Playing any sport injury-free is a matter of luck. Pitchers are the luckiest of the bunch – the human body is simply not designed to repetitively throw a baseball at high speeds. Exercise and good mechanics are only hedges, not totally preventative. For every freak like Nolan Ryan, there are talented pitchers who get the short end of the stick. Here are several of these pitchers. This list doesn’t include the likes of Jose Fernandez or Steve Olin, whose lives were tragically cut short by accidents.
Mark Fidrych — “The Bird” was a comet who blazed across the baseball landscape in 1976. He won 19 games for the Detroit Tigers that year and was beloved by fans for his quirks, like talking to the baseball in his hand. The injury bug struck quickly, first he hurt his knee while goofing off during Spring Training in ’77 and then he tried to pitch through an undiagnosed rotator cuff tear for the next three seasons. His career was finally over after ’80 and Tigers fans could only wonder “What If?”
J.R. Richard — Richard was one of the most imposing pitchers to toe the rubber. The 6’8 behemoth looked large enough to reach out and grab batters from the mound. Add a tremendous fastball and it’s no surprise that he struck out over 300 batters in a season twice. Had he not suffered a stroke at the age of 30 in 1980, one that he was lucky to have survived, he might have rewritten a lot of pitching records. He didn’t pitch again.
Steve Avery — Over the past 25 years, Atlanta has had three Hall-of-Fame caliber pitchers on its staff: Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz. Braves fans initially thought they might have a fourth in Avery. The lanky lefty was one of the big reasons for Atlanta’s Worst-To-First turnaround in 1991, winning 18 games. He won 18 games in ’93 and then started to fade because of injuries. Part of it might have been because he was throwing over 200 innings at age 22, something that would be unheard of in today’s innings-conscious game. He only had one more winning season after that before hanging up his cleats in 2003 – after not pitching in the majors the previous three years.
Mark Prior — Prior debunks the whole “mechanics” debate. When he was drafted, people pointed to his pitching motion and said that it was nearly impeccable. He proved that wrong when an avalanche of injuries that occurred after his amazing 2003 sophomore season saw him get on an endless treadmill of rehabilitation starts. Prior last pitched in the Majors in ’05 though he officially retired eight years later after aborted comeback after comeback.
Kerry Wood — Wood was another victim of overuse. He took the baseball world by storm in 1998, striking out 20 hitters in one game. He was injured in ’99 and he did bounce back from 2000-03, but then suffered a swift decline and never won more than five games again. At least we got to see Wood in a popular insurance commercial when he pulled Andre Dawson out of the Wrigley Field ivy.
Fernando Valenzuela — People who weren’t alive in 1981 won’t grasp what Fernandomania was like. The portly Mexican who was known for looking up at the sky at the beginning of his pitching motion, won the Cy Young that year, vexing batters with his screwball. He was on a Hall-of-Fame trajectory for the next several years, but then he lost effectiveness after the ’87 season. His ERA kept rising yearly and while he did pitch 17 years, many of his later years were not up to the standards of Fernandomania.