Matz Shoulder and Elbow Issues Directly Related

New York Mets starting pitcher Steven Matz (32) follows through on a pitch against the New York Yankees during the first inning at Yankee Stadium on Aug 3, 2016.

Steven Matz has been pitching nearly the entire season with an elbow issue — going back to the forearm tightness he experienced way back in early May. The forearm tightness evolved into a bone spur in his elbow, and, most recently, shoulder discomfort developed. Mets management and team doctors would like you to believe the shoulder and elbow problems are not related, but that is absolutely, positively, not the case.

Let’s get one thing perfectly clear: injuries — to any athlete, in any sport — occur due to a specific reason. Every single injury has a root cause. There may be some mystery that requires detective work, but, if someone spends enough time and has the right background, the cause can be discovered.

Now, let’s get another thing clear: pitching injuries don’t happen just because the act of pitching is somehow “unnatural” nor because an arm injury is inevitable. People who say that are misinformed and/or lazy. The WAY a person pitches MAY be unnatural, in that his motion defies natural, efficient body movement (i.e., goes against the way the bones are aligned and move). Pitching a baseball can be “natural,” efficient, and safe. It’s when a pitcher goes against efficiency that problems, such as injuries, arise. People with background in anatomy, physiology, and/or kinesiology understand what I’m talking about.

So, if you’re reading this far, you have at least some faith (or hope) that the human body can propel a baseball without self-destructing. Holding fast to that faith, we can put on our detective hats and research the reasons Steven Matz is having arm problems.

First off, Matz’s left arm is far behind where it needs to be at foot strike. There is a mile-high pile of scientific evidence that says the throwing hand must be at a certain position (called “high cock position”) when the front foot touches dirt so that the lower body and trunk — the largest muscles in the body — can take much of the brunt of hurling the baseball. Matz’s arm is a few “beats” behind when his right foot lands, so as a result he’s putting undue stress on his arm. Many MLB pitchers have this flaw (Noah Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler are prime examples); it’s fairly common and extremely dangerous. It’s a timing issue and can be easily corrected, with the right person applying the correction (this person is rarely a pitching coach). Interestingly, though, this timing issue is not the reason Matz has a bone spur and shoulder discomfort — though it likely caused his first UCL tear and may have had something to do with the forearm tightness he experienced in May.

Rather, the bone spur and shoulder injuries are directly related to another flaw that Matz shares with Syndergaard — a poor follow-through. Essentially, the two young pitchers are unable to properly “apply the brakes” to slow down their arms. One thing that both Matz and Syndergaard do better than 99.9% of human beings is accelerate their arms rapidly enough to propel a baseball over 95 MPH. However, just as important as acceleration is deceleration — the arm has to eventually stop, and there is a safe and efficient way to do this. I like to compare it to when Chevrolet put a 400-horsepower engine in the lightweight Corvette back in the 1960s — when they dropped in that 327 V8, they also equipped the car with four-wheel disc brakes, at the time, it was one of the only cars in the world to have such stopping power. Because if you’re going to go that fast, you’re also going to need a way to stop. Pitchers who throw 95+ MPH need the best brakes, and neither Matz nor Syndergaard have them.

Again, this is an easily correctable flaw. I’m not going to get into the whys and hows because that is far beyond the scope of this blog post. What’s key is to understand that when a pitcher does not properly slow down his arm with help from his largest muscles, the brakes have to come from the back of the arm — specifically, the tricep and shoulder. Constantly abusing these parts of the arm in this manner will result in pain, and when the pain is ignored, eventually the bones’ protectors — ligaments, tendons, muscles — will break down. When the bones lose these protectors, the bones grow to create a protection for themselves — these growths are called spurs.


Are you starting to connect the dots?

So now let’s look at Matz (and Syndergaard, for that matter). His poor follow-through is putting undue stress on the back of his elbow and his shoulder. The Mets doctors said that Matz couldn’t damage his UCL by continuing to pitch — and they were probably right. What they didn’t mention is that the UCL wasn’t really at risk — the shoulder was. The treatment was not to correct the follow-through flaw, but to apply cortisone injections and anti-inflammatories to kill the pain. (No wonder Matz said his elbow was feeling “better” — he wasn’t feeling anything!) With no pain in the elbow, Matz could continue to pitch — and continue to shred his shoulder.

