The latest in a series of arm injuries suffered by Mets starting pitchers has struck Jacob deGrom, who will miss his next start due to forearm tightness and elbow inflammation. Could the Mets’ 2015 World Series run be the blame for this year’s rash of injuries?
No, not really. It would be easy to point to the way the Mets pushed their young starting pitchers through the 2015 season and postseason and surmise that “overuse” or the “residual effect” of a “heavy workload” is the reason deGrom, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, and Steven Matz have all suffered arm injuries. Easy, that is, if you don’t understand how and why injuries occur.
If you don’t know much about anatomy, physiology, how the body heals, and the science of body movement, don’t feel bad — neither do most people involved in professional baseball. That’s why they keep coming up empty with answers as to why pitchers — on any team — suffer arm injuries.
But even if you don’t believe injuries can be avoided by looking at the way the body moves and the way it is handled — let’s say, for example, you’re in the camp of “pitching is an unnatural motion, therefore arm injuries are inevitable” — then the Mets’ 2015 World Series run still isn’t a valid excuse for the pains of their starting pitchers in 2016. But don’t take it from me — journalist Neil Paine crunched the numbers going back to 1995 and found ” … no relationship between the length of a team’s stay in the postseason and whether its pitchers met expectations the following season.”
So, if we can’t blame some vague notion of a “2015 hangover,” then why has 80% of the Mets starting rotation been hit by arm injuries?
First off, it’s not one thing (and rarely is). All pitching injuries (other than acute ones resulting from, say, being struck by a line drive or colliding with another player) result from fatigue. When a muscle gets tired, tendons and ligaments are recruited to work harder, which causes inflammation, and, eventually, a strain or tear. Simple enough, right? So, what causes fatigue that leads to a pitcher’s arm injury? One, or a combination, of the following:
- Lack of proper recovery and rest (healing time)
- Mechanical flaw
- Ignoring warning signs / red flags
Notice that none of the above are related to the number of pitches or innings thrown, nor the number of games in which a pitcher appears. Those statistics are important — VERY important — in knowing how much rest a pitcher needs in order to recover from the act of pitching. MLB teams do a lot of counting, but unfortunately don’t apply those counts to their most valuable use — determining how much rest a pitcher needs. Rest and recovery guidelines were determined by scientists over decades of research, and pitchers who ignore these guidelines are playing with fire. How many MLB starting pitchers ignore those guidelines? Nearly every one.
Generally speaking, a Major League starting pitcher is expected to throw about 100 pitches in a game he starts. Going by the recovery guidelines, a 100-pitch day requires at least four days of rest. “Rest” means NOT PITCHING OFF A MOUND. Most scientists would tell you, in fact, that it’s probably best not to pick up a ball at all for four days. However, just about every MLB pitcher throws a “bullpen” on the second day after a start. Why? Beats the heck out of me. It’s some kind of tradition, I guess? Maybe because an effective pitcher from 40 years ago did that, and so everyone thought they should, too?
After a strenuous activity such as throwing 100 pitches from a mound, the first 48-72 hours are most critical to healing. This is fact, not theory. So when a pitcher does a “light bullpen,” within that period, he’s interrupting the healing process. When you do that over and over and over again from April through September, there’s a good chances something will break down, because tissues are not being allowed to fully heal. And we won’t even get into the fact that most pro pitchers also engage in “long toss” between starts, which on its own has been proven (again, by science, not some theory) to be dangerous to the elbow, and UCL in particular.
And yes, Mets fans — by all accounts and corroboration that could be collected by this author — Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, and Matt Harvey all threw bullpens when they should have been recovering. In fact, Syndergaard, during the All-Star break, suggested that he’d follow teammate Bartolo Colon‘s habit of not throwing bullpens in between starts. Is it a coincidence that Colon is the only Mets starter not to have reported an arm injury this year?
Looking at the #2 factor on the list, it should be pointed out that deGrom, Syndergaard, Matz, and Harvey all pitched with dangerous (and correctable) mechanical flaws. Jacob deGrom’s shoulder angle is far outside the ASMI guidelines during adduction (which caused lat strains this year and in 2014); the elbow bone spurs and shoulder issues suffered by Syndergaard and Matz can be pointed directly to both a late arm and a poor follow-through (Syndergaard’s late arm goes back to his minor league days); and Harvey had multiple mechanical problems that eventually led to being diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome.
Now, even if you don’t believe that the way a person does something can cause an injury, let’s skip down to the warning signs. Jacob deGrom’s velocity was alarmingly down at the beginning of the season — a velocity drop is always a red flag that something’s wrong. His arm angle had also dropped, and his release point was wildly inconsistent — these were all signals to look into what might be wrong, but instead, he continued pitching until a lat strain put him on the DL. More recently, deGrom’s performance diminished, his follow-through changed (he was falling more toward 1B), and he lost command of his pitches. Now, he has forearm tightness. Again, all red flags that something could be wrong, and an indication that he should study what he’s doing — be it his mechanics or his routine — and see if there’s a change that can be made to alleviate the pain.
Harvey’s warning was diminished performance. Generally speaking, going from one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball to one of the worst, is a big, bright, red flag that something might be wrong. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the guidance of a qualified individual to correct his mechanical flaws, so instead of getting better, he got worse as he blindly attempted one “fix” after another.
As for Matz and Syndergaard, their elbow bone spurs were more than red flags — they were fire trucks blasting their sirens at decibels that send men, women, children, and dogs running to the hills. When bone is rubbing against bone, you need to find out WHY. But MLBers adhere to the nonsensical adage “sometimes pitchers have to pitch through pain.” No, they don’t, and they shouldn’t. What’s causing the pain should be fixed. It doesn’t help that MLB people receive incomplete information from physicians who claim “no more damage can be done.” Do you know what that REALLY means? To an MLB person, it means, “the bone spur won’t cause a UCL tear.” Because MLB people are concerned with only two body parts: the UCL and the rotator cuff. If those two pieces of the arm are OK, then the pitcher needs to “suck it up” and get back on the mound. But here’s the thing: the mechanical flaw that caused the bone spurs in Syndergaard’s and Matz’s elbows are precursors to shoulder problems — possibly, even, rotator cuff tears. But MLB people aren’t equipped to understand how those dots are connected.
Instead of getting someone qualified to look at the mechanics of Matz and Syndergaard — or, at the very least, shutting down the two pitchers — the Mets encouraged the two young men to take cortisone shots and pain killers and “pitch through it.” (The irony about the mechanics is that the Mets reportedly used cutting-edge technology called “TrackMan” to ensure the pitchers continued to use the same exact mechanics that caused their injuries in the first place. That tells you that whomever was looking at the video, didn’t know enough about the science of body movement.)
The one factor not yet covered is weakness. That’s because we don’t know for certain what kind of strength training programs these pitchers follow. But one thing that everyone reading this should know: the elbow can and should be strengthened. This may seem obvious — since there are programs and books dedicated to elbow strength and conditioning exercises — but I’ve read and heard repeatedly from MLB commentators and pitchers that “you can strengthen the shoulder, but there’s no way to strengthen the elbow.” So let’s put that myth to rest before it continues to gain steam.
Unfortunately, there isn’t one bugaboo to blame for the Mets’ starting pitchers’ injury woes, which means there’s no one magic bullet to avoid injuries in the future. Life is rarely that simple.