Ah, Spring Training. It's a time when baseball reminds its fans of all the beautiful and great things that it does. It's also a time when baseball instills a sensation of complete and utter panic into its fans. Watch in awe as the Dodgers are losing almost every non-Kershaw member of their starting staff. It's chaos theory in action, and yet, we're not surprised. For this is the nature of the pitcher. Is it really surprising anymore when a pitcher's name comes up in the same breath as an injury? It shouldn't be. This is part of what it means to be a pitcher.
There's a theory in astrophysics that states that at some point in the very distant future, all of the thermal energy in the universe will peter out and all of existence will descend into entropy. The end of thermal energy means the end of all things. Without high levels of thermal energy coursing through the universe, many different astrophysical processes fall apart and it only gets worse from there. It will be a very bad century or two at the office.
A dramatic loss of heat is also one of the telltale signs of the inevitable decline in a pitcher's career. Despite what the ageless eldritch Old One known as Bartolo Colon has accomplished, every pitcher has a shelf life. The same can be said of generally any baseball player, or athlete, or indeed any human being or living organism. Yet it is the pitcher that goes about his business as the world constantly looks on and waits for tragedy to strike him. The pitcher is the one that waits for that telltale popping sensation in his elbow that tells him that at least a year of his life will now be devoted to salvaging his career and praying that he will still be able to masterfully throw a baseball.
The baseball world is filled with sayings and parables that tell us to fear for the pitcher. "There is no such thing as a pitching prospect." (TINSTAAPP) "Pitchers break." Colon and other ageless wonders such as LaTroy Hawkins and Chris Young tell us that even if pitchers break, they can return in some capacity. Rick Ankiel will tell you that himself. Yet Ankiel is an aberration, a passing ship in the night. The gods blessed him not only with a strong arm but also a massive reserve of bat speed and power.
There's no Rick Ankiel future for CC Sabathia. Sabathia is 35 and will likely complete his 3000th inning of work this year. Since 2013, Sabathia has been a husk of his formerly brilliant self. A loss of velocity and nagging knee injuries has the southpaw fighting for a job for the first time in over a decade. A liberal application of a knee brace yielded some impressive success at the tail end of 2015, but Sabathia's stuff has been far from crisp this spring and he's badly struggled with location. Spring Training results mean nothing on the best of days. But at this juncture in the road, it's hard to envision another period of sustained success for Sabathia.
There's no Rick Ankiel future for Jarrod Parker. Once so very promising as a potential front-end starter, Parker is staring at a third Tommy John surgery. Still just 27 years old, he's compiled a 3.68 ERA in 384 career innings between the Diamondbacks and A's. Batters have touched him for only a .239 average. He'll likely never pitch at the highest level of professional baseball again. Two Tommy John surgeries is a huge blow. Corey Luebke had his first in 2012 and hasn't seen the majors since. A third is a death sentence. Consider that many pitchers are being taken in the first round of the draft with scars already on their elbows. Then consider the fate of Jarrod Parker. Pitching can be a horror show.
Or, it can be a source of joy. There's no Rick Ankiel future for Mark Buehrle, the model of consistency since 2001. Buehrle is unsigned and generally in a holding pattern with regards to retirement. Buehrle threw at least 200 innings of quality baseball for 14 years and missed the mark by only an inning and a third in 2015. He isn't unemployed because of a devastating injury or disastrously poor results. Buehrle could likely construct another million seasons of more than 100 innings of acceptable pitching. There's a chance he drinks from the same unholy chalice that Colon stole from the Fountain of Youth. Yet Buehrle seems content to end his career on his own terms. He has taken his ball and gone home. Though a few shoulder issues poked and prodded at him toward the end of the year, it's hard to imagine that Buehrle couldn't have gotten a big league deal from a team in need of steady innings. Buehrle has simply done what he's always done best. He's made things easy.
The zip of a fastball and the break of a slider are but fleeting wonders. There are few feelings that can match the unbridled wonder that comes from watching a young pitcher rise to the Show and absolutely shove. Michael Wacha gave us this small honor. It feels like it's been eons since Wacha emerged as a weapon of the highest caliber and dazzled all of baseball in October. Then, the pitching demons had their due, and they claimed Wacha's shoulder. This is baseball. This is pitching. Sometimes, young pitchers don't succumb to Wacha's fate. Sometimes they blossom into beautiful and terrifying creatures of wanton destruction. Sometimes they become Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale.
Sometimes they become Rick Ankiel. Sometimes they become Rickey Romero. While yes, there have been many promising position players ruined by injury (Tony Conigliaro! Bo Jackson!), there is a certain something else that shrouds the pitcher's arm in fear. More often than not, the position player fades into the ether. The pitcher seems to die. He dies a gruesome death of balls flying over the wall and trainers visiting the mound.
Enjoy the pitcher while you can. He will be here for only so long.