The Thing That Caused Johan Santana’s Shoulder Re-injury

How did Johan Santana re-tear his shoulder capsule?

Was it the 134-pitch no-hitter?

Was it that “voluntary bullpen session” aimed at silencing suggestions that he wasn’t in shape?

Was it related to a mistake in his surgery?

Was it something mysterious, that couldn’t possibly be explained?

Could this re-injury have been prevented?

No, no, no, no, and maybe. Ironically, the answer to the question of how this happened was verbalized by Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen shortly after spring training opened in mid-February of 2012.

Warthen was quoted by The New York Post saying this:

“I’ve been looking at video from when he’s been down here recently and comparing it to video from 2008, before he got hurt,” Warthen told The Post outside the team’s spring training complex yesterday. “It’s no different. Not even one percent. That’s extremely important.”

Yes, Dan — it was extremely important. Unfortunately, you didn’t understand why.

I don’t mean to pick on Dan Warthen; his perspective and interpretation of the information in front of him is merely an example of a much larger problem with ALL MLB pitching coaches: they’re simply not qualified to analyze, nor correct, anatomical movement / human kinetics. Do any pitching coaches hold a degree in kinesiology? Have any completed advanced studies in biomechanics, human anatomy, physiology, or neuroscience? I’m guessing that 95% of pitching coaches at all levels of baseball have not. Therefore, they shouldn’t try to be experts when it comes to the delicate and dangerous motion of pitching a baseball.

Here’s the irony of Warthen’s statements: they indicated another shoulder injury was imminent, because that motion Santana was using most of the time in 2008 was EXACTLY WHAT CAUSED HIS SHOULDER INJURY IN THE FIRST PLACE.

It’s really quite simple, when one steps away from the isolated, prehistoric planet of organized baseball and peers at the situation from a practical, logical viewpoint. Warthen’s statement is akin to saying, “I stepped in a lake, and my shoe got soaking wet,” and then saying, “I stepped in a lake, just as a I did before, and my shoe got soaking wet again” — yet, expecting the shoe to stay dry after the second time!

Johan Santana severely damaged his shoulder twice because of a mechanical flaw. I lied a bit when I said that the no-hitter and the voluntary bullpen session weren’t the cause; the truth is, they were the cause, but not the isolated cause — rather, both instances were contributors. As long as Santana retained the same damaging mechanics he employed prior to his injury, his reconstructed shoulder was a ticking time bomb that was going to go off eventually. Did the 134-pitch effort speed up the process? Eh. Yeah, but not on its own; the no-hitter was just as culpable as, say, a pair of 75-pitch bullpen sessions, or 15-minutes of long toss, or any other event in which Santana was incorrectly throwing a baseball.

Major League Baseball would like to believe that pitching injuries are a complete mystery, caused by uncontrollable forces such as biorhythms, outer-galaxy alien forces, Cajun witchcraft, or plain ‘ol dumb luck. It’s simply not true, and it’s unfathomable that we live in an age of advanced science, and have mountains of research and scientific analysis available to explain why injuries occur, and why some movements are safe while others dangerous, yet baseball resists knowledge, preferring instead to embrace ignorance as if it was a badge of honor.

Newsflash to “Organized Baseball”: the world is not flat.

But don’t take it from me, because I’m no expert, either. I’ll get the lowdown on Johan’s re-injury from a scientist whose life is spent studying, understanding, and correcting human movements. Look for the Q & A here next week. In the meantime, enjoy Easter weekend.

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. Walnutz15 March 29, 2013 at 8:24 am
    “I’ll show all of you!!!” – ::storms off to mound to throw revenge session::


    Good thing they let him set his own throwing schedule.

    This aside, who really expected Johan to pitch more than 50 or so innings as a Met this year, anyway?

    So long.

