Tagged: St. Louis Cardinals

Skip Schumaker, Relief Ace

Last night’s turd of a game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Colorado Rockies was chock full of head turning (and scratching) lines in the boxscore.

– Rookie Rockie Nolan Arenado‘s first major league home run? Bully!

– Rockie starter Tyler Chatwood‘s 3-4, 2 RBI night with the bat to go along with his 6 IP, 0 ER, 5 K pitching effort? Huzzah!

Ted Lilly‘s 3 IP, 2 homeru-let me stop right there with that.

Josh Wall‘s 2 IP, 7 earned r-NO NO NO STOP.

… Dodger shortstop Skip Schumaker‘s relief outing?

For the boys in blue, that’s about as good as it got last night – a position player coming in to adequately pitch and stop the bleeding. For Schumaker, last night’s one inning of 2 hit, 1 walk, no run ball marked the second time he came in to hold down the fort pitching-wise, having previously pitched a 1 inning, 2 run outing in 2011 for the St. Louis Cardinals.

So how did he do last night? Let’s look at some Brooks Baseball PITCHf/x data and see…

Screen shot 2013-04-30 at 12.21.21 PM

First off, let me just say what an impressive array of pitches Skip has; while I have my doubts as to whether he has a ‘true’ cutter, the fact that he mixed in a knuckleball to go along with a fastball in the high 80s/low 90s (which is about MLB average might I add) is pretty gutsy. Looking at the pitch Linear Weights, Schumaker’s pitches are all pretty decent, save for the cutter (more than likely just a two-seam fastball).

Let’s see how well he located his pitches:

schumaker

By the looks of it, Skip should ditch the cutter and focus more on throwing four-seam fastballs, changeups and curve balls; he seemed to have a hard time throwing the cutter for strikes or even remotely close to the plate. Whittling down the repertoire to a solid 2 -to- 2.5 pitches with command should suit him nicely.

While Schumaker has a way to go to wrest the crown of ‘best pitcher to come out of UC-Santa Barbara‘ off of Barry Zito‘s head, his inning last night showed not only Schumaker’s positional flexibility and willingness to contribute to his team’s success in any way, he showed off a pitching prowess that is sorely lacking in the Dodgers pitching staff, hit hard with injuries to Zack Greinke, Chris Capuano, Ted Lilly, and Chad Billingsley.

Matt Guerrier, you’re on notice.

Image courtesy of www.truebluela.com

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Federal (Baseball) Offense – Shelby Miller’s Pitching Mechanics

Have you read the most recent post from the always thoughtful and informative SB Nation Washington Nationals blog Federal Baseball? The thrust of it revolves around the upcoming matchup between the Nats and the St. Louis Cardinals, but what caught my attention was the accompanying photo:

Courtesy of Ezra Shaw

Courtesy of Ezra Shaw

OK, same pic, but with what jumped out at me highlighted – look at Cardinals phenom Shelby Miller‘s wrist at foot plant (red circle/emphasis mine):

St Louis Cardinals v San Francisco Giants

What took me by surprise was the angle of Miller’s wrist as he is about to release the ball – he is ‘showing’ the ball towards the second baseman, what was called in my playing days the Cobra.

Let me recruit smarter and more knowledgeable folks to take over and explain, in the form of Chris O’Leary:

What’s more, by following this cue (‘showing 2b the ball’ – editor) you will significantly increase the risk of elbow problems, at least in young pitchers, by forcing them to supinate their forearms through the release point. This increases the load on the UCL (‘ulnar collateral ligament’ – editor), which can lead to growth plate problems in younger pitchers and Tommy John surgery in older pitchers.

This showing the 2B the ball, or however you want to call it, adds increased pronation of the wrist, increased supination of the forearm, while also exacerbating the valgus (outward) aspect of the movement at the elbow.

What does that mean?

While the additional torque provides a modicum of increased velocity for Miller and those who have this delivery quirk, it is probably at the expense of elbow injury down the road and possible Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery. A more relaxed wrist, with the ball being ‘shown’ to the first baseman for a right-handed pitcher (3B for a lefty), could alleviate some of this additional elbow and wrist stress and possibly delay any elbow injury matters. While the long-term success of those who incorporate this hitch in their mechanics is yet to be determined, if O’Leary’s research – who has recently shared his wisdom with the Nats on a consultant basis  – is to be believed, the reduction of this mechanical quirk along with the dreaded ‘inverted W’ could alleviate many of the injuries encountered by MLB hurlers.

