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Book Review: 'The Arm'

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This is an important, well-researched book.

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SCOTTSDALE, Arizona -- Most of you are probably familiar with Jeff Passan's work from his columns at Yahoo!

"The Arm," Passan's first book on baseball, is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand pitching injuries, how they happen and how we got to where we are, where Tommy John surgeries are performed on high-school kids and, as Passan writes rather forebodingly, are even being proposed on kids as young as nine years old.

Passan went to a number of major-league pitchers who were about to undergo TJS and asked if he could follow them through their surgery and rehab and tell their story. Most of them refused. But two of them agreed: Todd Coffey, who you might remember as the Reds reliever who always raced in from the bullpen, big body and all, and Daniel Hudson, once a top prospect of the White Sox and Diamondbacks.

The results were different. Both surgeries "worked," but Coffey never made it back to the majors after 2012, while Hudson had a successful year in the D'backs bullpen last year and is expected to play a key role for them again this season. Part of that result was age: Coffey was 32 when he underwent his second TJS (he'd had it at age 19 and it lasted 12 seasons, one of the longest stretches anyone's gone with a new elbow ligament), while Hudson went under the knife at 25 and returned at 28, expecting to still have several productive seasons.

But part of it, at least for Coffey, was bad luck and bad timing. The book goes along with Coffey and Hudson as they went through rehab along with their families, both affected in different ways. It's a real good insight into the parts of baseball most of us don't see, the personal lives of the players and how they cope with various setbacks in the course of their careers. Passan, who is 35, is of the same generation as today's pitchers and both Coffey and Hudson became friendly with him and shared quite a bit of their private lives, which Passan shares with us with thoughtfulness and insight.

Beyond that, there's a look at the history of Tommy John surgery, going all the way back to the man who the surgery is named after and how the groundbreaking 1974 operation by Dr. Frank Jobe came about. Passan even spoke to Sandy Koufax, who might well have had this surgery had it been developed a decade earlier; we very well might today be discussing "Sandy Koufax surgery," as Koufax would likely have done it if medical technology had been advanced in that way in 1966.

Passan also spent time in Japan examining its pitching culture and how high school kids are pressured into throwing gargantuan numbers of pitches, which inevitably lead to injury. But over there, at least until recently, surgery was frowned upon. You can see what happened to Japanese pitchers such as Daisuke Matsuzaka, Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka, all either under the TJS knife or (in Tanaka's case) possible future candidates, and why their upbringing in a Japanese sports culture that promotes conformity and doing what you're told leads to these sorts of things.

Analytics are starting to be used in tracking these sorts of injuries and how they happen, and Passan spent time with several people, including former big-league reliever Mike Marshall, who have been at the forefront of trying to figure out how and why elbow injuries happen. Needless to say, no one yet has a definitive answer. He also looks at Perfect Game, an organization that promotes high-school tournaments around the country and that might be leading to injuries because of the competition: everyone wants to be the guy who wants to throw just a little bit harder than the previous guy. At some point, Passan posits, Major League Baseball might wind up buying out Perfect Game to have some more input into the kids who will eventually be drafted.

But to me, the most interesting part of this book had little to do with injuries. Along with Hudson and Coffey, one other pitcher allowed Passan to follow him at a critical point of his carer: Jon Lester. You probably read, when advance copies of this book were released, that Lester has a bone chip in his elbow that (right now) isn't causing him trouble.

Many Cubs beat writers made a big deal out of this and missed the larger story Passan covered about Lester, his courtship and signing by the Cubs. The 2014 season was the one where Passan followed Lester around, and the book includes a detailed description on the back-and-forth that Lester went through with Cubs management while Theo & Co. were trying to sign him. This passage particularly interested me, about how Lester made his decision in his adopted hometown, Atlanta, after being wooed by the Red Sox, Giants and Cubs:

Boston was home, a place with his best friends in baseball, the team with which he won two World Series -- familiar, comfortable, easy. It was also unwilling to pay what the market thought he was worth, and no matter how many times the Red Sox apologized, the pain of his departure never flagged. San Francisco was the minidynasty, its ballpark designed for him to throw two hundred strong innings, the city a jewel, and it threw a late trump card: if Lester committed to the Giants, the team indicated a willingness to give him a seventh year and a deal in the neighborhood of $168 million. San Francisco was also a five-and-a-half-hour flight from Atlanta, twice as long as the other two cities, and the prospect of hauling Hudson and Walker across the country bothered him. If it were about the money, he'd have gone to San Francisco.

It didn't feel right. Chicago was exciting, a new beginning, with intimations of immortality, with big money and two men he trusted who were promising him the world.

For you, the Cubs fan, this exhaustively-researched book is worth it for the Lester chapter alone (it's titled "Pay the Man"). But the rest of the book is a fascinating look inside baseball injuries and how insiders cope with them. Highly recommended. The book is officially on sale as of this week.