No Surprise – Zack Wheeler Has Torn UCL
We will cover this in further depth later in the week, but for now, it should be noted that Sandy Alderson wasn’t the only one who was “not suprised” that Wheeler’s elbow blew out. However, it didn’t necessarily have to be inevitable (but we’ll get into that soon enough).
A few quotes and links from the past:
From his 2011 spring training debut, when we were alerted to the fact that the Mets allowed Wheeler to return to the pitching mechanics he used in high school. The Giants had attempted to make Wheeler’s mechanics more efficient after drafting him.
(Though, the Mets did eventually attempt to make adjustments to Wheeler’s delivery — after his 2013 MLB debut, when he was tipping pitches.)
Here at MetsToday we were concerned about Wheeler’s mechanics during 2013 spring training:
“There’s no doubt he has swing-and-miss stuff. My only concern is that makes his shoulder work really hard in delivering the ball. Although his mechanics look fluid and he repeats them well, his throwing arm lags a bit behind the rest of his body; his motion reminds me — a lot — of Mark Prior‘s”
I noticed, but didn’t love, some mechanical adjustments that Wheeler made between spring training and his MLB debut in June 2013 that were related to an attempt to keep his front shoulder closed.
After his fourth MLB start, I made this statement:
Still, Wheeler reached 80 pitches after four innings, and his velocity wasn’t in that 98-99 MPH range that made him such an exciting prospect. Instead, he was hanging in the 95-97 range, slipping to 93-95 in his last two innings, which is still pretty darn fast. But, it’s mildly concerning that Wheeler’s velocity has dropped a few MPH so quickly after a few innings. I imagine part of it has to do wit all of the mechanical adjustments thrown upon him by Dan Warthen; when and athlete is thinking, he’s slowing himself down just a bit. I hope that’s the problem, rather than my more serious fear: an arm issue. At some point in the next few years, Wheeler is very likely to have a shoulder and/or elbow injury, because his hand is not where it needs to be when his front foot comes down — it’s a good two beats behind most of the time. That means his arms and legs are not in sync, which means his arm is “shouldering” (pardon the pun) most of the load.
In Wheeler’s 8th career MLB start, I was a bit more forceful and descriptive with my concerns, mainly in response to Bobby Ojeda’s statement that Wheeler’s delivery was “outstanding” (the photo is taken directly from the SNY telecast of that game):
First, the front shoulder: it’s clear that Wheeler is conscious of, and working very hard to, “stay closed.” He’s over-compensating to the point where he’s over-rotating the upper body, which is causing the front shoulder to open too early — ironically, the exact issue he’s trying to avoid. It’s a common occurrence, thanks to numnut pitching coaches who don’t know jack about human kinetics.
Secondly, and much more importantly, is the position of his throwing hand at “foot strike.” It’s far behind where it needs to be — at this point in his motion, the ball should be at a “launching position,” high in the air, ball pointed toward an area between second base and shortstop, with his forearm at a 90-degree angle to the ground. Being this far behind means there is undue stress on the arm to propel the baseball; all that stride and rotation is doing next to nothing (if anything) in regard to velocity. Wheeler’s fastball velocity is entirely dependent on his arm speed. This is not a “great” nor “outstanding” delivery as Ojeda describes — it’s bad, and dangerous. If he “consistently” throws this way, he will injure his arm quickly. His is very, very similar to Mark Prior‘s delivery — trust me, Prior’s injuries had nothing to do with chance, and everything to do with where his hand was at foot strike. That’s not my opinion, it’s the proven fact of scientists who study benign subjects such as human body movement. I’m sure that the Giants had an idea that Wheeler’s motion was dangerous, which was why they were trying to adjust it. Whether they knew exactly what the problem was, and how to fix it, is another story. And no, changing a pitcher’s motion doesn’t mean he’ll lose his effectiveness — IF the adjustment is made correctly. I’ve argued this point in the past too often, and not arguing it again — efficient, safe mechanics are ALWAYS better than the alternative and can only improve a pitcher’s effectiveness over the long haul.
