MLB

Phillips: Jays plans, Navarro's presence and arm injuries

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Steve Phillips
4/4/2014 6:23:54 PM
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TSN Baseball Insider Steve Phillips answers three questions each week. This week, topics cover if and when the Blue Jays should start rebuilding, how good catchers handle a pitching staff and how best to develop young pitchers to best avoid arm problems.

1. Jim Bowden wrote on ESPN.com this week that the Jays should already be thinking of blowing the team up, deeming last year's deals a failure and suggesting that waiting to tear it down would compound the problem. Agree or disagree with Bowden's assessment?

Let me first say that I respect Jim Bowden for his knowledge and his experience. He has been around the game for quite a while and knows what he is talking about. That being said, I do not think it is time for the Jays to blow this team up. We are only in the first week of the season. It is far too early to consider demolition plans. 
 
The Jays have a ton of offensive talent. I agree with Bowden that on paper they are under-manned in the pitching department. But the game is not played on paper. It is played by people. RA Dickey could return to his Cy Young form of a couple of years ago. Mark Buerhle looked amazing in his first start and Brandon Morrow at one time, when healthy, was dominant. Drew Hutchison and Dustin McGowan have some upside. Of course, there is plenty that needs to go right but funnier things have happened. 
 
I didn't' think the Pirates had enough pitching last season nor did I think the Orioles had enough pitching in 2012 to be a playoff team. But they both were. 
 
Fans need hope. The season begins with hope for all 30 major league teams. Why rob them of that feeling unnecessarily? I agree with Jim Bowden that it is unlikely that the Jays will make the playoffs. I picked them to finish fourth. So I get it. But I have been wrong before and so has Jim. 
 
The season is a marathon. There is plenty of time to disassemble if it is appropriate. Quite honestly, if they should do it now, they should have done it in the offseason when more teams could vie for the Jays' talent and had money to spend. This may be the worst time to create a market for players as most teams are tapped out financially at the start of the season. They spent their money in the winter. Just ask Kendrys Morales, Stephen Drew and Scott Boras how difficult it is to find GMs with money to spend. 
 
The trades of 2013 were a bust for the Jays but it doesn't necessarily mean that things can't work out this year. If and when it becomes clear that hope is lost for 2014, there will be time to tear things apart. But that won't mean that everything has to be done during the season. 
 
Take a deep breath and at least enjoy some hope.

2. The Jays players are already expressing admiration for new catcher Dioner Navarro and the way he handles the staff, in some ways taking not so veiled shots at former catcher JP Arencibia's struggles behind the plate. What is your assessment of Navarro and can you explain the intimacies of "handling a staff" and what that really means? Many fans know and use the term, but few really understand the minute details or why it is so important.

I am not surprised that Dionner Navarro is getting rave reviews for his ability to handle the pitching staff. Some part of that is about him and some part of that is about the deficiencies of JP Arencibia in the past. We often talk about a catcher "handling a pitching staff" and just assume that everyone knows what we mean. Let me see if I can explain it. 
 
It is imperative for a catcher to know his pitchers. He doesn't just have to know what pitches they throw but he has to know when they should be thrown, to whom they should be thrown, how hard to throw them and where to throw them. He has to understand how each individual pitcher's arsenal of pitches can attack each hitter on the opposition. The catcher has to know how each pitcher handles pressure. He has to understand when they aren't quite right on a given day and what to do to get them right. He has to know the keys for each pitchers' delivery and when they are out of sync how to get them back on track. The catcher has to read body language. He has to communicate confidence and support with his own body language. 
 
Some players are smart. They can rationally think through situations and know what to do. Some players have instincts, which is defined as a "feel" for the game; an idea about what needs to be done in this time and space. Their natural reactions can lead them down the right path without tremendous thought. The best players have a combination of intelligence and instincts. 
 
Navarro has both and it can be seen in his work behind the plate. He has the feel and intelligence to evaluate the situation and what is needed to be successful. This will lead to improved preparation and execution over the course of the season. The Jays need to maximize the talents of their pitching staff as they are not as deep as other teams. Navarro is just the guy for the job. 

3. Another season, another rash of pitching injuries, with the Mets' Bobby Parnell the latest to possibly face Tommy John surgery. He would be the third Met to have TJS in under a year. GM Sandy Alderson told the NY Times it's an "industry-wide problem." Pitch counts and innings limits for young pitchers don't appear to have made much of an impact. Do you acknowledge this as an industrywide problem - or is it more of a team/system problem as it does seem to hit some teams (including the Jays) more than others. What do you think is the best way to bring a pitcher along after draft day? And has your mind changed on that over time?

Injuries for pitchers is a GM's worst nightmare. Just when you think you have enough pitching, injuries happen and you can find yourself shorthanded. The arm is not built to throw a baseball. Every time a pitcher throws the ball, there are fibers that tear in the shoulder, bicep, tricep and forearm. I have seen thermodynamic pictures of a pitcher's arm before and after pitching. The amount of heat given off from the bleeding in the arm after pitching is profound. You can only imagine the toll that throwing a couple of hundred innings can take on a pitcher's arm. 
 
In 2013, Justin Verlander threw 218 innings and 3692 pitches (most in majors). That doesn't include the 23 innings he tossed in the playoffs, nor does it count spring training innings and pitches. In addition to all of this game activity, Verlander had pitching practice between starts. The bottom line is that his arm took a ton of abuse. 
 
When I became general manager of the Mets in July of 1997, one of the first things I did was call a meeting with our top pitching coaches and team doctors.  We were having a significant number of arm injuries and it was severely impacting the pitching depth in our organization. The outcome of that meeting was clear; pitchers can injure their arms in two ways: fatigue and poor mechanics. 
 
Too much throwing for any pitcher can lead to injury. It doesn't matter if he has perfect mechanics or the worst mechanics; too much throwing can break down any arm. There was an old school belief that the more pitchers throw the stronger they get. The science doesn't support that. Fatigue breaks down the arm. 
 
Mechanics for a pitcher is critical. He has to be able to repeat his delivery in order to throw consistent strikes. If a pitcher has poor mechanics in his delivery, he can put more pressure on his elbow or shoulder, making it more prone to injury. Pitchers can pitch with poor mechanics but they are much more prone to injury, especially if they are fatigued. Poor mechanics lead pitchers to tire more quickly and when tired, the poor mechanics make the pitcher more vulnerable.
 
It is really that simple. 
 
After this meeting, we implemented very stringent pitch count limits in our minor league system and dramatically reduced the number of arm injuries. The arm only has so many bullets in it. They can't all be wasted in the minor leagues. We had to learn to be more efficient in our player development. 
 
I predicted Stephen Strasburg's arm problems a couple of years ago. He has poor mechanics, which put a significant amount of stress on his elbow and shoulder. You might wonder why they just don't try and correct his mechanics. Often times, cleaning up a pitcher's poor mechanics can rob him of what makes him special: velocity, movement or deception. In Strasburg's case, his mechanics are his mechanics. It is how he is wired to throw a ball. I completely supported the Nats when they made the unpopular decision to shut Strasburg down even when they were going to the playoffs in 2012. If the Nats don't take dramatic steps to protect their big right-hander moving forward, he will break down again. He is so valuable to their franchise they are crazy if they don't.
 
Arm injuries will always be part of the game. But I truly believe that individual organizations can make significant strides in reducing arm injuries. Throwing less to pitch more is the answer.

Dioner Navarro (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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