A picture is worth a thousand words; sometimes, it saves you a trip to Dr. James Andrews.

Expectations, Great or Otherwise: Bryce Harper’s 2013

Coming into spring training, the expectations for the 2013 Washington Nationals, needless to say, are much different from those placed in front of them in 2012. A NL East championship, an unfettered Stephen Strasburg (at least innings-wise), and a couple of fresh faces in the form of Denard Span and Dan Haren all add weight to the already heady prognostications set forth by those who…uh…prognosticate.

These are but a small sampling of what’s shaping DC expectations; beyond them is what is being impatiently expected out of the age 20 season of NL Rookie of the Year and future curer of cancer Bryce Harper. Thus far in his 33 spring training plate appearances, Harper is doing everything he can to silence critics that forecast a sophomore slump, hitting at a .438/.455/.750 slash line in his Florida environs. This of course, has Nationals fans’ hearts aflutter, thinking of what his 1.205 spring training OPS will translate to, once the regular season begins and teams start playing for keeps – All Star appearances, MVP’s… championships?

Or nothing at all?

The chronicles of baseball lore are strewn with the names of rookies who sparkled, only to immediately fade once season two came upon them; who can really say for any certainty that this won’t happen to Harper? Who can say that spring training stats *are* useful, and possibly prognosticators of a fabulous follow-up season?

Well, for this post, we can. Let’s get to it.

To preface our little exercise, let’s have a look at what Matthew Kory recently wrote about Harper and the expectations surrounding him and his 2013 season. For those of you too lazy to click the link, I will paraphrase – what Harper has done at age 19, using home runs and OPS as measures of success, hasn’t been done very often, and typically not in the same way that Harper did it in 2012. As such, his encore performance in 2013 is hard to predict, given his unique skill set.

So we have a tough task ahead of us, fair enough. Let’s take what Kory has given us, fiddle with the numbers a bit, and add a little something more, shall we?

Thanks to Baseball Reference, we have all of Harper’s numbers at our fingertips – let’s compare them to what others have done at age 19 historically, looking at both OPS+ and BRef’s version of Wins Above Replacement – rWAR. For Harper, he came in at a respectable 119 OPS+ and a 5.0 rWAR in his age 19 season – so respectable, that no one else in baseball history has performed above that  OPS+/rWAR combination as a teenager. Let’s loosen the criteria a tad – the only other players in MLB history aside from Harper to have an OPS+ greater than 119 along with a rWAR greater than 2.0 as teens were Ty Cobb (132 OPS+/2.3 rWAR) and Mel Ott (139/3.7), both of whom were mentioned in Kory’s article. As a rough guide, a 2.0 rWAR is considered starter level output; anything at 5.0 or above is All Star quality.

The numbers so far are historical, and may or may not be predictive of future performance. Of course, we won’t know for a while whether Harper will repeat his 119 OPS+/5.0 rWAR 2012, but we can see if Cobb and Ott duplicated or bettered their age 19 seasons as 20 year olds, as measured by OPS+ and rWAR. To the numbers (courtesy of Baseball Reference)!

Player Year Team G PA AB BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+ WAR
Cobb 1907 DET 150 642 605 0.350 0.380 0.468 0.848 167 6.6
Ott 1929 NYG 150 675 545 0.328 0.449 0.635 1.084 165 7.3

Well, then. If history is to be trusted, Harper has some work ahead of him this year, if he is to equal his historical equals with regards to his age 20 season. Looking only at rWAR, Cobb’s age 20 saw a 187% increase in rWAR, with Ott showing a 97% increase in rWAR the year after his age 19 3.7 rWAR season. For Harper to emulate these jumps in performance, he would have to finish 2013 with at least a 9.8 rWAR; 56 seasons of 9.8 rWAR or greater have been seen in MLB history, the most recent being Mike Trout‘s 2012 10.7 rWAR season… at age 20.

