Is Jenrry Mejia a Good or Bad Example of Mets Minor League System?

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.

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. CatchDog September 13, 2010 at 9:26 am
    Fantastic article. Why do so many Met players wind up with injuries? Just the pitching staff this season includes Santana, Maine, Perez, Mejia, Niese (hammy again), Sean Green and Igarashi. And Pelfrey has battled mechanical issues which could be hiding injury. What happened to Prevention & Recovery?

    I cringe at the thought of a player with the ceiling of Mejia at the hands of some of the Met coaches. Hopefully, Jenrry and some of the other prospects such as the above mentioned Familia and Allen, as well as Mark Cahoon, Robert Carson and Eric Beaulac don’t take the John Maine Expressway out of Gotham. It appears that Eddie Kunz, Eric niesen, Roy Merritt and Brad Holt have already fastened their seatbealts in the HOV lane.

    For every twenty Dan Warthens, there’s a Dave Duncan and perhaps a Joe Janish, who has the ability to take a Joel Pinero, Jeff Suppan, Kyle Lohse and Jeff Weaver and rewrite the script.

    Brian Stokes should be Duncans’s next project. I can see him winning 18 next season under the Arch.

    Again, great job, Joe.

  2. GDHebner September 13, 2010 at 11:59 am
    If I understand correctly, and in the interest of fairness I admit it’s quite possible that I don’t, this problem goes much deeper than Dan Warthen.

    Based on his quote in your article he is not helping to change or halt any wrongdoing but that wrongdoing is taking place at a much lower level in the organization than the major leagues given that so many of the pitchers used as examples haven’t sniffed the majors yet and some of those that have did so under Rick Peterson’s tutelage.

    If true, more evidence to suggest the organization needs an atomic bomb, not a broom, to clean up it’s problems.

    • Joe Janish September 13, 2010 at 5:45 pm
      GDHebner – yes, the problem goes far beyond Warthen, who likely has little influence over what happens in the lower levels — particularly in the Dominican Summer League and the Mets’ Latin American sites. Which was supposedly not the case when Rick Peterson was around; from what I understood, Peterson guided the pitching philosophy throughout the entire organization. Peterson may not have coached every single pitcher, but I think he had some kind of influence on development procedures.

      What’s really funny is I keep reading that Warthen is the one coach who may retain his job. Strange; I would think that the team’s walk totals for the past two years would be glaring enough an indicator that something is amiss. Though, he may be getting credit for the development of Niese and Pelfrey (even if Pelfrey’s advancement began under Peterson), and not getting blamed for the fast downfalls of Maine and Perez.

      • Ceetar September 15, 2010 at 10:06 am
        Great stuff. I was tiring of Peterson and some of his ingame pitch counting philosophies, but I miss him more and more when it comes to these things.

        The way I understood it as well was that Peterson did have influence when it came to those low-level scouting type things with deliveries and what not. Didn’t he warn someone _against_ drafting Mark Prior for similar reasons?

        I also wonder about guys like Mejia being pushed up without proper fundamentals. You see that with other guys too. Even Reyes seemed to have a lot of those types of blunders, but he’s smart enough and I guess the coaches here were smart enough to get him over them. could possibly say the same about Pagan. Wonder if Omar/Bernazard’s ‘fast track’ program is ignoring some very important instruction. Daniel Murphy was on that one too, and the Mets have been all too willing to play guys out of position and bounce them around with little regard to this stuff.

        Certainly makes you wonder about what’s going on behind the scenes.

  3. jane September 13, 2010 at 6:20 pm
    Good article, I actually think it will be a benefit for Mejia to pitch in the winter league and maybe get away from the Mets hands for a while. There has to be a reason as to why everyone is getting hurt and I think you may have found the problem.
  4. John September 13, 2010 at 11:25 pm
    I grew up watching Seaver, Koosman, Ryan etc. pitch for this team. They had perfect mechanics and pitched for 20 years throwing over 300 innings on a couple of occasions . By using proper mechanics, even some marginally talented pitchers had a few good years like Gentry and McAndrews. That this organization has lost site of the very basics is well past frustrating. (Although to be fair many other organizations have the same issue)
    And I think you are not giving enough importance to the total lack of fundamentals by players in this organization.
    I have started watching the twins recently (since it is painful to watch the Mets the way they play) and it is amazing how their players generally make all the right plays. They seem to always be in the right spot, throw to the right base and make the right decision. Compare that to the Mets who always seem to be in the wrong position, confused, and making decisions that leave you scratching your head. Twins players always seem to play above their ability, while Mets players always seem to play below theirs.
    The only conclusion is that the Twins system has a plan, teaches the game at the lower levels so that when they get to the big leagues all of the little things come naturally. The Mets clearly don’t have a plan. You have to wonder if the minor league coaches have their jobs based on ability of pure cronyism.
    You don’t have to look beyond Jose Reyes to see that many of the home grown players don’t have any idea how the game is played.
    One wonders if Ike Davis made the adjustments in September based on help from the organization or his dad.
    • Joe Janish September 14, 2010 at 10:22 am
      John, agreed on all counts.

      Seaver, Koosman, Ryan, etc., are exactly the people I think about when it comes to great mechanics, and it’s sad that the Mets — who once put a premium on developing proper pitching mechanics — have moved completely away from those philosophies and training methods. You have to wonder what happened — when did things change, and why?

      The Twins are a great example of an organization that begins teaching fundamentals at the very low levels — the Braves were the same way through the 1990s and 2000s. Talent is of course paramount at the pro level, but fundamentals are the difference in turning talent into performance.