John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
From the time Noah Syndergaard rather famously added muscle during the winter of 2017 with the stated intention to throw even harder than 100-101 mph, I heard from pitching coaches past and present who feared this day was coming.
So on a day when the Mets announced Syndergaard will undergo Tommy John surgery, perhaps only the timing was a shock, considering spring training has been shut down for nearly two weeks due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Rick Peterson, the former Mets' pitching coach who studied the relationship of biomechanics to the pitching delivery under famed orthopedist Dr. James Andrews decades ago, had been hoping that Syndergaard would learn to throw without max effort on every pitch as a way of lessening the risk of tearing his elbow ligament.
"I compare it to golf," Peterson said by phone Tuesday from his home in New Jersey. "The best players tell you they're swinging the driver at 80-90 percent effort because it's next to impossible to be on time when you're moving that fast."
In golf, "on time" makes for accuracy as well as distance. As it applies to pitching, "on time" is the basis for avoiding injury, according to Peterson.
"Here's the best way I can explain it," he said. "If you're driving your car and you put your foot on the brake really hard and your call pulls to the right, meaning your front end is out of alignment, you can keep driving your car but you're not getting 40,000 miles out of that front tread.
"That's what happens when you're late getting your foot down. And every time you're at max effort, you're at risk of being late, meaning your arm is in improper position at foot contact. It's not something you can see with the naked eye, because the arm accelerates so fast, but if you look at in slow motion and you do a biomechanical evaluation every year, you can see when you're wearing out the tread."
As to the question of whether Syndergaard's injury may have been preventable, Peterson said he couldn't be sure. He made it clear he wasn't second-guessing anyone in the Mets' organization, especially not knowing what went on behind closed doors.
Still, at least a couple of times in recent years he had told me he thought Syndergaard could pitch at least as effectively, and quite possibly more so, if he threw his fastball mostly at 95 mph with good location, saving his extra velocity for only occasional use, depending on the situation.
So as someone who still pays attention to the Mets, now that he's out of baseball, he worried when he saw Syndergaard quoted a few years ago about how he added muscle in an effort increase his already-elite velocity, especially when the right-hander tore his lat muscle a month into that 2017 season and missed four months.
"Noah trained in a way, as he said, his goal was to be a Rocket Man," Peterson said. "It reminds me of what I saw when I was with Baltimore with Dylan Bundy. When he needed surgery, the organization did some research and found out he threw more than 400 pitches over three days his senior year of high school before he was drafted.
"His father, who was his coach, was quoted saying it wasn't a concern because, 'we trained for this kind of volume.' Well, you can't train tendons. You can only train muscle. And tendons can only move so fast, with so much force, before something gives.
"Noah wanted to build his muscle mass so he could throw 105, as opposed to the ideal, which is what (Jacob) deGrom has done: He went from being very mechanical years ago to now being athletic. You want to get all the athleticism you can in your delivery."
DeGrom, of course, himself underwent Tommy John surgery early in his pro career, as have all five of the Mets' starting pitchers who were once ballyhooed by the likes of John Smoltz as having the potential to be one of the best rotations in the history of baseball.
As it turns out, only deGrom has reached that level, yet Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler also came back to pitch with success, as did Matt Harvey in 2015 before thoracic outlet surgery proved much more difficult to overcome.
In the case of both Matz and Wheeler, however, they missed two full seasons before making it back from the elbow surgery. For that matter, in recent years teams have adjusted the timeline on recovery from 12 months to at least 15, mostly due to the strain that higher velocity throughout the sport has put on arms.
All of which raises questions about how much Syndergaard might pitch in the 2021 season, considering his max-effort delivery and the timing of his surgery, which will be about a month later than Wheeler's in the spring of 2015.
Peterson suggests that with the grind of rehab, both mentally and physically, Syndergaard probably won't have a lot in the tank for the 2021 season, whenever he comes back. Which then leads right into his expected free agency.
"What everyone has come to learn is the rehab process is almost like pitching a season in itself, it takes so much out of a pitcher," said Peterson, "and by the time you're ready you almost need an offseason to recover."
He added: "If you have a competitive team in 2021, the best opportunity to utilize him could be that he's pitching at the back end of the bullpen for one inning at a time."
One way or another, it's going to be a long haul for Syndergaard. And the Mets.