In part one of this two-part series of posts, I went over Morrow’s mechanical changes in his time as a Blue Jay and the results they had on his performance. In part two I will take a closer look at the nerve injury that ended his 2013 season after only 10 starts and look into what I see as a caveman approach that the Blue Jays organization takes to pitching. Throughout this post you’ll notice that I use a few more technical baseball mechanics terms and as such I have provided a legend at the end of this post to hopefully clear up any confusion.
When Morrow went on the DL this past season, Shi Davidi published an article that I thought included some rather peculiar quotes regarding Morrow’s injury.
“Now that we’ve given it this type of rest, we’ve done MRIs again, and with all the evidence we have over time, we ultimately believe [the radial nerve entrapment] is what it is,” said Anthopoulos. “But it took all this time to find out what it was. It’s not an easy thing to diagnose”
The moment the nerve issue was brought to attention further diagnosis should have been made. MRI’s revealed nothing but inflammation? That’s what this kind of nerve injury will do; cause inflammation. It’s baffling that this appears to have been brushed aside and Morrow was allowed to continue to throw. As early as three starts into the season his arm was tight and he had issues getting loose. He had starts pushed back because of tightness and spasms in his neck and back. These are all warning signs and brushing them off as inflammation boggles the mind.
Morrow’s last start came on May 28th. He attempted a rehab game just two weeks later. He should have been shut down from any kind of throwing routine for at least six weeks. I find it perplexing that a nerve damage injury can be brought up and brushed aside as “not an easy thing to diagnose” so easily. By not shutting down Morrow right away the Jays risked altering his ulnar nerve canal.
“He fell in love with the [cutter], it was a good pitch for him, and Brandon will tell you, he feels like his use of the cutter, and he probably threw too many, certainly didn’t help,” said Anthopoulos. “And that’s where his forearm started to get sore.”
The second quote brought up something that bothers me about most pitching evaluations I see; a failure to see the root of the problem. Morrow and AA think, or at least publicly state, that the forearm issue was nothing more than throwing a pitch more than he used to; as something that came out of nowhere in camp as a result of using a cutter. It appears AA conveniently forgets that Morrow had trouble in the same forearm in as early as 2009. He missed 22 days in camp that year due to forearm soreness. Later that season he spent a week in the minors with forearm tightness. In 2011, he again suffered forearm soreness in camp, which would eventually lead to a DL stint and cause him to miss most of the first month of the season. When the forearm issue first popped up, Morrow had yet to add the cutter to his arsenal; as seen in the picture below.
When examining the radial nerve there are some things that pop out. In the picture below you can see the path the radial nerve takes from the hand up into the shoulder.
Picture via StudyBlue.com
Something that is obvious right away is the pathway starting from the hand. Morrow has always thrown a splitter, yet nobody (inside or outside the organization) ever called attention to how a splitter is thrown in correlation to the radial nerve path. With that said, the intention is not to go on a witch hunt and try to pinpoint some pitch that is causing Brandon Morrow such woe. People are always trying to blame pitch types when it comes to pitcher injuries, but within that lies confirmation bias and completely ignores the foundation of the problem.
To go back to the radial nerve path. You can see it runs through the supinator muscle. This is a key factor when studying Morrow’s mechanics.
Quickly, to describe and to think about what supination and pronation are I like to think of two distinct hand motions. I find the easiest way to separate the two are thinking of them as either a thumbs up or thumbs down image with thumbs up correlating to supination and thumbs down correlating to pronation.
Supination via InfoBarrel
Pronation via InfoBarrel
Dr. Mike Marshall and Ron Wolforth have been teaching ‘radical’ methods for years now, one being extreme or powerful pronation. The idea behind it is that by pronating through and after release of the baseball, you avoid the ulna from colliding into the olecranon fossa.
Picture via TheseBonesOfMine
This can help prevent bone chips and is much safer on the elbow and rotator cuff. Below is a picture of Tim Lincecum mid-delivery wherein you can see a prime example of pronation.
Picture via the TheBaseballZone
So why am I bringing up healthy elbow mechanics? Because the nerve entrapment suffered by Morrow has been linked to repeated supination and compression of the nerve. Again, the nerve runs right through the supinator muscles so years of supination without proper pronation have done a number on his radial nerve. Below is a GIF, wherein you can see Morrow’s extreme supination and lack of pronation.
Video for GIF via YouTube
The body naturally tries to pronate after release to help slow the arm down and prevent it from tearing out of the socket. Despite this, you may notice in the above GIF that Morrow does not pronate through his release. Instead, he pronates ever so slightly after releasing the ball, but then fights it and his forearm snaps back into supination. This is putting tremendous force on the supinator muscles and as a result, irritating the radial nerve.
This is all to say that specific pitches, like the cutter or the splitter, while potentially harmful, are not the root cause of Morrow’s injury woes. Instead it is unhealthy mechanics and years of nerve irritation that have finally caught up to Brandon Morrow.
