In a recent open thread, dan o'hare posted this article from ESPN about Tommy John surgery and the biomechanics of pitching that reminded me about the fanpost that I've been wanting to write for a couple years and have never gotten around to. After getting a large proposal off my to-do list Friday and being home nursing my hangover yesterday, I figured I'd finally give it a shot. The article was not particularly revolutionary and mostly regurgitated fairly well-known theories about pitching mechanics, but one section caught my eye about what it would take for major league organizations to finally embrace and leverage the growing body of pitching mechanical knowledge:
It would require a risk-taking franchise to explode the status quo. A GM would need biomechanics experts, coaches who listen to them and an owner who believes the forward-thinking approach will save his pitchers' arms -- as well as millions in payroll. Baltimore GM Dan Duquette may be that man. In January, he hired Peterson as the Orioles' director of pitching development.
For so many years, we've come to expect nothing but derision and mockery when it comes to front office decision making in Baltimore. It was refreshing to see praise for a direction taken by the brain trust in the warehouse for once and it motivated me to finally dig into the study of mechanics and what it might mean for the O's.
This issue is interesting to me because, as I've probably made clear in various discussions about lineup optimization and bullpen management, I'm a big proponent of the Orioles doing as many little and cheap things right as possible to help mitigate the disadvantages they face in a division stocked with well-run organizations including the two biggest spenders in the league. It warms my heart to think that they may be one of the first clubs to take biomechanics seriously at an organizational level, because embracing the evolving science has the potential to make the Orioles more competitive on the field via drafting and signing pitchers less likely to get injured and working with the pitchers we have to address any mechanical concerns.
Additionally, this issue is personally very compelling to me. I was introduced to the basic concepts of pitching mechanics when I was 11 years old and my dad took me to an Orioles youth baseball clinic in 1994. I had the good fortune to work one on one for a few minutes with then O's pitching coach Dick Bosman (it's quite pathetic to note that the O's have had 13 different pitching coaches in the 17 seasons since) . I don't remember any of the specifics other than his badass mustache, but my interest in the concept was piqued. For the next ten years, I studied and tried to adopt whatever the latest mechanical wisdom at the time was; eliminating head movement and keeping my arm angle high in little league, landing on the ball of my foot rather than my heel and extending my follow through in high school, staying closed through a strong front side and timing progression from hips to shoulders to arm in college. It's a little ironic, but I was paying closest attention to advanced theories when I tore my UCL, but by that point I had thrown thousands of innings over my life and god knows how many pitches so mechanics might not have had much to do with it (eventually I'll get my old tape converted to CD and see if I was doing anything funky). In the years since I've continued to read the various experts (Chris O'Leary's site is great and the basis for the bulk of what I'm going to discuss here) both because I used to do some part-time pitching coaching and because I just find it interesting. I've been paying less and less attention to it though, as I've stopped coaching and while I played last summer for the first time since my surgery I no longer care enough to spend the time to modify my own mechanics. However, the O's hiring of Peterson and embracing biomechanics has renewed my interest and I look forward to seeing what progress they'll be able to make because of it.
As a first step, the Orioles and Peterson had 37 Orioles pitchers' deliveries mapped by the experts at famed arm surgeon James Andrews' American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI). The 37 pitchers included those on the major league club, which is a diversion from the approach that other organizations take of typically only studying and addressing mechanical issues of pitchers before they reach the majors. Once pitchers reach the majors, clubs tend to be uncomfortable addressing mechanical concerns primarily to avoid messing with a good thing and potentially being blamed for any negative results. However, given the youth of a number of the O's pitchers - notably Matusz, Arrieta, and Britton - it seems wise for the Orioles to be more aggressive in their analysis. While we will likely never know the specifics of ASMI's findings or what the organization plans to do with them, I thought it might be interesting to have a CC community assessment of some of our more prized pitchers and discuss whether we think there's any cause for concern. I've chosen to tackle "the cavalry" of Arrieta, Matusz, Tillman, and then Britton and Bundy since they are obviously crucial to the Orioles' future. If anybody wants to throw out some other names, we could check them out in another post.
Let's start with what to look for. I want to be very clear that this is an evolving science and there is significant disagreement among experts about various theories on the subject. That being said, there is almost unanimous support for the theory that one of the biggest predictors of injury among pitchers is the positioning of the throwing arm at the time of foot strike (when the pitcher's stride foot hits the ground following leg lift). The positioning of the arm at this point determines the timing of the transition of energy from the hips to the shoulders to the throwing arm and if the arm lags behind it puts significantly more strain on both the elbow and the shoulder instead of the larger muscles in the trunk and core. The most notoriously problematic position is when the pitching arm elbow is above both the pitchers' shoulder and wrist. The majority of you are probably familiar with the "inverted W" (which for the life of me I don't understand why they don't just call the M) which was made famous by Stephen Strasburg, but there is also the inverted L and the inverted V which have been found to be similarly problematic. There are lots of other mechanical flaws to look for, but to keep things simple and because this seems to be the biggest red flag at the moment, let's start there.