Right now, Harper is looking at some heady numbers to put up come the regular season to keep up with the Cobbs and Otts of the MLB world, and continue the statistical trajectory he has set himself upon into his 20’s. As previously mentioned, he’s doing a heck of a job of doing just that thus far in spring training. Let’s look at some more data and take a sampling of who is performing as well as, if not better than Harper thus far in spring training, and see if we can gain anything from it, as it pertains to Harper’s potential for 2013. For this table, we are looking at players who have a 1.205 OPS or better in 33 or more spring training plate appearances (PA):

Name Age Team OppQual PA  H HR RBI BA OBP SLG OPS TB
Robinson, Shane 27 STL 8.8 34 15 3 11 0.500 0.559 0.967 1.525 29
Belt, Brandon 24 SF 9.3 34 15 4 9 0.455 0.471 0.939 1.410 31
Bradley, Jackie 22 BOS 7.9 35 15 1 4 0.536 0.629 0.714 1.343 20
Baker, Jeff 31 TEX 8.5 37 18 1 6 0.529 0.568 0.735 1.303 25
Peguero, Carlos 25 SEA 7.9 33 12 3 4 0.400 0.455 0.833 1.288 25
Blanks, Kyle 25 SD 8.2 42 13 2 8 0.406 0.500 0.781 1.281 25
Yelich, Christian 20 FLA 8.5 42 13 3 11 0.371 0.476 0.771 1.248 27
Peterson, Shane 24 OAK 7.7 36 16 1 6 0.457 0.472 0.743 1.215 26
Harper, Bryce 19 WSH 8.9 33 14 2 4 0.438 0.455 0.750 1.205 24

Even as hot as Harper’s bat has been to start 2013, there are plenty of others that are just as locked in; also of note is the lack of star players on the list, aside from Brandon Belt. Looking at it from another perspective, we can also say that Harper is doing all of this against close to MLB quality opponents, as seen with his 8.9 OppQual stat. OppQual – or Opponent Quality – is a new stat from Baseball Reference, which attempts to grade the quality of the pitchers a hitter faces in spring training. Given the number of players invited to participate in spring training, from guys just out of rookie league ball, up to MLB veterans, this value is a nice way to help determine whether spring training hitting stats have some bite to them. While Harper will of course face better pitching come the regular season, it won’t be by much, if OppQual is to be taken into consideration; MLB level quality opponents are scored a 10, with AAA level players scoring an 8 per OppQual. Harper’s 8.9 and Belt’s 9.3 show that they are hitting against just about MLB quality opponents.

While the numbers and methods to the madness that I have presented are in no way the be all, end all, I think they lend themselves some credibility in explaining not only how special a player Bryce Harper has been already, but could possibly be. On the other side of the coin, it also shows that a tempering of expectations is necessary, not only to keep things in perspective regarding Harper’s possible place in baseball history, but also within the context of a season, a season that really hasn’t truly begun. For every Albert Pujols, who led all hitters in spring training OPS in 2012, there’s a Kila Ka’aihue, who ‘won’ spring training OPS honours in 2011, only to follow it up with a 69 OPS+ that season for the Kansas City Royals.

While many will consider this perspective to be one straight out of a Debbie Downer skit, it’s one that allows sanity to remain firmly in one’s grasp, something that many baseball fans can’t boast (see: Cubs, Chicago).

No matter what Harper does in 2013 and beyond, he still has much to be proud of. Harper has already bettered fellow Las Vegan and former Rookie of the Year Marty Cordova, not only in garnering All Star honours – something no position player born in Vegas can boast – but also by not missing games after succumbing to tanning booth sunburn.

Ahh, silver linings.

HDIB? Neuroscience Grand Rounds II: Thoracic Outlet Syndrome

For the 2013 St Louis Cardinals, there will be a mainstay of the pitching staff conspicuously missing from spring training, with news that starter Chris Carpenter will miss most, if not all, of the season, due to continued issues stemming from thoracic outlet syndrome. Symptoms such as numbness, tingling, and discoloration of his pitching hand arose during a brief pitching session, and prompted shutting him down to prevent further injury; less than a year removed from surgery, Carpenter’s return and recovery look to be a little more complicated and lengthier than what was originally hoped.

So what is this condition that limited Carpenter to 30.2 innings of regular and postseason baseball in 2012, and why does it threaten his 2013?

Well, as we have done once before, it’s time to pick up our lab coats out from the dry cleaners, and dust off our medical kits, and get down to brass tacks. For those curious, here’s my medical kit:

il_fullxfull.303128523

Top of the line stuff, no doubt.

