in, too," Rowland-Smith says. "So you make sure to really watch the amount of sleep you're getting. That really helps."
The good news is that even if a pitcher doesn't realize that he has dead arm, a pitching coach probably will. If it isn't easy to spot from fastball velocity being down a few ticks, there are other tell-tale signs.
"You can see," says Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland, a former Major League starter.
"You can tell from guys' mannerisms and things like that, just their body language. You can tell when a guy's not feeling real good or he's not happy with the way he's feeling or the way he's throwing. And you can't always see it on the radar readings. It's just the ball is kind of flat."
While there are plenty of physical explanations, one of the game's most respected doctors says a lot of it can be mental, too.
"It's kind of like the 'yips' in golf for some of the guys," says Angels team physician Lewis Yocum, one of the game's most respected orthopedic surgeons.
"When a pitcher is accustomed to doing everything the same way and then things go haywire for whatever reason, it's a very real problem and it's vital for the coaching staff and medical staff and the trainers to make sure there isn't a reason for it beyond simple fatigue. Just because you can't put a name on it doesn't mean it isn't real."
Yocum says making sure there isn't a mechanical or physical reason for dead arm other than simple fatigue is an important step.
"You can chalk it up to muscle fatigue or muscle memory fatigue, but a lot of times it might just be a guy over-thinking things."
Inevitably, however, dead arm goes away, and like the first cool day after an oppressive two-week heat wave, it's a refreshing, life-affirming relief.
"You work through it and you know it'll come back," Sabathia says.
"It just pops back on."
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.