With that said, there is never one specific reason why a pitcher gets hurt. For example, a phrase you will commonly hear when discussing pitching injuries is the ‘inverted W’. Despite years of evidence proving otherwise, people will flash a still photo of a pitcher in position where their arms are shaped like this:
Picture via Xavier Barbier
…and claim their career is doomed to inevitable injury as the result of the ‘dreaded inverted W’. However, the problem with that assumption therein lies in the idea that you can’t necessarily single out one specific moment in a pitcher’s delivery to point to as a definite injury risk. The pitching delivery is much too complex and fast for the human eye to pick up key aspects that directly affect injuries. We can point out red flags and areas of concerns, but through research thus far we have been unable to predict injury with any degree of success.
In 2002, Dr. Werner found a correlation between elbow valgus and throwing. He found 4 key areas that affected elbow valgus
- Shoulder abduction angle at instant of stride foot contact
- Peak shoulder horizontal adduction angular velocity
- Elbow angle at instant of peak valgus torque
- Maximum shoulder external rotation torque
Now that’s obviously a tad technical, but the general premise that it proves is that you can’t simply snap a photo of a pitcher’s delivery and claim instant doom to injury for said pitcher. That’s not to say there isn’t some truth behind all these labels. Research has taught us that scapular loading, which is commonly linked to inverted W’s, causes greater elbow valgus. There are red flags that stick out to the trained eye. For example, Keith Law pointed out his injury concerns with Jays prospect Aaron Sanchez’s mechanical changes in 2013. There are a number of organizations that will train their scouts to look for red flags in deliveries, which includes the inverted W. However, the degree to which a pitcher may potentially be injury prone needs to be studied, broken down and evaluated with high-speed video in order to have any potential relevancy.
Our eyes can’t spot certain things from the stand or in bullpen sessions. We can’t see to what degree the arm leaks into the acromial line or exact degrees of shoulder abduction among other things. I could look at a pitcher like Stephen Strasberg and point out the red flags in his delivery, but without the necessary equipment it’s mainly just a hunch.
This brings me to some worries I’ve had about the Jays organization for quite some time now. Biomechanical research has been around for 20 years now and there are only two known teams in the MLB that are currently take advantage of them. It should be no surprise that the Oakland A’s were the first team to take part in biomechanical research with their pitchers over a decade ago.
During the 2012 season, John Lott wrote an amazing two part article about biomechanics that detailed some of the hesitancy that teams have had in accepting biomechanics; taking a particular look at the Blue Jays’ position. Lott notes how the old guard is still very stubborn when it comes to changing the way things have always been done.
Within the article, there a few alarming quotes that point to how some current and former Blue Jays staffers view biomechanics. Most notably Lott notes that, ”Both [Pitching Coach Bruce] Walton and Bullpen Coach Pete Walker say they saw no alarming signs in Hutchison’s delivery, nor in the deliveries of Kyle Drabek and Luis Perez.”
Yet, with my blind eye I see an alarming number of red flags in the deliveries of each of Drew Hutchison, Kyle Drabek, and Luis Perez. Of course it all becomes hearsay, because those who oppose old guard theories have yet to find universal evidence that can be used in predicting pitcher injury. Instead trust is placed on the coaches because they have some perceived authority on the matter and would seem to know what they’re talking about.
Later in the article Walton mentions that Hutchison was the only one that threw across his body, implying that this is the only danger or that this is the only thing something like bio testing would find. Again, the problem is within the foundation not when the pitcher gets halfway through his delivery.
In the article, former Blue Jays Manager John Farrell says that, “biomechanics in and of itself is a great tool…but to what extent do you let it rule everything you do?” That is a classic response to change. Take a really useful tool and try to find the extreme fault in it without ever testing it yourself. These are the same responses that those in the sabermetric community get on an annual basis with regards to new age metrics. Reading that quote, you would think it was Buck Martinez spouting off some pointless dribble, but no…instead it is a major league manager, which is frankly quite sad.
Biomechanical research is so much more than simply sending a pitcher in for some video analysis and coming out cured of all future injury concerns.
At Driveline Baseball, Kyle Body takes it to the next level. He acknowledges that you can only learn so much from biomechanics and takes it a step further than anyone else. Kyle uses high-speed video; multi angled video analysis, video overlay analysis, EMG sensors, force plate analysis and so on. The best trained eyes on the planet cannot match what this kind of analysis can do.
I’m not suggesting every big league pitcher should go and start reworking everything about their mechanics, but organizations that are generally regarded as being smart and progressive, like the Tampa Bay Rays or Oakland A’s, use biomechanical research in their minor league system. If you’re afraid of changing a player because “that’s what got them here”, why not instead look to fix the problem earlier on in their development? These are the most talented players in the world. Pitching and hitting coaches are always tinkering with mechanics. Why is it so feared when technology comes into play?
To steal a line from Moneyball, in the world of baseball one must, “adapt or die.”
It’s time to take a step into the next level of pitching analysis in the Blue Jays organization and I just hope someone out there is paying attention.
Valgus – Elbows turned in
Acromial line – From Dr. Mike Marshall, The alignment of the humerus and acromion of both scapula.
Scapular loading – The scapula coming together expanding the chest, increasing the elastic enegery in the upper body.
Supination – To turn or rotate the hand and forearm so the palm faces up
Pronation – To turn or rotate the hand and forearm so the hand faces down