Elbow valgus torque. It’s as bad as it sounds. At least, when you increase it, you’re more likely to suffer an elbow injury. So says research by Kyle Boddy of Driveline Baseball at least, or at least that’s what we’ll have to take away from “increased elbow valgus stress is highly correlated with UCL tears/sprains.”
So what increases this mythical valgus torque? Apparently, throwing sidearm. This time, it’s sports doctors Arnel L. Aguinaldo and Henry Chambers with research showing that “Fourteen pitchers displayed a sidearm delivery and had significantly higher elbow valgus torques than did those with an overhand arm slot position.”
Boddy already linked one pitcher to this research while writing for The Hardball Times — Chris Sale. In fact, it gets worse for the slight White Sox lefty. He has three main indicators for elbow stress — release slot, velocity, and a more-extended elbow on release — and, perhaps more importantly, he already has elbow problems. The MRI came back clean and after some back and forth Sale is back in the rotation, but this research certainly doesn’t bode well for his long term health.
Let’s say we “know” that Sale will have some health problems over the course of his career. What can we learn from this? How can we put this to use in our keeper leagues?
The natural extension of this piece of research — which used non-professional pitchers in a controlled environment — is to try and extend it to Major League Baseball. The problem is that release points, even in PITCHf/x databases, are relative data points. That is to say, they are still absolute x,y type coordinates, but a tall left-handed pitcher has a different set of x,y coordinates as a short right-handed pitcher. Then you add in the variable of where they stood on the rubber, and it’s practically impossible to use those data points to identify sidearmers like Sale.
So we’ll have to be more anecdotal about our search. It’s not ideal, but that’s where we are.
Sidearmers over the history of baseball? A couple of hard-throwing legends showed up in a twitter crowdsource: Randy Johnson and Nolan Ryan. They certainly seemed to throw from a 3/4 arm slot with velocity, as you can see from the Unit’s bird-killing video, and Ryan’s 4,000th strikeout. So both had great velocity and a similar arm slot, and both stayed pretty healthy over their careers. Job’s done?
Of course not. That’s two dudes, and there are many, many more over the history of baseball. And we still have this piece of research that suggest that, in a controlled environment, this arm slot is a problem.
And you might have noticed something about those two pitchers. They were much, much more stout than Sale. Sale is generously listed at 170 pounds on that 6’5″ frame. Even a skinny Johnson was at 225 pounds (and 6’10″), while the thicker Ryan was 195 pounds and three inches shorter than Sale. They don’t seem to have the same body type. That seems relevant.
Now we’re talking about skinnier guys with velocity from the sidearm slot.
That eliminates players like the 220-pound Max Scherzer, the 215-pound Rafael Dolis, and even the 240-pound Jesus Colome, who brought heat from the same slot and saw injuries throughout his short career. Despite having some similarities, Madison Bumgarner comes up well short in velocity and tips the scales at 225 pounds. Joey Devine seems slight, has velocity, the three-quarter arm slot, and many injuries. He’s also listed at 235.
You know who gets close? Sale’s former bullpen mate Addison Reed. He’s 6’4″ and 215 pounds, looks slight, and has the three-quarter release. Unfortunately, he’s so young that his health could just be an accident. He might not tell us anything for a while. Another slight three-quarter dude that does give us a bit of a road map is Pedro Martinez, who was listed at 195 during his playing days. That skinniness was often cited as a reason for being injury prone, too. But he was also short, where Sale is tall and skinny.
The original research that begot this conversation was about three-quarter slots. So maybe this conversation about size is irrelevant. And remember that every person is unique — and every delivery. The most we can do is consider any of the names listed here as a slight risk, even if they are a little heavier than Sale.
Before you get too excited about trading your sidearmer, though, you should also remember Pedro Martinez. He was pretty good until he was 35, and Chris Sale could be pretty good into his thirties. Trade him now and you’d miss out on those years.
On the other hand, a slight three-quarter guy at 35 seems like too much of a risk for a keeper league owner, no? Too bad Omar Minaya missed this research.