For a pitcher, thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS) can be a devastating diagnosis, as it arises from a very complicated area of the body anatomically. Let’s take a somewhat simplified look at the area we’re talking about:

Picture-1

Broadly, the thoracic outlet is simply the area between the ribcage and collarbone, also known as the clavicle. As you can tell from the picture, this area is chock a block full of important things; muscles, arteries, veins, and important neural elements that comprise the brachial plexus, which is a complex of nerves that originate from the spinal cord. The nerves responsible for arm, forearm, and hand movement all arise from the brachial plexus; as you can tell, this is a very busy and crucial piece of anatomical and physiological real estate.

It is also a very small, crowded piece of real estate, which substantiates many of the problems encountered by those who suffer with TOS.

Let’s talk about those symptoms, and some possible causes shall we? Yes, we shall.

Much like our good friend Brandon McCarthy and his hematoma, folks who suffer from TOS do so at the hands of very particular process, seen across many different medical disciplines and disorders.

Smooshing. TOS is a transient smooshing disorder.

McCarthy’s smooshing was a bit more dangerous, since it arose from his brain swelling and smooshing into his cranium, a part of the anatomy without much give, shall we say. TOS is nonetheless a dangerous situation, as the pressure and swelling that arises from the initial injury or insult can cause smooshing, displacement, and compression of a number of critical structures in the already cramped thoracic outlet (the superior thoracic outlet, more specifically).

OK, so we have lots of anatomy, small space, smooshing- let’s dig a little deeper.

There is an initial insult – that’s fancy talk for a cause – that sparks the swelling and compression. Let’s talk about those for a second, kind and gentle readers impromptu medical residents.

You, with the Hello Kitty stethoscope, can you name some causes of TOS?

Nice list – yes, common causes of TOS include trauma arising from a car accident, a specific type of lung tumor called a Pancoast tumor, and any work that creates a repetitive motion and strain on the area, say, like pitching, swimming, or any other sort of over the head motions. Know it all medical residents who raise their hand over and over to answer questions are at risk of suffering from TOS. Not sayin’, just sayin’.

Also, people born with an extra cervical rib can have a predilection towards TOS, as the additional skeletal anatomy provides less of an outlet and square footage for the nerves and vasculature to course through.

We have cause… how about effect?

Symptomatically, TOS arises from what structure the smooshing affects, and can broken down into 3 categories: neurogenic, arterial, and venous. Regardless of the structures involved, pain is the most prominent symptom. From there, we can also see symptoms such as the ones Carpenter complained of, such as numbness and tingling, arising from nerve compression, skin that is discolored and cold to the touch, arising from poor circulation due to compressed arteries and veins, and muscle weakness.

OK, so let’s take these symptoms, and confirm that it truly is TOS – how would we do that?

Aside from your usual suspects, in the form of  imaging – x-rays, CT scan, or even a MRI – we can perform a costoclavicular maneuver, or be on the look out for Adson’s sign before we subject the patient to any undue insurance copays. However, these two methods aren’t very specific or sensitive, so some sort of x-ray, scan or even an electromyography (EMG) exam should be performed to confirm a diagnosis of TOS.

So our hypothetical diagnostic studies are back, and it’s TOS. Young residents, what do we do to treat it?

You, wearing glasses with no lenses with them, whatcha gonna do?

Start with physical therapy, then consider a surgical procedure called a first rib resection/scalenectomy, where a surgeon goes in, removes a rib, the scalene muscles, and any scar tissue that could be the compressive culprit, thereby, opening up the superior thoracic outlet, creating more space, and less smooshing opportunities?

In the immortal words of FP Santangelo – abso-LUTELY!

Let it also be known that cortisone and botox injections are other treatments that are less invasive, but may not completely resolve the underlying issue, but can give the patient a modicum of relief, enough to allow them to pursue physical therapy.

While time will tell whether Carpenter can overcome the nagging effects arising from his thoracic outlet syndrome, the prognosis looks fairly encouraging, as the vast majority of those who elect to get surgery enjoy symptom free lives post-operatively. However, there does exist a small population around 5% – who remain symptomatic after surgery, and require further interventions, be it additional surgery, or other non surgical options.

For those so inclined, you can read more about TOS here and here; it’s a small sample of what’s out there, but hey, Google is your friend.

As for our Cardinal friends, 2013 still looks to be a promising year, even without their pitching and emotional leader toeing the rubber. While it remains to be seen if this is the last of Carpenter’s career, let it be known that this Redbird’s wing is well on the mend.

Chris  Carpenter