D-Whit - The Wheels Come Off


As I was working on a follow up post on why the Mets could lose 90 games this year the news about Zack Wheeler hit the net. Wheeler, Sandy Alderson’s first big trade acquisition, was the middle cog in the Harvey-Wheeler-Syndegaard wheel of aces. Robin to Harvey’s Batman, and now like the Dark Knight, the boy pitching wonder faces the replacement of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. 

If Harvey’s 2013 injury was a gut punch, Wheeler’s is more like a shot to the chops, a stunning blow snapping the neck back, but you still keep your feet. The Mets have the pitching depth to lessen the impact of Wheeler’s loss but it doesn’t change the fact that the team’s anticipated top three arms of the 2015 rotation now each will bear the same scar across their precious right elbows . Dreams of a modern day Seaver-Koosman-Matlack or Gooden-Darling-Fernandez-type top of the rotation dominance is now a pipe dream at best. The human arm is not made to throw a baseball. The violent action of an arm throwing high 90s heat puts such wear and tear on that rubber band-like appendage around the elbow that it’s no wonder how frequently it snaps in two. 

Before 1974 the injury was essentially a death sentence for a pitcher. Now it’s an injury whose surgery is becoming almost commonplace-too commonplace. There’s something wrong when pitchers of previous generations tossed thousands of innings without need of Tommy John surgery. Baseball seems to reside in the dark ages when it comes to the fragile and valuable commodity of a pitcher’s arm. Science seems tossed aside in favor of pitch counts, throwing routines, inning limits, and other what can be best seen as ineffective, and outdated ways to keep a pitcher’s arm healthy. Yu Darvish, Jose Fernandez, Brandon Beachy, Harvey, and now Wheeler are just some of the top hurlers losing a season in their prime as a result of the injury. 

But as Met fans, what we care about most of all is the loss of Wheeler. It seems like yesterday he was making his impressive MLB debut in Atlanta and now he’s gone till 2016. It’s easy to point fingers at how Collins and Alderson handled him, or how pitching coach Dan Warthen never worked on correcting the flaws in his delivery that put added stress on his elbow, or doctors who viewed his two offseason MRI’s and didn’t see any problems. But the fault line runs deeper than this because it’s a league-wide problem. MLB has done everything to help mitigate pitching injuries and lengthen the careers of its hurlers-except one-embrace bio-science with the same zeal it has the science of analytics. Baseball should be focusing more on this than issues like pitch clocks or improving pace of play. 

The problem is that by and large MLB has convinced itself that injuries like Wheeler’s are just part of the risk of pitching and that, as Alderson is quoted as saying, something along the lines of ‘pitchers break down, it’s what happens.’ Technology has become such a part of the game except when studying the act of pitching. The most used technology for pitcher’s dates back to the 1970s, the pitching radar gun. Sure it’s nice to know how fast Harvey’s fastball is but it’s more important to know what is happening inside his arm as he throws 95+MPH heat. 

They call the equipment of catcher’s the tools of ignorance but maybe the real tools of ignorance are the outmoded methods baseball uses to handle what in many ways is its most volatile and valuable commodity, its starting pitching. Wheeler’s injury is reminder of just how volatile. It’s the reason why the saying, “you can never have too much pitching” is more than a baseball cliché, it’s the cold, hard truth.


Thomas Brennan said...

I think it is awful all of these TJ injuries. But I think the Mets will cope well. A healthy deGrom and Harvey will do this team wonders in tandem.

I also want to add, you can never have too much hitting. The Mets have a clip of Johnny Monell's shot on their site - check it out. I only want hitters on this team.

eraff said...

They're simply too good to lose 90 games---perish the thought, even a loss of Wright would not do that....not that they can "WIN" without him as a majoy cog.

The loss of Wheeler is Twofold--- there's the upside that he could provide a breakout Front End Starter Performance---Gee is copetent, if healthy---but the upside is limited.

It also piches their ability to make a laetr move by reducing tehir assets....although it's a major leap to thing that SA would add an in-season MLB Piece.

Steve from Norfolk said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve from Norfolk said...

Excellent commentary, D-Whit.

There are support braces for the UCL that are designed to be worn in-game, particularly the Vantelin brace. At a retail price of $19.99, I can't believe MLB isn't all over this device with studies and minor league testing. Sounds a lot cheaper for a team that losing a Harvey, Wheeler or a Wainwright or Darvish for a season or more. The only thing cheaper would be to put a speed limit on pitchers. One thing that could be done that's perfectly legal and not used is the 6 man rotation. I never used to be a fan of it, but I'm changing my mind. Another action that could be taken is a per-game and season innings limit for first year returning TJS victims.

You read me right, I called them victims. Kids are not being taught to pitch with a proper motion. Some coaches actually TEACH the inverted W pitching position! Matt Harvey's dad was asked by Matt's freshman pitching coach at UNC to consider teaching it to Matt, but his dad had read about the dangers of it and wouldn't. Matt might be on his 2nd TJS if he had used this. This motion seems to keep your elbow bent a lot longer, even to the release point where keeping your elbow down straightens your arm earlier, transferring a good deal of the torque from the elbow ligaments to the much heavier muscles of the shoulders.

I looked at some forage of Wheeler on YouTube (thanks, Baseball Instinct) from 2011, and I noticed his motion straightened his arm out much earlier, removing a lot of the strain from his elbow before he had added most of his speed to the ball (he seems to get a final burst of speed from a whipping motion of his forearm, at least from my perception). Mack said yesterday responding to a post of mine that the Giants had changed his motion from his college motion, which used the inverted W position, but the Mets let him change back. Maybe his reluctance to change or his result with it made it easier for the Giants to trade him. They had already had one experience with the inverted W motion - Barry Zito.

Yeah, Im kind of crusading against the inverted-W. But I think actually TEACHING it is unconscable. You're asking a pitcher to trade his health for the possibility of another mile or two on their pitches. I don't like that.

Steve from Norfolk said...

I apologize for the typos, guys. They're getting to the point where it's getting hard to understand some of the points I'm trying to make. It'll get better.

Thomas Brennan said...

Great notes, Steve. I never heard of the inverted W. Seems a great way to invert a pitcher's career.

Mack's Mets © 2012