Behind Joel Zumaya's elbow blowout
After 13 pitches, he was headed off the mound and into an MRI machine.
News broke on Sunday that the injury, a snapped UCL, would require Tommy John surgery and that it would end his 2012 Comeback Player of the Year campaign, his time with the Twins and, very likely, his career. Because of his extensive history with injuries, this news did not come as a surprise to anyone. General Manager Terry Ryan seemed a bit perplex that it had happened to his UCL, the one area of his body that he has never had an issue with:
“I'm much more conservative that a lot of general managers, I think that's safe to say. But I thought this was worth a chance after we did the MRIs and had our people look at him down in Houston. It's ironic he tore this ligament because that was one of the areas that he was healthy at.”
However, based on his mechanics, the result that Zumaya blew out his ulnar collateral ligament should not have been entirely unexpected.
Notice that when he enters his load position, his elbow is pulled up and back away from his shoulder level (the pitcher’s driveline). This arm action has been deemed the “Inverted V” – designated such because of the V-shape a pitcher’s throwing arm makes when in the cocked position (this is different than the more readily known Inverted W in that a pitcher’s glove side arm remains straight). What this does is create improper timing in his delivery thereby putting an increased amount of pressure on his shoulder and elbow.
In 2008, Chris O’Leary studied Zumaya’s mechanics and broke down the video clips only to find that this motion indeed throws off his timing. Since then, Zumaya has had shoulder ailments and the exploding elbow cap.
On February 20, ESPN1500’s Phil Mackey grabbed some video of the Twins’ new acquisition throwing in the bullpen. The brief clip showed Zumaya with a big reduction in the elevation of his pitching elbow at the cocked position.
At the time, I was optimistic that all of the injuries inspired him to make some changes in his delivery. When Francisco Liriano came back from his Tommy John surgery, he too toned down his arm action. Baseball-Intellect.com posted in April 2008 showing that pre-injury Liriano had significant horizontal loading while bringing his elbow above his shoulder level. Upon his return, he reduced the horizontal loading and would keep his elbow at or below his shoulder level. Whether this was a designed attempt to avoid further injury or simply the post-surgery aftermath limiting his range of motion is unknown.
Based on that notion, I thought maybe – just maybe – Zumaya had made some improvements that would keep him on the field a bit longer in 2012. Of course, five days later he would take the mound to throw his first live session of the spring only to leave clutching his elbow.
Mackey also captured video of Zumaya warming up for that session. Unfortunately, Zumaya, now clearly pushing closer to max effort which may have been the reason for the lowered loading point from the previous video, unleashed a fastball and the Inverted V arm action was prevalent once again:
The camera angle does not provide a great view but you can see that at this loading point, Zumaya has his elbow well above his shoulder-line, almost to the peak of his head.
Now, I am not suggesting that this specific injury occur just because he was throwing with this particular arm action. There are plenty of other factors that played in such as the fact that he was recovering from a past elbow surgery and the UCL could have been in a weakened state. Yet, the years of improper mechanics and rushing through his delivery likely took a toll on the UCL – stretching it out like rubber band – and waited for the right pitch to snap.
To be sure, there are split viewpoints from mechanics experts on the effects of the inverted arm motion. Some, like Carlos Gomez – a former Hardball Times writer turned pro scout – and pitching instructor Paul Nyman, have encouraged this practice as they say it adds velocity or helps throw more effective breaking balls. So there may be plenty of people inside baseball who actually view this as a positive in a pitcher – which may or may not be the Twins perspective as well.
In addition to Zumaya, the Twins also recently targeted Nationals closer Drew Storen. Understandably, Storen has been wildly successful in his first two seasons in Washington and will remain inexpensive for some time as he stays under club control. On the other hand, Storen’s delivers with the Inverted W arm motion which leaves his open to various injuries. If the Twins were to trade off Denard Span for the closer – as the rumors went last year anyways – they would be trading a valuable player, inexpensive in his own right, for a commodity that has a higher potential to tear up his elbow or shoulder than other pitchers.
This raises the larger question of the influence of mechanics, player acquisition and development.
In his book The Extra 2%, Jonah Keri delves into the inner workings of the Tampa Bay Rays organization and how the franchise turned itself from being the league’s laughingstock to a model for other teams. During the massive turnaround, the Rays implemented new practices throughout the business. One area that received a lot of attention was the health of their pitchers from top to bottom in their system. They challenged some of baseball’s well-accepted practices such as limiting rehabbing pitchers to throwing no more than 120 feet while long-tossing and diligently creating individualized pitch counts for developing arms. The results were no short of amazing.
From late-2005 through mid-2009, only one pitcher at any level in the system, Jacob McGee, required Tommy John surgery.
Part of the credit went to the minor league instructors who created and executed the plan but a significant amount of credit goes to the scouts and front office who found many of these pitchers through the draft or as a free agent signing.
In attempting to achieve that extra 2%, Keri writes that the Rays have made some interesting personnel hires for their front office staff, including the likes of Josh Kalk whose expertise in the pitch f/x system has been utilized to potentially spot patterns that may lead to injuries. Given the fact that the Rays hired a guy for what was said to be a “professor’s salary” to track release points, it would be expected that the team probably has a person on staff to monitor mechanics and advises against players like Zumaya who exhibit the traits that could lead to injuries.
Admittedly, at $400,000, the Twins had little to lose with their gamble on Zumaya’s recovery. At the same time, because the 2012 budget was extremely tight and the team was limited to just signing just Zumaya as their only right-handed set-up man, the gamble was amplified beyond the fiscal investment. Even without going back to his long list of injuries, the Inverted V provided an additional layer of discomfort when heading into a season relying on a guy for a critical bullpen role. Had the Twins organization been more vigilant of this, they may have opted to sign one of the other bullpen arms instead of Zumaya or, at the very least, one as an insurance policy.