  2. TexasGusCC March 29, 2013 at 9:34 am

    I really don’t know squat about pitching mechanics, so I am wondering: Can a pitching coach change a pitcher of Santana’s status? I mean there are pitchers like Tim Lincicum and Luis Tiant and John Candeleria that I recall having wierd deliveries. How do you change what “works” for a guy?

    I just think that if a pitching coach tried to change a pitcher like Santana, at any time, he would have been lynched in the papers and in the front office, probably losing his job.

    • Joe Janish March 29, 2013 at 10:52 am
      Most pitching coaches don’t have a degree related to the human anatomy, and therefore can’t properly evaluate pitching mechanics, much less try to correct it.

      There are qualified, professional scientists that can correct mechanical flaws and greatly reduce the number of pitching injuries, but few if any are former professional pitchers (i.e., they’re not in the “boys club” of Organized Ball), so most baseball organizations refuse to call on them.

      • Rob March 29, 2013 at 4:29 pm
        Joe: The fact is that from the lowest levels of the sport, the coaches are rewarded for results. If you have a pitcher in high school with terrible mechanics but he throws it 90 mph and can blow it past 90% of the kids he faces, what coach is going to change those mechanics when they are producing success? I suspect that the same holds true in college and in the pros. If it ain’t broke (and if it has tremendous success), then don’t fix it. If you do try, you’ll possibly mess with a great thing. And that’s why guys like Kerry Wood and the other fella from the Cubs whose name now escapes me were allowed to keep pitching despite their poor mechanics. And again, if it ain’t yet broke and its having tremendous success…why fix it?

        The question is whether any baseball team in the future will go out and employ a full time kinseologist on the staff. I’d say it will never happen.

        • Joe Janish March 29, 2013 at 9:43 pm
          I think eventually teams will see the light and hire kinesiologists to work WITH the pitching coach — though whether it happens in our lifetime is debatable.

          You raise a valid point, and I’ll add this: part of the problem is that the coaches feel threatened. Which is silly, because a kinesiologist can’t be expected to understand pitching strategy or mental preparation any more than a pitching coach should understand anatomy.

          I know for a fact that there are a few teams employing scientists as consultants, based on conversations I’ve had with people inside the game. However, those teams are VERY hush-hush about the details — it’s their “moneyball” advantage.

  3. Tommy2cat March 29, 2013 at 9:47 am
    Pitching injuries are due to a combination of factors and vary from one athlete to another. Here are some of the more prominent factors:

    – genetics
    – pitching mechanics
    – usage
    – training
    – physical conditioning

    Query whether Johan would have been as effective had he used a different motion…

    I appreciate Johan’s contributions to the Mets, regret that he cannot perform this year, really regret that his contract is not insured and am glad the issue is decided now rather than looming indefinitely. Makes it easier to plan moving forward.

    Hopefully, we’ll see Zach Wheeler sooner rather than later, but not too soon!

    • MikeT March 29, 2013 at 9:58 am
      I think if you go back even further and look at Johan’s mechanics when he was at his peek you would see him using “safe” mechanics. Something changed when he got to the Mets and it was enough to cause him to tear his anterior capsule, twice. It just took a while.
      • NateW March 29, 2013 at 10:19 am
        probably starting pitching on a bad knee in late 2008, it seemed to go downhill from there. He never pitched a full season after that year. His arm always came down with something.
        • Joe Janish March 30, 2013 at 8:59 am
          Could be. In fact I think he had some knee issues while still in Minnesota. Could have been the start of it.
    • Joe Janish March 29, 2013 at 10:58 am
      Tommy, you’re right on all counts, except the query as to whether he would have been as effective if his mechanics were changed — because the implication is that a significant overhaul was necessary. In fact the opposite is true — there was one flaw in his motion that could have been very easily corrected, likely in less than an hour, but it required the eyes and skills of a human kinetics specialist to identify and fix. All Johan had to do was get his hand further away from his body, allowing the shoulder full external rotation, and the first tear likely would not have happened.

