MLB Draft 2014: Tyler Kolek and the risk of injury

The Miami Marlins turned to Tyler Kolek in the first round of the 2014 MLB Draft, but could his max effort velocity lead to increased risk of injury in the future?

The Miami Marlins chose the player whom they thought was the best in the 2014 MLB Draft. With the second pick, the club took fireballing right-hander Tyler Kolek out of Shepherd High School in Texas. The Fish opted for the pure talent of the hard-throwing southern righty over the more polished product of Carlos Rodon, who eventually went third to the Chicago White Sox.

The Marlins chose Kolek because they believed he was the best talent available, and it fit their historical profile of taking high upside prep arms. Back in 1999, the Fish did the same thing in taking Texas righty Josh Beckett with the second pick, so it should not surprise anyone that, given the chance, Miami would want to replicate that success. But Kolek is not just any ordinary hard-throwing right-hander. He could very well be the hardest-throwing prep player in the modern era. From MLB.com's Joe Frisaro:

But when Houston selected Brady Aiken, the lefty from San Diego, with the No. 1 overall pick, the Marlins didn't hesitate selecting the 18-year-old Kolek, who possesses the fastest fastball ever recorded by a high school player.

The Marlins clocked Kolek as high as 102 mph. Coupled with his size and upside, Kolek became too tempting to pass up.

The Fish obviously fell in love in part with his ridiculous high-90's velocity. Kolek's live arm was highly touted, and the Marlins verified that in personal visits with their own materials, meaning the team was certain that the reports were real. The hope is that Kolek could one day join Jose Fernandez and Nathan Eovaldi in a fireballing trio of high-90's heat.

But one thing that has to concern Miami and its fans is the possibility that with that velocity comes an increased chance of injury. Fernandez was routinely in the mid-to-high-90's, with an average fastball a little north of 95 mph for the last two seasons. That led to him eventually suffering an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. While it is extremely difficult to determine a pitcher's risk of injury, we do know two things that likely contribute to elbow injuries:

1) Effort, which can be proxied by things such as maximum velocity.
2) Workload, particularly in terms of pitches thrown in outings

It is well known that young pitchers, desperate to impress MLB scouts, now tend to play year round and take on tremendous workloads compared to kids of years past. With travel teams, high school commitments, and various All-Star camps and things of the sort, playing nearly year round is regular. When they are not playing, they are still keeping their arms "warm" with regular throwing practice in private sessions as well. This can form the basis of elbow injury.

Effort is the other problem, and players who go "max" effort all too often, again with the purpose of impressing scouts, could be in line for injury. Part of this fear comes from the knowledge that Kolek throws extremely hard, perhaps harder than anyone at his level has thrown regularly. But part of it also comes from his hard-working ethic leading to max effort perhaps too often. Clint Longnecker of Baseball America shares a tale from his report on Kolek. In it, it describes how the young pitcher approached returning to tossing after he recovered from his broken arm.

"He sent me a text saying he threw 95 and that was the hardest ever," said his pitching coach, Reese Smith. "I asked, ‘How hard did you try to throw that?’ He said, ‘I tried to knock the wall down.’ So he shows up for a workout. I had to remind him to play catch with a purpose and don’t try to put so much effort into it.

"I told him to get on the mound and throw 60 percent. He threw 90 (mph). By the end of the night he touched 97. He said, ‘I don’t feel like I could have thrown 97 even if I was trying. I didn’t even feel like I was even throwing 77 percent.’ That was the point. He realized that he doesn’t have to try his hardest on every pitch and he bought in hook, line and sinker."

Listening to his pitching coach eventually worked (it seems), but you can see that Kolek's thought is to come out and throw as hard as he can, even coming off of a non-throwing injury. This kind of max effort work is just the sort of scary anecdote you do not want to hear if you have concerns about a kid's elbow health.

In some respects, it is a good thing that Miami is more likely to sign Kolek than he is to commit to TCU, where they would put him through a ringer to help attain the school's athletic goals. The Marlins are going to be careful with their young asset, and they will attempt to nurture his arm as best they can. But Kolek may be a breed unto himself given the rarefied velocity air he occupies, and Miami may have to tailor their approach to get his mechanics consistent and his effort smooth in order to minimize risk. He may not have the troubling motions of a guy destined for elbow problems, but his velocity and effort portends potentially dangerous things, and the Fish have to account for it.

Luckily for Miami, they have seen him often, and clearly they feel he has no red flags about which to be concerned. But the risk factors are there, and the team needs to be cautious and not rush his development and workload as he faces his biggest leap in competition ever.

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