The impact of age and overwork on Ryan Zimmerman’s throwing shoulder

I’ve always enjoyed running, but when I hit the age of 30 a couple of years ago, I developed a new rule: no running two days in a row. When I was 21, I could drink a gallon of beer, sleep three hours and then run five miles the next morning. And then do it again the next day. When you get older, the rules change. I don’t want to be one of those 55 year-olds limping around the house. I have to preserve whatever I have left.

I don’t relay this story because I think you care about my exercise habits. I bring this up because there’s a lesson there for the 2014 Washington Nationals, specifically Ryan Zimmerman. From Tom Boswell’s column in the Washington Post on Monday:

Manager Matt Williams theorizes that Zimmerman has thrown so much since the start of spring training, trying to strengthen his arm and improve his accuracy, he has simply made everything worse.

As an observer of Zimmerman for almost 10 years, this is easy to believe.  Zimmerman is a worker. That’s how he rose to the top of his profession and hopefully how he’ll stay there. But like a certain baseball fan and occasional blogger who decided to stop running on consecutive days, sometimes rest is the answer.

I attended the first two home games of the season last Friday and Saturday and out of curiosity, I watched Ryan Zimmerman throw between innings. It was obviously painful to watch but it was equally fascinating to see Zimmerman gutting through his awkward overhead throwing motion, as if he was trying to will himself past the pain.

Now, the principle of “rest if you’re hurt” is not a novel concept, and suggesting this approach to Zimmerman at this point in time may sound curiously close to a #HotSportsTake. But we need to remember last season when both Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper (both team leaders, albeit in different ways) “gutted” through injuries only to make them worse, thereby hurting the team. Managing Zimmerman and his throwing shoulder will likely be the first real test of Matt Williams the manager.

Dr. James Andrews, the noted surgeon who’s performed countless Tommy John surgeries dropped an interesting anecdote this week on XM Radio when discussing the alarming rise in UCL injuries among young pitchers. According to the write up on Hardball Talk:

Kids are bigger and stronger these days, and their ability to throw harder is outpacing the development of their ulnar collateral ligaments. But the biggest risk factor he and his researchers are seeing: year-round baseball. The fact that not only do pitchers throw year-round, but that they are pitching in competition year-round, and don’t have time to recover.

In other words, the rise in pitching injuries isn’t due to global warming. It’s overwork. Just like Matt Williams’ theory about the source of the Zimmerman’s current shoulder problems, the rise in Tommy John surgery is likely due to elite athletes not recognizing their physical limitations until it’s too late.

Baseball has changed quite a bit in the past few decades. Advanced stats. Weight training. Analytics. The one thing that hasn’t changed is the human body. This is equally true for my knees as it is for Ryan Zimmerman’s shoulder or a young pitcher’s UCL.*

As Ryan Zimmerman gets closer to 30, let’s hope he realizes that.

 

*This is likely the only time I will ever be compared athletically to Ryan Zimmerman.

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