Billy Wagner & Post Tommy John Pitching
A deal finalized yesterday between the Mets and Red Sox gives Boston another live arm while raising questions about Billy Wagner's health and more broadly, how to handle a pitcher post-Tommy John Surgery. With respect to his chances for success this season and beyond, it seems Wagner is fortunate to be a relief pitcher.
David Young at SI.com pointed out as much in his recent piece focusing on Tim Hudson's chances for making a successful return to the Big Leagues.
Perhaps an argument in favor of going to the bullpen is the high-profile closers and relievers that have been able to perform well at the major-league level post-TJS. Danys Baez, Rod Beck, Manny Delcarmen, Octavio Dotel, Frank Francisco, Eric Gagne, Tom Gordon, Hong-Chih Kuo (twice), Jose Mesa, Rafael Soriano and Bob Wickman were all able to pitch competitively after receiving TJS.
There can be no questioning Wagner's record of success. He is a relief pitcher of historic stature, the career leader both in K/9 and K/BB for relief pitchers with at least 600 career innings. In two Big League innings for the Mets in 2009, he struck out four, walked one and did not allow a hit. It's unclear what role he will fill for Boston but their once dominant bullpen has stumbled a bit of late. Takashi Saito, Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon have remained steady, but Ramon Ramirez, Daniel Bard and Manny Delcarmen have looked shaky. Adding Wagner to the mix can only help.
With Wagner's health of central concern to Boston and the American League Wild Card race, I sought out some professional perspective on Wagner, how the Sox should handle him and what he will need to do in order to sustain success. Craig Friedman is Director of Methodology at Athletes' Performance and works with Cactus League clubs preparing MLB pitchers for a long season during Spring Training. Here is what he had to share:
Billy Wagner’s acquisition by the Red Sox brings up the lingering question of Tommy John surgery—can pitchers fully recover after surgery, and if so, how can the Sox (or any team) best set up the pitcher for long-term success?
First, here is some insight on why surgery is needed in the first place: pitching velocity should be the summation of forces coming up the kinetic chain. From the ground through foot, legs, hips, torso, shoulders, elbow, hand , and finally to ball. If there is an issue with this kinetic linking as in faulty pitching technique where the hips are leaving the shoulders behind, increased stress is placed through the shoulder and elbow.
To help players recovering from Tommy John, there are both tactical considerations and physical ones:
Tactical considerations- watching pitch count over multiple games- one game of an elevated pitch count isn’t an issue if it is considered in the next games the player is in. Pitching volume should be manipulated throughout the season to make sure a pitcher is not being over-taxed. Under-recovery is also an issue that could create a sub-optimal environment in the human system- lack of sleep, and poor soft tissue quality, and poor conditioning could all lead to issues where the athlete is not as prepared as they could be the next time they take the mound.
Physical considerations- again related to kinetic linking- if there is a mobility, stability, or soft tissue issue anywhere in the body, force is not transferred efficiently through the body. These “energy leaks” force the athlete to compensate in order to make up the loss somewhere else in the chain. For example, if a pitcher has poor hip stability, energy is lost and not passed up the chain through the torso and increased stress is placed on the shoulder and elbow. It could even be as simple as having an issue with your big toe not engaging with the ground properly
So, there you have it; don't overuse him or under-use him, get him to bed early, keep him in shape and keep an eye on his "kinetic linking". Do all of that and the Red Sox may have the Billy Wagner of old, slamming the door late in games down the stretch.
As Director of Methodology for Athletes' Performance, Craig Friedman designs and implements performance training systems for professional athletes of all sports as well as elite youth through college athletes. He also continues to specialize in Major League Baseball Spring Training preparation at the Arizona facility and served as a Performance Specialist for the German National Soccer Team during their run to a 3rd place finish at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. He is also involved with numerous developmental initiatives integrating performance training and technology for both Athletes' Performance and Core Performance as a leader of the Performance Innovation Team at AP.
Craig received both his Master of Science and Bachelor of Science degrees from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where he worked with the Women's Athletic Training Department. He gained additional experience as a graduate assistant at the University of Arizona as the Assistant Football Athletic Trainer, where he was responsible for the acute care, assessment, and rehabilitation of injured players before shifting his emphasis toward performance training.