Why Johan May Not Return this Year (Or Ever)

A few days ago, in the comments section, I said this:

I wouldn’t be so quick to count on Johan’s return. If his recent bullpen session is any indication, his mechanics are still flawed and he’ll be re-injuring his shoulder sooner rather than later.

Usually, it feels good to be “right” about something. In this case, however, it doesn’t feel so good at all, after hearing the news that Johan Santana has had a setback and will be examined by doctors in New York tomorrow for “lingering discomfort” in his left shoulder.

Granted, setbacks occur all the time — and in fact are expected — during the rehabilitation process, particularly after a major surgery such as the one Johan received. But what bothers me is that his shoulder injury most likely occurred because of a flaw in his mechanics that began to become a habit at some point since he joined the Mets (or possibly just prior). The flaw was identified by our friend the Sport Kinesiologist Angel Borrelli last year — prior to Santana’s injury. When SNY and MetsBlog posted video of Johan’s bullpen session and recent rehab start in St. Lucie, I saw some things that didn’t look quite right to me and consulted with Angel — after all, I’m just a pitching coach and not a scientist, and therefore not qualified to evaluate the motion of the human body. Angel looked at the footage and agreed that there were some inconsistencies with Johan’s delivery — both from pitch to pitch in the rehab assignment and also in comparison to what she has seen from Johan in the past (Angel has been studying Santana’s delivery going back to his Minnesota years, because he previously did many things correctly and efficiently; his motion was a model for other pitchers to follow). Unfortunately, Angel confirmed that the flaw has not been corrected. Here is her analysis:

Take a look at the photos of him below (the first is from 2008, the second is from a week ago). In the first photo, even though I can’t see his feet, because of how level his belt-line looks, I think his front foot has landed…which means that his pitching arm has excessive internal rotation for the phase of the motion in which he is in. This means stress at the level of the shoulder. It would also reduce his velocity big time.

In the second and most recent photo, it shows the same problem — but worse. He not only still has excessive internal rotation, but because the elbow is so much higher than the shoulder, he is now running the risk of supraspinatus impingement. In fact, this is probably what is causing the shoulder discomfort.

Because I have seen so many variations of his pitching arm, I am thinking that his mechanics are inconsistent because he is in pain. It is obvious that he has not been given a clear directive of what he needs to do to resolve this issue and return to his former greatness.

So in other words, Johan’s flaw has not been corrected. I wouldn’t be surprised if it hasn’t even been identified. Part of this ignorance could be due to a common thought process throughout baseball with experienced superstars: Johan Santana “knows himself” and his body better than anyone, so there is a tendency to leave him alone. However, if someone doesn’t step in and help Johan make this correction, he will continue to damage his shoulder, continue to experience pain, and likely will be unable to return to the mound this year. In fact, there’s a possibility he won’t ever return to Major League form if he doesn’t get his mechanics fixed.

Some day — hopefully soon — MLB teams are going to recognize the reality that pitching coaches need help from qualified scientists in understanding and evaluating pitchers’ motions. It doesn’t mean teams don’t need pitching coaches, nor that a scientist should replace the coach. To the contrary — it should be understood that pitching a baseball is a complicated, often dangerous activity, and there are resources available that can minimize the risks and keep pitchers healthy and performing at their peak ability.

As Angel adds,

What is really sad to me…this could have been a simple fix if someone had responded to his change in performance (a decrease in velocity) as a sign that something was wrong with this previously fantastic pitcher. The performance was giving the clues, the mechanics would have explained the problem, and a solution could have been easily had by his making a tiny adjustment.

It’s sad to me too. What makes this all the more sad is that Johan is only one of many, many pitchers — professional and amateur — who are not being properly evaluated and educated. It doesn’t have to be that way.

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. Joe Spector August 3, 2011 at 3:50 pm
    Excellent article Joe. It’s sobering but hopefully the powers that be will heed your warnings.
    • Joe Janish August 3, 2011 at 4:42 pm
      Thanks Joe. I also hope that “the powers that be” will at least consider contacting a kinesiologist. I realize that many people don’t believe science as a role in baseball, but it’s really not unlike how many people viewed advanced math / sabermetrics 20 years ago. More importantly, what’s the harm in getting an opinion?