      As Mike notes below, Johan threw with safe mechanics prior to 2008, and was incredibly successful. I’ve yet to see any pitcher become less effective after his motion was PROPERLY corrected.

      • DaveSchneck March 29, 2013 at 11:58 am
        Great article and great pointsby you and others. My question is this: based on accounts here, it seems as though Santana was highly successful and not throwing with the “flaw” that you say cost him, in his Twins heyday. I remember vividly that obth the Yanks and Red Sox backed off him due to projected durability. Cashman actually commented today on the Yankee position. Assuming he maintained clean mechanics, he would still be incurring wear and tear on his shoulder, elbow, etc., and aging as well. What was your take at the time of his signing as far as concern about his durability and longevity? Thanks.
        • Joe Janish March 29, 2013 at 3:36 pm
          From what I understand, Cashman based his decision on data — i.e., innings logged and the mathematical formulas projecting risk/reward. I imagine Theo Epstein used a similar approach.

          My take at the time? Hmm … I don’t remember off the top of my head but I bet you can find it in the archives here. For me, though, it wasn’t about longevity / length of the contract. At the time, the Mets were seemingly one ace pitcher short of the World Series, and I don’t think anyone expected Santana to perform through the entire deal. It was the cost of doing business, and at the time, Johan was one of the top five starters in MLB — therefore, a deal the Mets had to do to prove they were serious about winning.

        • DaveSchneck March 29, 2013 at 4:27 pm
          That was my take as well. There were some publishes stories about Santana being on a downward trend depsite his young age based data you mentioned. Despite that, it was a risk worthy of taking based on where the team was at that time. Additionally, given his excellent change up, I thought he would be able to adjust to lower velocity and in the new league still dominate. Unfortunately, the capsule tear to the shoulder is too severe even for that adjustment.
  4. JG March 29, 2013 at 9:47 am
    The thing is, if what you’re saying is right – that he was kind of a ticking time bomb and his injuries were of the “death by a thousand paper cuts” variety rather than by any one particular incident – couldn’t it also be argued/hypothesized that whatever mechanics made him an injury risk were also what made him good – and if so, from his perspective, he’d rather risk re-injury than try to completely change his mechanics at a belated stage in his career? I’m not knowledgeable at all regarding pitching mechanics, but on a surface level, Johan became a dominant pitcher because of his changeup – an off-speed pitch whose success relies on the pitcher’s ability to make the hitter think he’s throwing a fastball. So wouldn’t mechanics/arm motion be a huge part of that? And if so, would Johan risk messing up his mechanics, even if it would help him avoid injury?
    • Joe Janish March 29, 2013 at 11:02 am
      No, it absolutely cannot be hypothesized that his flaw is what made him good. See my reply to Tommy above.

      And no, the arm motion should not change at all when throwing a change-up. If it did, then it WOULD be easier to identify. Velocity drops due to the grip on the ball, not on the arm motion.

      Further, Santana threw without the flaw when he was winning Cy Youngs with the Twins.

  5. The King March 29, 2013 at 9:47 am
    I guess that 215 inning thing is safe.
  6. Izzy March 29, 2013 at 2:05 pm
    It is really amazing that teams will invest all this money on players yet not hire someone to help make the investment sound. They spend millions on equipment, video, trainers, player development. Statistical analysis, yet nothing on studying mechanics which is what destroys most pitchers’ careers. It’s sad. Johan is done and its sad but its sadder that they did nothing to fix Mejia after TJ and its sadder thy let Wheeler revert to amateur form because he fought the Giants who were trying to make him throw correctly.
    • Joe Janish March 29, 2013 at 9:38 pm
      Agreed, it’s incredibly sad.

      I’m glad you brought up Wheeler — I truly believe the main reason SF made him available for Beltran was because he wasn’t buying into the changes the Giants made to his motion, and felt he was susceptible to chronic arm problems.

