On April 30, the New York Mets’ Noah Syndergaard reached a milestone in the life cycle of a young superstar pitcher. He had already played in the World Series and received Cy Young Award votes. He had a catchy nickname—“Thor,” after his burly build and flowing hair—and a devoted following. That afternoon, feeling a pain in his side, Syndergaard left his start against the Washington Nationals. He had torn a muscle; he now occupies a spot on the 60-day disabled list.
An injury like Syndergaard’s, increasingly, is not the exception but the rule in baseball. Pitchers today throw harder than ever before (Thor’s hammer of a fastball clocks in at 98 miles an hour on average), at the cost of increased risk to every tendon, ligament, and muscle involved in their motions. “Shoulder problems, elbow problems, they’re all the same,” wrote Jeff Passan in 2016’s The Arm, a study of the modern rash of pitching injuries. “All the function of men pushing themselves to do something the body never intended it to do.”
The “something” Passan refers to is pitching in general, the inherently taxing act of throwing baseballs overhand, but the risks mount for harder, more muscular throwers. Among the most valuable commodities in contemporary baseball, then, are the rare aces who can shut down offenses without rearing back, who dominate but don’t strain themselves. These players remind seasoned fans of a bygone era, inducing weak ground balls instead of chasing today’s almighty strikeout. Chief among them right now is Dallas Keuchel of the Houston Astros, the best pitcher on the team with baseball’s best record. He throws soft, gets outs, and, for the most part, stays healthy. He is a throwback, but he solves a modern problem.