      I refuse to believe that injuries “just happen” — nearly everything on this planet is ruled by cause and effect. Pitchers don’t injure their arms as a result of bad luck or divine intervention.

      • SiddFinch August 3, 2011 at 5:51 pm
        Great insight into the Johann situation. I find it ironic how so much is made about pitch counts, inning counts, throwing regimens, etc…not to mention how much emphasis is placed upon young arms, Mr. Wheeler for example. But baseball is still in the dark ages when it comes to rudimentary things like incorporating a bit of science and body physics into the equation. It’s to the game’s detriment that it’s not seriously addressed.
  2. gary s. August 3, 2011 at 4:52 pm
    Great article Joe.Pelfrey hit 96-97 on the gun when he first came up from the minor leagues.Now he’s at 92-93 mph.You have hinted and Pelfrey even admitted he has pitched in pain.What is your take on the players not seeking help from a specialist to prevent injury?
    • Joe Janish August 3, 2011 at 5:20 pm
      I don’t know if it’s so much that players refuse to seek help as much as they don’t realize help is available.

      When a kid enters “organized baseball”, it’s like being brought into a cocoon. Most of the coaches in pro ball believe that all the answers can be found within their cocoon, and it would seem logical that people with pro baseball experience know baseball better than anyone else.

      But what they fail to realize is that baseball is a sport, and the body movements used in baseball are a science. So while the pitching coach IS the expert when it comes to the proper change-up grip, setting up hitters, keeping runners close, etc., there is no reason to expect him to be an expert in the way the body moves most safely and efficiently.

      I would bet that 90% of the players, coaches, etc., inside baseball look at this article and laugh. The other 10% are secretly using scientists to their advantage — much like Sandy Alderson and Billy Beane applied the principles of sabermetrics in the late 80s / early 90s.

      BTW, that 10% is a guesstimate based on the fact I discovered through months of research that about 3 or 4 teams in MLB are using kinesiologists to identify and evaluate pitchers with good mechanics.

  3. kevin August 3, 2011 at 5:44 pm
    is this an inverted w issue?
    • Joe Janish August 3, 2011 at 6:33 pm
      Sort of. It’s not quite the same as the inverted W image you might associate with Mark Prior. But I believe it causes a similar disruption. I will defer to Angel on this as she is the expert; hopefully she will have a chance to respond.
      • Angel Borrelli August 3, 2011 at 11:17 pm
        Speaking in layman terms: The bones of the shoulder are constructed in a very specific way; certain moves require certain bones to sort of “get out of the way” of other bones. If they don’t…there is a collision. Specific movements move the bones out of the way of each other and allow for smooth motion. The inverted W is a position that has created a collision of sorts. That explains the elbow higher than the shoulder scenario for Johan. The excessive internal rotation position of his shoulder is a little more complicated to explain…but know that it is a position of the arm bone in the joint that completely stresses the back of the joint and the front of the joint at the same time. Each issue is troublesome; combined together…not good. Again…for professionals in my field….this is like noticing that one of your four tires has gone flat. It’s really that simple for us to see. I wish they would let us help.
        • chris August 4, 2011 at 11:20 pm
          very interesting and also very impressive information .. i hope that you plan on contacting the mets about this information so that they can get santana on the road to recovery .. the proper way

          have you analyzed pelfrey’s pitching motion as well to see why his velocity has dropped so much?

        • Joe Janish August 5, 2011 at 5:56 pm
          Angel and I have discussed Pelfrey’s mechanics many times. It’s hard, though, to do a proper evaluation when all you have access to is the SNY video taken from the centerfield camera. A proper analysis is taken from several angles, and in particular we need to see the front and the side to figure out what exactly is going on with Peflrey.

          I’ve had my own theories on Pelfrey which you can find here:

          Additionally, Pelfrey admitted to pitching with a shoulder injury, so I’m sure that has something to do with his drop in velocity as well.