In case people didn’t hear Chicken Little the first time, I reiterated my concerns after Mets game 129, which also happened to be Wheeler’s first start after we learned that Matt Harvey blew out his elbow:
Just one thing: why was he removed with two outs in the seventh and .152-hitting pitcher Cliff Lee at the plate? Talk about knee-jerk reaction to the terrible news earlier in the day. Terry Collins explained it was because Wheeler had reached that magical, randomly chosen pitch count of 105, and didn’t want to stress him any further.
Stress? Wheeler had not pitched with stress. Through six and two-thirds, he threw 105 pitches — an average of about 16 pitches per inning, which is one pitch away from the ideal target of 15 per. More importantly, he didn’t really have any stressful innings — his second inning went 20 pitches, and his fourth frame went 21, but otherwise, it was all fairly breezy, 11-14-pitch innings.
Personally, I’m convinced — based on both qualitative and quantitative kinetic research presented by scientists — that Wheeler’s mechanics are going to eventually result in chronic arm problems. But throw that out the window for the moment and look at it from the Mets’ perspective: they changed him BACK to that dangerous motion, so either they don’t believe the science, or they don’t care. Regardless of which it is, their reliance on a hard number — be it pitch count or innings limit — pushes them even further away from logic and science. But that’s not even the worst of it — the worst is that their messages, actions, and philosophy regarding their young pitchers are in a constant state of flux. There is no consistency, no adherence to a long-term plan — in fact, no plan at all. One day, they talk about pushing their starters a few extra pitches, or an extra inning, because they need to learn to battle. Another day, they’re cutting off a starter prematurely, whether it’s due to a predetermined pitch count or to make him “feel good about himself.” Now with the injury to Harvey, everything goes out the window.
If I’m the Mets pitching coach, Wheeler doesn’t even take the mound until he adjusts his motion to be less dangerous — which is what the Giants were working on before giving up and trading him to the Mets. But assuming I’m fine with a pitcher’s mechanics, and he’s pitching into the seventh inning of a ballgame, and he’s breezing through, I’m allowing him to continue pitching until/unless I see fatigue. It could be 90 pitches, could be 105, could be 125 — but the point is, as a manager or coach, it’s my job to see how a pitcher is doing, “take his temperature” from the dugout, and know when he’s had enough. Wheeler, in this ballgame, had not had enough, was still pitching without stress, and was still the Mets’ very best option to get the final out of the inning. I may not have sent him out for the 8th, and, depending on how he handled Lee, may not have let him face another batter that inning, but Lee was his batter to retire.
The above may be the first public indication that the Mets knew they were playing with fire by letting Wheeler pitch with dangerous mechanics. Or, as mentioned previously, they don’t believe mechanics make a difference — they simply believe that injuries are inevitable and cannot be prevented, and so limiting pitches will somehow stave off the inevitable. Bottom line is that either way, they were hanging Wheeler out to dry. It is kind of like buying a used car that you know has an oil leak, but instead of getting it fixed, you run the car to the ground. Maybe you don’t take a few long trips to keep it from happening, but you know you’re going to drive the thing until it stops running.
Ten days later, Wheeler again had velocity issues. It may also have been one of those times in the past that he pitched with pain.
What happened to the upper-90s fastball? Is he tiring due to it being his longest season ever? I’m not so sure. He was over-exaggerating keeping his front shoulder closed, to the point where it was preventing him from reaching full velocity. A pitcher needs to keep his front side closed as long as possible AFTER his front foot hits the ground. What Wheeler was doing was turning in his front shoulder at leg lift (over-rotating) and keeping it there to the point where it looked unnatural. The result was that his right arm was far behind the rest of his body — even moreso than usual — and his pitches were higher than intended. I also was concerned with Wheeler’s body language. He looked uncomfortable and frustrated from the get-go, which to me suggests he was either thinking too much about his mechanics, or, experiencing discomfort or pain.
