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The Cubs took Brownlie with the 21st pick—bypassing future big leaguers Matt Cain, Joe Blanton, Jon Lester and Jonathon Broxton—and lavished him with a $2.5 million signing bonus. Within three years Brownlie could not throw any harder than the mid-80s, and minor league hitters were crushing his pitches. Chicago released him in March 2007. Brownlie spent much of last year playing independent league baseball and is now pitching for the Washington Nationals' Double A Harrisburg affiliate. In May '07 Brownlie told SNY.tv, "The major question about me is why my velocity has dipped in the past couple of years.... There's really no answer to it; we don't know what's going on."
Says Peterson, "How many Robert Brownlies are out there every year, and how many of them can be saved? That's what drives me into the amateur market. Because he could be saved. No question in my mind."
Peterson and Duquette (the former Orioles G.M.), in conjunction with ASMI, have formed a private start-up to bring pitching biomechanics mainstream. Their fundamental challenge is to make the hardware and expertise of the ASMI lab portable with sensorless technology. On a major league level, for instance, that would mean giving pitchers biomechanical feedback in real time during the game on a clubhouse monitor. On the amateur market, it would mean testing top pitchers at so-called showcase events such as the Area Code Games and Perfect Game and sending them home with a diagnosis and prescription, including drills and a conditioning program to turn red flags into green ones.
"It's very close to coming out, and it's going to turn into a competitive field pretty quickly," Duquette says. "The last time I looked there were hundreds of millions of dollars [worth of pitchers] on the disabled list. Why wouldn't you want to find an answer in that regard? The number of [elbow] and shoulder surgeries is at an alltime high. To have an analysis done and have a program to reduce the [number] of injuries and surgeries is long overdue."
According to Fleisig, the No. 1 injury risk for pitchers is overuse. Young pitchers who continued to pitch with arm fatigue are 36 times more likely to be seriously injured. The risk is exacerbated by poor mechanics. "After someone has pitched for so many years, there are so many weak links in the chain already," Peterson says. "The dynamic power [of the start-up] is at the amateur level. Most people are of the belief that when you talk about fundamental skills of sport, the younger you begin, the better off you are. But the longer you wait to pitch, the better you are. Because understanding the rotational forces is so great, if you're out of synch, you're damaging your arm with every pitch. You can hit for a long time and be a bad batter, and you're not going to injure yourself. Not true with pitching. You will get hurt.
"And those kids, they can and will be saved."
BRAD LINCOLN, whom the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted six spots ahead of Lincecum, missed all of last season with a blown elbow and has not made it past Class A ball. The other five pitchers selected before Lincecum in 2006—the Mariners' Morrow, the Kansas City Royals' Luke Hochevar, the Los Angeles Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw, the Florida Marlins' Andrew Miller (a Detroit Tigers draftee) and the Colorado Rockies' Greg Reynolds—are a combined 20--31 in the majors, or four more wins (and 25 more losses) than Lincecum has. Lincecum has a .727 winning percentage for a team that has played .394 baseball (69--106) in the games that he hasn't started.
"In my 13 years in the big leagues," San Francisco infielder Rich Aurilia says, "this is the only guy I've seen who really is worth the hype. The first one. The real deal. And the reason I say that is not just the stuff. That's obvious to everybody. But it's the fact that he's a great kid who is smart, who is willing to learn and who respects the game. I really mean that. He's an easy kid to root for, and I don't say that just because he's my teammate. He's going to be great for this game.''
On that hot, early-June night in Washington, Lincecum carved up the Nationals with such ease that he missed the strike zone only 28 times to 25 batters. He bore 94-mph two-seamers into the knuckles of righthanded hitters, blew 97-mph four-seamers to every edge of the strike zone, snapped off wicked 80-mph curveballs and fiendishly disguised downward-breaking 84-mph split changeups with the same ferocious arm speed as his fastball. Lincecum allowed one run in seven innings; he threw 83 pitches. Afterward, as always, he showered and jumped back into his skateboarder attire without bothering to ice his arm. "Never," Tim says. "Like my dad says, 'Ice is made for two things: injuries and my drinks.'"
"I thought I'd have more problems with his delivery," Nationals first baseman Aaron Boone says, "but it wasn't as deceptive as I thought. The fastball, though, is big-time. And that hammer [the curveball] is really good. That was impressive."