Hard-throwing Jenrry Mejia symbolizes what is possible from the minor league system organized, maintained, and overseen by Omar Minaya. But is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Mejia was signed by the Mets out of the Dominican Republic at the tender age of 17 — an age when most youngsters in the USA are high school juniors or just beginning their senior year. I think it’s far to say that a 17-year-old can be taught many things about the game of baseball, and that a young man of that age is perfectly capable of changing his habits, approach, and mechanics. I make this statement not by guesswork but from experience — both by adjusting my own as well as by helping others change their own. In fact, from my first-hand experience, it is possible to completely overhaul an athlete’s style, mechanics, and thought process as late as age 21; it’s not easy, but it’s possible. The older an athlete gets, the more ingrained certain habits become, and thus the more difficult it is to “break” those habits and re-learn correct ones. That’s why, generally speaking, you want to begin teaching an athlete at a young age — the younger, the better.
In the case of 17-year-old Jenrry Mejia, the Mets had a golden opportunity to develop a raw, exciting talent — to mold him as they see fit, into what they believe is the ideal pitcher.
Mejia is still very young — only 20, and turning 21 on October 11th. But a good chunk of the learning process has taken place in the last 3 years, under the Mets’ guidance. Much of what he does right now is what he will do for the rest of his career. That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement — of course there is, particularly in the next 2-3 years. But as I alluded to before, the older one gets, the harder it is to break bad habits, and re-learn good ones.
Considering that Mejia is as pure a product there is of the Mets system, there are some concerns — some minor, some major.
Among the minor ones is Mejia’s inability to get off the mound quickly and back up home plate. On the surface it may seem I’m nitpicking, as it’s not something that makes or breaks a pitcher. But it IS something that speaks volumes about an organization. And it is more an indictment of the organization than it is of the individual when a rookie doesn’t hustle or isn’t in the right place at the right time. Executing fundamentals are the basis of every winning program in every sport at every level. Many “fundies” require little in the way of god-given talent, and more in the way of discipline, repetition, and effort. In other words, there is no excuse not to be properly positioned behind home plate when a throw from the outfield is on its way — not at the MLB level, nor in the minors, in college, nor high school. In fact, many little league pitchers know they need to back up home plate and can get their fannies back there in time, so the excuse of “youth” doesn’t fly with a 20-year-old.
You may be thinking this is petty, and it would be if it were an isolated incident. But we’ve seen it twice in two starts with Mejia, and we’ve seen similar lapses from another “pure” product of the Mets system. What these seemingly small incidents tell us is that either the Mets do not put a priority on fundamentals at the low levels, and/or they don’t view “fundies” as essential to winning at the MLB level.
Off the “fundies” soapbox, on to what is a more concerning issue — Mejia’s pitching mechanics.
If you watch Jenrry Mejia’s follow-through, you may notice (as CatchDog did) that he falls off the mound toward first base — and somewhat violently at that. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, per Newton’s Third Law of Motion, so we need to look back to something earlier in Mejia’s delivery to understand why that is happening.
Before Mejia starts his delivery, there is already a red flag in his setup position, which is off to the side, and angled slightly away from home plate. From this off-kilter position, it is easy for him to start his left foot to the side of the rubber rather than straight back behind it. As a result, he starts his motion with side-to-side momentum (from first base side to third base side), which generates hip rotation, but also promotes premature opening of the front side, which in turn puts considerable stress on the throwing shoulder. More stress is put on the shoulder during his follow-through, because he decelerates over a stiff front leg — which means all that power generated by the hip rotation is slowed down by the shoulder and back, but not the legs. That over-rotation also leads to Mejia swinging the arm too far back behind his backside, not unlike the dangerous arm action John Maine used before injuring his right shoulder.
Ideally, a pitcher starts his momentum back-to-front and up-and-down — i.e., step BACK behind the rubber, gather energy at a balance point with a leg lift, and get momentum going forward toward home plate while also getting help from gravity with the vertical fall of the raised foot. (This is simple physics, and not any “theory” by yours truly — in fact it is part of the aforementioned Laws proven by that Netwon guy.) Then, during the follow-through, the front leg should bend at the knee so that the legs can take some of the brunt of the deceleration / slowing down of the body and arm.
Interestingly enough, finishing on a flexible front leg is something that the Mets taught from the 1960s through the 1980s; check out old photos or videos of Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Tug McGraw, Jon Matlack, and many of the other pitchers who were developed by the Mets way back when.
The over-rotation is a very common flaw that is incorrectly taught by many pro and amateur coaches, as a way to build momentum and velocity with the lower half, but too much of anything is not a good thing. Ideally, the large and small muscles work together, along with momentum and gravity, to propel the baseball. When the body over-rotates you have large hip and leg muscles fighting against small shoulder muscles — and guess who wins? The result is regular strain on the shoulder, eventually leading to small tears, eventually leading to injury.
Additionally, such mechanics are unbalanced, thus making it difficult for a pitcher to regularly repeat his mechanics and consistently command his pitches. (BTW, Dan Warthen called Mejia’s mechanics “solid and repeatable” back in March.)
If Mejia is any indication, the Mets are not encouraging efficient, mechanically safe mechanics to their young pitchers — the ones who still can be changed — but instead are teaching shortcuts that may push a power arm up the ladder quickly but may not be the best for long-term health and success.
(Ironically, the regime prior to Minaya was concerned that Aaron Heilman’s mechanics were an injury risk, and forced him to change them. They had the right idea, but the wrong timing — Heilman was already 22 years old and the changes set him back considerably. If they had Heilman as an 18-year-old, maybe he could’ve been changed successfully.)
If Mejia were the only young pitcher in the Mets system with this “sideways” motion, it wouldn’t be a big deal. Unfortunately, I see the same side-step to start the delivery from Jon Niese and Dillon Gee and in video footage of Jeurys Familia and Kyle Allen.
Mind you, that side step on its own is not necessarily a bad thing — a number of very successful pitchers employ it, and it is absolutely possible to step sideways but still get the body on a back-front track toward home plate. It is only a bad thing if it is propagating sideways momentum (as in the case of Mejia).
(BTW, my wife says the “sideways” mechanics being taught are in line with the Mets organization as a whole – they are always making lateral movements, never really moving forward.)
We don’t know how coachable Jenrry Mejia is, nor how quickly is his ability to grasp and apply a concept. We also don’t know how much he has learned since the Mets signed him as a 17-year-old. But what we do know is that the Mets molded him from a very young age into what they believe is a Major League ready pitcher — otherwise he would not have been on the Opening Day roster, and making starts right now. Additionally, they accept Mejia’s fundamental lapses, and are comfortable that his pitching mechanics are not further damaging the shoulder that was injured in late June — despite a noticeable drop in velocity and lack of control. Further, the Mets and their hype machine are positioning Mejia as a viable candidate for a starting rotation spot next spring.
Whether he succeeds or fails remains to be seen. Either way, he — along with Ruben Tejada, Fernando Martinez, and possibly Jeurys Familia — will be a prominent example of how the Minaya regime was able to mold raw talent.
About the Author
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.