ChrisOLeary.com > Essays > Pitcher Injury Predictions 2015 ASB

Pitcher Injury Predictions
2015 All Star Break

2015.7.16

Baseball has a problem.

Pitchers are becoming increasingly dominant, but are also breaking down at unprecedented, and increasing, rates.

I discuss what I believe are the root causes of the problem at length in a new webbook called The Epidemic. However, let me take a few minutes to give you an overview of the premise of The Epidemic and then make a number of predictions about which pitchers I think are most likely to experience arm problems and reduced effectiveness as a result.

Beyond the Inverted W

When it comes to pitching mechanics, I'm probably best known for my writings about the Inverted W, the often-discussed and much-maligned position and arm action with the pretentious name. While they've been discussed for a number of years, the Inverted W and related positions are still relevant to the topic of pitching injuries.

For instance, in my opinion Zack Wheeler's prominent Inverted W, which led off my predictions in my 2014 pre-season podcast with Will Leitch, is both a symptom and a marker of the underlying mechanical inefficiencies that led to his elbow problems. I believe that Tim Lincecum's more subtle Inverted L explains his rapidly-vanishing velocity. Finally, it is my contention that pointing the ball to second base contributed to Jose Fernandez's elbow problems.

However, since mid-2008 I have shifted my focus from positions like the Inverted W to the more fundamental concept of Timing.

It's the Timing, Stupid

While I started out focused on the positions that pitchers get to and pass through, my work with a number of pro pitchers in 2008-2009, as well as my monitoring the health of a number major league pitchers with what I theorizeded were problematic arm actions, made it clear that...

  • Many pitchers who don't make the Inverted W still get hurt.
  • Some pitchers who do make the Inverted W don't get hurt.

Clearly, there was something more fundamental going on.

That ultimately drove me to focus on a problem that pitching coaches call rushing, to understand the concept of timing, and to start evaluating the mechanics of pitchers like Stephen Strasburg from the standpoint of timing, not just positions. That shift in focus has since been validated by a number of studies, including a recent study of the Inverted W.

Unfortunately, while journalists were calling me up and asking me why Matt Harvey was so dominant, they didn't wanting to talk about his pitching mechanics, I assume because he didn't make the Inverted W and was assumed to be in the clear.

However, I saw that, while his arm action wasn't obviously flawed, there was something in Matt Harvey's pitching mechanics that concerned me enough, and that I was starting to believe was a problem, that I started talking about it during radio interviews.

Comparison of Matt Harvey and Tom Seaver

When I compared Matt Harvey to great pitchers like Tom Seaver, I noticed a difference in their Timing.

Whereas at foot plant, and at the moment the shoulders generally start to rotate, Tom Seaver's pitching forearm was vertical and at 90 degrees of external rotation, Matt Harvey's pitching forearm was much flatter and closer to 30 degrees of external rotation.

In essence, Matt Harvey's pitching arm was out of sync with his body and dragging behind it.

Such a timing problem is a concern because it increases both the distance and the force with which the pitching arm will externally rotate. That in turn will tend to increase the stress on the elbow and the shoulder.

Flat Arm Syndrome

A year later, in my 2014 pre-season podcast with Will Leitch, I expressed a similar concern about Ivan Nova as a result of a picture I stumbled across.

In the picture below, notice that at foot plant, and like Matt Harvey, Ivan Nova's pitching forearm is much closer to parallel to the ground than Mariano Rivera's; while Rivera's pitching forearm is nearly vertical, Ivan Nova's pitching forearm is closer to horizontal.

Comparison of Ivan Nova and Mariano Rivera

Instead of being up and ready to throw like Mariano Rivera's arm, when his front foot plants, Ivan Nova's arm is flat and late.

For that reason, I call this Flat Arm Syndrome.

While Flat Arm Syndrome was relatively rare a few years ago when Johan Santana's pitching mechanics were taking their toll on his shoulder, I am seeing outbreaks of it at all levels of baseball (and fast-pitch softball). This is due to older positions like the Inverted W, newer ones like the Power T, and other drills and cues that coaches are using with their clients in order to promise, and deliver, rapid velocity gains.

While these cues clearly work, increasing average fastball velocities across Major League Baseball and at all levels of the game, they are taking a toll on increasing numbers of elbows and, if Jaime Garcia's pitching mechanics and struggles are any guide, shoulders in a few years.

Predictions

The relevance of this discussion of pitching mechanics to Fans is this; in my experience, the incidence of Flat Arm Syndrome is rising. Increasingly, isn't accompanied by the existence of obvious markers like the Inverted W. That creates an opportunity for Fans who know what to looks for to gain an advantage by taking injury risk, and the corresponding performance implications, in their day to day roster construction.

While most of my pitcher analyses and injury risk evaluations are reserved for subscribers to Pitcher Picks and Pans, I have decided to make available to Fans a few analyses of pitchers who face an above-average risk of ineffectiveness and injuries.

Gio Gonzalez

I mentioned Gio Gonzalez in my 2014 pre-season podcast with Will Leitch because he is one of the riskier pitchers in MLB.

The problem with Gio Gonzalez's pitching mechanics is that, like Jose Fernandez, Gio Gonzalez has a problem with what I call Premature Pronation; he points the ball at second base, I assume because it gives him a velocity boost. This creates tension in his pitching arm and keeps it from getting up and into the ready position by the time his front foot plants and his shoulders start to rotate.

Gio Gonzalez's Pitching Mechanics

In the frame above, notice that, while Gio Gonzalez's front foot is planted and his shoulders are starting to rotate, his arm is still largely flat, not up.