The irony is that the Mets have been hell-bent on making sure Matz’s mechanics REMAINED THE SAME, going so far as to use cutting-edge technology called TrackMan toward that goal. The same mechanics that caused the bone spur, and, eventually, the shoulder discomfort.

Oh, by the way, remember when Noah Syndergaard’s arm “went dead” in the middle of a ballgame just prior to the All-Star break? Do you know that “dead arm” is an injury to the supraspinatus, a small muscle in the shoulder blade / scapula? Huh, isn’t that interesting …

But don’t take it from me, I’m merely a lay person and pseudo-journalist on a mission to keep pitchers safe. If you want to hear more details about this from an expert, listen to the podcast below that was recorded in mid-July. It’s mainly focused on Syndergaard, but the content also applies to Matz. (I sincerely apologize for the technical issue causing the redundant thumping in the show.)

Bottom line — these injuries to the elbow and shoulder are absolutely related and could have been prevented. And, you can expect to eventually hear about a shoulder problem from Syndergaard, assuming he, also, does not correct his deceleration flaw. At some point, hopefully, someone will wake up and change the course. Pitching injuries don’t have to be inevitable.

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. david August 21, 2016 at 7:24 pm
    Thanks for this Joe.

    The other obvious point this throws up is why don’t the Mets trade one of these young guns for a big bat? They seem afraid to do so even though its obvious we need 2 corner IF bats.

    I was wondering – what is your take on the Mets resigning Reyes? I think playing him a t 3B is a bad idea and, as usual, the Mets are playing guys out of position and hoping for the best.

    • Joe Janish August 27, 2016 at 1:58 pm
      It seems that the Mets don’t want to trade anyone of value who is making MLB minimum salary, and Sandy Alderson appears to value arms over bats. Though, they DID trade Fulmer for a big bat last year, and they tried to trade Wheeler for Bruce (and later, Gomez), so maybe it’s a matter of them not finding a palatable deal.

      As an outsider, Reyes seems like a no-brainer. Going back to the Mets was best for Reyes and fit Jeff Wilpon’s desire to excite the fan base. On paper, the Mets needed a leadoff hitter, a speedy guy, and someone who could play 3B. So there you go.

      From the inside, I imagine Alderson was not happy not fully supportive of reacquiring Reyes, because he doesn’t fit into the plan of piling up guys who take walks and big swings. I also imagine the front office does not value the stolen base, and, likely, sees it as a negative. But, Jeff owns the team so Reyes is in Flushing.

      How do I personally see it? I don’t really have an opinion, because it’s hard to make a judgment on a player who clearly doesn’t fit into the plan. For what it’s worth, I don’t subscribe to the prehistoric strategy made famous by Moneyball. Much has changed since the 1990s. If it were up to me, I’d either start following the Cubs’ plan of piling up bats and athletes or go the KC Royals / Astros / Cardinals route of the 1970s-80s and stockpile speed and defense. In that latter case, Reyes would be a good fit.

      • Ray LaGrange September 12, 2016 at 5:37 pm
        Mets r playing like that there is not just a letter I in TEAM they r playing like a well oiled macheine one goes down n affraid to put someone in that replacse that person THEY R WHAT U CALL A TEAM!!!
        • Joe Janish September 15, 2016 at 5:34 pm
          They’re also playing against clubs that would have difficulty competing at the AAA level.
  2. argonbunnies August 22, 2016 at 9:18 pm
    Fantastic distillation of some of the injury wisdom you’ve amassed, Joe. I will link this the next time one of my Mets fan friends says the team’s doing all anyone can do for pitcher health.

    I wonder if the people in MLB who know the science best have actively given up implementing fixes? I mean, Billy Beane employed/worked with some pioneers on this front long before most, and he’s been trading away young pitchers in droves for most of his tenure, getting a few years of value and then shipping them out before they get hurt. Maybe he realized that, just as pitchers don’t like to wear doofy-looking hats that might save their lives, pitchers also don’t like to have some non-jock hanging around the team just to micro-manage their deliveries? So torn UCLs and line drives to the head are just the price of being cool or manly or whatever?

    Maybe that sounds like a bizarre conspiracy theory, but if it were true, it wouldn’t be the first time. Culture is a force few will fight. Compare the players’ stance on steroids and testing now to what it was in 2002.

    • Joe Janish August 27, 2016 at 2:04 pm
      I don’t think that MLB “know” the science. From what I can gather by talking to people “inside,” most MLB teams employ quantitative science and listen to doctors while completely dismissing / ignoring / not knowing about the qualitative side. Every team knows about biomechanics but that’s only half the story (and mostly useless without someone with qualitative skills to implement biomechanical data).

