In an article that seemingly came out of nowhere, Si.com columnist Tom Verducci posted this missive on 3/8/11 with ominous warnings to Nationals fans everywhere. He believes that Stephen Strasburg has a fatal flaw in his mechanics related to the timing of his stride forward off the rubber versus his release point that may continue to plague the pitcher even after his post Tommy John surgery recovery.
I say this article comes out of nowhere since I would have expected to see this posted back in August 2010, when every other pundit posted their own theories as to why “the best pitching prospect ever” suddenly blew out his elbow. I reviewed some of those explanations at the time but thought (and still do think) that his injury was less about his release point and more about pitch selection. I think that Strasburg (and more importantly his catchers) fell in love with his change-up after discovering what a devastating pitch it was (imagine facing a 91-mph screw ball that moves a foot into the right handed hitter). Suddenly he was throwing a ton of circle changes and placing unexpected, here-to-fore unseen stress directly on his elbow ligament. When a hurler goes from pitching one day a week in a protected environment where he can get by throwing mostly fastballs to overpower college hitters to suddenly throwing only about 58% fastballs (per Verducci’s research) at the Major league level every 5 days, sudden injury onset can occur.
Verducci touches on the preponderance of off-speed pitches Strasburg was throwing in the article but focuses on the “late cocking” of the arm as the primary culprit of the injury. He then lists a number of pitchers who exhibit this same late arm cocking with (conveniently) a ghastly list of arm and shoulder injuries that followed.
Here’s my problem with this type of cherry picking of arm injuries; as Mike Rizzo pointed out in the article, you can probably find a similar subset of pitchers who exhibit the same late-cocking of the arm who have NEVER had an arm injury. Rob Neyer posted a similar opinion in a Verducci-followup piece. Similarly, those who subscribe to the “Inverted W” pitching mechanical flaw fail to point out that, while there are plenty of examples of pitchers who show the inverted W behavior (most notably in most examples is Mark Prior but Strasburg exhibits the same mechanics as well), there are also plenty of pitchers who do the same motion but who never have had a serious injury. People always forget to mention this fact and their articles always come off with the message that “if you exhibit this, you are doomed.”
John Smoltz was listed as a pitcher who had this fatal mechanical flaw (he also has inverted W syndrome) and listed as an “example” of what can happen. Yes Smoltz blew out his elbow in his early 30s and missed an entire major league season. But he also pitched until he was 42, made over 700 major league starts, won 213 games and saved another 154 while he was in the closer role theoretically “protecting” his arm. If Strasburg gives the Washington franchise those kinds of numbers between now and the year 2030 (when he too will be 42 years of age) I will never quibble.
For me, shoulder injuries are the injuries that you really worry about. Look at Chien-Ming Wang right now; he’s throwing in the low 80s 2+ years on from shoulder surgery. The Nats have taken fliers on several other post-shoulder injury starters over the past few years (Brian Lawrence, Ryan Drese, John Patterson) with limited success. However, pitchers seem to be able to recover from Tommy John surgeries with much better regularity. I realize our own Shawn Hill had the TJ surgery and never really came back, but the list of successful pitchers who have had the TJ surgery is long. 3 of the top 5 NL Cy Young candidates last year (Josh Johnson, Tim Hudson and now Adam Wainwright) have had the TJ surgery, as did 2009 NL cy Young winner Chris Carpenter. Our own Jordan Zimmermann seems to be nicely recovering, although it is far too soon to conclude that his surgery was a success.
I sometimes wonder what modern medicine could have done with Sandy Koufax, who abruptly retired at age 30 after a Cy Young winning season where he made 41 starts and went 27-9. His retirement reason was listed as “arthritis in his pitching elbow” and he had symptoms that included massive hemorrhaging in his arm; was this a condition that would be easily solved today?
For Strasburg, as with pretty much any baseball pitcher, in many ways every pitch could be your last. Modern medicine can fix all kinds of injuries and modern technology can pin point the wheres and whys of why some guys may last and some guys may be flashes in the pan. But in the end, some guys physiologically are more durable than others, some guys can throw a ball through a brick wall for 25 years (see Ryan, Nolan) and others break down after just a few professional games. Lets just hope for the best once Strasburg comes back.