While he didn't totally break down in 2014, he did miss six starts in May and June.

What's more, and also like Jose Fernandez, Gio Gonzalez doesn't appear to have addressed the root cause of his 2014 problems. That puts him at a significant risk of experiencing shoulder problems in the short term, which would have obvious negative implications for his performance.

If I could sell short on any one pitcher, it would be Gio Gonzalez.

James Shields

His "Big Game James" nickname notwithstanding, James Shields has had a hard time sustaining his performance deep into the postseason, struggling during the 2014 World Series, in particular.

Why does he tend to fade during the post-season?

James Shields combines the elbow-dominant arm action that is still far too common with the pointing the ball to second base forearm action that you see in Gio Gonzalez and Jose Fernandez, among others.

The picture below is a perfect example of the Tommy John Twist causing Flat Arm Syndrome and a Timing problem.

James Shields' Pitching Mechanics

James Shields

My concern with James Shields is that the combination of a problematic arm action and pitching deep into the post-season seems to have taken their toll on his arm, and his shoulder in particular. The short All-Star break isn't going to give his arm the time it needs to heal from what it's dealing with, placing him at high risk of experiencing diminished effectiveness in the second half of the season.

Noah Syndergaard

One way to sum up the problem with the current state of pitching is that pitching coaches, due to the pitching mechanics they are teaching, are producing reliever-grade arms, not starters; while they throw very hard, the arm actions of many young pitchers reduce the likelihood that they will tolerate the load of 200 major league innings.

Nowhere is that more true than for the Mets.

The team that, led by pitching coach Rube Walker, produced both Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan, two hard throwers who were both dominant and durable, now has a rotation chock full of Tommy John Surgery survivors and, in the best case, future (repeat) elbow scar-bearers.

In particular, when I look at Noah Syndergaard, I see a pitcher who reminds me of Tommy Hanson's pitching mechanics. The problem is that both, instead of having the smooth arm swing of Nolan Ryan during his days with the Mets, share the same herky-jerky arm action in which the arm stalls on its way up. While that creates tremendous whip, it also places a huge load on the elbow and the shoulder, a load that goes up as his velocity does.

Michael Wacha

I have gone on the record in the past as saying that I like Michael Wacha's pitching mechanics. As a result, Michael Wacha's 2014 shoulder problems surprised me and, I presume, those who follow my work.

So what happened? Why did Michael Wacha break down?

In sum, Michael Wacha is a different pitcher than he was in college.

As I discuss in my analysis of Michael Wacha's pitching mechanics, if you look at the scouting reports of Michael Wacha while he was attending Texas A&M, you will see that his fastball topped out at 94 mph in games and he tended to sit closer to 90 mph. As of today, Michael Wacha's fastball is averaging 93.6 mph and has topped out at 98.3 mph.

While Michael Wacha came out of the gate in 2015 showing some evidence that he and the Cardinals may have learned their lesson and stopped trying to push his average fastball velocity ever higher, his average fastball velocity is currently up almost 3 mph from that start of the year, from 93.1 mph to 96 mph.

The problem with Michael Wacha's pitching mechanics is how he achieves those velocity gains.

Michael Wacha's Pitching Mechanics Michael Wacha's Pitching Mechanics

If you compare the picture on the left, which shows Michael Wacha's arm action when he throws a 94 mph fastball, to the picture on the right, which shows his arm action when he throws a 96 mph fastball, you can see visible differences. Not only is his scapula more retracted, but his pitching arm is flatter.

That concerns me because it suggests that Michael Wacha is achieving his velocity gains in an unsustainable manner, putting him at significant risk of having problems in the second half of the year.

Shelby Miller

Like Michael Wacha, Shelby Miller is a pitcher who troubles me due to a combination of a problematic arm action and a climbing average fastball velocity.

Yes, Shelby Miller is throwing his fastball harder than ever and getting better results as his velocity climbs. However, I don't believe that what he is doing is sustainable.

Shelby Miller's Pitching Mechanics

If you look at Shelby Miller at the moment his front foot starts to plant and his shoulders start to rotate, his pitching forearm is just a tick above flat and his forearm is pronated. While that creates a tension in his pitching arm that causes it to powerfully whip, it also places a tremendous amount of stress on his elbow and shoulder.

The bottom line on Shelby Miller is that, just because he's throwing hard, it doesn't mean he's throwing well. Rather, and like Icarus, I believe that, as Shelby Miller's fastball reaches new heights, he comes closer to crashing down.

Keepers

So as to finish on an up-note, let me give you some names of pitchers that I tell my clients to study and that I have driven long distances to see and film in person.

While his lower body isn't perfect, and in my opinion has contributed to his recent decline, when I'm working with my son on his pitching, the arm action of Justin Verlander is the template that I have in my head. David Price is the whole package; gorgeous pitching mechanics from top to bottom that explain both his dominance and his durability and which inspired me to study him in excruciating detail.

David Price's Pitching Mechanics

Jeff Locke isn't over-powering, and he can be inconsistent, but he has absolutely classic pitching mechancis and shows some signs that he's figuring out how to be successful with what he has. Aroldis Chapman stands in vivid contrast to the stripped-down, over-simplified, un-athletic pitching mechanics that are being taught. Curt Schilling's comments about his Gibson-ian, and largely irrelevant, fall off toward first base notwithstanding, Carlos Martinez is another pitcher with athletic, natural pitching mechanics.

Carlos Martinez's Pitching Mechanics

Finally, while much concern has been expressed by others about Chris Sale, I recently saw him pitch in person and I can tell you that, while there's certainly some risk there, like Randy Johnson his W is less Inverted than it seems.

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