      I think it’s the same story with the pitchers — they simply follow whatever their MLB coaches / managers / agents tell them, and they’re only getting part of the story.

      I just think everyone is ignorant, and Jeff Passan’s book has done nothing but further the ignorance.

      Hey, it took Bill James a while to get baseball to recognize — much less accept — sabermetrics. Eventually, hopefully, baseball will take notice of qualitative science and the opportunities available to keep pitchers healthy.

      • argonbunnies August 28, 2016 at 9:27 pm
        Hmm, yeah, I guess “you need a trained qualitative expert to make use of these biometric findings” isn’t really the sort of revolutionary eye-opener that every team is eager to jump on. It sounds pretty mundane. Like, “Can’t the pitching coach just learn that?”

        Honestly, I’d have to see EXACTLY what a qualitative scientist does to understand why a reasonably intelligent pitching coach couldn’t do the same. It makes intuitive sense to me, but I don’t actually KNOW.

  3. david August 25, 2016 at 7:14 pm
    Hey Joe, what is your take on DeGrom’s recent struggles and the blame being placed on him and his catcher’s reluctance to pitch/call inside? TDA is beginning to get a real whiff about him if this story gains traction, which is fair if he is not calling for it, but what is the deal with these guys simply going away from the inside heater? I caught for years, as did you, so I was curious to hear your opinion on the old “purpose pitch”, “chin music” or whatever you want to call it.
    • Joe Janish August 27, 2016 at 2:13 pm
      I like Travis d’Arnaud as a ballplayer and a person. I don’t love him as a catcher. I think he should be a corner outfielder. A catcher needs to be the “take charge” leader of the defense and the pitcher’s director / psychologist. It takes a special personality, and d’Arnaud just doesn’t have it.

      That said, I don’t know if it’s d’Arnaud not calling inside pitches, if it’s the bench not calling inside pitches, or the pitchers not wanting to — or able to — throw inside. But I agree, throwing inside is an integral part of pitching — to be consistently successful a pitcher must command all four quadrants of the strike zone and pound them. Once a batter realizes that one or two of those quadrants are not being utilized, it becomes much easier to zone in on the others. And yes, there is the fear factor associated with the inside pitch that has more or less disappeared from the game over the past 20 years. The problem is not a Mets issue so much as a baseball — at all levels — issue. At some point, pitchers were taught not to throw too far inside and batters were no longer taught how to get out of the way. That’s a dangerous combination, because now we have hitters who never expect to get out of the way of a pitch — and sometimes, mistakes happen. I don’t think that hitters should be terrified of getting hit, but they should have in the back of their mind that it COULD happen, and have some kind of training to know how to get out of the way if and when it does happen.

    • argonbunnies August 28, 2016 at 9:22 pm
      I hadn’t heard this story, David, but I have been frustrated with d’Arnaud’s game calling throughout his entire time with the Mets. They’ve always pitched much better with Plawecki behind the plate. And yeah, one of the problems with d’Arnaud is that he never calls inside unless that’s very specifically THE game plan.

      Thank goodness after getting beat up for a few starts SOMEONE finally figured out that Syndergaard’s triple-digit heat should be thrown inside more than 2 or 3 times a game. Whether Rene Rivera deserves kudos, or whether he shares the blame for it taking so long, I don’t know.

      As for deGrom, he’s always pitched lefties up-and-in and righties down-and-in just enough. Maybe he got away from that in his last two starts? I’m not sure. The main thing I noticed was too many fastballs, and too little movement on them. I assume that latter is from the release point issue he mentioned, and I bet they can get that fixed.

      As for chin music, I think the only thing that’s changed is pitcher suspensions. Back in the “tough old days” a pitcher would hit 5 guys in 250 innings and glare and threaten and fight and never get suspended, and earn a rep as a mean SOB. Nowadays a pitcher hits 5 guys in 200 innings and pretends each one was an accident, and never earns such a rep, and so no one fears him.

      I don’t think purpose pitches were EVER common. They just used to be more confrontational, that’s all.

      If anything has changed, I think it’s using pitches in to set up pitches away. Not many guys seem to do that anymore. I remember when coming inside 0-2 — not close to hitting anyone, just simply coming in off the plate — was way more common than it is now.