8:00 PM ET – Detroit (2) vs. Oakland (2) – Justin Verlander (4.6 rWAR) vs. Sonny Gray (1.4 rWAR)
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The story of Steve Delabar is truly a remarkable one: a 29th round pick and would-be career minor leaguer who walked away from the game after a devastating elbow injury following six years as a pro, in his second season in independent league ball, Delabar became a teacher and a high school baseball coach, implemented an arm-strengthening program for his players, used it himself, found renewed velocity, then following a tryout ended up returning to baseball in the Mariners system, eventually working his way to the Majors, getting traded to Toronto, and becoming a 2013 All-Star.
A tremendous, bat-missing right-handed power reliever, Delabar looks like he could either be a fixture in the Jays’ bullpen for as long as his arm holds out, and as long as his command issues remain at bay. Yes, his second-half ERA ballooned to 7.02 from a 1.71 mark in the first half, but actually some of his peripherals got better over that span. His BABIP and HR/FB spiked, and his strand rate bottomed out– all of which to large enough degrees to feel comfortable they’ll regress to the mean, especially given that we’re only talking about a 16.2 second half inning sample that’s unduly impacted by an early August blown save in Anaheim. His walk rate actually went down by four percent, and his strikeout rate was up slightly, so there probably isn’t a whole lot to worry about.
Except, of course, his health.
Delabar missed most of August with inflammation in his pitching shoulder, then returned for September and– albeit in a small, nine-inning sample– had his worst full month of the season.
It would be silly to take his September swoon as too much of an ominous sign– I mean, his whole season comprised less than 60 innings– but… uh… weren’t the weighted balls supposed to be protecting Jays pitchers’ arms from stuff like this?
OK, obviously the weighted ball program– formally known as the Velocity Program– isn’t some kind of foolproof magic that’s going to keep pitchers from ever being hurt. But early in the season, when Delabar was blossoming into an All-Star and Brett Cecil had suddenly rediscovered the kind of velocity he needed to not just stay in the Majors but to thrive, fans– and the Jays themselves, both in the clubhouse and in the front office– were enamored with the possibilities.
In mid-June– not long after comments out of Boston that John Farrell was looking to implement the program– the Jays agreed to sign an exclusive contract with weighted ball guru, Jamie Evans, after also witnessing the success, and hearing the glowing reports from Delabar and Cecil, as well as Casey Janssen and Dustin McGowan, who by then had started using the program as well. Sergio Santos began training with them while recuperating from a mid-season elbow clean-up, as well, and there was even an MLB.com report that the club’s pillar of health, Mark Buehrle, was trying the program out as well.
But a funny thing happened on the way to a renewed commitment to health, and it wasn’t just Delabar’s injury. Brett Cecil, of course, was the other prominent guinea pig on the club, and his tremendous season went out with a whimper– late August shoulder inflammation forced him to sit for nearly a week, then in mid-September his season was cut short by an elbow injury.
Not only that, Dustin McGowan spent most of August on the DL with an oblique strain. Of course, that can hardly be blamed on the program– nor, could any issue of McGowan’s, if we’re being honest– and if you remember, it was actually considered at the time to be something of a suspiciously fortuitously-timed injury, given the Jays’ roster crunch when he hit the DL. Also, in late May, Casey Janssen had to sit out a few days with some shoulder inflammation– though pretty clearly that seems like a residual effect of the shoulder surgery he had last winter, and that prevented him from having a full Spring Training.
But seeing the two most prominent guys in the program get hurt, even if they are pitchers, has to be a little disconcerting, right? As is the fact that, in the MLB.com report from Boston cited above, we’re told that “Farrell said that Evans pretty much guarantees that he can help a pitcher gain at least four mph.” Uh… really? I mean, how much do we know about the long-term effects of this kind of training on pitchers? Less than the Jays do, one hopes!
For what it’s worth, Chris Sherwin writes about the program from a biomechanical perspective over at Blue Jays Plus, and he walks away skeptical, while also, I think, getting to the nut of the issue:
There is a lot about this program that is misleading and confuses people. I believe it is the velocity part that does it. For Jays fans we see the Delebar story and think any pitcher with a velocity dip can sign with Toronto, get on the program, gain velocity and be perfectly healthy. People have to realize that weighted balls are a must in any throwing program, but they are just one small part. Pitching is an unnatural event that occurs at an explosive moment. The training a pitcher does in the off season must focus on that fact. Core strength, leg strength, improved thoracic spine mobility, hip abduction mobility, hip and core stability, lower body power, scapular stability and overall strength are all vital pieces to the off season training schedule.
Now I’m not trying to take anything away from [program co-creators] House or Evans. In my opinion Tom House is one of the greatest things to happen to baseball. He revolutionized pitching methods in the 70’s and has helped develop thousands of pitchers over the years. The man is a pitching genius, I’m just concerned about one part of this program because the Jays organization appears to be all in with it. I love the progressive approach the Jays are taking here with this program. I have spoken a lot about my distaste for the pitching targets this team goes after. I love that the pitchers on this team will have access to a program like this.
Unfortunately it’s not going to be magical injury cure if the pitching acquisitions don’t change.
Indeed. And that’s why so much of the weighted ball excitement of this summer was probably a little misplaced. Then again, it wasn’t like there was a whole lot else to be excited about…