As most of you know by now, Michael Pineda (RHP, NYY) is out for the season due to a shoulder injury. Pineda reportedly suffered an anterior labrum tear and his velocity was significantly diminished in Spring Training for the Yankees. GM Brian Cashman reportedly subjected the young hurler to an MRI before agreeing to complete the trade that sent Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi to Seattle, but saw nothing negative on the MRI.
Allegedly, the second MRI done to diagnose the labrum tear (better known as a “SLAP” – superior labral tear from anterior to posterior) showed significantly increased structural damage in the shoulder when compared to the first MRI.
Both Yankees’ and Mariners’ fans want to know: What happened here?
Forcing a Change-Up: Mechanical Problems
All anyone could talk about from 2011 to 2012 was the “fact” that Pineda needed to develop a change-up, because… well, you know. You just need to have one of those to be succeessful, and Pineda’s change-up sucked. You gotta have one of those to get lefties out.
Except… that’s not true. Pineda’s L/R splits were not completely out of line with the league average, and in fact may have been better than most RHP. (source: Fangraphs)
There is no law that states that starting pitchers must have three pitches to succeed. The number of pitchers out there that can reliably command and control three above-average pitches are all superstars. Most are lucky to command two pitches that are above-average with regards to “stuff,” and I don’t think anyone would argue that Pineda’s fastball and slider were below-average.
So what’s the big deal? How could Pineda’s shoulder injuries be related to developing a change-up? Well, as I’ve stated before, forcing someone to develop a better change-up often kills a pitcher’s fastball velocity. I said it on the Pro Ball NW podcast about training, and I said it in a previous article about teaching youth pitchers how to throw a change-up.
Paul Nyman made this observation many years ago, and I agree with him wholeheartedly. Youth pitchers who rely on a changeup and throw it often in their bullpen sessions will often change their throwing mechanics to get better sink and velocity separation off their fastball. As a result, their pitching mechanics become highly linear and their arm speed decreases due to poor use of rotational force, and this loss of velocity creeps into all of their pitches, including their fastball.
Repeatable mechanics play a role when it comes to reducing shoulder/elbow injuries, so it could very well have been the constant forcing of the change-up that helped Pineda along the path to shoulder surgery – to say nothing of the fact that sinkerballers tend to have shoulder issues in the first place!
Much of this could have been detected if only the Yankees and/or Mariners had an on-field system that analyzed the biomechanics of a pitcher in real-time to see if pitchers appreciably changed how they threw their pitches after making tweaks to their deliveries. Even multiple high-speed cameras installed with constant video review would have been helpful. This type of system would be inexpensive to develop (we have one in our Seattle facility) and could produce a huge edge for any MLB team willing to deploy it. (I’ve been beating this drum for some time now, and while I’ve had some interest from pro teams, there’s a general lack of motivation on this particular subject – why this is, I can’t figure out.)
Damaged Goods? Previous Shoulder Issues?
Pineda’s effectiveness went down as 2011 wore on, and while his velocity ticked down a bit, no one was really worried about his health except for the somewhat-large workload he accumulated as a rookie. (For the record, I don’t think it was unreasonably large at all.) Many are wondering if Pineda was “damaged goods” when he was sent over to the Yankees, but if this had been true, shouldn’t the Yankees have seen something on the initial MRI they did?
The problem is that people view an MRI as a diagnostic panacea, when it’s barely a baseline tool for analysis. When you consider the torque about the shoulder that’s required to throw a baseball 90+ MPH and how often it’s done, there’s no way you wouldn’t expect massive structural changes in the connective tissue in the glenohumeral and acromioclavicular joints – and this is exactly what you see. Consider that MRIs of the shoulder in asymptomatic (completely healthy) pitchers are really screwed up (source 1, source 2), and you’ll begin to understand that the initial MRI is more of a formality than anything else. Unless the Yankees had seen a complete tearing of the labrum off the bone, they wouldn’t fail Pineda based on a wonky MRI.
The Lowdown on the Situation
As with most things injury-related, this is a highly complex and multivariate problem. You can’t just force a pitcher to learn a pitch that was previously pretty bad without expecting a lot of secondary and tertiary changes. It’s not as simple as developing a change-up (one of the hardest pitches to master) and leaving everything else the same. Athletes who struggle with throwing a particular type of pitch will change their pitching mechanics to accommodate the new pitch, and these changes will creep into their other pitches. Occasionally, this leads to great results – especially if you’re re-learning how to throw a fastball harder – but usually it leads to velocity-killing issues and/or and increased risk of injuries in the pitching arm.
MRIs aren’t perfect; they’re diagnostic tools. As I said above on my Twitter feed (@drivelinebases), you get a basic diagnostic with the MRI, pain levels, and crappy velocities – you can only confirm the extent of the damage if you insert an arthroscope.
The Yankees didn’t act negligently when it came to acquiring Michael Pineda. They may have acted negligently when it came to developing him.