During John Farrell’s playing career, there was every reason to believe that he would emerge as
a rotation workhorse. Blessed with a sturdy frame, the current pitching coach of the Red Sox
averaged 211 professional innings from 1987-89.
His career seemed ready to blossom at that time, as Farrell forged a 28-25 record and 3.86 ERA for a woeful Cleveland Indians team. Yet after three straight years of at least 200 innings, Farrell was derailed. Elbow damage in 1990 necessitated Tommy John surgery, and a once promising career trajectory took a sharp turn.
After he moved from the playing field to the front office, Farrell discovered that his saga was not unique. As the director of player development for the Indians earlier this decade, he was privy to research about injury risks faced by pitchers.
Farrell discovered that his career tipped at a common point. An analysis revealed that after three straight years of 200 or more innings, pitchers arrived at something of a survival threshold. Those who passed that point unscathed were likely to maintain strong health going forward. But many faced the likelihood of substantial injury.
“There were a lot of guys, including myself, who after three years in a row (with 200 innings), the injury rates are really increased in that fourth year,” Farrell said earlier this season. “It’s something that we’re mindful of. You can’t argue with history and what it’s shown.”
That notion is entirely relevant to the 2008 Red Sox as they prepare for the return of Josh Beckett on Friday against the Texas Rangers. The 28-year-old has emerged from a recent scare, his precious right arm declared in good shape by Dr. James Andrews.
All the same, the fact that Beckett experienced numbness and tingling in his hand and inflammation in his elbow offered a reminder of the inherent dangers faced by pitchers. It also underscored that even a pitcher as physically formidable as Beckett remains vulnerable, particularly as he approaches the very danger point that Farrell identified before the season.
In 2007, Beckett threw a career-high 204.2 innings, exceeding his previous high by more than 20 frames. Last year, while he logged slightly fewer regular season innings (200.2), he tacked on 30 dominating October innings.
This year, when he was sidelined with the aforementioned symptoms, Beckett had thrown 149.1 innings. He was on pace for 195 regular season innings, a workload that the Sox hope to increase with another postseason appearance.
Beckett did not dismiss the possibility that his back-to-back professional highs in workload might have played into his recent health scare. At the same time, when he showed up in spring training in excellent health this year, he did not expect the labor to have any carryover effect from the past two seasons.
Instead, he described his recent elbow discomfort as “just a freak deal that really concerned me.” Though Beckett had encountered shoulder issues earlier in his career, he had never before had a scare involving his elbow, a fact that made the recent episode particularly disconcerting.
The hurler could only speculate on the cause. He noted that a spring training back injury—incurred when he caught a cleat on a mound while throwing a pitch—disrupted his routine for six to eight weeks, and could have had a lingering effect on his health this year.
Regardless of the cause, Beckett professed optimism about his long-term health. He sees little reason to tweak a between-starts routine that has been a foundation of his success, and that the Sox have asked several of their young pitchers to emulate.
“I don’t think (the injury) takes anything away from what I do in the weight room, what I do in between starts,” said Beckett. “I’m as consistent this year as I have been in the last two years. It just so happens that my body didn’t cooperate and was telling me that something was wrong.”
Farrell does not see the recent health episode as reason for pessimism about his pitcher’s ability to stay on the mound for seasons to come. If anything, the visit to Andrews might indicate that Beckett is primed to be a success story.
Beckett’s MRI, after all, offered both the pitcher and his club substantial reassurance about his ability to stay on the mound for the rest of this season and, presumably, beyond. That being the case, if Beckett is at a crossroads, it is one that he may be able to navigate safely.
“When you look at a large sample size of starting pitchers, there are those that break through that three-year threshold and go on,” said Farrell. “I don’t think there’s any red flags saying that Josh isn’t one of those types of pitchers.
“You have to factor in delivery. His is obviously very smooth. There’s no reason to think that he’s a candidate to be one of the group that doesn’t surpass (the threshold).”
Presuming that is true, and that the recent elbow discomfort was nothing more than the “freak deal” that Beckett described, there may even be benefit to the fact that the pitcher was sidelined for the last 15 games. The Sox went 11-4 in that stretch, and now, they regain a pitcher who carried them through the 2007 playoffs.
“If there’s a silver lining to all this, (it is) the fact that Josh has gotten a clean bill of health and he’s ready to go on Friday,” said Farrell. “He gets a two-week break here that we’ll gradually build him back from. We’ll have a fresh starting pitcher as the end of September rolls around. We hope he’s pitching long after that.”
Alex Speier is a Senior Writer for WEEI.com.