What’s Wrong with Johan Santana?

Johan Santana’s velocity is down, as is his command. One thing I notice is his arm dragging behind slightly — it’s out of sync with his hips, and as a result the hips and legs are driving forward a hair too early, and therefore not helping to power the ball. The question is, why is his arm behind? Is it a timing issue, or is there something physically keeping him from firing his hand forward at its usual speed? For example, does he suffer from a mild shoulder injury?

The command problem is equally concerning — often, problems with location are the result of an elbow issue, and we know Johan’s elbow was barking in late February and early March.

Santana is a “touch and feel” pitcher, in that he relies heavily on his grips on the ball and finger pressure at the release of a pitch. The muscles and ligaments in the forearm and elbow are what control, and provide strength to, the fingers.

To get a rough idea of how the forearm and elbow affect the fingers — and ultimately, a pitcher’s command — simply lay your arm down on a table, palm up. Leaving your arm and hand flat on the table, lift only your middle finger up toward the ceiling. You should feel a bit of tension in several areas of your forearm, including one or two spots near your elbow (both near your elbow bone resting on the table and on the opposite side that is facing the sky).

For almost all pitchers, the middle finger is the “power finger” — the one that is used for applying specific pressure to the ball to make it sink, dive, and break. That’s because it is generally the strongest and also because it is usually the last finger to be in contact with the ball before it’s released. So, if there is an issue with the forearm and/or elbow — such as pain, tightness, soreness, or weakness — then the pressure applied by the middle finger is going to be affected. So now you understand the general rule of thumb (pardon the pun) that an elbow injury can affect command, but not necessarily affect velocity.

In the case Johan, he has had both a loss of command and velocity. From what I’ve seen, he’s also been throwing more pitches, and had a different approach from previous years, in that he’s been more aggressive about getting batters to swing and miss, as opposed to “pitching to contact” on occasion. As a result, he’s been throwing more sliders, which tend to put more strain on the elbow and forearm. Again, this is what my eyes tell me — the propeller heads can crunch the numbers and tell me if my perception is unfounded (though, I don’t necessarily trust the interns recording the pitch types from the press box).

What does it mean? My best guess is that Johan is hiding an issue with his arm. He’s too much of a competitor to use it as an excuse, and he’s too intent on fulfilling the value of his contract and filling the role of “the franchise”, to consider taking off a few starts. He has watched so many players go on the DL, he may feel obligated to pitch through pain — the old concept of the captain must go down with the ship. Or perhaps, it’s simply a temporary thing, something he’s experienced before and doesn’t believe it’s serious, but rather, something he can pitch through.

This is all speculation from a hack blogger / amateur pitching coach. It could be way off. In the end, we may never know what’s caused Johan to fall back to Earth. It may be as simple as him being mortal.

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.
  1. Stephen Greene June 15, 2009 at 12:43 pm
    Santana should have been man enough to tell
    Jerry look I cant go today. Instead he goes
    out and gets bombed. Just what the Mets need after Luis gave Fridays game away.
  2. Wendy June 15, 2009 at 1:50 pm
    I agree Stephen, he made such a big deal the last time out as far as telling his manager “I am a man” for some unknown reason, he should have been more honest as far as his physical limitations. Granted, it would have been back to back games with replacement starters, but its interleague play in June, not against the Phillies in September. With everything else going on with injuries, honesty about your capability to contribute comes first.
  3. bob June 15, 2009 at 4:03 pm
    Ah yes another guy who played baseball in High School/College and now thinks he knows everything. There is a reason you didnt make it to the big leagues. Those guys are better and smarter (baseball wise) than anyone who has never made it. Why dont you stick to writing and playing with 40 year old men and leave the coaching and instructing to the professionals.
  4. Stephen Greene June 15, 2009 at 4:19 pm
    Warthen said Santana changed the grip on his fastball a few starts ago because of a blister on his middle finger, and thinks the new grip may have created more cutting action on the ball that caused a slight decrease in velocity.
    Would Santana have been better to go on dl
    then give a couple of lousy starts and hurt his stats? Its only June.
  5. Wendy June 15, 2009 at 4:34 pm
    Yes a few missed starts at this stage of the season is not as damaging as the potential for worse injury. If the blisters have been that much of an issue that a few days off in between starts did not help to alleviate then he should not be pitching.

    These guys get paid well to play through pain, Santana included, but if they have injuries that are that detrimental to functioning for team victories, they should be shelved.

    The Mets just have a bad track record of not shelving people when they need to be, and end up being disabled for an extended period of time.

  6. isuzudude June 15, 2009 at 4:40 pm
    Hey bob, what part of “This is all speculation from a hack blogger / amateur pitching coach. It could be way off” did you not understand? So because none of us ever got to the big leagues means we should never speak our opinion? Sounds like you have a bigger war to wage against WFAN than this tiny little blog. Moron.

    I guess I shouldn’t be surprised…there’s a link to this post on Metsblog, which is like announcing that there’s a rap concert down the street at a KKK rally.

  7. Wally June 15, 2009 at 4:57 pm
    Marvelous contribution, Bob! You’ve really added to the conversation!

    Could you also provide us the URL of one of those other former players now blogging? Because I prefer an opinion from that perspective and cannot find it anywhere else.

    Many thanks Bob, looking forward to it!

  8. Bob's Mom June 15, 2009 at 9:30 pm
    Please excuse my son….he’s a moron, and always has been.
  9. joejanish June 15, 2009 at 9:54 pm
    Bob, to echo Wally’s comments, thanks for adding to the conversation.

    Last I checked, players don’t get to MLB after years of studying the game or via a degree in baseball. Pitchers, especially, make it that far because of one skill that separates them from everyone else on the planet — the ability to hurl a baseball 90+ MPH.

    And based on your reasoning, Bill Parcells should never have been an NFL coach, since he never played in the NFL.

    But thanks for explaining why I didn’t make it to the big leagues because all this time I thought it had something to do with a lack of talent. Now I understand — it was because I didn’t know what I was doing, “baseball-wise”. Silly me. I’ll close up the blog tomorrow, and never try explaining the game to ANYONE. Sorry to waste your time.

  10. mic June 15, 2009 at 11:13 pm
    Thanks Stephen Greene and Wendy for actually commenting on the topic/post, which is worthy of comment.

    Why? It would be moot if Jay Horowitz and Co actually had a history of trustwrthy medical releases.

    – Sorry Johan is ..just not your normal pitcher hence the suspicion of undisclosed injury. Hittable FB and Johan are not synonomous.

    – All of a sudden there is all kind of chatter about balky knees, blisters, and new grips…is the contagious bunyan far off?

  11. Ari Berkowitz June 16, 2009 at 5:52 am
    Santana’s effective when he throws his fastball up and his changeup low, when this doesn’t happen he doesn’t pitch well. He had a few at-bats where he didn’t even throw a fastball, rendering his not so effective changeup pointless.
  12. Old Backstop June 18, 2009 at 10:05 am
    Joe, well penned article, and informative. I also agree with it. Also a former college ball player and more importantly a student of the game. (Many pro athletes are far from being students of their own game).

    Don’t knock the Metsblog linkage too much, I wouldn’t have found this solid article without that link!

    Don’t let one or two squeaky wheels get under your skin either. For every negative reply on here, there are probably 100 people who read this, agreed with it, and moved on.

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