  4. Joe D August 4, 2011 at 1:34 am
    I have read some reports that say no pitcher has ever fully recovered from this injury and returned to their pre surgery form.Is this true? I only know of a few others with this type of injury.Mark Prior,Pedro Feliciano and Chien Ming Wang.Has there been others that I just dont know about and have they fully recovered? Thanks!
  5. izzy August 4, 2011 at 8:01 am
    A non-pitcher recovering from injury changes his throwing mechanics and looks like he will have to be moved off of his golden glove position….. Take the case of Ryan Zimmerman. Injured …. he has modified his throwing delivery and he can only lob the ball and is not accurate at all. Maybe the Nats don’t care thinking his bat is more important than his arm. Maybe some pitchers are advised to change the mechanics but quit because they don’t have the patience to extend long rehabilitations even longer and take the chance they won’t get hurt again. I don’t know… I’m not there. I know it can’t be done but it would be interesting to know how many of these pitchers gave up n new mechanics.
    • Angel Borrelli August 4, 2011 at 10:27 am
      With a pitcher of Johan’s caliber, a change of mechanics is not necessary. An “adjustment” is needed…not a renovation. Complete overhauling of mechanics should never be needed unless we are talking about a youth pitcher or a pitcher whose delivery was so out-of-whack that he needs to return to the basics. Rule number one in my book: do not take away from the pitcher that which made him great. If you know what you are doing, adjustments can be seamless to the pitcher’s current mechanics.
      • izzy August 4, 2011 at 3:18 pm
        Thanks for that info Angel…. If it is minor adjustments then it seems a no brainer but…… It doesn’t happen…. It seems many kids grow up thinking they’ll throw as hard as they can impress the scouts, and when the timne comes, TJ surgery will be the fix.
  6. SiddFinch August 4, 2011 at 9:43 am
    If he does return it could quite possibly be as a reliever and not a starter, who knows how many innings that surgically repaired shoulder can throw at a time. If that’s the case why not give him a shot as a closer.
  7. Tom August 4, 2011 at 12:17 pm
    • Joe Janish August 4, 2011 at 2:03 pm
      Thanks for sharing. But FYI Chris O’Leary is not a scientist and does not have any formal training / education in human anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, nor kinesiology (as far as I know). He is someone who looked at pitching and hitting videos for five years and came to his own conclusions based on whatever patterns he saw. That said I’m not sure how accurate his theories are.
  8. Mark Rak August 4, 2011 at 2:48 pm
    Unfortunately the Mets have not had ANY scientific thinking or injury prevention since Rick Petersen was wrongfully shown the door. The pitchers performances under his watch versus without him speaks for itself. There are the injury problems (Maine, Perez and he was working closely with Mejia in 07 & 08) as well as lost velocity (Maine, Perez, Pelfrey, Zito, etc) since his departure.
  9. Lee August 6, 2011 at 11:09 am
    Rick Peterson is an interesting point of reference. Wasn’t this what he tried to accomplish with biometeric testing etc? My question is: how ‘easy’ are these adjustments to make? Peterson said he could fix Victor Zambrano in 5 minutes, but that didn’t really work out. It seems like these adjustments are harder to implement then they seem. Angel, can you go into more detail about whats involved?
    • Joe Janish August 6, 2011 at 10:42 pm
      Peterson did introduce biomechanics, but only scratched the surface. Regarding Zambrano — first off, he came to the Mets as damaged goods (elbow injury), and secondly, I’m not sure Peterson was 100% clear on what Zambrano needed to correct, even if Peterson thought he knew what the issue was. And of course, we don’t know how “coachable” Zambrano was; it’s possible that Peterson knew exactly what needed to be done but Zambrano wasn’t open to the changes.

      I’m not sure if Angel has time to respond to your question about adjustments but I’ll try to answer on her behalf. Every person is different, and every adjustment is unique, so it’s hard to describe the implementation of adjustments. As far as difficulty, it’s usually not nearly as mind-blowing as most people believe. Half of the battle is getting the pitcher to “buy in” to the change. If a pitcher understands a change is needed, and is open and committed to making a change, then the adjustment can usually be accomplished fairly easily.

      In most cases, only one to three minor adjustments are necessary. That’s generally not a huge deal and realistic to accomplish fairly quickly.