Here's a pic of an inverted W:
And the inverted L being demonstrated by our old friend, B.J. Ryan:
And the inverted V:
All of these arm positions have caught on because they make it incredibly easy to identify a problematic pitching arm side (PAS) forearm location at foot strike. The problem positions are PAS elbow above shoulder and behind back (known as hyperabduction - at or above shoulder + 5 degrees behind back) and then PAS elbow above wrist/ball (known as inversion or internal rotation of more than 90 degrees). The most glaring problems seem to occur when a pitcher exhibits both of these mechanical flaws at the same time as in the inverted letters demonstrated above, but any one of them can indicate a problem on it's own. The ideal positioning is PAS elbow below shoulder with external rotation rather than internal rotation at the time of foot strike. Maddux is the pitcher that many point to when demonstrating proper mechanics:
Now that we know what we're looking for, do any of the O's young pitchers have any of these inverted letters and timing issues going on? At best, this is going to be a very high level assessment since I don't have the knowledge, technology, or time to do the type of analysis that Peterson and ASMI are doing, but hopefully it's at least interesting. I watched video on all these guys and then tracked down images just prior to foot strike for use in this article. I've tried to use recent images in case their mechanics have changed, but it wasn't always easy to find a good side angle at foot strike, so in some cases I used older images.
When I first started thinking about this I was worried about Jake Arrieta, because I knew that he had an extremely high glove arm side (GAS) when in the power position (after hands separate) and also because he's a hard thrower which means more stress on the joints. However, his timing looks pretty solid as elbow appears safely below shoulder and he's already right around 90 degrees of internal rotation and his foot hasn't quite landed yet so it's safe to assume he'll be in a good position at foot strike:
I will say that he appeared to get closer to danger in some pictures, such as the one below. In general his arm position at foot strike seems to vary quite a bit and at times pushes the envelope for what's considered safe, so hopefully Jake and the O's are keeping an eye on that. However, even in this picture he has less than 90 degrees of internal rotation going on, so at least he's not combining that with the hyperabduction.
Now for Brian Matusz. Given his velocity problems of last season I was particularly interested to see what his mechanics might tell us. Loss of velocity without other symptoms can occur with still-developing rotator cuff and labrum injuries, but the return of his velocity this spring bodes well. In the vast majority of images and video of Matusz at foot strike he looks fine, but in this picture from his outing last week against the Phillies his pitching elbow appears slightly above shoulder and certainly above wrist, approaching inverted W territory:
While he is not demonstrating any of the extreme inverted letters pictured above, his elbow is clearly at or above shoulder and looks to be a few degrees behind back and then he's obviously more than 90 degrees inverted. It could be that this pic caught him a little too early before foot strike or on a pitch where his mechanics were slightly off, but it seems like a potential timing problem.
I was not particularly concerned about Chris Tillman, because I knew that he had a distinctively low PAS elbow at foot strike, often creating an upward PAS to GAS diagonal line, so he appears to be in the clear. His elbow is clearly below shoulder and he's got less than 90 degrees of internal rotation going on:
How about Zach Britton? Could any of the inverted letters be contributing to his ongoing bout with shoulder inflammation that's caused him to resort to platelet-rich plasma treatment? Nope, looks like his shoulder problems must be due to something else (perhaps just throwing a baseball at high velocity thousands of times a year...). Obviously he's been sidelined this spring so there aren't any in-game images to be seen, but here's a shot of him last year looking fine:
So that leaves us with Dylan Bundy - the next great hope of Oriole fans everywhere. Scouts rave about his work ethic, his stuff, and his maturity, but do his mechanics give us any cause for pause (I couldn't resist)? There's not a ton of recent images of him at foot strike, but I checked out this video of him here and he looks great and gives no indication of anything concerning. This is good news and means that not only should the rest of the organization look to him as a model in the weight room (too many damn noodle arms!), but in the pitching mechanics realm as well.
Since these 5 guys came up so clean, I figured I'd look at some other O's just to see if I could find anybody who looked problematic. Surprisingly, most guys look OK, with the exception of Brad Bergesen. Now, I regularly dismiss Brad Bergesen as a flash in the pan and don't in any way view him as important to the future of the O's, but I found this image of him demonstrating the textbook inverted L. It's unclear whether he's at foot strike yet, so it might not be as bad as it looks, but it's definitely extreme hyperabduction for sure:
He should probably fix that, but I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. Harsh, I know.
Based on this cursory assessment, the O's young guns seem to be mostly free of the glaring red flags that the inverted W, L, and V that the pitching mechanic gurus of the world look for. Arrieta and Matusz appear to flirt with the danger zones at times with Matusz recently demonstrating a more severe problem, but even in the worst images of them the positioning was not glaring, so I'm hopeful there's not much cause for concern. This is in no way definitive proof that none of these guys have mechanical flaws or that they'll have long and happy careers, but it's nice to know none of the guys that we're depending on to start to turn this once-great franchise around are pitching with these issues at the moment.
In yesterday's open thread, zk posted this NYT article about the ongoing search for competitive advantage in major league baseball and the Astros' new GM Jeff Luhnow listed injury prevention as a potential differentiator:
Luhnow listed a handful of issues teams could emphasize, including injury prevention. Imagine if a team could keep all its best players off the disabled list, year after year. Freakish injuries are inevitable, but which body types are more likely to stay healthy? What are the proper hitting, pitching and running mechanics to minimize physical risk?
I'm hopeful that the hiring of Rick Peterson and the submission of the O's pitchers for assessment at ASMI is just the beginning of a total revamp for how the O's scout and develop pitchers and that it could be part of a more comprehensive effort to differentiate themselves in search of that elusive competitive advantage. Unfortunately it is likely that we as fans will be mostly in the dark about what that process entails as I'm certain that the front office views it as a potentially significant competitive advantage. However, as they are studying the biomechanics of pitching and making organizational decisions based on the theories and findings, it's fun (for me at least) to speculate about what they might be looking at, both among current and potential Orioles pitchers. I'd love to get the CC community's thoughts on the O's incorporation of the study of pitching biomechanics generally and on the mechanical observations I've made about these specific pitchers. Do you think this organizational shift could contribute to significant improvement for the big club? Have I missed anything in my assessment of our young guns above?