      Based on the very limited video I’ve seen of him, it appears his arm tends to lag behind the rest of his body. His hand is not at the high-cock phase at foot strike, which is a bright red flag.

    • argonbunnies March 30, 2013 at 6:35 am
      I think most teams tell themselves that the coaches and surgeons are doing the best anyone can do, to justify all their past focus in those directions instead of admitting they’ve been idiots for the past couple decades.
  7. argonbunnies March 30, 2013 at 6:49 am
    I still think weird mechanics can deceive a hitter — if you pitch just like everyone else, batters will feel comfortable against you — and short-arming the ball has seemed key to Jose Valverede’s success (hitters reacted to his 93 as if it were 98). That said, if Santana got away from whatever he was doing from 2004-2006, and that wasn’t corrected, that’s criminal.

    Personally, I think Santana’s reinjury was caused by pitching on a sprained ankle. In addition to the obvious red flag of giving up 21 hits in his next 8.1 innings, his motion also looked a little different to me, and an obvious explanation would be using more arm to compensate for an inability to use his legs. That the Mets left him in that game (to give up hits to 6 of the next 7 batters) and brought him back for his next 2 starts (12 runs in 8 innings, looking awful) seemed awfully stupid to me.

    • Dan42 March 30, 2013 at 7:43 am
      The ankle would seem to be the turning point,
      since that is when his performance fell off the cliff. Up to that point he may have been using his legs to compensate for a less than perfect shoulder, not helped by the flaw Joe described.
      The final straw was the “voluntary bull pen session”, which obviously worsened his poor condition, judging by performance.

      Met management stupidity must be part of their culture, and will probably be so until they are Wilponfree.

      • DaveSchneck March 30, 2013 at 3:09 pm
        I am no fan of Met management or ownership, but I think it is a stretch to blame them for Santana’s injury. I agree with Joe J’s main theme, that proper biomechanics is overlooked in baseball, but this is a mistake of the majority and mostly everyone, so to single out the Mets would be unfair. Additionally, virtually everyone loves when an athlete “guts it out”, and Santana was praised by all for his 2008 performance on a bad knee in game 161. It is hard to have it both ways, and very tough to draw the line. Despite all the uproar afther the 134 pitch no-no, Santana’s stats, velocity, and own statements support that his arm was not shot after that game. Yes, it was stressed, and that may well have led to further damage, but he performed decently directly afterwards. The “warrior” in him tried to battle through the ankle as well, again something we all admire, but it didn’t work out. This type of injury is almost impossible to recover from. He did a hell of a job just getting back to the form he had in the first half of 2012. “Blame”, if there is blame to place, has to go around to all involved, not simply Met management. In any event, it is quite unfortunate for both the team and the player.
        • Dan42 March 30, 2013 at 5:03 pm
          It may just be my advanced age, but while not saying that Met management is totally to blame, I can’t fathom why they didn’t shut him down when he clearly demonstrated that he could not pitch effectively after hurting his ankle. Considering he was still recovering from major surgery, had recently exceeded his career high pitch count to get the no hitter, his warrior mentality and inability to perform at that point, why risk all of next season for nothing? Toughing things out can be good, but when it results in poor performance, it’s more ego than a desirable trait. The not in shape comments are also a sign of poor management, which unfortunately seems to have significant representation in Baseball today.
    • Joe Janish March 30, 2013 at 9:12 am
      Weird mechanics — depending on what they are — might help with deception, but that doesn’t necessarily mean “weird” can’t also be “safe.” Plus, a pitcher with very good, safe mechanics usually has excellent deception (in terms of hiding the ball).

      The thing with Santana is that it could have been difficult to see and understand the flaw by an untrained eye. He did the short-arm thing with the Twins, but usually managed to get his arm back into a safe route in time so that it would still be safe. But, it was a bad habit, and there was always the chance that it could cause problems if something in his timing was just slightly off. Maybe it was his knee or other lower-half issues that caused the timing to change. Maybe it was something else — who knows?