Pitcher Injury Predictions
2015 All Star Break
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
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
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
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.
When I compared Matt Harvey to great pitchers like Tom Seaver, I
noticed a difference in their
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
If I could sell short on any one pitcher, it would be Gio Gonzalez.
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,
The picture below is a perfect example of the
Tommy John Twist causing
Flat Arm Syndrome and a
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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, Chris Sale's W is less Inverted than it seems.