What’s Wrong with JJ Putz
What is wrong with J.J. Putz? Unfortunately, it isn’t a simple answer. Let’s review some of the issues, one by one.
We know that J.J. Putz had an elbow injury last year, and we know that he has developed a bone spur on his elbow. We know he was given a cortisone shot to alleviate the inflammation caused by the spur, but we have no idea how / whether the bone spur is affecting Putz’s performance.
Typically, an elbow injury will cause pain, but not necessarily affect velocity. Often, elbow pain will result in control issues, as the pitcher will slightly alter his throwing mechanics, pitch grips, and/or release — note that these alterations could be intentional or unintentional.
For example, it’s possible Putz is using a different type of finger pressure at the point of release, due to the pain (again, intentionally or unintentionally). Or maybe he’s moved his thumb a little more beneath the ball on his fastball and/or splitfinger. Maybe he’s pronating his hand and wrist a little more than usual through the release. Point is, there are any of a number of possibilities regarding arm angle, grip, and release that, if changed in the slightest, will cause a noticeable effect on the flight of the baseball. Hence, the ball goes to locations other than what the pitcher intends.
Putz has publicly stated that he does not have the same excitement pitching in the setup role:
“I’m still trying to get used to pitching in this eighth inning and trying to find some adrenaline because it’s not like pitching in the ninth, I’ll tell you that,” Putz said. “You just really don’t have that heart-pounding sensation. I was talking with a couple of the guys. I think that’s where those two or three miles an hour are, that adrenaline.”
There’s at least some credence to such a claim, though you don’t want to hear it from a professional athlete collecting $5M in salary.
Putz engaged in a special bullpen session around 3pm on Monday afternoon to adjust his pitching mechanics. There has not been any official report (yet) as to what he was working on, but I’m guessing it had something to do with Putz tipping pitches (doing something that allowed opposing hitters to know what pitch was coming). I had noticed something a few weeks ago but chose not to report it — maybe I have a big head but who knows who might be reading this blog, and I’m not going to be responsible for letting all of MLB know of such an issue.
If indeed Putz was tipping pitches, it would explain why he was having problems getting outs over the past few weeks.
Tipping Pitches – Part Two
Whatever it was he was working on, the point is that Putz has made a conscious change to his motion, and he did apply it in the game last night, which means he’s thinking about it. When an athlete thinks about his movements in performing a task, he cannot move as naturally and quickly. It’s not unlike any other motor skill, such as typing. If you are thinking about where your fingers are, you can’t type as quickly as when you’re not. This is why batters on a hot streak are often termed “in a zone” — they are not thinking about anything, everything is just flowing naturally. Pitchers may focus on checkpoints in their motion and still have a fluid motion, because they are the same checkpoints all the time, to the point they barely think about it (i.e., keep the front shoulder closed, stay on top of the ball, snap the wrist, etc.). It appears to me that Putz has added something to think about that he hasn’t thought about before (his hands). It will take some time before he can process that thought as naturally as any other, to the point where his mechanics are again fluid. But while he’s thinking, he’s slowing down his body, which affects …
Putz’s velocity is down this season, in comparison to 2008 and previous years. It could be due to the elbow problem, the lack of adrenaline, the new adjustment to his mechanics, overuse, age, or a combination of these issues. In any case, Putz’s peak speed is around 94 MPH, and working velocity around 92-93 or slower. He used to top out at 97-98 MPH, and work at around 95-96. That’s a MAJOR difference in speed, particularly at the MLB level, where most pitchers are working around 90-93. Putz is not a guy who paints the corners of the plate, he’s someone who rears back and throws, aiming somewhere around the middle of the plate. His sheer velocity and natural movement on his fastball is enough to blow away hitters when he’s in the mid- to upper-90s, but it’s pedestrian at lower speeds. The pitches he left in the middle of the plate on Monday night might have either zipped by the Bucs hitters, and/or had more movement down and in on their hands if the ball had 4-5 more MPH of velocity.
Putz may pitch well in his next appearance, but it won’t mean he’ll pitch well for the rest of the season. At the same time, he may not pitch well in his next game, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s a lost cause. Depending on which of the above are the true issues, it will take some time for him to “get back” to being the guy the Mets traded for last December. Above all, he must be used more sparingly — his frequency of use should be more similar to that of a closer, as he is used to and shown effectiveness under that kind of workload.