Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

Blog Eat Blog: I’d Like to Buy a W


Posted by Doug Thorburn on Wednesday, March 9, 2011 at 10:14 pm



“Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge”

  -  Carl Sagan                                                         


I repeat this quote all the time, as a reminder to students that education goes far beyond test scores or Jeopardy trivia. The scientific method is a learning technique at its core, designed to test our thoughts and theories about the world. In regard to baseball, the quote applies to modern techniques for player evaluation and development, which have been shaped by innovation as opposed to conventional wisdom.

The idea behind this “Blog Eat Blog” column is to take topics that have been covered around the baseball blogosphere, and to continue the discussion with a different viewpoint. The goal is to embrace the scientific method by looking at the available information and asking new questions. With that in mind, it seems appropriate to look in the mirror on occasion. After all, any scientist worth his salt is willing, and at times eager, to test his own understanding.

Exhibit A: “The inverted W

I have spoken critically of the “inverted W” in the past, on the basis of a lack of supporting data and the combination of factors that have an impact on pitcher injuries. My feeling is that the inverted-W is often used as a crutch, as the simplest and most convenient scapegoat for the disruption of a pitcher’s career. Very rarely do injuries have a solitary, distinct cause, so I have been wary of the inverted-W and the supposed predictability with respect to injuries. However, recent developments have me rethinking the controversial issue.

I published a pitching mechanics primer last season, a 3-part series of articles that was centered on Stephen Strasburg. I mentioned the inverted W in part I of the Stras Wars series, and the sequel took a longer look, inspired by the similarities between Strasburg and Mark Prior. I specifically addressed the popular misconception that the inverted-W was responsible for Prior’s medical bills, given the fact that both of his arm injuries were directly caused by traumatic collisions rather than the “unnatural” act of throwing a baseball.

My comparison also included pictures of an elite pitcher who had survived ten major-league seasons of pitching with an inverted W, in attempt to show the optimistic side of the coin. That man was Johan Santana. A couple months later, Stras was going under the knife for Tommy John surgery, and Johan would soon follow Strasburg’s footsteps to the surgical table.

When Strasburg went down, I used yet another star hurler as a counterexample to the claim that the inverted-W foretold Strasburg’s demise. The inverted pitcher was none other than Adam Wainwright, also known as the latest arm to earn his Tommy John tattoo. Wainwright’s ailments flared up last September, when an elbow strain shut him down at the end of the season, and four months of rest and relaxation were apparently not enough to rehab his balky right wing.

After that brutal string of comparisons-gone-wrong, I can’t help but to re-evaluate my stance on the inverted-W. The danger of the W becomes more apparent as the data points continue to mount, and it appears to be a legitimate precursor to injury. This represents a significant obstacle for pitchers and coaches, as they attempt to find a balance between mechanical efficiency and personal signature, while maintaining the structural integrity of the system.

Avoiding the inverted W is an extreme challenge from a coaching standpoint. A coach can help a pitcher to improve aspects such as balance, stride, hip-shoulder separation, and timing; but there are no easy fixes when it comes to “Arm Action.” Pitchers are not taught to raise their elbows above the shoulder line, but many players do it naturally. Other pitchers learn to incorporate a scapular load in order to get more velocity, and the inverted-W can result from the additional torque.

It is very difficult for a pitcher to adjust his mechanics against natural signature, and some players may need the inverted-W to be fully effective. Though the presence of an inverted-W helps to identify injury risk, eliminating the W might not be possible without some reduction in performance.

Professional athletes are often willing to risk long-term health for the short-term gains in competition, and in some cases it can be a tough decision to ditch the W even if TJ surgery were an eventual certainty. The situation is similar to the decision for a draft pick to sign with the pros out of high school rather than go to college, in that the potential short-term gains are great enough to consider putting long-term goals on the backburner.

If you ask John Smoltz, he is probably pleased with the results of sticking with the W, given the 21 years of Hall-worthy performance and over $125 million in career earnings. In that context, Smoltz would probably consider the multiple arm surgeries a fair trade. Perhaps he would have avoided the scalpel if Smoltz had abandoned the inverted-W (or perhaps not), but then he may not have enjoyed such an outstanding career. 

I would never advocate that a pitcher knowingly put himself in harm’s way, but I would want any pitcher with a natural inverted-W to know the risks associated with his mechanics. I adhere to the philosophy that “the throwing arm belongs to the pitcher,” so the acknowledgment of the inverted-W as a legitimate injury precursor creates a serious conundrum.

Discovery is the pinnacle of scientific experience, yet is often met with heavy doses of skepticism. This resistance is especially strong when new findings challenge a status quo that has been entrenched within the culture. I may have underestimated the overall impact of the inverted-W, as it is one of many variables in a complicated injury equation, but the coaching-related issues remain. The biggest concern is for young players who employ the inverted-W on a regular basis, such as top draft pick Jameson Taillon; the onus is on the pitching coaches to find the optimal blend of performance and injury risk, while supporting the pitchers’ mechanics with proper conditioning. 



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