Maybe it WAS the long season that caused Wheeler to lose his velocity by the 4th or 5th inning. But then, that wouldn’t explain his having the same exact issue at the beginning of the season in 2014, would it? But that wasn’t the only thing that concerned me in Wheeler’s April start. It was, again, my response to Ojeda’s contention that Wheeler’s mechanics were something to be happy about:
Bobby Ojeda mentioned that Wheeler’s mechanics looked “great” and “consistent” and that “he wasn’t following through toward first base like last time.” To me, the mechanics were not “great” as his arm continues to be behind, particularly at foot strike. To me, his mechanics were not necessarily consistent — he occasionally had better timing, but only infrequently. As for following through toward first base, yes, he was, fairly frequently, and there is video to prove it. I hope people other than former MLB pitchers are looking at Wheeler’s motion and considering necessary changes that will prevent injury. According to their official blog, the Mets are using some kind of high-tech, cutting-edge, in-game biomechanical analysis. However, analysis is useless unless someone knows what they’re looking at and can apply fixes when needed. It’s kind of like having an X-ray or an MRI taken, and then not having a doctor to interpret the results, and/or a surgeon to perform the surgery.
And yes, it’s possible to perform well / put up good numbers with a dangerous process. MLB pitchers do it all the time (and then their arms blow out).
I really didn’t mean to pick on Bobby O. It’s really always been more about MLB in general believing they know more than anyone else. Ojeda, I’m sure, believed he knew what he was talking about because MLB’s closed-minded culture is the way it is, and taught him to feel that way.
After Game 68 of 2014, I brought to light a dangerous practice of MLB pitchers regarding rest and recovery, and applied it to Wheeler.
It was pointed out by Gary Cohen that Wheeler’s stats are better when on “regular” rest (four days) rather than “extra” (5+ days’ of rest). Ron Darling said that wasn’t surprising because Wheeler’s motion “has a lot of moving parts” and therefore “the more moving parts you have, the harder it is to make sure they’re all on time when you have that extra day.” Hmmm … well, I’d say IN GENERAL it’s hard to keep a bunch of moving parts “on time,” regardless of rest. But anyway, the next question by Gary — “would he be better off throwing a couple bullpen sessions in between to keep his mechanics sharp?” elicited a revealing response from Ron: “Yeah I would throw two days in a row… so he threw Sunday, Monday was an off-day — I would throw have thrown Tuesday and Wednesday, and then taken Thursday and Friday off before the start here on Saturday. Different strokes though, for every organization, you don’t know how they want to go. It used to be the pitching coach dictated when you threw on the mound, now the pitcher dictates when he wants to throw.”
A few things to address. First off, throwing a bullpen on Tuesday is incredibly dangerous because one day of rest is not nearly enough recovery time for the 86-pitch effort of Wheeler on Sunday, June 8. Wheeler needed to stay off the mound a minimum of three days per ASMI recovery guidelines. However, nearly every single MLB pitcher goes against these guidelines and throws a bullpen too early after a start. Why? Because MLB knows better than science, of course.
Secondly, the “different strokes for every organization” quote is a telling truth and an indicator of why there is a pitching injury epidemic in pro baseball. It’s true — and mind-boggling — that each MLB organization has its own rules / routines in regard to what pitchers do between starts. Few, if any, adhere to the ASMI guidelines, which were created not arbitrarily or via guesswork, but based on scientific research. But baseball knows better. It’s remarkable that other sports use scientific research to train their athletes, and as a result, most world-class athletes follow similar if not identical regimens, but baseball … well, it’s all over the place. Teams do whatever they think might work, based on … hmmm … not sure. And we wonder why there are so many pitching injuries, when everyone is being trained differently.
Finally, I hope that more pitchers dictate their own throwing programs — after they learn about proper recovery. If teams can’t provide safe and effective methods, it’s up to the pitchers to take their health in their own hands.
For those of you interested in learning more about pitching injuries, and how they can be prevented, you can listen to the podcast I do every week with Angel Borrelli. What we discuss is based on science, rather than guesswork and hearsay handed down from one layman to another. We also provide tips on increasing pitching velocity, if you’re into that sort of thing. You can also check out OnBaseball.com for the podcasts, accompanying photos, references, and other baseball tips.
Meantime, sound off in the comments regarding Zack Wheeler and the way the Mets have handled him.