MLB In Middle Of Love-hate Relationship With Pitching Biomechanics
Last Updated: Tue 23, Oct 18:30
First Of A Two-part Series
Within Four Days In June, Three Starting Pitchers Were Forced From A Game With Serious Injuries. Six Pitchers Were Lost To Season-ending Surgery On Shoulders And Elbows. Three Will Miss At Least A Year Following Tommy John Surgery.
No Wonder The Toronto Blue Jays And Their Long-suffering Fans Began To Ask: Why Are So Many Pitchers Getting Hurt?
“It’s Hard,” Says Toronto Pitching Coach Bruce Walton. “You Can Go Round And Round And Round And You Come Back To The Same Place. You Don’t Know.”
Some Experts Insist Answers Are Available To Those Willing To Look And Listen. Advocates Of Biomechanical Analysis — A Detailed Scientific Diagnosis Of A Pitcher’s Delivery — Say That Common Flaws In Delivery Mechanics Can Foreshadow Injuries, And That Early Detection And Adjustment Can Help Keep A Pitcher Healthy And Boost His Effectiveness.
Biomechanical Analysis Parses A Pitcher’s Delivery Using Sophisticated Computer Software That Records A Three-dimensional Image. It Reveals Red Flags That Coaches Cannot See With The Naked Eye Or Using Conventional Video.
Many Baseball Traditionalists Want Nothing To Do With It. Don Cooper Has Been Coaching For 25 Years, Including The Past 10½ Seasons In The Majors With The White Sox. He Is No Fan Of Biomechanics. He Says He Relies On His Eyes And Experience, And He Has A Solid Record To Stand On. Over The Past Decade, His White Sox Starters Have Thrown More Innings And Logged More Quality Starts Than Any Other Team.
“I Don’t Want To Sound Pompous Or Like I Know It All. I Don’t,” Cooper Says. “But If There’s Somebody That’s Put More Time Into The Pitching Delivery Than Me, I’d Like To Shake His Hand.”
Don Cooper, Shake Hands With Glenn Fleisig, Research Director Of The American Sports Medicine Institute In Birmingham, Ala. Founded 25 Years Ago By An Emerging Icon Of Sports Medicine Named Dr. James Andrews, ASMI Is A Pioneer In Biomechanical Analysis. Fleisig Has Been At ASMI Since The Beginning.
Over The Years, The Blue Jays Have Used Andrews A Lot — He Performed Six Surgeries On Their Pitchers This Year — But They Do Not Use Fleisig’s Biomechanics Lab. Fleisig Does Not Comment On Specific Cases, But Says The Blue Jays Have Reason For Concern.
“They Should Be Asking Questions,” Fleisig Said. “And We’ll Never Prove Whether They Did Something Wrong Or Whether It Was Bad Luck. Six [surgeries] Could Be A Fluke, Or It Might Not Be. But It’s Definitely Worth Analyzing Your System And Thinking About Whether You Can Make Improvements, Whether It’s Through Biomechanics, Or Pitching Workloads, Or Conditioning.”
You Shouldn’t Do A Biomechanical Evaluation Unless You Are Prepared For The Answer
Drew Hutchison Could Be A Poster Boy For The Blue Jays’ Concerns. He Is 22. He Jumped From Double-A To The Big Leagues After Logging Only 235 Innings In The Minors — Well Short Of The 400 Minimum That Some Clubs Advocate And That Former Jays Manager John Farrell, Once A Pitching Coach, Agrees Is An Ideal Number.
On June 15, In His 11th Major-league Start, Hutchison Had To Leave With Elbow Pain. His Ulnar Collateral Ligament Was Torn. After Getting Second And Third Opinions, Hutchison Finally Agreed To Undergo Reconstructive Elbow Surgery — The Famed Tommy John Procedure — In August.
Both Walton And Bullpen Coach Pete Walker Say They Saw No Alarming Signs In Hutchison’s Delivery, Nor In The Deliveries Of Kyle Drabek And Luis Perez, The Other Toronto Pitchers Who Needed Tommy John Surgery This Year.
But In Several Starts Leading Up To His Injury, Hutchison’s Velocity Increased Noticeably; He “made A Conscious Effort To Throw The Ball With A Little Bit More Power,” Manager John Farrell Said At The Time. Hutchison Also Showed Occasional Signs Of Losing Rhythm In His Delivery, Which Is Not Uncommon For Young Pitchers Facing The High-stakes Pressure Of The Big Leagues For The First Time.
“I Think The Most Drastic Thing You Find With A Young Pitcher Is The Hostile Environment,” Walton Says. “You Get After It Here. Not That You Don’t Get After It In The Minor Leagues, But These Innings Here, They Obviously Count A Lot More. You Probably Get Quicker Outs In The Minor Leagues. I’m Sure He Had A Lot Of One- Or Two-pitch Outs, Sinking The Ball Against The Bottom Of The Order. Now He’s Facing The Yankees, And Tampa, And Baltimore, Where Every Hitter’s A Four-hitter For Him. They’re Strenuous Pitches. How Do You Practise That?”
Some Would Reply: Keep The Youngster In The Minors Longer To Build Up Consistency In His Delivery And The Experience To Handle The Most Pressure The Minors Can Offer.
