Aaron Heilman’s Elbow

Most people probably glazed right over this little tidbit in Marty Noble’s recent column on the New York Mets — it was under the heading “Returning from Surgery”:

“Heilman: The right-hander kept his need for elbow surgery quiet. He suffered from tennis elbow last season.”

Quiet? That is an understatement. Other than this little sentence lost in long, dry spring training preview, I hadn’t seen hide nor hair of Heilman’s injury nor his surgery. In this day and age, in the New York market, Heilman’s ability to keep this out of the media is downright amazing. If his baseball career doesn’t last much longer, Heilman may have a future in the CIA.

Now that the dirty little secret has been revealed, is it of concern? After all, it was just “tennis elbow”, a minor injury requiring minor surgery. If it were a serious issue, there’s no way it would have been kept under wraps this long, right? And just what the heck is Aaron Heilman doing playing tennis, anyway?

Well, it IS a minor injury, but it is a glaring sign of Willie Randolph’s abuse of Aaron Heilman. I hate to say “I told you so” (actually, that’s not true, I LOVE to say that), but this injury is without a doubt the direct result of Heilman’s overuse in the first half of 2006, which concerned me to the point of writing this post on Heilman’s arm angle. Have a look at what I stated as early as game 55 of the season — it’s free and will only take about five minutes.

Assuming you’re not interested in re-reading my drivel, I’ll make Heilman’s issue more succinct, adding in the information we now know about his “tennis elbow”:

1. The technical term for “tennis elbow” is epicondylitis, and it is the result of strain and/or overuse. Tennis players and baseball players suffer from this condition usually as a result of playing or practicing beyond fatigue, and then repeating bad mechanics.

2. Aaron Heilman throws with a low three-quarter to sidearm delivery. Though his mechanics are far from ideal, he’s been throwing this way his whole life without incident. However, his arm action is susceptible to injury if not monitored closely. Generally speaking, a pitcher’s arm angle will drop a few degrees as he tires. This isn’t a big problem for overhand pitchers because the angle drops them to three-quarter (not harmful), and a three-quarter thrower will drop to near sidearm. Heilman, however, is already close to the sidearm level, and when he fatigues, his arm drops to an angle that is dangerous and detrimental to the ligaments in his elbow.

3. With starting pitchers, it is fairly easy to see the arm angle drop. You watch a guy throw 75-80 pitches in a game, then one inning he’s all of a sudden dropping down, the ball is getting up, etc. In other words, there is an immediate base of comparison. With a relief pitcher, your base of comparison is a day, two days, or three days old. In this case, a person’s memory can’t always be trusted, and the eyes may not pick up on the minute change in arm angle from one day to the next.

4. Though Heilman has two coaches — Guy Conti in the bullpen and Rick Peterson in the dugout — neither has a complete view of his mechanics. Conti sees Heilman during his warmup sessions in the bullpen, where Heilman is unlikely to be throwing at 100% effort for more than a few pitches. Though Conti sees him up close every day in the pen, he doesn’t have much of a view once Heilman jogs 200 feet away onto the mound — and that is where the fatigue would become noticeable to Conti. On the other hand, Peterson generally only sees Heilman on the mound in the games he pitches. Therefore The Jacket can miss those little signals of a problem — such as the arm dropping ever so slightly.

5. Before 2005, Heilman was a starting pitcher his entire life, from little league through college and the minors. He pitched on a regular schedule, so many pitches per day, with regular rest. A routine is what his body and arm were used to for about 15 years. Then, out of the blue, on May 5th 2005, he becomes a bullpen guy. That season, he pitched in a total of 53 games, averaged about 8 games per month (never more than 11 in a month), and was used on back-to-back days only 4 times all season. In other words, he was given pretty good rest, was not overused. In 2006, he trained came into spring training as a starter, having pitched in winter ball as one. Thus, he once again was back to his routine: game day, four days off. At the end of spring training, however, he was thrown back in the bullpen. By the first week of August last year, Heilman had already surpassed his 2005 appearance total, averaged over 11 games per month, and had pitched on back-to-back days 7 times. Is it any wonder that he started to pitch ineffectively? Is it a surprise that he developed an overuse injury? The man was ABUSED.

If Heilman were an ordinary talent, it wouldn’t be such a big deal. The problem, however, is that Heilman has skills that are difficult to find in a pitcher these days. He can get big leaguers out with three pitchers (yes, Virginia, he does throw a slider), he’s a tough competitor, and at times he is dominant. He has all the makings of a #3 starter, something that the Mets desperately need. Even his harshest critics acknowledge that at worst, Heilman would be a decent fifth starter. In a market where fifth starter talent such as Jason Marquis and Gil Meche are getting 5-year / $50M dollar contracts, you’d think the Mets would more closely protect their relatively cheap investment in Heilman.

We keep hearing the same tired excuses from Omar and Willie … “Heilman is more valuable to us being available several times a week as a reliever, than just once or twice as a starter.” Or, “our bullpen is a strength that we like to have, and Heilman is part of that strength.” Blah blah blah. Guess what? The fact that Heilman is used so often out of the bullpen is the exact reason he SHOULDN’T be a reliever. The more he’s used, the more likely he is to break down. He’ll eventually pitch ineffectively, and will probably injure himself again. Last year it was tennis elbow; at the end of this year it may very well be Tommy John surgery.

The solution? Put Heilman in the starting rotation, where he belongs. As a starter, he’ll have the benefit of a routine, a structured throwing program that his body responds to well: one day on, four days off. In games, Rick Peterson and Paul LoDuca will see his arm angle from pitch one, and notice immediately when the slot drops to a dangerous level. It’ll happen in the seventh or eighth inning, at which point you bring in Ambiorix Burgos, Guillermo Mota, or Duaner Sanchez to relieve. No harm done. In fact, the worst thing that can happen in this situation is the Mets will have a reliable #3 or #4 starter who can go deep into games. That’s one less day a week you need Heilman the reliever bridging the gap for the collection of five-inning floosies currently assembled for this spring’s starting rotation competition.

Sound crazy? May be. But just look at how the Boston Red Sox have decided to handle their 2006 closer Jon Papelbon. They’ve left the closer position up for grabs and moved Papelbon to the rotation because 1. it’s better for his health and 2. he’s a special pitcher worthy of protecting. The Bosox are doing this despite the fact that they have five solid starters —Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield, and Jon Lester — already in the rotation, and despite having a frightening collection of youth and hasbeens left in the ‘pen. Maybe the Red Sox are crazy too, but these days you really need to protect the few valuable arms in your stead. In the long run it’s better for both the player and the team.

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.
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