The Pitching-rich Tampa Bay Rays Drafted And Developed All Five Of The Primary Starters They Used This Season. Except For David Price, Their Ace, Those Pitchers Averaged 561 Minor-league Innings Before Settling Into The Big Leagues. Price Threw Only 144.
This Year Only Two Rays Pitchers Spent Time On The Disabled List. Veteran Reliever Kyle Farnsworth Missed 87 Days With An Elbow Strain And Jeremy Hellickson 15 Days With A Sore Shoulder. That 102-day Total Was The Lowest For Any Pitching Staff In The Majors.
Just As Toronto’s Injury Epidemic Of 2012 Could Be A Fluke, So Too Could Tampa Bay’s Good Health. The DL Figures For Pitchers’ Arm Injuries Have Fluctuated Inexplicably Over The Past Nine Years, From A Low Of 119 In 2005 To A High Of 191 In 2008, According To Data Compiled For This Article By Major League Baseball.
But This Year’s 33 Tommy John Surgeries Were A Record High.
Walton Acknowledges That Hutchison’s Delivery Mechanics Were Imperfect.
“Hutchison Was The Only One [of The Tommy John Patients] Who Threw Across His Body A Little Bit, With The Elbow Down A Little Bit,” Walton Said. “But That Was His Style Of Pitching. That’s How He’s Always Thrown.”
Advocates Of Biomechanical Analysis Stress The Importance Of Testing Young Pitchers Early. Fleisig Says Roughly 20 Of The 30 Big-league Clubs Have Brought Pitchers To ASMI For Testing, Usually One Or Two At A Time, And Most Are Young Prospects.
Dewey Robinson, One Of The First Coaches To Visit The New ASMI Lab In The Late 1980s, Is Tampa Bay’s Minor-league Pitching Co-ordinator. An Early Convert To Biomechanics, He Has Been Coaching For 26 Seasons. Getting An Early Scientific Baseline On A Pitcher’s Delivery Can Be A Boon Later On, He Says.
“Our Younger Pitchers Are Healthy, They’re Throwing Good, So We Want To Get A Baseline On Their Mechanics — Their Hip Speed, Their Arm Angle, That Kind Of Stuff — So If Something Goes Wrong Down The Road, We Can Send Them Back In [to ASMI] And Be Able To Compare.”
For Testing, ASMI Staff Attach 38 Reflective Markers To Key Spots On A Pitcher’s Body. Eight Cameras Record His Delivery.
The Resulting DVD Represents The Pitcher As A Moving Three-dimensional “stick Figure.” Meanwhile, High-speed Video — At 500 Frames Per Second — Records The Pitcher In The Flesh.
The Technology Generates 32 Different Measurements, Charting Anatomical Angles, Torques And Timing Mechanisms That Are Invisible To The Naked Eye. The Data Are Compared To A “normative Range,” Compiled From Analyses Of Elite Pitchers Over The Years.
Sometimes The Pitching Coach Confronts The Previously Unseen Issues. Other Problems Are Referred To The Trainer Or Conditioning Coach.
“We Found One Guy, His Hips Were Real Slow And He Was Real Weak In The Core, So We Spent A Lot Of Time Strengthening His Core And Working On His Hip Speed, His Hip Turn,” Robinson Said. “We Found Another Guy Who Was Tested Two Or Three Times And We Found He Was Losing External Range Of Motion, So We Were Able To Target That And Get The Trainers With Him On An Intensive Program To Help Him.
“Those Are Things Nobody Can See With The Naked Eye.”
For A Pitching Coach, The Challenge Is To Know What To Do When These Secrets Are Revealed. Relatively Few Coaches Are Eager To Embrace Biomechanical Analysis. Even If They Are, They Often Do Not Know How To Use The Data To Help A Pitcher.
“You Shouldn’t Ask The Questions Unless You Want The Answers,” Said Fleisig, Who Has Tested More Than 2,000 Pitchers At ASMI. “You Shouldn’t Do A Biomechanical Evaluation Unless You Are Prepared For The Answer. And The Answer Could Be That You See Things That You Never Saw Before.”
In Light Of This Year’s Injury Epidemic, The Blue Jays Will Conduct A Thorough Review Of Their Pitching Program This Winter, General Manager Alex Anthopoulos Said.
Will They Consider Biomechanical Analysis?
“We’ll Look At Everything,” He Said.
BY THE NUMBERS
33: Major-league Pitchers Who Had Tommy John Surgery In 2012. Previous High Was 21 In 2007, According To Baseballprospectus.com.
4: Kansas City Royals Pitchers Who Had Tommy John Surgery This Year, Most In Majors. Toronto Blue Jays Had Three.
149: Pitchers Who Spent Time On The Disabled List With Arm-related Injuries This Year, According To Data Compiled By Major League Baseball. Average For The Previous Eight Years: 155.
71: Pitchers Who Spent Time On DL This Year With Elbow Injuries. Average For Previous Eight Years: 60.
6: Blue Jays Pitchers Who Had Season-ending Surgery For Arm-related Injuries This Year.
3: Blue Jays Pitchers Who Had Season-ending Surgery For Arm-related Injuries Over The Previous Five Years.
1: Blue Jays Pitcher Who Needed Season-ending Surgery To Repair A Broken Foot (J.A. Happ). Cause Of Fracture: Unknown.